Funny ha-ha or funny peculiar?

It’s funny how there are trends in humour.  Watching some of the old sitcoms from the 70’s these days, it’s quite cringe-inducing how characters we loved can suddenly come out with something appalingly sexist.  Presumably when they were topical, those subjects were a bit edgy, and they would have considered modern attitudes to be ‘PC gone mad’, or whatever the equivalent was.

The earlier ones are worse still, and I find myself wincing when a black character comes on, because you never know when you’ll be hit by a blast of casual racism.

Similarly, thinking about a show like ‘Friends’ which was so popular for so long, I realise that actually, the fat jokes about Monica, and the ingrained homophobia passed more or less unnoticed at the time, but they can be quite striking now, (say it softly) 20 years later.

It makes me wonder what we’ll look back on, 20 years from now, and consider to be unbearably offensive.

 

© Gloria Hanlon 2016 All Rights Reserved

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.

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

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.

It’s fun to be bad

If there’s one thing more fun than writing awesome stories, it’s occasionally indulging in the worst excesses and writing awesomely bad stories.  A group of us are putting all of the most clichéd, badly formed, and just plain wrong techniques into as few words as we can, and gathering them together as a way of leading by (horrific) example and illustrating why sometimes, the rules really are there to help.

Here’s my effort: Passion in the Tundra

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.

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.