They say you learn something new every day.

Posts tagged ‘writing’

Ploughing On (16/03/2012)

I’m beginning to struggle with this project a bit. Yesterday, I couldn’t think what to write. It was one of the first times so far that I was stumped. Today, I nearly forgot! And that’s the first time that’s happened either.

In some ways, I’ve exhausted most of the daily thoughts that are going through my head. It’s made me wonder how much of this is actually things that I learnt each day, and how many was me thinking of an interesting thing that I already knew.

Right this second, I can’t think of anything useful that I know now that I didn’t know 10 hours ago (and that’s what this is about really).

I’m a bit preoccupied with money at the moment. I’m in the process of trying to buy a flat at the moment, which is very expensive. I’ve wanted to be on the so-called “property ladder” for a while now. Mainly, I think, for psychological reasons: I hate the idea of not working towards anything. And renting feels that way to me.

For this reason, I find it very difficult to do jobs that are “drudge”. By that, I mean, where you, as the employee, are the system, churning something out. I suspect that should push me towards a more project-based career.

I haven’t been doing much writing lately either. I’m struggling with that too. I have a few ideas down, but I can’t get the motivation to sit down and get on with it. I’m wondering if this motivation is partly created by what I’m reading. When I’m reading authors that I love, you can’t stop me writing.

I think the first thing to do is make time and routine for it – and, I suspect, part of that is to force myself to write something each day. I once read that Terry Pratchett writes 400 words a day:

For more than three years I wrote more than 400 words every day. I mean, every calendar day. If, in those pre-portable days, I couldn’t get to a keyboard, I wrote hard the previous night and caught up the following day

400 words isn’t many. But I think that’s part of it. This is a marathon, not a sprint. I think that hideous cliche of a phrase is one of the hardest things to live. Humans aren’t built for marathons, and I think whatever we can do to help us keep at them is good.

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Motivation (14/03/2012)

I’m really struggling with motivation at the moment.

Even though I’ve seen before that if I tell myself to do it, it helps me do things, and even though I know that once I get into it, it’ll usually be fine, I’m struggling.

For a start, I’m working on something, and at the moment, even when I get into it, it isn’t fine.

Yesterday, however, I planned my evening with times, and put a definite time on things (“Have dinner and mess around until 7”). That helped a lot.

Moreover, I’m reminded of a piece of writing advice that Graham Linehan gave once:

Writing is like having a poo, “it’s really hard if you don’t want to go, but there’s a time when you have to go.”

And I think there’s something key here:

All these things that I’m procrastinating and filling my time with, part of it is fear and not wanting to write – but the other part of it is feeding the subconscious.

Because if you start to feed the subconscious with stuff at that stage, it’ll build up and build up and build up, and then finally, when you do have to write, you’ve hopefully built up a store in your subconscious that you can draw from. 

Because, actually, I looked back at the project today, and had some ideas for what to do.

So, I think the thing is: put deadlines on things, work on other things, and don’t worry too much. Just make sure you keep it all under control. 

Change for the Better (10/03/2012)

Every week I look forward to my watching my weekly dose of American comedies: Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, The Office, Community (when it’s on) and now, Up All Night

There’s something about these shows that makes them scarily watchable. I think I watched most of the first two seasons of Community in one super lethargic weekend.

Up All Night 

Up All Night is a new entry, recommended by a friend of mine, and I really like it. One of the great things about it is the real economy of story telling in the title sequence – the way it fleshes out their life is fantastic. The timing with the music is perfect.

However, about half way through the season they start messing around with the title sequence. They put in some new shots, there’s a few tweaks. But ultimately, they’ve made it worse. The sequence is slightly wrong (some of the party shots are in the wrong place). It looks like it’s the original edited together by someone who doesn’t quite follow the story in the original – or someone who doesn’t appreciate that the title sequence is itself telling a story, and thinks it’s just a series of clips.

It made me realise how important it is to check against the original and check your calibration.

It’s also made me realise how crazily watchable these American programmes are. There’s just something about the script and characters that means you can’t do anything but love them. I suppose part of it is that Friends thing that you want to be their friends – you like spending time with them. But almost more than that, it’s the easily, effortless laughs. The plots are simple, but not boring, and not patronising, the characters are full and rich, but likeable, and the style is engaging but not confusing.

It’s a real balancing act, and one that so many American comedy writers and directors seem to pull off.

What makes a quote a quote (02/03/2012)

I’m going to do something a little bit different today.

I’ve had my kindle for almost exactly a year today. I read quite a lot on it (about 40 books in the time I’ve had it) and I often highlight bits of nice phrasing, or sections that I find quite funny.

I thought today might be a good time to look back over that list and see what it actually is that’s good about them. I guess some of this is going to be really obvious, but it’s good to think about these things sometimes. Even if it means “explaining” jokes. Which is always the beginning of the end.

‘Who’s this Dexter then?’ her mother asked, peering at the back of the postcards. ‘Your boyfriend, is he?’ Then, with a concerned look: ‘Have you ever thought about working for the Gas Board?’

One Day (David Nicholls)

The abrupt change here makes me smile. Even after reading it several times. As does the mundane suggestion of working for “the gas board” of all places (other jobs wouldn’t be as funny). It’s a really nice portrait of a mother who wants a stable, safe career for her daughter. I also like the way we see this jump from Emma’s concerns (“your boyfriend”) to what her mum really wants to talk about (“working for the Gas Board”).

[…] they sat in a quiet place at the end of the harbour where the crescent of the beach began and drank wine that tasted of pine. ‘Christmas trees,’ said Dexter. ‘Disinfectant,’ said Emma.

One Day (David Nicholls)

There’s a good bit of understatement here. The joke tells itself in two short sentences. Nicholls hasn’t laboured the point, and let’s the gag tell itself in the off-beat. I’ve always liked different viewpoints of the same thing, and the undermining of pine as a romantic idea linked to “Christmas trees” by suggesting that it’s also like “Disinfectant” makes me chuckle. It’s a very “real” bit of humour – you can imagine people saying it. Again, it actually says something about their character too, which is very clever.

Sometimes, when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery.

One Day (David Nicholls)

A bit of a throwaway one here. One Day is told in the third person in free indirect discourse as we see here. There’s a clever little shift in perspective here. Essentially the sentence is Emma’s thought. It could easily be “Sometimes I wonder if what I believe[…]”. A welcome little bit of humour to lighten the idea of “when it’s going badly”.

[…] and his residency with a Sunday night improv comedy team had proved only that he could be unfunny in an entirely unplanned, spontaneous way.

One Day (David Nicholls)

The negatives here make this sentence. And there’s an element of inversion. I think the word “entirely” is very important for the pacing (it’s an adjective, which editor’s love to cut, but it’s important to get the rhythm right). Keeping certain parts of improv (“unplanned, spontaneous”) but destroying their power with “unfunny” is what makes this work.

They should come out talking. Not conversation, not repartee, just basic practical information. Father, I have wind. This activity centre leaves me jaded. I am colicky.

One Day (David Nicholls)

This is one that’s sometimes a little tricky to pull off, but the humour comes from the complex and slightly unnatural and unusual words. “Father, I have wind”, is funny because of the use of “Father” (obviously, wind is also always funny – and in this stiff, starchy style, “wind” works better than “fart”). “This activity centre leaves me jaded” gets it’s humour from the word “jaded”, which is not a childlike word, but also “activity centre”, which is such a piece of academic pyschobabble.

The humour really comes from “colicky”, though, which is both a very funny word and also totally alien to a child. The idea of a baby saying “colicky” makes it even funnier.

‘It’s pronounced toe-bean. Like “toe” and then “bean”.’

‘That’s what I feared,’ she says. She lets this marinate a moment. Then, ‘No. Not acceptable.’

‘But that’s his name! That’s how you say it.’

‘I can’t be going around saying “toe-bean”. It simply will not do.’

‘Why don’t you just not say his name?’

‘He’s a popular writer.’

‘Read his books but don’t talk about them.’

‘No,’ (I can sense her shaking her head) ‘some situation will arise that requires me to say his name.’

Your Voice in My Head (Emma Forrest)

This is such a nice exchange and so early in the book (I’ve even mentioned it before I like it so much).

It’s very, very funny, and makes you warm to the oddities of the characters so much. Her mum’s irrational dislike of his name sounding like two words put together makes her so real. And the way she takes it so seriously adds to the humour.

Have you ever eaten something appalling for breakfast, something really bad for you, a chocolate cake, and just thought, ‘Fuck it, this is bad, I’d better keep going. Christ, this is making me feel horrible, I’d better have more.’? And then have you ever left the last bite, less than the last bite, a morsel, a crumb even and said to yourself, ‘There, I didn’t finish it. That didn’t really happen. You don’t process the calories unless it’s the final crumby morsel. Everyone knows that. ’

Your Voice in My Head (Emma Forrest)

This is an interesting one, because it’s not something I can actually relate to, but the phrasing is brilliant. That final fake “conversation” (“everyone knows that”) has such a great rhythm. I just race through this text as I read it. The short sentences and clauses urge you on. There’s real humour in the ridiculousness of it too, and the idea that ” You don’t process the calories unless it’s the final crumby morsel”, is so ridiculous, yet something that is possible to imagine.

Gloria Steinem, whom I have admired from so far for so long, listens as I describe the book, then asks if I was sexually abused. Did I say we’re on an escalator?

 Your Voice in My Head (Emma Forrest)

I believe this one is the beginning of a new chapter. Again, a lot of the humour from this comes from the pacing. The sub clause “whom I have admired from so far[…]” makes you wait for the heart of the sentence (“sexually abused”) and then is undermined by the fact they’re on an escalator. The abrupt change in scene is funny, but also the semi-breathless phrasing (“Did I say[…]”) adds to the humour. The phrase is redundant, since she’s writing it, so obviously knows she hasn’t already said it, but it works really well.

He sent me a couple of books. Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge, arrived, inscribed with elaborate indifference.

Your Voice in My Head (Emma Forrest)

Another case of a vital adjective. This is made with the word “elaborate”. It’s beginning to make me realise that the only time to use adjectives is when they’re unexpected or somehow reverse or undermine their meaning.

Each time I am caught unawares and wearing something more schlumpy, bizarre and unflattering than the last. Like I have on a poncho and worms coming out of my eyes and one of my arms is made out of Dudley Moore.

Your Voice in My Head (Emma Forrest)

This is a real joke of a sentence. I don’t like the “worms coming out of my eyes” bit, but the line “one of my arms is made out of Dudley Moore” is so strange and bizarre that it makes you laugh. It’s such an unexpected and massively surreal change that it makes you sit up. It’s not even something you can properly imagine, so the oddness of it really hits home.

The day after the inauguration, my dad spends an inordinate amount of time photoshopping Aretha Franklin’s hat on to my baby photos.

Your Voice in My Head (Emma Forrest)

It’s not really the phrasing of this one but the imagine. True, the word “inordinate” (another adjective!) is vital for the humour of this sentence

So you might mistake it for one of those fiddly, sophisticated feelings like schadenfreude or low self-esteem.

For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair With Poker (Victoria Coren)

The classification of “feelings” here as “fiddly” and “sophisticated” works very well. Feelings are neither of these things, but you can understand how you can classify them as such. It’s a nice crossed idea that produces the humour. The example feelings are good choices as well.

I’m pretty sure that languages are important to a career in spying, and I do only have O-level French. It’s a Grade A, but still, in terms of actual espionage this pretty much limits me to infiltrating, say, a French primary school, or maybe, at a push, a boulangerie.

Starter for Ten (David Nicholls)

The word “boulangerie” here is important, as it enacts the joke – it’s a word you learn early in French, and demonstrates his limitations, as if he can only go to places he knows the word. Not to mention the fact that infiltrating a bakers is a ridiculous idea.

Ideally, of course, I’d like to wake up in the morning and be handed a transcript of everything I’m about to say during the day, so that I could go through it and rewrite my dialogue, cutting the fatuous remarks and the crass, idiotic jokes.

Starter for Ten (David Nicholls)

Again, not so much the phrasing of this as much as the actual idea and image. It really adds to the character. We’re all awkward and “staircase wit” (or here, inverted, as pre-party wit) is something very personal but which everyone seems to share. It really connects you to the narrator.

When I was younger I could get away with not eating something I didn’t like by claiming to my parents either that it was too rich or that it had fallen on the floor. (Later I would use this with people: “She was too rich” or “He fell on the floor—

A Gate at the Stairs (Lorrie Moore)

The connection is quite clever here as the meaning really changes from the food to the people – food being rich is very different from people being rich. It’s a clever little associative jump, that you admire for the intricacy of it.

I nodded, trying to imagine the very particular sadness of a vanished childhood yogurt now found only in France.

A Gate at the Stairs (Lorrie Moore)

Really, this is taking the micky out of the strange emotion that came from someone seeming a yoghurt that they haven’t seen since childhood, but the word “particular” is what makes this sentence I think.

I would do things like imagine ergonomic meant “thereforeish”.

A Gate at the Stairs (Lorrie Moore)

This is a straight joke really. But one that makes us like the character more – it’s such a strange jump of logic and wordplay, and it takes a few seconds to get your head around it, but the incorrect definition makes you chuckle.

 “You emptied the top rack of the dishwasher but not the bottom, so the clean dishes have gotten all mixed up with the dirty ones—and now you want to have sex?”

A Gate at the Stairs (Lorrie Moore)

I believe this was an imaginary conversation in the character’s head. Again, the abrupt change and association between dishwashers and sex is at the heart of this. The jump is funny, as the character is connecting two things that really don’t belong together at all

He’s two years old, two and a half, and has quite a good vocabulary for his age, but he always refers to himself declaratively in the third person, present tense. When you say it’s time for bed, he says, ‘Daniel isn’t tired.’ When you say, ‘Give Grandad a kiss,’ he says, ‘Daniel doesn’t kiss granddads.’

Deaf Sentence (David Lodge)

The idea of a two year old talking in the third person is funny enough, but it’s made funnier by the final example “Daniel doesn’t kiss granddads” as it turns the specific example into a generic statement, which changes it’s meaning somewhat. Interestingly, there are only two examples here, not the normal three, but I think three would be too many. In actual fact, there’s three quoted piece of speech, so you still get the tricolonic rhythm without having to have so many exmaples.

My father-in-law tripped on a crack in the pavement and spent the rest of the week politely pretending he had not dislocated his shoulder.

Bossypants (Tina Fey)

Another adjective, and another case of the humour coming from the character. This is very understated, but contains in it about the character and the situation. Again, it would be nothing without the word “politely”.

[…] the human ape accidentally acquired consciousness and began asking the questions which will still be the FAQs on God’s website when He gets around to setting it up.

The Age of Absurdity (Michael Foley)

A nice little one here. It’s putting together the disparate ideas that result in the humour. I feel that the “when He gets around to setting it up” labours the joke a little bit, but

Cézanne is supposed to be involved in an intriguing ‘dialogue’ with conceptual art. (The dialogue actually goes like this – Conceptual Work: ‘You’re so over’; Cézanne: ‘You’re such shite.’).

The Age of Absurdity (Michael Foley)

It’s interesting taking the artistic use of the word “dialogue” and creating a literal conversation. I think “shite” is probably funnier that “shit” here. Whichever swearword you picked the “such” is vital though. I think the “actually” is important too.

Moskowitz is a man of uncommon exuberance and persuasiveness: if he had been your freshman statistics professor, you would today be a statistician.

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (Malcolm Gladwell)

There’s so real economy of storytelling here. It’s such a clever method to state what the result would be, rather than explaining how enthusiastic and inspiring the man is, Gladwell personalises it. It brings you into the text too, and makes you engage.

That, Annie thought, was the sort of thing she’d have to come up with if she were ever to start picking up men in pubs. It was the speed that intimidated her. It wasn’t as if “Some of it” was a Wildean one-liner, but it did the job, and both men laughed. Annie, meanwhile, was still trying to twist her mouth into a polite smile. It would take her five minutes to complete the smile, and probably another twenty-four hours to produce an accompanying snappy verbal response. Gav and Barnesy would probably have left by then.

Juliet, Naked (Nick Hornby)

This is a really typical bit of Nick Hornby, and I love it. It’s the over-thinking a simple situation, and analysis of someone’s own flaws. There’s some light-heartedness in “Wildean one-liner” and the idea of a smile taking a while to generate. The last sentence perhaps over plays the joke, but really the emotional heart of this is the detailed description of the sort of thing that briefly passes through your head. You really get into the character in this line.

Is it possible to want to divorce a man simply because he doesn’t want to be rude about Ginger Spice? I rather fear it might be.

How to Be Good (Nick Hornby)

Another bit of typical Hornby here. He’s led us through to the idea that she is getting irritated because her husband is being nice about Ginger Spice, and has now pulled back and shown us how ridiculous this idea is. It’s the jump of scale, the sudden pulling back that makes us laugh at ourselves as well, as we were going along with it, until he pointed out how silly the idea is.

I am, by and large, boundlessly positive. I have all the joyful ebullience of an idiot. My diary entry for yesterday was ‘moved the deep fat fryer onto the other worktop – it looks BRILLIANT!’

How To Be A Woman (Caitlin Moran)

Again, another short extract that makes us like the character. The excitement about the appearance of the deep fat fryer is ridiculous, but likeable. I’m not sure if “ebullience” is quite the right word. The idea of quoting a “diary entry” is a nice touch too. She might not have a diary, but we don’t need to believe it. It’s funnier than saying “yesterday I moved the deep fat fryer and thought it looked brilliant”.

‘Chevy Chase?’ I will say, at a party very closely modelled on the ones I’ve seen in Dynasty. ‘Any relation to Cannock Chase?’ Cannock Chase is just off the A5 to Stafford. LA-born movie star and comedian Chevy is going to both get, and love, this joke.

How To Be A Woman (Caitlin Moran)

It’s interesting that Moran gets the humour here from explaining her own joke. I was running this one through in my head as I was hanging up my washing, and realised there’s a lot going on in here.

The unrealistic nature of the “dream sequence” prepares us for humour, and gives us an insight into Moran’s character. The mundane “Cannock Chase” and “A5” is funny when juxtaposed with LA and Chevy chase. Saying “LA-born movie star and comedian” is a very neat way of doing this – it gets the critical information over in the pre-modified adjective. If she’s said “Chevy Chase, who is born in LA[…]” the rhythm would have been all off. By putting it first, you race through it, and acknowledge it, without pausing over it. Finally, there’s something that works very well about “both get, and love, this joke”. I think the idea that both of these things will happen (when, really, they’re equally as unlikely) adds to the humour

I’ve missed out a lot of bits I saved on my kindle, partly because some were to jog my memory, and partly because a lot didn’t survive out of context. I was surprised by this, as in context, you’re so caught up, you think they’re hilarious. But when you take them out of context, they just don’t work. They don’t have the build up.

Reading through this, there are a number of “themes” and structures here that repeat, which both surprises and doesn’t surprise me. Perhaps the key thing here is that often it’s just a single word that turns the sentence from passable into memorable.

How to Write a Report (29/02/2012)

I did something in the description of this blog (and edited it into the very first post) that I’ve realised I need to reuse.

Elevator Conversation

They say you learn something new every day. This is my attempt to document that.

More Detail

If you do learn something new every day, how long do you remember it for? That’s a lot of things to store. This is my store of “learned things”. I like Steve Makofsky’s description of his blog as “backup of my brain”.

Even More Detail

My other thought was about Steve Yegge’s comment that “I sucked, and I still do, although hopefully less every year.” Steve’s talking about coding, but I think it works for every aspect of your life.

After all, replace the word “code” with your chosen profession in this quote from Jeff Atwood and you’ve got what this site is all about:

“You should be unhappy with code you wrote a year ago. If you aren’t, that means either A) you haven’t learned anything in a year, B) your code can’t be improved, or C) you never revisit old code.”

I was somewhat frivolous when I did it, but there’s something really useful about this style.

You capture everything in the first iteration, and people can stop reading there. Or, if they want more information, they can keep reading. It suits different audiences.

I think this is a good way of putting together reports and documents:

This report in one line.

Then:

This report in one page

Then:

This report in graphs and charts

Then:

This report in detail

Then:

This report in technical detail

Or something like that. It allows readers to get the gist of it all at once, and then jump to the level of detail they require. Obviously, you could do some even cleverer things if you delivered it in web format or something like that. Sadly, at the moment, people are still printing things off, but I think this can still work in the printed format.

I’m going to try it the next time I have to put something together.

There’s been a couple of times now when I’ve prepared a page report and people have wanted a 10 page one or a 10 page one and people have only really wanted a page one. This way, you can allow people to easily flow from one category to another.

Less Wordy (28/02/2012)

A very quick thing today, still about proof reading though. (Something I will move off soon).

I’ve noticed in first drafts I tend to write sentences like this:

It’s one of those things I’ve come to accept.

Yuck! Kind of passive and ugly. Obviously the thing to do is turn it around like this:

I’ve come to accept it

When you’re aware of it, it’s easier to start spotting and changing it.

Couting Words (27/02/2012)

So, as I said, proof reading is hard. Really, to misquote Douglas Adams, hard. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly hard it is. I mean, you may think doing maths is hard, but that’s nothing compared to proofreading.

One of the things I find difficult to spot is duplicate words. Being a techie sort, I decided to code myself out of it, so I wrote a little internet app: the repeated word finder.

Basically it searches for cases of the same word being used in close proximity and highlights them. Obviously, there are lots of legitimate uses for repeated words (like both the ones in the illustration), and I know that you can never code better writing, but it helps you see the errors. My hope is that by highlighting these things  it’ll help me spot them.

It’s interesting – there are some things humans are good at, and some things computers are good at. Humans are very good at reading what should be there, and improving phrasing etc. Computers are very good at reading what is actually there and highlighting things that humans would just gloss over.

Hopefully, this is just the beginning of a larger proof reading tool. It’s something of a sister to the uber-wordcount tool, which needs a bit of a rewrite really. My plan is to handle all of this sort of thing – stats, wordcounts, etc, in one javascript based application. There’s no need to do anything server side with this at all.

I’ve written the app in javascript, and I have to admit, my javascript is rusty. I was quite exicited to find a javascript minifier. This is the original:

function countit(){

var formcontent=document.wordcount.words.value
formcontent = formcontent.replace(/\n/g, “

”)
formcontent = formcontent.split(” “)
var recentbits = “”

for ( var i = 0; i < formcontent.length; i++ )
{
if ( recentbits.toLowerCase().indexOf(” ” + formcontent[i].toLowerCase()) > 0)
{
formcontent[i] = “” + formcontent[i] + “
}

recentbits = “”

for (var count=0; count < 20; count++)
{
recentbits = recentbits + ” ” + formcontent[i-count]
}

}

var totalwords = formcontent.length

document.getElementById(‘totalwords’).innerHTML = “Output: (” + totalwords + ” words)

” + formcontent.join(” “)

}

And this is after minifying:

function countit(){var a=document.wordcount.words.value;a=a.replace(/\n/g,”

”);a=a.split(” “);var b=”“;for(var c=0;c0){a[c]=””+a[c]+””}b=”“;for(var d=0;d<20;d++){b=b+” “+a[c-d]}}var e=a.length;document.getElementById(“totalwords”).innerHTML=”Output: (“+e+” words)

”+a.join(” “)}

Obviously, you can’t read it, but it’s so much more compact.

Going through it, I don’t think it does anything cleverer than renaming all the variables to consecutive letters and getting rid of all the space. But it’s pretty nifty for loading into the live system.

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