Monthly Archives: October 2012

Into the storm: Sandy hits NJ

The rain has started. A squirrel just scampered across the street, completely unaware that this rain is different: this one has a hurricane behind it. It will know soon enough.

And possibly things like barometric pressure do give animals some warning: yesterday felt eerie all day, and not because it was overcast, and still, and the TV was playing non-stop ‘coverage’ and hype. It FELT weird.

I’m sitting here, with squeaky-clean wet hair, in a warm house, wondering which of the many things we take for granted might disappear over the next few days. Our power lines are buried – but a tree across a supply line somewhere else can easily take our electricity out for days. Our refrigerator has ice cubes! My morning protein shake was produced with water, ice, electricity – and was as close to chocolate heaven as possible in a liquid: I wonder if there will be one tomorrow. We are so spoiled by modern conveniences.

Other people are already having their lives severely disrupted – but Sandy can only move so fast, and we must wait our turn to see if we are lucky. Or, rather, lucky this time. When I moved to NJ in 1981, hurricanes were not on the list of things to worry about. I didn’t have to contend with them while rearing children – a blessing. It is weird to have the land change under you.

I have friends in hurricane-prone areas: they knew going in what the possibilities were. I got an email this morning with advice: ‘when cleaning up, get your stuff out to the curb before your neighbors do’ so you are first in the pick up chain. Welcome advice – hadn’t thought of that. My friend in Florida has to deal with fallen tree limbs and flying debris scattered around her home – on a regular-enough basis to have knowledge of how to take advantage of the timing of garbage pickup after a storm.

Snow emergencies in NJ are crazy: people rush around buying extra milk, emptying the shelves of bread and batteries. But in 31 years I have never seen a time when the snow wasn’t cleared within a day so that people could get to a grocery store.

Now, with the change in weather patterns, I know people in NJ can be without electricity for many days – and I shudder to think of the cleanup. Hurricanes are different: the aftermath can be much, much longer. If you load up on perishables, and your electricity fails, or your basement floods, your advance planning can be moot. It happened just last year with Hurricane Irene.

Like many aging or disabled people, I don’t face cleanup with equanimity. Storms don’t care. Once this is through, I will remember to contribute more to disaster relief efforts elsewhere – going through it yourself raises consciousness, makes it personal. I could move – if there are safer places in the world. Many people – most people in the world – don’t have that option.

As a scientist, I know that if global warming models are correct, it is already too late to implement many of the measures humans could have taken. I can’t help wondering whether hurricanes in NJ are part of the cost of that inertia. My time scale is too short: there have been hurricanes in the past which affected the East Coast this far north. But dread isn’t a reasonable feeling.

Things have an odd way of coming together. They call it serendipity. I dunno, but I just checked my calendar, and tomorrow, the day the winds and the damage are supposed to be most extensive, I have an appointment for the company that maintains our solar panels. They would be working inside, installing a new meter required by the state so we can sell our power and solar credits: I hope the panels are still there when they come! And I don’t really expect the technicians to show up tomorrow (NJ keeps non-essentials off the road).

I hope WE’LL be here.

Pachysandra, writing, and mental toughness – driveway, part 3

Is there life in the apparent dead? What does it take to hold on, take root, and grow again?

As a writer whose writing continually gets interrupted – by my own physical problems in combination with doing what needs to be done – I wonder if it’s even worth trying again.

Sometimes I get my answer – YES! – in very odd places. Being a writer, I think about it, organize the words in my head, and then write about it. I can’t help myself. A few notes on the ‘gathering’ page of my notebook, a little bit of time, and out it comes.

Why pachysandra? Because the stuff is tough. And full of life, even when chopped off.

To do the driveway (see previous posts), the edges had to be cleared of overhanging vegetation. Pachysandra is a very polite grower: it goes where it’s wanted, slowly filling in where its roots are allowed to wander, following the soil. Even the inch of soil and leaf litter that washed over the end of the driveway. Slowly and steadily, because it wasn’t told not to, the pachysandra moved in until it was literally growing on top of asphalt.

I trimmed the plants. I tell myself it is like giving the plant a haircut – the cuttings aren’t all that important if the plant is left functioning where it can. But the cuttings looked so healthy and green and cheerful I just couldn’t toss them. So, with some vague idea of transplanting the bits and pieces to fill in a couple of bare spots left by the drought of a few years ago, which were only slowly and politely filling in from the drought survivors, I threw the pieces into several buckets, and dumped a couple of inches of water in each.

The original plan was to put the cuttings in neatly, cut ends in the water, toss in some rooting hormone, and plant the neat little survivors when they had a few baby roots. Well, when you’re in a hurry, and the driveway sealers are coming TOMORROW, neatly turns into tossed in clumps, the cut ends often didn’t make it into any water, and a bunch of what looked like white roots with root hairs and an occasional green tip got thrown in, too, with no plan or purpose.

Then a bunch of stuff happened – and it was over a week before I got back to my buckets. To my surprise, most of the pieces weren’t dried out and dead, or drowned and decaying. I reluctantly spent some of my time and energy – after all, I had PROMISED the parent plants – dug some shallow trenches in the bare spots in the hard dirt, lined up a bunch of pieces in each trench, and pushed the dirt back in. Loosely.

The pieces were either way too many stems and leaves – or those bare-root pieces with NO leaves. I figured the latter could decompose and serve as organic material if nothing else. Only a couple of the pieces were traditionally transplantable: a piece of stem with a few leaves and a chunk of root. I watered, mostly dumping the water the poor plants had been soaking in or not soaking in, making very unpromising mud.

Two days later, noting how many of these pieces STILL looked alive, I watered lightly with a watering can – water is heavy, and I carried it from a bathroom sink rather than drag out the heavy hose for such a small job.

I’ve had no time for them – but darned if those pachysandra cuttings aren’t still holding their leaves up and green and perky – and waiting for me to provide a little water. I expected a few pieces might survive – but instead of a ten percent survival rate, I have a ten percent FAILURE rate.

And those tough little plants are making me ashamed to doubt that my writing, too, will come back the minute I give it any encouragement, provide it some time and water and sunlight, and just let it live.

I can’t kill it. It’s going to look for ANY hope, politely and slowly filling in where it is allowed, until it, too, pours over the edges of the frame I’m keeping it in, into that shallow layer of mud on top of asphalt where the roots are shallow. But green and vigorous. And HEALTHY. I can channel it, prune it, replant it where I want it.

And I should. Because it is full of life and mental toughness – just like that well-behaved but riotous groundcover that keeps pushing the boundaries.

I take my lessons in survival where I can get them.

Driveways and motivation, part 2

Days later I am still not finished with the great driveway project – but it is coming along.

And it gave me lots of things to meditate on as I was sitting on a boogie board at ground level, stuffing smelly brown-that-dries-black goo into the space I had just cleaned dirt and leaves and seeds and tiny onion bulbs out of.

On motivation: I can stick with something long enough to see it done. I’m going to turn that around and reward a job well done with WEEKS of putting the writing first.

Seasons: Apparently driveway management in NJ is seasonal – the stores order their goo in the Spring, and don’t replenish in the Fall past a certain point. When I ran out, I had to do some calling and driving, just to find some more goo – or would have had to leave it undone until next year. And the stuff in the stores is getting old – it had a white mold or crystallization or something on the top (I didn’t feel like examining too closely), so I just removed that layer and tossed it. The goo smells bad enough anyway – I hope I don’t have to replace the stuff from the current bucketful next year because it all rotted. Judgment call: waste a sunny morning getting more, or put the possibly-tainted stuff in. Heck, good enough. In it went. And I have to blow the leaves out of the space before starting, every day. It is now Fall – and better, Indian summer. The leaves are out in amazing colors. I have had the very great pleasure of sitting outside for hours on a gorgeous day, because I had something useful to do.

Energy: I kills me to have to do it: I get out there, work an hour or two, max, and then take myself in and put myself down for a nap. If I’m lucky, I get to repeat in the afternoon. I couldn’t do the second shift today – just no way to drag out the energy to sit. Most irritating. EVERYTHING takes energy. Even sitting on the ground.

Pain: Probably just as well I can’t keep it up too long – getting up and stretching, especially all the little joints in the hands (you do a LOT of work with your hands, without realizing how much). We have a long driveway. And this is a once-in-a-lifetime job. Never again. Okay, after next Spring when I see how well it did, I may fill in any little settled spots (before they fill themselves with yard debris and soil). But after that, never again. This is my last driveway. For life. Huh. Odd thing to say,  since it’s also my first, but true. Knowing I’ll never do it again lends the job a bittersweet edge.

Practice: I’ve gotten quite good at it. Of course. It’s either get better – or give up. True of lots of things. So I’m good at something else I’ll never do again. Huh!

Music: I made the effort, loaded up the music player, located the headphones, and remembered how much I enjoy doing something like weeding or painting or… with favorite music on. This year the weeding was done with a helper, so I was a bit more social instead of losing myself in sound. I used to listen when I could go for long walks by myself, but I can’t walk right now (though I hope I’m working on that) – so I had lost the music pleasure. Many writers use music as part of their process, but I can’t write with ANY sound, including music. CFS makes multitasking difficult, and the brain cells are needed for thinking.

Perfectionism: We are talking about applying brown sticky goo. There is no perfect. If I cleaned up every time I got a bit out of the groove, I’d go mad. And the edge of the driveway I’m trying to preserve is irregular, anyway, with bits missing that have to be filled in. So I’m going to have to live with not perfect – which I won’t even notice pretty soon. It also made me far more tolerant of the job the driveway sealers did – also not perfect, and quite good enough. I was grateful they did that part – pushing gallons of sealant around – as well as they did. Not walking well goes with not standing well, either – and it would have been hell for me to do. I am grateful for ALL the helpers.

Flexibility: There isn’t a job I haven’t tackled (okay, not auto mechanics, heating, or AC, but almost everything else). So if I have to do the odd little fill-in jobs left behind by the pros, I can. It is enabling to know that. I may not CHOOSE to do some of those jobs – but I can if I have to. I’ll figure out how. Even with brain fog and in little job chunks limited by energy. If I want it, I got it. The capacity for learning is still there.

Priorities: I seem to have chosen this time of the year to get a bunch of stuff organized and done – so I could tackle the big job (and continue it after I realized it was bigger than I thought). I’m actually getting more done in smaller units of time by pre-planning. In spite of the brain fog and lack of energy. Getting the stuff out of my head and onto paper (or into a Scrivener project – newly learned software), and then organized into a daily plan actually works.

Tools: The amazing multipurpose flat-blade screwdriver is a wedge, a pry-bar, a stirrer, a digger, a cutting implement, and a very narrow trowel. The gardening cart, with a seat and storage that holds a bucket and trash bags and tools for weeding, is also a great little dolly for carrying the brown goo around next to me. I figured out how to use the power washer, and dug out the leaf blower/vacuum combination to get the debris out of the groove.

Hands: Human hands never cease to amaze me. They move in so many directions, have so many different functions, can adapt to all kinds of tasks from sewing on spangles to diamond cutting to, yep, poking brown goo into a hole. They are versatile and can be extended, almost infinitely it seems, with the appropriate tools, and guided by eyes and brain. And I’m wasting this on a driveway?

Meditation: The above – and much else – came after sitting a while with the flow of the job. No distractions: no computer nearby, no phone, and enough dried rubberized asphalt mix on my fingers to make cleanup a serious job (so I couldn’t just pop in to check email) – and so my hands and eyes were focused on a relatively non-demanding job for a good chunk of time, and the brain had plenty of time to free-range. I quite liked it.

And at least I get a blog post out of it. And, soon, I hope, a chance to use the focus on something worthier. Fiction doesn’t write itself, you know.

Writing characters: To be someone else

The only way I can write a character is to find the part of myself that IS that character.

I contain multitudes.

Everything I have ever heard or read is part of me, and every part of it has to fit in to what I know of the world, my version of reality.

I don’t know what features and programs I came pre-loaded with, but the only access I have to it is how I react to things when they happen to me. Nothing inside me is untouched by the world I was born into, and the world I have added to that every day of my life.

Everything is a product of my experience plus how ‘I’ reacted to that experience.

One of the pre-loads is obviously that marvelous capacity for self-examination, the human consciousness, the ability to be self-aware. I don’t always know why I did something, but, with patience, I can often figure it out. Eventually.

What does this have to do with characters?

Before I can write how a character thinks and acts, I have to put myself into an alternate universe where I imagine or create how the character got to the place where he can be what he is, or she can do what she does. The backstory has to explain the present that I write in.

It gets scary: by the time I have it, at whatever depth, the character IS me – if I had lived through what she has and started with who she was born as.

I have to do some of that even for minor characters, where it helps to cast a few steps back from the present, so that the present at least seems grounded in some kind of logical conclusions.

But for the major characters, it has to go deep – deep and very far back. As far back as the baby he was, who his older sisters were, and where he fit his family’s needs.

I add his alternate universe, and mark him with the events that will take him to where I need him to be.

Then the present makes sense, a convoluted but self-consistent sense, and his actions and words are inevitable.

Added PRINCETON’S DANCING CHILD (Mystery) to free short stories

A chance to contribute to an anthology is a gift. This story came about when the rules for the anthology required ‘a crime set in New Jersey’ – and that each of us pick a location as soon as possible, and clear it with the editor, Elaine Togneri (Sisters in Crime Central Jersey).

The Princeton Reunions weekend is special: alumni come from all over the world. Add a dash of muggy weather, art, and watching part of a movie filmed on campus, to an item from a craft’s store, and The Dancing Child gelled. The rest was attitude.

Added THE HOUSE OF THE VORD (Science fiction) to free short stories

Stories come at the confluence of mental rivers: suddenly, unrelated ideas – an episode from college, a wildlife documentary, and an issue of Science News – merge in rapids, and something happens. I can’t explain it any other way.

THE HOUSE OF THE VORD came in a single piece, wrote itself in a white haze. Maybe some day I will explore the universe it belongs to.

Driveways, priorities, and strong motivation

Today (and for the past several days) I have used every speck of energy, not to write, but to dig mud out of the edge of the driveway, between the asphalt and the 4 x 4” wooden edge.

Why? Because I foolishly arranged to have the driveway sealed tomorrow – it hasn’t been sealed since it was put in several years ago – and this is the right kind of weather – still warm enough, and not too dry… In any case, it seemed a good idea to prepare the surface (the sealing company blows leaves away, but nothing else), because there was over an inch of mud over the far end.

Best use of my time? Hardly.

It got done – except that I will have to get up early tomorrow and pack the rest of the gap with driveway compound.

I was proud of myself for using a large collection of tools which I figured out with no help (DH was grading papers).

The amount of physical energy that went into it was far beyond my normal capacity, and I will pay for it with a couple days worth of staring at the wall, but it is going to be DONE, and it will look nice.

I then had a little talk with myself about using that kind of energy for my writing. And realized that I have a common problem: Writing is my #1 priority – but it never gets the kind of time and attention I want to spend on it. So, effectively, it is NOT my #1 priority. Hmmm. Which got me thinking about what do I want to leave for posterity? A driveway edged in 2012, or a completed novel?

Franklin Covey, in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, talks about things that are URGENT, but not important – they consume a lot of attention. And things that are IMPORTANT, but not urgent – you have your list, I have mine – get pushed aside time after time, especially by those of us who really have to choose, because there’s no way to do them both.

But the driveway, though exhausting, is an easy task. The steps are obvious, and the project can be done without much thinking going on during it.

Whereas my writing uses the good part of my brain, when I have some of it. And it is hard, and I need to do a lot of thinking. All the more reason for doing it first, isn’t it?

What did I learn today? That I can’t have it all, so I need to choose. And I raised my awareness of where my priorities actually lie.

So how to make the on-going writing – which I claim is IMPORTANT – competitive with the many URGENT things that come along and chew up my energy? How do I preserve my brain-on time for writing? How do I make myself/allow myself to do it first, before the energy is used up for the day?

By putting my time use where my priorities really are.

I’m going to go out every day for a couple of weeks, STARE at the driveway, and come in and write.

(PS It DID get me outside in glorious weather – I’ll have to think about fitting more of that into the schedule, too.)

Skeleton of a Story – Scene Template, Part 1

We are like gods creating when we write. We are also like the movie version of Dr. Victor Frankenstein: we take ideas from all places, cobble them together, dress them up in fancy words, and let them loose on the world.

Before we send them out, though, all those pieces have to hang together. They have to tell a story. And stories are written in scenes, and, if the story is long enough, the scenes are organized into chapters.

After many years, I have a pretty stable version of my chapter and scene templates. I’ll explain what I put into a scene template in a series of posts. Feel free to use and adapt.

I am a Plotter. In writer terms it means that whatever stuff I accumulate for the story, I will eventually still need to give myself a pretty complete structure to work around. The basic story questions are all in hand before the major writing starts. I suppose, for me, it is that I hate losing interesting bits – I would rather not create them in the first place: creating is hard. Even when I just write, and follow my bliss like a true Pantser, it is only exploratory writing, done just as much as necessary to provide the first glimmerings. I’m not saying plotting and outlining and similar structural methods are the right way, or the only way (clearly they are not); only that it is MY current way.

I do my main plotting in Dramatica. Though Dram has a steep learning curve and arcane terminology and downright frustrating questions to answer, I find that when I’m done the story feels complete. YMMV. So the first thing I gather for the scene is a list of appreciations – bits of character, plot, and theme, and what they call ‘genre’ which is what KIND of story it is within the category of similar stories.

There are other systems of structure. I also include in the scene structure things like Save the Cat beats (STC appreciations), and story pieces from The Key structure created by James N. Frey. This would be a place to add ‘stuff’ from any other plotting system you want to use that seems to fit best in this particular scene. For me, a complete structure from beginning to end, a list of Chapters and Scenes, each with the ‘stuff’ (appreciations in Dramatica-speak) that has to be illustrated in there somehow, is a requirement to avoid leaving something out. I write erratically, with a small part of a usable brain, when it feels like it – without a structure to return to each time, I would be lost.

The template collects all the bones of the scene, every piece of information I have created for the structure. I fill in the template before I attempt to write the scene.

In revising each scene, part of my process is to X-ray the structure to see if it still works, and if the answers I’ve filled in previously still accomplish the ‘Purpose of the scene in the book’ as a whole. If not, I set the muscles and skin aside, rearrange the skeleton, put such pieces of flesh back on as still twitch, add new flesh as necessary, and cover with regrown skin. Kind of like forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan does on the TV show Bones – except I expect my resurrected scene to get up, skate around, and hold hands nicely with the rest of the scenes in the book to crack the whip.

Below is the chapter and scene template*, with the framework of the chapter template around it. I’ve already discussed the Questions – the main one answered by this scene, and the Questions I leave scattered behind like breadcrumbs – in Part 1. It is my job as storyteller to ask and answer these in such a way as to help the reader create the experience of story; it helps to actually write them down.

Chapter & Scene template, Page 1

Chapter & Scene template, Page 1

Chapter & Scene template, Page 2

Chapter & Scene template, Page 2

Each scene in a chapter is a short story: it has a beginning – and a FIRST LINE. It has an end – and a LAST LINE. In the middle is a collection of beats, one per event in the scene. Each beat is a tiny chunk of story, and a set of them, in some deliberate order, makes up what happens in a scene. So far, obvious. I’ll describe more in future posts.
——-

*Download .pdf version (.doc or .docx available on request):

Chapter and Scene template

Chapter-only template

Scene-only template

Behavior modification for writers: reinforcing desirable behavior – Part 1

Writers are human. ALL of our functioning as living beings is controlled (exquisitely, except for weight – and more on that in a later post) by autonomous process: things that happen without our voluntary control. Digestion. BREATHING. Blood circulation. Walking (most of the time). VISION and all the senses. We wouldn’t survive if more than 99% of our behavior were not on automatic pilot.

To understand and explain inexplicable BEHAVIOR, you first have to know that, in most areas, humans (including writers) operate under the same laws as chinchillas.

Just looking at procrastination and writer’s block (mythological or not) we ask: Why do I surf the web instead of writing? Why is ‘one more piece of research’ so appealing? Why do all the superstitious behaviors writers engage in – target word count, deadlines, quitting in the middle of a line so as to come back and have an easier start, wearing the same hat – work, but only part of the time?

Why don’t we do what we claim we want to do, which is to write the current, top-priority, A+ work-in-progress (WIP)?

Even more important than these questions is: What do we do about it?

The main difference between us and chinchillas is that we can learn what these laws of behavior are, examine how they affect the things we WANT to do, such as writing, and learn to change our behavior.

Writers in particular – because we do it all on paper, and there is a record to be reread and shared – can learn these dangerous rules, understand them, and even, in some cases, take huge advantage of the built-in system.

In perplexity at some of my own behavior, I dragged out a book I’ve had for a very long time – and highly recommend – Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor. My current copy is the revised edition, from 1999 (I had the original 1984 edition but gave it to someone who needed it more (I thought) and never got it back). The basics haven’t changed, but the revised edition has extras. It is subtitled: The New Art of Teaching and Training.

None of these ideas are new any more. Many of them came from the work of B. F. Skinner and other students of animal behavior. Karen Pryor expresses them clearly and readably for the general public, and generously uses examples from her work and her life – I urge you to read her books, and visit her website, clickertraining.com.

Caveats: What follows in these blog posts will be my understanding, applied to myself. I am not an expert – and will probably get some of it wrong. On the other hand, I have a long history of (bad) writer behavior, and am in some ways an ideal subject.

I’d like to start with one of the basics: REINFORCING DESIRABLE BEHAVIOR.

Desired behavior for a writer should be an easy list: getting ‘butt in chair’, not surfing the web nor playing games, turning completed work in on time, starting work promptly, sending work out. These behaviors have a huge emotional component for most writers, much of it negative. Otherwise why would it be so hard to sit down and work, and why do many writers practically chain themselves to their desks? If writing is such a positive activity (as writers claim, at least part of the time), why do we have such a hard time doing it? A program such as Freedom, which blocks the internet access on my Mac for as many minutes as I set it up for, shouldn’t be necessary if I’m enjoying myself, right? I don’t have to be persuaded much to jump in a pool, or go to a movie, or get ice cream. To overcome the baggage, from procrastination to outright fear and loathing, the behavior needs to be reinforced.

[If you’re in the category of someone whose writing is always self-reinforcing because it is so pleasant and easy and fun, please stop reading right now: you don’t need this.]

Pryor defines a reinforcer as something that occurs at the same time as a behavior, and increases the probability of that behavior recurring. She notes that behavior must already be occurring, however sporadically, or it can’t be reinforced. This is not quite as obvious as it sounds, but a writing example would be that you can’t reinforce ‘submitting written work’ if it never happens – you can only promise yourself a reward if you submit, which Pryor categorizes as bribery, not reinforcement (it may or may not work, but it isn’t reinforcement). Thus, if a writer ever sits down to write, that behavior can be increased. Opening a new blank document is a behavior, as is typing ‘new text’ into that document; both behaviors can be increased by appropriate reinforcement.

Let’s use approbation as a reinforcer for now, leaving for a later post exactly what kind of reinforcers work for writers, and which are positive and which negative. Let’s just say that if your SO, a reader, [your agent, editor, or publisher if you have them], or a good friend told you how wonderful each sentence you wrote was, the instant you added the final period, it wouldn’t be that hard to write.

So you CAN write – you just haven’t found the right reinforcer! And what reinforcers you are using may not be applied properly – it is both critical and tricky to get the reinforcer TIMING just right.

To summarize for this step: to reinforce a desirable behavior (defined as increasing the occurrence of the desirable behavior) you have to have 1) the behavior already occurring, at least occasionally; 2) the right reinforcer for the subject (the writer); and 3) the reinforcer must be applied at the correct time, which is as close as physically possible to the time when the behavior occurs.

More on each concept, and how it might be applied to writing, in later posts.

——-
Some of the upcoming topics I will investigate for myself are:

Timing of reinforcements
How to train a writer    Stimulus control: what is it, what works, and what doesn’t    What is discipline?
Behavior chains – and how to use them to my advantage
Reinforcements and rewards for writers
4 positive and 4 negative methods of using reinforcement to get rid of behavior you don’t want
The pernicious long-schedule intermittent variable reinforcer – the most powerful and insidious reinforcer of desirable behavior
——–

Ignore the rules at your peril: they will still apply – Pryor calls them as immutable as the laws of physics – and you won’t even know what bit you.

Jamming the creative process: RESET to break the jam.

Sometimes what keeps me from writing is not procrastination nor ego nor fear.

It is simply that ‘things’ – writing, life, house, … – have become so disorganized (and behind) that I can’t think, much less be creative.

Time gets spent, not in getting things done, but in thinking about getting things done. Thoughts go round and round, never settling long enough in one area to get that area started, much less finished.

How is the creative process affected? By its main requirement: creating requires a free and nimble mind.

No further writing or editing on the WIP was getting any attention of QUALITY. Scheduling time for writing, blocking the internet by using Freedom, and all other methods aimed at the symptoms, rather than at the root cause – logjam – FAILED. Quite miserably.

The problem is analogous to computer mainframe usage in the good old days, when, to avoid a single user glutting the machine, the computer would ‘roll out’ an image of the core with a particular user’s program and all the user’s data, and ‘roll in’ someone else’s program and data. (Rolling in and out used a small amount of CPU time.)

Then it would compute for a while, and repeat the process with the next user in the priority list. If the algorithm wasn’t managed carefully, or there were too many users being allowed into the queue, the machine could get stuck in a place where all that was happening was sequential ‘roll out’, ‘roll in’ – but no actual work got done before it was time for the next. All the CPU’s time was being used to manage sequencing of jobs, none to doing the actual jobs.

No one’s job got done – and the CPU was busy all the time.

That is how my brain feels when things get too messy. I can’t actually roll a job in and get a significant part of it done – the competing jobs are clamoring for brain/CPU time.

At this point the only thing to do is declare a reset – everything stops. Then only the top job or two are allowed any traction (typically one of these jobs is ‘TAXES’), everything else is blocked out, and, after clearing the logjam (i.e., ‘Filing taxes’), work is evaluated, rescheduled, cleaned up, dejunked, and otherwise processed before resetting the queue.

Something innocuous can start the jam: a visitor blows into town and occupies prime time space for a day or two (with, for us CFS folk, the several-day recovery that is non-negotiable). Or a new, shiny program beckons, promising to solve some long-standing problem and make future workflow more efficient. Or tax planning requires that all charitable contributions to be charged to the current fiscal year be RECEIVED by the intended organization by Dec. 31, not just MAILED (as it used to be), moving the paperwork time into the Christmas timeframe with a vengeance (instead of being done in that nice post-Christmas lull before New Year’s Eve).

Or [fill in here the life events that, by themselves, could have been handled, but collided with… to create the felt-like effect of a logjam, interlocked fibers].

It doesn’t matter what caused mine this time. If you’re really curious – ask. And be prepared for long tale of woe…!

Ahem! The solution is to RESET – and that is what I’m doing.

So: I absolve myself of guilt (no one would do this to herself ON PURPOSE), and RESET. I put the editing on hold for as long as this one takes, get extra rest, do the top project or two.

And: we’re back in the writing business (I’m assuming this post – except for the mixed metaphors – shows coherent thought).

Editing sounds positively enticing – I can’t wait to see the final version of the current scene.

Telling fairytales: giving readers false hopes

One of the things getting in the way of getting on with editing Pride’s Children, the WIP, is an insidious little voice in my head saying, “That could never happen!”

My brain tells me I shouldn’t write the story of someone who gets something in the story she would never get in real life – and that it would discourage people with similar problems from even thinking about what happens in the book – lest it give them FALSE HOPES.

And then I remembered that’s why humans tell stories.

In stories, the ugly duckling turns out to be the swan, more beautiful than all those picking at him. And Cinderella, the girl whose stepmother and stepsisters treat her like a servant, marries the Prince.

The point is – if we don’t tell stories and read stories – all we have is reality. Reality is harsh. If it were not for stories, humans would all die early by ‘failure to thrive.’

We need stories in which there is hope. That it may be temporarily false is not important. If we mature, we will grow up to discover our own place, our own story, our own Prince – our own way to be happy. Either we will become President – or we will decide it is too much work to be President, anyway.

Children – and I think most people can remember being different, wanting more than they had, wishing they were more popular, or their parents had more money (so they could have that pony my eldest still asks for – at 26) – don’t have the tools to create their own reality where they are happy. Stories teach them (and adults who are still struggling with the same questions) those tools, or at least, that there ARE tools.

My story, if I am successful in my aims, will let someone spend a bit of time thinking ‘this could be me, this COULD happen,’ and thus keep that someone happy enough to keep trying for another day.

That is a good enough reason to write.

Plot holes and Maximus’ dog – Scene Template, Part 2

Have you had questions when you finished a story? Such as wondering why they made a big deal of the dog following the General before that first big battle? Did you wonder how or why the dog would be important? Whether it had a special relationship with its owner? Whether it might save his life in battle?

In movies this is called a continuity problem. Movie viewers are conditioned to expect that anything given significant screen time will be intentional – and be connected in by the end.

In stories, these questions often happen because the writer set something up – and then forgot about it, leaving a hanging thread on the back of the story tapestry. Not all of these are caught on revision, either, even if the editors are keeping exhaustive notes.

But when a story is exposed to a larger number of readers (this is called publication), the plot holes can become glaring, and the repair job is major.

Extremely detailed outlines may help. But extremely detailed outlines are a pain to change, and many writers (including me) don’t like to do the maintenance required to keep a complete outline current with the story.

I think the reason is that the detailed outlines are meant to cover the whole story – and thus are very long.

My solution is to keep it at the scene level.

Before I write/revise a scene, I make myself fill in/edit a short template for scenes, the pieces of which I’ve pulled together out of a bunch of books.

Many writers create some kind of an outline before they write a scene, but when the scene is written, and that structure skeleton is covered by words, the outline is discarded, never to be used again.

I keep them. And update them. I don’t consider a scene complete unless every line is filled in for the scene template, but I don’t restrict myself to whether the template is filled before, during, or after the writing: just as long as they match when the scene is done. When completely filled in, the template occupies at most a page or two. (I’ll cover the full scene template, and discuss the other entries, in future posts tagged ‘scene template.’)

I put the templates in a parallel file to the actual text labeled ‘Structure’, and one of the main reasons is that two of the entries are:

Question(s):
Unanswered questions:

‘Unanswered questions’ is where I keep track of the questions the reader will have when this scene is over. Beyond the obvious ‘What happens next?’ each one of these questions MUST be answered in a future scene. Somehow. No exceptions. Many of these questions WILL be answered by the upcoming scenes organically, and need no special effort (except keeping track of the answer scene’s number).

The template entry ‘Question(s):’ thus becomes ‘What is the reader going to learn about the story in this scene?’ Simple.

It may seem like a lot of extra work up front.

But when the story is finished, I have a cumulative list of all the questions I left in the reader’s mind – and I KNOW where each question is answered. Keeps me from leaving those irritating lost threads and plot holes.

Such as: ‘What happened to Maximus’ dog?’

Can you train a brain?

More importantly, can you train a brain with brain fog?

I asked myself this question a short while back when I got tired of the relative uselessness of mine, and the subject of training new neural pathways to replace those that are dying as I get older came up in my Science News. Or something else I read. Can’t remember.

The point is that I have lived with CFS for over twenty years, one of the worst features of which is mercifully called ‘brain fog,’ as if it were a gentle cloud that might lift with the rising sun.

Basically, it means my brain doesn’t work anything like it used to when I was young and smart and quick, so very quick with the opinions and the decisions (and expressing them: my tongue was legendary). The brain dysfunction has gotten a bit better – some healing? learning to cope? – but the brain is still maddeningly erratic.

Now add aging (better than the other option) to the mix, and the ‘edad de los nuncas’ (the age of the nevers: ‘I never used to…’ lose my keys, forget an actor’s name, have trouble remembering 7 x 8 = 56…), and the unreliable brain was starting to get downright scary.

The kiddies have flown the nest. More or less completely. I have time for myself. I write. And I decided to take Lumosity.com up on its offer of a few days of free brain training with their little games. And then I decided I should extend the free offer into a month. And then – hey, I’m having some fun here – I signed up for a year.

A year should be enough time to evaluate what they never answered: is there any proof that brain training can help people with CFS cope better? And do they have a bunch of people with CFS who have gotten significantly ‘better’?

So, instead of playing my current craze – Sudoku – for hours sometimes, telling myself that at least it is exercising some part of my brain – I am spending time playing Lumosity games.

As with my mantra – if it hurts my brain, it must be good for it – the games hurt.

I could call it a good hurt. It is a challenge, and the potential for improving in their areas (speed, attention, memory, flexibility, and problem solving – see, I remembered all 5 without having to go look it up!) is there.

My BPI (brain performance index) has increased since I started. This is not necessarily a good indicator of actual brain gains because some improvement comes from familiarity, and some from scamming the games (more on that in a later post).

I would have thought that performance – like IQ and your results on the SAT or the GRE – would be a constant. Maybe it is, in the sense of an upper bound: i.e., you can get this BPI when you are at your best, so don’t go doing your daily brain training (after which they calculate your current BPI) unless you are in prime physical and mental shape for the day. Much as is recommended for taking the SAT: make sure your kid has a good night’s rest, a good breakfast, fresh batteries…

But mine varies. A lot. As my brain does. My score on a particular game correlates somewhat with my self-assessed mental and physical condition. Only somewhat, though: I have played a game in a condition of total brain fog, exhausted, and somehow found the zone which achieves a Personal Best score. Not often, but often enough not to be surprised when it happens.

At which point I use the relative indication of a functioning brain in a weird mode to make the decision to go to bed (usually my hardest decision of the day).

Don’t know yet whether there is a gradual actual real improvement to my brain, an upward trend to a higher plateau. That would be lovely: my current plateaus tend to be at the level of the Dead Sea.

Don’t know yet if my CFS-addled brain will come back toward normal – whatever that means.

Don’t know whether it will help with remembering Shemar Moore’s name OR his character’s name on Criminal Minds (which eludes me at the moment).

But it is an organized attempt, with research behind it, to build new neural connections, to improve a mind, and I am hoping it will at least stave off some of the decline I sense and fear.

The only problem: you have to keep doing it. Forever. Right now their games have the shiny attraction of the new. They may continue adding games. And my brain keeps trying to strategize to optimize my performance on the obvious requirements of each. But I’m not sure if I will want to keep it up when I’m 90.

Too bad, like all efforts at self-improvement, you can’t do a controlled experiment and do it both ways before deciding. The results are pretty much like every other crapshoot in life: you takes your chances, you gets your consequences.

But I would really regret not trying.

Whether and what to blog

Please yourself. And please whatever vision you have of your target readers.

No one else can make the decision that will make you happy (rich, beautiful, thin, successful beyond your wildest dreams…). Both sides of the blogging argument – ‘Never blog about yourself, only about your books’ vs. ‘Blog about what interests you, because it will attract readers to your books’ – have compelling arguments in their favor.

The important part is that these are OPINIONS, and there is no scientific way to prove one or the other, as there are writers doing it well on both sides of the argument.

By all means scan other blogs and see if you agree with the blogger’s opinions. Writing style. Choice of format. Heck, choice of background color (thin white letters on a black background drive me to the Preferences settings on my browser ’cause I can’t SEE them).

It comes down to content: can you provide what others will want to read?

If all you want is to add your bit to someone else’s thoughts – go comment on their blog posts. The disadvantage: waiting until someone else posts on the topic.

BUT: there are plenty of niches left. If, after you read for a while, you find no one ever blogs about X – you go blog about X. Instead of searching the web for solutions to your problems, solve them yourself – and post the results. Someone, somewhere, will thank you.

I write. After some six months’ reading, I have picked the Categories where I have something I want to say. They are in the sidebar. I hope there is something you may want to read.

There is enough sand in this sandbox for EVERYONE.

Computers – can’t live with them, can’t live without them

Progress of a sort:

By an unreasonable amount of clicking, and going back and forth to iPhoto, the basic blog is taking shape.

I have wrestled into submission: the Navigation menu, the Header photo, making Pages and ordering them, Static pages, Posts, About, and putting images in. I know all the rest of the bloggers have succeeded at the same, so it isn’t anything special, but it was still like trying to eat with chopsticks the first time.

It definitely came under the categories of ‘I can do this without asking computer-guru son’ AND ‘My brain hurts, so it must be working.’

I thank WordPress that it can be done at all. Errors are mine. It’s still pretty amazing.

 

Update: Posted my first free fiction: the short mystery story “Princeton’s Dancing Child,” and figured out how to upgrade the Navigation menu so the story appears in the Header. And how to use the Visual Basic and Text editors, how to paste from Word – and a host of other little editing tricks to put a story on a page that can be viewed.