Writing Until I Drop

A few months ago, Andrew Sullivan began writing a weekly column for New York. As someone who read The Dish, Sullivan’s daily blog, for years and years and years, I welcomed his weekly column. I haven’t always enjoyed it, but I still read it.

In Sullivan’s column last week, he closed with a story on St. Thomas Aquinas who, after working for years on his Summa Theologica, suddenly stopped, and never wrote another word.

Sullivan began:

What would happen to you if you wrote 4,000 words a day for years and years? Not so long ago, something like this question came up for me in my crazed years of blogging. It’s also surely relevant to the journalists who now have to produce daily, hourly copy, then also tweet and Instagram and go on TV and on and on … until they, well what, exactly? The correct answer is: Drop dead.

This is a thought that’s preoccupied me, too.

I’ve written a lot the last eleven years, and sometimes I wonder how much further I can go. Will I slow down until I cease? Will I simply and suddenly stop, as Aquinas did, and write no more? Or will I “drop dead,” as Sullivan says is the correct answer?

I don’t know.

My fear is that one day it will be like the wheels coming off. Everything breaks apart, and I can write no more. That one truly frightens me.

I don’t know.

Write the Story

Last night after work I stopped at 5 Below for trivial reasons — I needed a new mouse, I knew they had computer mice for four dollars, and they happened to be more convenient than other retail options.

While I was there, I took a look at their book tables. I’ve turned up some interesting things there, mainly cookbooks. Come to think of it, that’s all I’ve bought off their book tables. Cookbooks.

They had Write the Story, a directed writing notebook from Piccadilly, a book I’ve seen at Barnes & Noble.

The book has a writing prompt for a short story and ten words that you’re have to use in that story. It’s a book of writing prompts, essentially, but more focused and, in a way, more challenging. Instead of writing about a thing, you have to write about this thing using these things.

Piccadilly’s website says that “in the end, you’ll have a collection of stories all in one place.” Well, not really, unless these are more sketches than stories; each page might fit two hundred words.

I picked Write the Story up, too. I’m thinking of using it more as a writing exercise than as a writing challenge. Get up, pour my morning coffee, open to a random page, and spend a few minutes jotting some words down. Maybe I’ll come up with an outline that deserves more attention. Maybe that will happen one out of every ten times out. Maybe one in twenty. I don’t know. I’m not expecting to create an anthology of awesome here.

Really, if all it does is to get the brain moving a little faster in the mornings, I’ll consider that a win.

We shall see. :)

The Plan

This weekend I sat down and did something I never do — I wrote out New Year’s Resolutions.

I’ve never been the resolution-y type. I’d occasionally make a list, and it would be a vague list — write more, exercise more.

This time, I sat down and asked myself, “What am I trying to accomplish? What do I want to do? What will make my life measurably better?”

I came up with some ideas. I wrote them down. I came up with some more ideas. I wrote those down, too. I typed them up. I reordered them. I rewrote a few. Then I formatted the list for printing, picking some suitably appropriate fonts.

Here’s the list:

1.   Write 1,000 words per day.  Note: Things that do not count: work writing, blog posts, forum posts, e-mails.
2.   Make at least 3 blog posts per week.  Note: Link Round-Ups do not count, nor do Tweet compilations.
3.   Leave the cubicle every day for lunch.  Do not eat lunch at the desk.  Do not work through lunch.  Take a book to read.  Write in a notebook.
4.   Leave work at work.  If deadlines are missed, deadlines are missed.
5.   Eat breakfast daily.
6.   Pack a lunch each workday.
7.   Walk three days a week, no matter the weather, no matter the time, unless there is snow on the ground.
8.   Set the alarm clock for 6 o'clock every morning.  Saturday and Sunday are exceptions.
9.   Make the bed every morning.
10.  Shave thrice weekly.
11.  Submit one job application or resume each week.
12.  Develop a podcast to launch in the spring.
13.  Code new front page for website by April.
14.  Resume and complete The Misadventures Project.
15.  Work through the One Minute Gaelic podcast, and continue with Teach Yourself Gaelic.
16.  Reread The Lord of the Rings and the Lankhmar series, for possible blog series.
17.  Listen to The Lost Lennon Tapes episodes, also for possible blog series.

I’m going to print out three copies. One I will hang in the office at home. One I will hang in my kitchen. And one I will hang in my cubicle at work. The idea is that they’ll always be somewhere where I can see them, read them, think about them, and internalize them.

Some of these may seem like lifehacks. I don’t eat breakfast every day. I don’t usually make my bed; as someone who lives alone, I don’t usually see the point. I don’t shave because I don’t deal with the public anymore; why be presentable? I want to implement and reinforce better behavior on my part.

Toward the end, I name some specific things that I want to complete or embark upon. Some are projects that I began and then lost interest in. Some are things that I’ve wanted to do but have never started. I wrote them down to keep myself accountable.

Yes, I really do want to learn Scots Gaelic. I got far enough into the One Minute Gaelic podcast that I can understand a little of the Gaelic used in Starz’s Outlander.

Tomorrow after work, I’ll stop at Target or Office Max and pick up a daily planner where I can track my progress on these. And, if more ideas occur to me as the year wears on, I can write them down.

That’s the plan.

If you have any questions on any of these, please ask.

The Semi-Colon Is Never Not Stylish

About a year ago I had to edit some copy a colleague had written for the catalog. It was a thoughtful, well-written piece, and it also happened to run over five hundred words, which was about two and a half times the number of words that would fit into the space we had on the page. The first paragraph itself was a single sentence of roughly a hundred words, enlivened with commas and em-dashes — and none of the punctuation was ill-placed or abused. Nonetheless, the piece had to be edited. For every five words she had written, I could keep maybe two.

We discussed the piece and worked through the edit together. Ultimately, we couldn’t come to an agreement on how to edit the piece; there was simply too much material that had to be discarded. Not just fat, but muscle, ligaments, blood, and even bone. There were ways of getting the piece under 180 words, but it was always at the cost of losing something vital, maybe an important fact, maybe some emotion or depth. We found another place to run a more lightly edited piece.

What I remember most about this experience is not the editing itself but instead the discussion my colleague and I had about punctuation.

Punctuation is part of the rhythm of writing. It shows the reader how the writer’s mind works and how thoughts developed. An ellipsis shows a thought that trails off. A comma is a pause. A semi-colon may be a longer pause, or it may be an indicator of a tangentially related thought. A parenthetical indicates something the reader should know, but it’s something that doesn’t neatly fit into the central flow of the thought.

I have punctuative quirks —

· I’ve never seen a comma I didn’t like.
· F. Scott Fitzgerald taught me everything I need to know about the use — and abuse — of the em-dash.
· The semi-colon is never not stylish.

My work — writting catalog copy — has had an effect on the way I write. I went through a period where everything received an exclamation point because that was the house style. I thought my abuse of the em-dash was Fitzgeraldian, but I was restrained in my em-dash usage compared to the house style. (Over the last few years, I’ve started to pull back from the em-dash edge; in most cases, the em-dash was used where a comma more properly should go.) Where I thought a semi-colon or an ellipsis should go, the house style was to use the em-dash, even though the em-dash isn’t any sort of replacement for either. I found that the house style infested my personal writing, and it is a struggle sometimes to wrest back my control.

(There’s another way the house style has infested my personal writing. I use lots of transition words now.  When I write a sentence, I often feel that I need to start the next sentence with a “So” or “Because” or “Then” or “Suddenly.”  It’s something I have to watch for, especially in the drafting stage, because transitional words are so difficult to root out once they’re on the page because years of catalog copy that uses them has made me blind to them.)

My fondness for the semi-colon stems from two things — college and computer code.

In college, I took some history courses from Dr. John Rilling at the University of Richmond, and his style was to lecture for an hour, non-step. There was no textbook, just a list of topics he has a classmate write on the chalkboard at the start of class. The only way to keep up was to take notes from beginning to end of the class, and the system I developed was to start writing at the start of class, scribble each thought as it happened, drop a semi-colon, and keep going across the line with the next thought. I would leave class each day with two pages, front and back, of notes from the class which I would then transcribe in my dorm room into something that made sense, that wasn’t as written through with semi-colons. Come exam time, I had essentially written my own textbook for the class based on Dr. Rilling’ lectures.

Computer code, particularly CSS and PHP, uses semi-colons to denote an instructional end-of-line, probably because people don’t ordinarily use the semi-colon. With the work I’ve done in WordPress over the years, it’s no wonder the semi-colon instills me with no terror whatsoever.

I like using strange punctuation, too, like the interrobang, the bastard child of the question mark and the exclamation point. I would use it at work, but our systems are incapable of recongizing it. (Yet, our database interface is perfectly fine with unprintable characters that turn text invisible and inaccessible in our system. I have not figured this one out.) Yet, I dream of the day when I can express myself with interrobangs. Don’t we all‽

I also enjoy parenthetical asides, as you may have noticed by now.

If writing is a roadtrip, words are the destinations of writing and punctuation is the roads and the scenery, the thing that gives the trip its character. Punctuation is the scenic overlook or the rustic gas station with a battered Tab sign from the 1970s hanging from a old pole by the roadside.

Punctuation will take you places. Treat it well, and punctuation will make the journey exciting. Study the writers you love and see how they punctuate their work. Think about how their punctuation makes their words flow. Try adding a comma or linking two sentences with a semi-colon. See how different punctuation can make your prose feel. Find the punctuation that feels right for you.

Remember, the semi-colon is never not stylish. :)

On a coincidental note, WIRED posted an article today on obscure punctuation and its origins. If you wonder where the hashtag (or, as I prefer to think of it, the pound sign), slash, interrobang, or paragraph mark came from, check out their article.

Topic taken from The Daily Post‘s “By the Dots” prompt.

Handwriting, Printing, and Technology

I can’t write in cursive. I don’t know how anymore. I can sign my name. For everything else, I print. In school, when teachers stopped caring about cursive, I stopped caring about cursive and went back to print.

I’m not alone in this. Every so often I read an article online bemoaning the fact that fewer and fewer Americans can write in cursive. Usually in these articles, the writer places the blame on technology — keyboards, mobile phones, tablets.

This article in The Atlantic makes an entirely different argument. Yes, technology is to blame for cursive’s declining appeal — because pen technology has improved.

Cursive script is perfect for a fountain pen because the thin ink fountain pens use won’t really work any other way. But a ballpoint pen doesn’t have the inkflow problem that a fountain pen does that’s thicker and won’t smudge (as easily). With a fountain pen, you can’t really take your pen off the paper without making a smudgy inky mess; with a ballpoint pen, you can lift the pen all you want, cutting off the flow of ink to the paper the moment you do.

I hadn’t thought of pen technology in this way before, but this makes sense to me. A ballpoint lets you write in bursts instead of a continuous flow as with a fountain pen; your hand can take a “time out” between letters and words in a way that it can’t with a fountain pen.

The article also brings up pen grips — “the type of pen grip taught in contemporary grade school is the same grip that’s been used for generations, long before everyone wrote with ballpoints. However, writing with ballpoints and other modern pens requires that they be placed at a greater, more upright angle to the paper — a position that’s generally uncomfortable with a traditional pen hold.”

This prompted me to look at how I hold a pen. The pen rests on the intermediate bone of the middle finger (which acts as a fulcrum) at roughly a 20-degree angle from the perpendicular, with the index finger wrapped lightly around the barrel and the tip of the thumb holding the tip of the pen in place.

I don’t find anything uncomfortable in that. I like writing that way. It works for me at home. It works for me at the office. It works for me when I take notes at a baseball game with a notebook propped up on my knee. It worked for me when I wrote on the train or the schoolbus.

Printing all the way!

On (Not) Going Hollywood

Around the age of nineteen or twenty, I had the idea that I might want to work in film. I had no talent as an actor, I had no desire to attend film school or take classes, and my attempts at writing scripts were laughable at best.

At the time, the Star Trek television series had an open submissions policy, and I thought I could do that. I bought a screenplay, a copy of Syd Fields’ Screenplay, saw how a screenplay should look, and hammered away at some truly terrible scripts. One had a runabout from Deep Space Nine find a planet of space vampires in the Gamma Quadrant. Then there was the wormhole accident that brought the Enterprise-H and an evil future Dax to the station in the 24th-century. Then Star Trek: Voyager started, and I gave that a try, too; the Borg, a shattered Dyson Sphere, and a guest star I intended as Richard Kiley was the result there.

The thing I learned from this experience was that writing scripts wasn’t for everyone. It certainly wasn’t for me, and when a friend and I decided a few years later we were going to create a sitcom one night when sitting around drinking, I realized in the sober light of morning that, no matter how good the idea was, we had no agent, we knew no one in Hollywood, it was unlikely that either of us would move to California, and so there was nothing to do with this sitcom idea. You want to work in television or movies? You have to be where the action is. You have to be there to take meetings and press the flesh. At twenty, going Hollywood sounds romantic. At twenty-five, reality sets in. That said, we did write a series bible, and I tackled the pilot script, just in case. But that was also four (or was it five?) moves ago, and I certainly no longer have the materials.

Maybe there’s another life where we made a different decision and headed cross country to pound on doors and try to sell Spew! (Contrary to the title, it wasn’t a gross-out humor sitcom. In the context of the series, the title makes sense.) What if we had?

Perhaps we’d be producing. Low-budget and indie fare. A period baseball movie here. A sensitive drama there.

Directing? Nah. I’d be clueless behind the camera. I have enough trouble with a regular camera.

And acting? No way.

Honestly, I can’t make myself believe that we’d have done that — chuck everything and head cross country in search of Hollywood dreams. Not my speed. :)

Topic taken from The Daily Post‘s “The Show Must Go On” prompt.

Plotting with a Forecast of Zombies

I have to be honest — I don’t get the whole zombie zeitgeist.  I’d have thought — no, wait, did think — five years ago that we had reached the peak, that zombies were a fad and their day was done.

Millions of viewers of The Walking Dead would beg to differ.

Despite my firm belief that zombies were past their sell-by date, there’s a zombie concept I’ve held in my mind for the last few years.  I’d occasionally tell someone about it a convention, an elevator pitch of the hook, and they’d be excited, they’d want to read the story.

Slight problem.  I didn’t have a story to go with the concept.  It was a fun concept, but I could never figure out what to do with the concept.  Occasionally I’d pull out my notepad and try writing something about it on the train, but nothing ever clicked.  Even the old adage that stories are about characters, not concepts, didn’t help.

Something clicked recently, because I’ve worked out how to tell the story.

I plotted it out last night, pen and paper in hand.  Two pages, front and back.  I had trouble with it at first, and I wondered if I could see it through to completion more than once.  However, when I finally put down the pen, I could affirmatively say that I had an outline for a short story.

It is not perfect.  I am going to let it sit for a day of two, though I have already begun to compile a list of things I want to change or background that did not fit the outline.

I am going to write it.  By the weekend I’ll have broken ground.

Not being that familiar with the genre, this story may be atypical.  At the same time, it is very much the kind of story I would write.  There just happens to be a zombie apocalypse going on. :)

I don’t even have a title for it yet.

That’s the story.  Stay tuned!

On Momentousness

Oh, look at that.  A new year’s begun, I’ve barely noted it, and the first month is already half gone.

Hopefully the rest of the year won’t pass by in such a whirl. :)

This year will be momentous.  I can feel it, and I’m already making plans.

I intend to write more.  I’ve already sent one piece of writing on its way; it wasn’t until July that I could have said the same for 2012.  NaNo crashed, but the outline is solid.  I have other projects outlined as well.

I intend to live healthier.  This is a personal odometer year, and I plan to buy a bike and shed some pounds.

I intend to learn Gaelic.  I have learning materials, I have a dictionary and CDs and podcasts.  I intend to learn it — and learn it well enough to write something meaningful in the language.

I intend to relaunch my website.  Yes, my posting habits, which had been daily, have dwindled to weekly at best.  Partly, that is for technical reasons; my server, like an attic, is filled to the rafters.  The new site is ready to go, however.  And it’s going to be more than just a blog.  The blog will still be there — and I intend to return to daily posting — but I also see this as a repository of all things me.

I intend to do adventurous things.  It won’t take a wandering wizard and a conversation filled with “Good morning”s, either.

I intend to laugh and enjoy life.  The Pilgrims weren’t half as dour as I can be sometimes.

I intend to have fun.

These all sound like reasonable things.  A plan of action, even.

This year will be momentous.

On Working on My NaNoWriMo Outline

Hello? Is this mic still on…?

Ah, there it is. The squeal of feedback.

I’ve been busy. And writing. But mostly busy. This happens to all of us from time to time, but it’s been especially bad of late.

One thing I’ve been working on? I’m finally tackling a revision to the Merlin outline. Yes, the on-spec outline for a tie-in novel I wrote after seeing Merlin‘s “The Dragon’s Call” and “Valiant.” The outline that, from time to time, I write that I’m going to de-Merlin-ify into something else.

Well, it’s happening.

I printed off a fresh copy of that old outline towards the end of week before last, and I read it for the first time in about a year. Not to toot my own horn, but it’s good, and it would have made a cracking novel. An editor on the Merlin novelizations in the UK thought so, too, but he took a pass on the book because they weren’t then (and aren’t now) publishing Merlin novels. For a long time I thought I could just file off the Merlin-specific serial numbers by renaming characters — and a year ago I actually started doing that. The more I thought about it, however, the less practical that seemed. There were some very specific Merlin things in that outline that don’t have easy analogues in established legend.

So I’m rebuilding it from the ground up. And I intend to have it ready for NaNoWriMo.

I went back to some of the original sources — Geoffrey and Malory, mainly — to refresh my memory. As I did that, I saw some paths towards accomplishing the same general goals of the Merlin outline in a more traditional Arthurian setting.

The other thing I found was a way to keep Arthur as the central character of the story. For a number of reasons, that was important, but I thought that I would need to change Merlin‘s Prince Arthur into one of the legendary Arthur’s younger knights to make the story work. Arthur’s court of Malory, you see, is not unlike the original Justice Society of America; the knights gather together, they go off and have their own separate adventures, and they return to tell Arthur what they did. However, there are some points in Malory where Arthur gets out of Camelot and goes off on adventures of his own, and I’m going to take advantage of one such moment as a hook for this adventure, one that somehow never went chronicled… :)

The plotting is going surprisingly well. As of this evening, I’ve written five pages of plot, and I have several additional pages of handwritten notes, some that are questions I need to resolve, some that are random ideas, and some that simply don’t go anywhere yet. A breakthrough on this morning’s commute helped me to keep an element of the Merlin story that I liked, didn’t want to lose, and will ultimately lead to some intriguing and unexpected plot conflicts.

The new outline won’t resemble the old outline to any great degree. There will be characters with the same names, obviously, but there will be characters in the Merlin version that won’t carry over, like Morgana and Merlin. (The Morgana role from the original outline is lost completely, while Merlin’s role in the story, though not his magic, will move to another member of Arthur’s court.) The plot catalysts are entirely different — the Merlin outline kicked off with a marriage match storyline for Morgana (which obviously ends up not happening, but I thought it was an interesting idea to play with), while this version starts before the reign of Uther Pendragon (and a decision he makes then will affect his son decades later). I also think this new version will end in an entirely different place, though I’m not there yet in terms of the plot, so I’m not really sure. One thing I am certain of, there will be dragons. :)

I am, however, planning on keeping the title from the Merlin outline. Even though the paths I’m using to get there differ, the title still fits the story intend to tell. However, I’m not going to share it yet because SPOILERS. (On my NaNoWriMo page I’m referring to it as “Spoiler-Titled Arthurian Thing.”)

That’s the plan. Lay the groundwork for a successful NaNoWriMo this week, and when the first rolls around get a good jump on the text. Fifty thousand words won’t finish the book, but it will be a decent chunk of the first draft. :h2g2:

On a Life Round-Up

Where does the time go?

Don’t answer that. It’s a rhetorical question.

Life has been busy. There have been writing deadlines, both work-related and personal-related. There has been some personal stuff occupying my time — and driving me half-mental. And there has been working on WordPress code for the new website.

Let’s take these in order, since I’ve not done a “life update” in a while.


Work has been endless deadlines since summer. Nothing unexpected there, it’s the life I signed up for. I’m wrapping up work on the November catalog in the next few days, and then it’s a pause of a day or two before diving into the December catalog.

Yes, I know. It’s not even Halloween, and I’ve already written about Valentine’s Day stuff.

One thing I’ve noticed recently is that I don’t “recover” from the monthly catalogs the way I used to. I think my brain’s getting a little tired. This happens every eight months or so — I get worn down and I stay in this worn down state for two months or so until I spring back recharged. That’s where I am at the moment, I’ve bottomed out.

That said, I’ve been feeling strangely creative.

At Shore Leave I mentioned to a few people that “The Ginger Kid” was the first piece of fiction I wrote in eighteen months. Since I wrote “The Ginger Kid” I’ve felt the creative juices.

In recent months, I’ve brainstormed ideas, written some plots, and last week I wrote a new short story. In the weeks to come…

  • I have an outline I did some work on in March and April that I want to finish. It was a neat idea, it was something I could toy around with on the train, but I didn’t finish it and I lost interest. However, I would like to finish it because it might prove useful.
  • The Merlin outline. This week I printed it out so I can tear it apart and put it back together as something not-Merlin. And that’s my NaNoWriMo plan.
  • Work on the podcast scripts.
  • Brainstorm ideas for a fantasy concept that’s nagging at me.
  • Oh, and there are two non-fiction articles to write in the next six weeks.

That sounds like a lot. I don’t think it is. I think it’s eminently doable. :)

Personal Stuff

Well, personal stuff is personal.

Suffice it to say, I’m feeling situationally depressed by certain things happening. At times I feel alone and bereft of friendship, but that’s not the reason for feeling situationally depressed. Rather, it’s a series of known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

It will pass.


Yes, I’ve been talking about this site redesign forever.

The end, however, is truly in sight.

I’ve written out three pages of notes that explain what still needs to be done. That sounds like a lot, but notes are largely instructions to myself about how to accomplish what I want to do in seven areas. This is something that I think I can finish with a solid weekend’s coding. There’s a custom taxonomy to implement (and I’m not sure that what I want to do is possible), some page templates to test, and one persnickety bug to squash.

That’s the round-up on things.

Before we go, let’s listen to Mr. Rogers talk about how important PBS funding is: