For the sake of argument

I’m an argumentative sort.  Most people who’ve known me for any length of time will tell you that.  Especially if there’s anything at material at stake, I like to thoroughly explore all sides of an issue.  And sometimes I just like to argue for the sake of exercising my brain and stopping it from just sitting there sluggishly and regulating my breathing.

I must admit that sometimes I get carried away; I have on occasion seen an alarmed look cross the face of my co-argumentor and realised that they thought I was taking it seriously – like I was really passionate about iron filings or the exact contours of a bowler hat.

And then there are the times when it’s hard to tell what the other person is thinking.  Aware that I can come across a little strong sometimes, I do make an effort to tone it down, and then I wonder if actually I’m just being wishy-washy and failing to make my point.  Especially online, after wrapping up a little parcel of opinion and firing it into the void, I may sit and watch it into the distance, wondering if I’ve just torpedoed a developing friendship.

For what it’s worth, people, I don’t hold grudges, and I don’t judge.  I’m a seeker after truth and beauty and all that, and as long as you’re not trying to obscure those, then we’re on the same side.

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English as She is Teached

Today I spent quite a bit of time reading about rules of grammar.  I have to confess to having been something of a prescriptivist myself in my younger days, so I think it’s healthy to get a better understanding of the zombie rules which infest the English language, so that I have an idea of the people I’m likely to be pissing off with my writing style.

I’ve been a fan of Language Log for many years now, and reading through their archives has been an educational experience.  I have come across a fascinating number of ‘rules’ which go into incredible detail, and I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface.  It seems there are people out there who are memorising pages and pages of rules because they are so unsure about how to write in their native language.

Frankenstein_MonsterI found this monstrosity, which is a mind-boggling attempt at scoring a given piece of text for things like whether it has exceeded some apparently arbitrary number of adverbs. I’ve had Grammarly.com pushed at me regularly over the past few weeks on various sites I’ve visited, and that doesn’t exactly seem like a particularly high-quality tool either.  I put the text of the post so far into its checker, and it told me it had detected two errors, and also evidence of plagiarism.  Of course the next step was to sign up so that I could discover exactly what these egregious faults are and obtain their expert help in dealing with them.  The first app’s opinion on the same piece of text was that I had used 4 adverbs but that I was only allowed two, and that only the very first sentence in the post was understandable.  Right so.

There are also a whole bunch of things like ‘comma splices’ and ‘avoid passive voice’, which I had never even heard of until a few years back, but which seem pretty pervasive in guides to writing.

It made me wonder about other people’s experience of learning to write English.  I don’t mean as a more-or-less adult learning techniques about characters and worlds and compelling plots, but the kind of writing done in primary school.  I’ve been racking my brain to think of examples of writing I had ‘corrected’ when I was younger, and the few that come to mind seem straightforward and uncontroversial:

  • Ending a story with “and they woke up and it was all a dream” is a lazy way of avoiding writing a proper ending.
  • ‘Nice’ is not an adequate description in most circumstances.
  • Try to avoid overuse of a specific word or phrase.  (If I recall correctly, the culprit in this particular scenario was the word ‘actually’)
  • Vary the lengths of your sentences – use short snappy ones for action, or longer and more descriptive ones for a relaxed passage.

Other than these, I’m struggling to think of any specific instructions, although it’s possible I simply blanked out the ones which didn’t mesh with my experience of the language.

Looking at the masses of misinformation out there, I can’t help feeling like I dodged a bullet.

 
© Gloria Hanlon 2016 All Rights Reserved

Photos from Wikimedia.org – White Zombie screenshot and Frankenstein’s Monster

Title in homage to English As She is Spoke.  Any and all errors intentional, naturally.

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.

How to learn?

I was always a bright student, not a good one.

I learned by incorporating new information into the existing web of what I knew, so that once I understood something I was unlikely to forget it again.  Hence I was able to mask my undiagnosed ADHD and my complete lack of study skills successfully enough by piecing together the parts of lessons I had been paying attention to, and making educated guesses.  I didn’t get brilliant marks, but I didn’t fail either.

I never had any particular strength of will, but I could fake it by putting myself into a situation where it was easier to follow through than to give in.  I can also draw on my reserves of stubbornness and bloody-mindedness at a pinch; they can look like willpower and perseverance if you don’t know what’s going on under the surface.

I seem to have missed many of the ‘meta’ lessons which I should have learned at school – I have no strategies for dealing with the frustration of not understanding something, or for persevering when things become difficult and it would be easier to lie down and quit.  I never learned to ask for help in a gracious way; by the time I have to admit to myself that I need to lean on someone else, I’m pretty much going to be a prickly and messy ball of nerves.

I would very much like to retrofit a ‘good character’ on to myself.

Clearly my failure to learn these techniques means that I am a bad person.  This is continually being driven home to me by the sort of writing exercises which attribute strength of will, determination, perseverance, self control and the like to the hero, whereas the villain, or even worse, the comic relief is vacillating and racked with self-doubt.

So the question remains – how to learn?

 

© Gloria Hanlon 2016 All Rights Reserved

Photo credit Michael Anderson 2013

Genres

I’m thinking a lot about genres these days.  A lot of what I’ve been writing has a paranormal tint to it, although that’s not really something I would buy for myself to read, unless it was also humorous or had another hook that appealed to me.

They say it’s important to be genre aware; I presume that’s a big factor in being able to successfully sell stories and keep selling them.  And yet part of me is pushing back hard against that idea, and saying that I should write what I most enjoy reading.  What I most enjoy reading are the kind of works that twist genre expectations, or float between them in a space of their own.  The kind that move unpredictably and make you think about the subject matter in a new way.

I wrote a story this morning.  It was deliberately not paranormal.  It was just a story about getting older, and losing the abilities you take for granted.  I worry about that from time to time.  I don’t know if it ended up being a good story – I’m still too close to it at the moment – but it’s a little bit different, and a little bit sad.

I’m sure I’ll revisit the subject of genres, there’s a lot I need to work through here.  In the meantime I’ll keep writing down the stories that keep me awake, and that will have to be good enough for now.

 

© Gloria Hanlon 2016 All Rights Reserved

Stupid rules

I (re-)read 50 Years of Stupid Grammar by Geoffrey K. Pullum today and I still love it.  I love the angry, yet well-structured logic (it reminds me of David Mitchell on QI, with the highest respect to both of them), and I love how passionate he is about his subject.

I discovered the Language Log blog while on my honeymoon in Thailand, at about 3am local time the day we arrived, when I was completely unable to sleep despite having been awake for some uncounted hours at that point.  My shiny new husband was sound asleep and snoring in the other part of our suite, and I was curled up with my laptop on the sofa geeking out about language.

Why, yes, that does represent a microcosm of our relationship, why do you ask?

I made a determined yet futile attempt to catch up on their backlog, but these days I just dip in and out as the mood takes me.  I still have a couple of articles pinned to my quick access toolbar, and I’m pretty stingy when it comes to that piece of prime real estate, so that will tell you just how much I value them.

In fact, over time, they converted me from a staunch but closet prescriptivist into a kinder, softer, more rational way of being.  I’ve always loved language, but they helped me to fall in love with it all over again.

I’m not going to spoil the ending for you; if you want to know how, you’ll just have to go read it yourself.

Feeling lyrical

I spend today with a friend who is a singer and songwriter.  He writes his songs in Spanish, and some of them he translates into English.  He is amazingly talented, and writes beautifully evocative lyrics with so much meaning in very few words.  Today, I was helping him to smooth out some of the translation bumps where a word has extra connotations in English, or a phrase needed to be readjusted to get the emphasis on the right parts of the right words.  It’s a different kind of writing from what I usually do, basically it’s like the editing process on steroids, but I had a lot of fun, and I think (and hope!) that my friend was pleased with the outcome.  We revised three songs today, and I’m looking forward to hearing them recorded, and to working on the next batch.

Javier, if you’re reading this, thanks for the music, and for the Chinese food!

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?