My Preccccccciousssssss…..

The more I think about the process of writing well, the more I’m reminded of what I’ve learned about drawing.  I’ve definitely spent more time definitively studying drawing than I have writing, although on the passive side I’ve probably consumed more novels than art.

Old_Man_DrawingOne thing which I learned relatively late in my artistic studies was not to be too precious with my work.  In other words, don’t spend hours refining and polishing a simple pencil sketch; let it go and move on to the next piece.  It can be a difficult thing to do.  A great drawing grows from the very first marks you make on the page, and if you get them just right then you can almost feel the drawing develop under your pencil as if it was a physical object and you’re just stroking it gently to draw attention to it.  It’s a wonderful feeling, and the temptation is to keep adding more and more detail to this existing form rather than calling it finished.

The problem here, obviously, is that by obsessing over the later and arguably easier stages, you’re spending a disproportionate amount of time on them rather than on the tricky earlier parts.  This leads to a self-fulfilling kind of artist’s block, where getting the earlier parts just right seems like something of a lottery, since it can’t be reliably reproduced, which results in fewer and fewer starts, and even less practice in the skill of starting.

Exactly the same goes on in writing.  I know it and recognise it because I’ve seen it before.  Ideas float to the surface, and my first instinct is to wonder where they can fit into my existing work-in-progress.  Because starts are scary, and if they can be accommodated in the framework I have already set up, it lets me off the hook on setting up a new one.  It will take practice and discipline to avoid shoehorning ideas into somewhere they don’t really go.

10secGestures02The idea of ten-minute writing is a commonly touted solution for writer’s block, in order to just get something down on the page.  In the world of drawing, there were two which worked well for me.  One was to carry around a notebook and do at least one sketch every day of people I saw around me.  These were not ever intended to be part of a larger work, or even reference material, they were simply throwaway exercises to develop my skill.  The other was the very short sketches which we did as warmup for life drawing – and when I say very short I mean very short; some as short as ten seconds.  When challenged with getting the essence of a person’s movement onto paper in ten seconds, knowing that they will move on and you just need to keep moving with them, it helps you to get out of your own way and to draw straight from eye to hand without your brain getting in the way.

I’m thinking a good writing challenge would be the character sketch exercise; a very short description of a random person seen during the day.  It seems like a good way of strengthening the writing muscles without the expectation of creating something re-usable.  I find the ten-minutes exercises far too long since I generate quite a few words in that time and then the ‘precious’ comes back and I don’t want to throw them away, but a thirty-second sketch feels more like something I can get behind.

 
© Gloria Hanlon 2016 All Rights Reserved

Photos from Pixabay (Ring and Man Drawing) and Christopher Woods

Advertisements

Book cover design tools and inspiration

I found two delightful tools today that have made me very happy and inspired a project.

Obviously one of the parts of a professionally packaged book is the cover; despite the famous saying, it’s got to look just right to inspire someone to pick it up/click on it in the first place to find out what lies beneath.

And it’s not enough just to have a breathtaking design, it also needs to be appropriate to the genre, to the story, and to your brand which you’ve already established or are trying to build.

So I went looking to see if I could get some insight into what kind of patterns book covers follow; colour, layout, font, all that sort of thing.  One of the tools which I came across is called ImageSorter (does what it says on the tin basically).  I won’t link to it here since I’m not certain where the authoritative source is and I wouldn’t like to point someone to the wrong place accidentally, but if you search for it there are many available mirrors.

ImageSorterToolbar

What this allows you to do is to take a folder full of images, potentially thousands, and sort them by colour.  Now, this is a pretty cool ability, but who among us has thousands of book covers already saved?  (hands down in the back there…)

I started by saving off thumbnails one by one, but lost interest after about the eighth.  I knew there had to be a better way, and indeed there was.  OpenLibrary.org have amazingly made their covers available to download, in a series of massive zip files.  I downloaded part zero of seven, and extracted archive zero of one hundred, and it contained 9,999 covers.

Feeding this into the ImageSorter gave this quite attractive and impressive (although not obviously useful) result:BookCoversZoomed

Each of those little rectangles, in case it wasn’t obvious, is one of the 9,999 book covers, appropriately sorted and organised into its colour location.

There’s a lot of potential to this; I’m clearly just scratching the surface at the moment, but the cool thing even right now is that given any particular cover, I can see where it would fall in this chart, and hence see what other books look similar, to get an idea of what kinds of subconscious associations it would trigger.  For example, if you look at the lower left quarter, it’s pretty clear that a green book with a red stripe is going to fall into that distinctive little cluster, which if we zoom in…

BookCoversGreen.png

You’ll be bang in the middle of dictionary country, surrounded by Tom Clancy, Greg Bear, and Jeffrey Archer; The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and a goodly selection of gardening and cookery books.

I’ll keep building on this and see what other jewels it contains.  I’m expecting some pretty awesome results.  The next step will be to see if I can attach the name, author and/or genre information to the thumbnails to build a few differently pivoted submaps.  I will keep you posted.

A ‘controversial’ journal

It seems that less-than-reputable publishers infect the entire spectrum of writing.  Apparently academic writers are targeted by journals which maybe have slightly lower standards than might be desired, and which charge hefty fees to publish accepted articles.

Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia article of a particularly illuminating example:

In 2005, two scientists, David Mazières and Eddie Kohler, wrote a paper titled Get me off Your Fucking Mailing List and submitted it to WMSCI 2005 (the 9th World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics), a conference then notorious for its spamming and lax standards for paper acceptance, in protest of same.[6] The paper consisted essentially only of the sentence “Get me off your fucking mailing list” repeated many times.[7]

In 2014, after receiving a spam email from the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, Peter Vamplew forwarded Mazières’ and Kohler’s old paper as an acerbic response.[8] To Vamplew’s surprise, the paper was reviewed, rated as “excellent” by the journal’s peer-review process and accepted for publication.[8][5] The paper was not actually published as Vamplew declined to pay the required $150 article processing fee.[8] This case has led commenters to question the legitimacy of the journal as an authentic scholarly undertaking.[1][2][5][8]

Don’t you just love the understatement in the last line?

 

 

© Gloria Hanlon 2016 All Rights Reserved

Photo for illustration purposes only

Live in the when?

I was searching for a quote today – maybe someone who knows it will read this and can tell me, because I couldn’t find it – about how people perceive time.  The concept was that we are rarely ‘in the moment’, because we live our lives in a little cloud of moments around the present time.  Not necessarily that we’re dwelling excessively on the past or daydreaming about the future, but there’s a whole swarm of other times that we need to be aware of just to get through the day.

The simple process of going from one place to another requires sufficient planning and anticipation to know that the future which involves us staying where we are is different from the future which involves us being in the other place, then deciding we prefer the alternative future, and taking steps to change the reality we live in to bring about the preferred vision of the future.

Yes, that may be a rather ornate way of describing the process of deciding to go down to the corner shop, but whether or not we think about it, this is what’s going on.

After this it’s just a question of scale – maybe you prefer the future where you went down to the shop before lunch, and you make that happen.  Or maybe you prefer the future where you do something a bit different with your life.  You can make that happen too.  There may be some more steps involved, so you’ll need to create the reality where those steps have already happened, but if you keep changing the future a little bit at a time, there will be a day when you find yourself in the future you designed, or at least one which resembles it in meaningful ways.

Which brings me back to the quote I was looking for.  There are a lot of quotes out there about ‘living in the now’ which hail it as the optimal way to live.  I’ve never really understood why.

 

© Gloria Hanlon 2016 All Rights Reserved

Image Credit wiremu1998152014

Co-incidences

I’m not a religious person.  Neither am I a particularly spiritual person.  Generally speaking, I’m science all the way down.

On the other hand, and thanks at least in part to scientific thinking, I realise that it would be very unlikely indeed that this time in which we’re living right now is somehow the critical time where we have a good handle on things, not like those unfortunate ‘historical’ people who blundered about in rank ignorance.

I began writing this post this morning, but it’s a difficult topic to write about without falling into new age mysticism on one hand and blind faith in scientific fact on the other hand.  In fact, even setting those up as the horns of my particular dilemma rings false, but that would appear to be the standard spectrum that these issues lie on.

I’ve heard, as you may have, stories about birds all over the UK spontaneously learning to open milk bottles, in a very short space of time and without any possibility of the normal cultural learning channels being the cause.  I also recalled an article about newspaper crosswords, which said that they are easier to solve after having been published in a nationally distributed paper, due to the fact that so many people had already solved them.  These effects were attributed to a theory called ‘morphic resonance’, which sounded fascinating, but which I had never investigated in depth before.

The reason it’s been on my mind lately is that I’m having an irritating experience with writing.  I do like to try to be original, even though I know that’s something of a lost cause.  The problem is that as soon as I settle on a topic or theme I want to write about, within a couple of days at most I will see a reference to that exact thing, to a scary level of detail.

I know what you’re thinking – this is adequately explained by the recency or frequency illusion.  And yes, I know they’re not exactly the same thing, but they’re close enough for my purposes.  This is where the struggle kicks in.  I’m aware of the recency illusion, and yes, I know I have fallen prey to it on occasion, particularly before I was aware of it.  So these days it’s my go-to explanation for these kinds of spooky, ‘get-out-of-my-head-universe’ co-incidences.  And yet there are times when I know I would have noticed if I’d come across something before.  When I’ve spent days or weeks stitching together little pieces of things that fascinate me into an outline that I can care about working on, and then see the whole thing spread out in whole cloth on Facebook – well you can be damn sure that I would have found that combination of things striking whether or not I’d assembled them myself.  There’s a point where saying ‘recency illusion’ and moving on feels like making a symbol to ward off the evil eye.  Maybe there is something going on that we don’t have an adequate explanation for yet.

Here’s something which happened today which illustrates the recency illusion nicely.  I went with my husband to a town which we don’t visit very often, maybe three times in the past two years.  While wandering around the town, we passed a second-hand-book sale, and decided to browse.  There’s very rarely anything good at these, since they’re usually the books that someone’s grandmother is throwing out to begin with, and then they’re pretty well picked over by the time we come to look at them.  But today, I found a novel in a series which I have been reading on and off, and a book which is recommended reading for a course which I’m currently working on (and struggling with a little if I’m being honest).  So that’s an interesting little co-incidence, but I’m not going to read anything into that.  No pun intended.

The one which is more of a stretch is that having started to try and write this post earlier today, and put it off due to getting sidetracked in research and running out of time, I then went to an internet forum where I am a member, and read a post by another member speculating about almost the same thing.  In something of the spirit of the (possibly apocryphal) story about the horseshoe bringing you luck whether or not you believe in it, I feel it would be petty to refuse such a blatant sign that I should finish writing the post, even if I don’t believe in any intelligence that could originate such a sign.

This is where the morphic resonance theory comes in.  What I’d heard of it did seem to somewhat cover the hole that I didn’t have a good explanation for, so I went to do some reading up.  I was pretty disappointed in what I found.  It seems that the key supporters of this theory are known for, shall we say being a little overenthusiastic in the interpretation of their results?  They have a very strong opinion about what they believe, and they’re sticking to it, and equally the members of the scientific community who oppose them are very vocal in saying so, and in attempting to disprove and discredit them.

It’s truly a shame that cults of personality, politics, and dogged adherence to elaborate but unproven theories have such a big impact on our search for understanding.  My own take on it is that there may be something there, but right now it’s so obscured by the cloud of mud that’s been stirred up, I’ll be very surprised if becomes well understood in my own lifetime.

tl;dr: shit is weird, man.

 
© Gloria Hanlon 2016 All Rights Reserved

Photo credit Toshiyuki IMAI 2006

Proprioception

Proprioception is a great word.  It literally translates as ‘sense of self’, but it’s not some kind of abstract ‘self’ as an individual.  It is a fundamental physical sense, just like one of the five we’re taught about as children.  It’s the sense that tells you where the parts of your body are even when you can’t see them, so that, for example, you can reach behind you for something out of sight.

I saw an amazing documentary when I was younger that had a huge impact on me.  It’s called ‘The man who lost his body’, and it’s about someone who lost his sense of proprioception, and learned to work around it through pure determination.

The ability to overcome obstacles through sheer strength of will has been a fascination of mine for a long time.  Thinking back, I wonder if watching this documentary was where that fascination started.  It’s something I envy – I don’t posess that kind of determination myself, although I’ve been known to make a working replica using a mixture of motivational techniques and bloodymindedness.

Which brings me back to a different ‘sense of self’ – the sort of self that goes with self-image, self-esteem, and self-determination.  Does a high level of motivation require a strong personal identity?  It seems plausible; after all if you’re not even sure who you really are, how can you be certain what you really want?  How can you be so certain that you are willing to sacrifice less important wants and needs in the pursuit of a single goal?

 

(With thanks to A Writer’s Path, who reminded me about proprioception.)

 

 

More parallels

It struck me that another set of activities which have a lot in common are writing, acting, and software design.  It might seem at a glance that they are pretty distinct, but I had an interesting conversation with a colleague that highlighted it for me.

He was trying to figure out what the correct design for a particular piece of UI should be, and I offered to help since I had no preconceptions and represented a fresh pair of eyes.  I got the most basic bullet points from him as to what the situation was, and then closed my eyes to think deeply about it.  I joked to him – “I just need to get into character, I have to find my motivation”, and I realised that in fact, it wasn’t a joke.  The most important thing wasn’t to make it look nice, or balance the font sizes, or anything like that.  It was to understand why the user would have reached this point.  What frame of mind were they likely to be in?  What were their preconceptions?  Their concerns?  What would be the worst possible thing we could say to them at that point in time?

I go through the same process to get into the zone when I want to write a scene.  There’s no point in spending paragraphs and paragraphs describing the clouds, and the grass and the exact shape of the leaves on the trees, and counting that as establishing the setting.  (It may have value for a different reason, or then again it may not, but that’s a post for another day.)  What I really need to understand is the context.  What’s motivating the character or characters right at this moment?  What’s just happened to them that they’re still recovering from?  What do they fear might happen next if they’re not careful?  What’s the worst possible thing that could happen?

Sure, for my users I’m trying to steer them into the nicest possible experience, and, you know, just maybe it’s the exact opposite for my characters if I feel they need some meaningful personal growth, but the critical thing is getting the context right.  Once that’s correct, the rest should just fall into place.

 

Learning

There’s a set of steps I always go through when learning something new and complex.  It starts with the consuming feeling – I must do this, there’s no other choice.  It takes over all of my spare brain power and starts to colour everything else in my life.

Then there’s the part where I start to see results – the pattern emerges in a knitting project; I complete a few sketches that look halfway decent; I get a couple of stories under my belt.  This stage is lots of fun and it feels great.  I get that lovely stretchy feeling in my brain and a growing sense of accomplishment.

And then.

The part that I always forget about until I hit up against it.  Maybe it’s like what they say about giving birth and forgetting just how bad it actually is.  I’m sure it’s really the most critical part of the learning process, but it’s also by far the most painful.  I like to think it’s when the new neural connections I’m making start to conflict with some old, outdated ones, so those need to be broken down and rebuilt into a new configuration that incorporates the thing I’m learning.  But man, does it suck.

I can tell when I get to this part because I start making excuses to myself not to do the thing.  I start skipping it or ‘forgetting’ or getting interested in something else.  I pick apart the teaching materials, finding every flaw or hole and seizing on them as proof that what I’m trying to do isn’t really possible and so therefore I can be forgiven for not doing it perfectly.

The example that always comes to mind as the archetype for this stage of learning is when I was taking life drawing classes as part of a course in college.  We had six hours per week, in two three-hour sessions.  When I started the course, I was pretty happy with my life drawing skills.  I was no Degas, but I could consistently produce reasonably accurate, clean, neat, and balanced drawings of people.

In almost the first lesson the teacher told me I was doing it all wrong.  I was using ‘hairy’ lines, I didn’t have enough of a sense of weight in my figures, they were too small and tidy… I resisted it for a long time.  I followed along with everything we were meant to be doing, but some part of me held back, a little core of I’m-still-going-to-do-it-my-way.  But over time, throughout the year, the techniques we were learning sank in.  I started to be ok with extreme shading, with making one single ‘sensitive’ line instead of approximating and taking an average, with doing ten-second sketches and letting them go and moving on and knowing there was plenty more where those came from.

I can recognize it very well at this stage, and I know (I know, I know…) that if I keep working at it and don’t let myself get sidetracked that it will lead in time to a breakthrough which will see a burst of improvement in quality.  By the end of that year, my drawings had improved unrecognisably, although it had cost me a huge amount of mental energy and resistance to get there.

And yet, even knowing this, I still go through that same stage when I learn something new.  I wish I could skip this part and just say, yes, there’s lots I don’t know about this so I’m going to trust in people who know more than I do and keep at it.  That never happens.  I still struggle and fight with myself, and question the materials, and the integrity of the people around me, and my own sanity.

Who knows, maybe that too is an essential part of the process?

 

Parallels

It’s funny how many things in life are like each other.  The more you learn, and particularly the more areas you learn about, the more you realise that each area is very much the same as the next, just variations on a theme.

When I learned about the ‘candy bar’ approach to plotting out a story, I realised how similar it was to the process of animation.  You make the keyframes first, which give the shape to what you’re creating, and then you go back and do the ‘tweening’ – filling in the frames which aren’t necessarily all that striking in and of themselves, but without which your animation would be just jumping from one thing to another, and you would have no continuity or sense of movement.

And so it is with fiction.

(Shame tho, I was never much of a fan of actually doing the tweening.)

 

Fighting and running away

So it seems I realise a lot of stuff when I’m thinking about writing.  Following on from getting words down, I also realised today that my character’s reaction to the fight is not particularly unique to him.  He’s attacked, and he does what I think most people unused to fighting would to; he tries to get away.  But that’s a very generic response.  I should dig deeper and figure out actually – what is the particular reaction, in that space and time, with that person – that really shows what makes this character different from most people.

I’ll get right on that, then.