Tagged: writing

New technology boosts the old

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As cheerleaders for incumbent media often point out, the old is rarely replaced by the new. Newspapers weren’t killed by radio, radio wasn’t killed by TV, TV wasn’t killed by online video – etc., etc.

Sometimes new technology boosts the old.

Dipping in again to the excellent Writing on the Wall: Social Media, the First 2,000 Years, I read:

Printing pushed up demand for paper throughout Europe, encouraging production and making it cheaper (its price fell by 40 percent during the fifteenth century) and more widely available. Printed books promoted literacy and writing manuals could be produced in quantity.

We can see a similar effect today with writing and books. Earlier in Writing on the Wall, Tom Standage notes that book writing was a serious undertaking in Roman times. You had to be literate, rich enough to have a dedicated cohort of slaves for scribing and couriering purposes during the research, notable enough to throw a top-notch launch party and – by some advice of the time – spend about nine years perfecting your manuscript before releasing it into the network of copyists (all reproduction was by hand, of course).

Now writing – and publishing – books is within the grasp of anyone. A cynic would say that you don’t even need that high a degree of literacy.

In the US, 391,000 books were self-published, only about a third of these were e-book only titles. In fact, an article in the Guardian notes, this figure is conservative:

The exclusion of hundreds of thousands of titles published without an ISBN, including many titles on Amazon’s Kindle store, means that the increase of 422% since 2007 this represents is likely to be an underestimate of the size of the self-publishing sector.

Rather than reach for the pessimist’s fall-back of the monkey-typewriter paradigm, recognise this for what it is – a golden age of reading and – even more – writing. New forms of media are making old forms easier for everyone to access and work with, once again.

Maria Popova and life as “a reader who writes”

Writing tools

When I look at Maria Popova and her work on Brainpickings, I feel admiration, inspiration and a little jealousy. She takes something that is important to me – blogging, writing and the collecting of fascinating things – to a logical extreme, making a profession of it. She’s made a life and living out of sharing insights and ideas about writing, reading and thinking.

It was interesting to say the least to read an interview with her on Copyblogger. The post begins with her description of herself – “A reader who writes” –  which gives a nice perspective on how she thinks about her work.

You must read the whole thing, of course, but here are a couple choice quotes that I highlighted:

I’m not an expert and I aspire never to be one. As Frank Lloyd Wright rightly put it, “An expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.’” Brain Pickings began as my record of what I was learning, and it remains a record of what I continue to learn – the writing is just the vehicle for recording, for making sense.

 

That said, one thing I’ve honed over the years – in part by countless hours of reading and in part because I suspect it’s how my brain is wired – is drawing connections between things, often things not immediately or obviously related, spanning different disciplines and time periods. I wouldn’t call that “expertise” so much as obsession.

She also reads constantly. I sympathise with this – I’m a less extreme version of the way she reads, but I like to fill as much time as I can with reading and listening to interesting things…

Practically (pathetically?) every waking moment, with the exception of the time I spend writing and a couple of hours in the evening allotted for some semblance of a personal life. I do most of my long-form reading at the gym (pen and Post-Its and all), skim the news while eating (a questionable health habit, no doubt), and listen to philosophy, science, or design podcasts while commuting on my bike (hazardous and probably illegal). Facetiousness aside, however, I have no complaints – as the great Annie Dillard put it, “a life spent reading – that is a good life.”

Lastly, I like the discipline that accompanies her obsession. There’s just one way through a block, she says….

It’s different for everyone, of course, but I find that you break through that alleged “block” simply by writing. As Tchaikovsky elegantly put it, “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”

As I say, I completely adore her work, both the output and her approach. Part of me dreams of following the path she has, of giving myself over to the reading and the writing. But, I’ve chosen my path and for now other passions take the centre stage of my attention and the majority share of my time.

 

Artefact Cards and liminal states: creative thinking breakthrough tools

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There’s a long, long list in my subconscious that I hardly dare look at: Things I Should Have Blogged.

The items comprise three types:

  • Important ideas that have taken up residence in my head. For instance, liminal states.
  • Useful tools and ways of working. For instance Artefact Cards.
  • Opinions taking shape. For instance, just because a system like digital advertising is  corrupted doesn’t mean it won’t be with us for decades to come.

I may come back to the third and pot it out in the nursery of ideas here on this blog, with a media agency-proof fence around it to give it a fair chance of developing or not, but for now I’ve got a chance to right the first two examples in one post.

This week, I had a lovely conversation with John Willshire, who developed the Artefact Cards product, about how I have been working with them. You can listen to the whole thing here as John recorded it with a very snazzy microphone and iPad Mini set-up.

Artefact Cards are a really simple tool. Playing card size bits of card, white on one side and coloured on the other. You draw words and pictures on them with a Sharpie pen and them lay them out, re-arrange them and in this way organise thoughts and ideas.

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As we talked, we got onto the subject of the liminal state in the creative thinking process (which for my money includes developing strategy). My friend Jim Byford introduced me to this immensely useful concept.

In the context of creative and strategic thinking, the liminal state is what you find yourself in just before you have a breakthrough, or just before you fully understand something, make it yours. For instance, if you can recall trying to learn your lines for a play, the liminal state is where you are just before the words settle and take up residence in your memory – and then you can start using them, adding your inflections and emotions, making them your own.

I’ve very often found the thinking at this point in the creative process intensely uncomfortable. Whether writing a book or a plan or a pitch – it’s a kind of temporary agony, a dark tunnel I pass through where I think you know nothing and will never have another good idea again, and then it passes and there’s the the idea I need, the answer that fits.

Knowing that this is something called a “liminal state”, it makes it easier to handle. In psychology / neuroscience, this is an example of “affect labelling“. If you can name the feeling you have, you can put yourself slightly outside it, understand what is happening to you and that it will pass.

The other thing that understanding the liminal state does is help you to stop trying to “jump to the answer”, as Jim put it to me. Because liminality feels uncomfortable, you want out – to end the feeling and go with the first idea, the obvious one, the easy one. The danger here is that your creative/strategic solution will be mundane, run-of-the-mill and doomed.

You have to go through the confusion, live with it for a little while, sit still while the ideas and thoughts, disconnected and jagged, whiz around your head.

Then they settle. Then you see it: what it is all about.

It’s simple, it was there all along… as Duncan Watts points out, it feels obvious once you it is something that you understand. You pitch it to yourself: it works. You pitch it to a colleague: they don’t hate it, maybe even like it. With each airing the idea gains coherence, legitimacy – becomes more eloquently and credibly articulated as you and others breathe belief into the thing.

Speaking with John Willshire about how I had been using his Artefact Cards, I realised that I like them because they are a good tool for helping that settling process, of working steadily through the seemingly nonsensical maze of thoughts, ideas and concepts and helping some kind of order emerge. Much like throwing down ideas on a white-board, scribbling out mind-maps or any other visual thinking method – but they feel slightly more agile – you can move ideas around, try them in different shapes more rapidly.

In the example I talk about, it’s not even that I reached the solution – the outline of an ebook in this case, but I was able to move on to that only after I had made sense of all of the ideas. Seen their shape laid out in this way. That’s something John says is a recurring theme in people’s use of the cards – seeing the “shape of ideas”.

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Artefact Cards are another tool in the box for thinking, perfect sometimes for working through those liminal states. Worth a spin with the trial pack, I reckon.

Why I finish books

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Living with ebooks, as I have been since I bought my first iPad a few years back, has changed my reading. It’s also given me more ways of understanding how I read and how I want to read.

Let’s get the nostalgia out of the way first. I miss paper books. I still read paper books, occasionally, but usually for specific, diminishing reasons. The first reason is that I can’t get a Kindle version of a book, or I already own the paper version. Both of these reasons are diminishing: the former because more and more books, even ones that were out of print are becoming available electronically; the latter is less of an issue as time passes because, due to the convenience of ebooks for note-taking, portability etc., I will sometimes buy ebook versions of the paper ones I own – if I’m using them for reference on a project, for instance, or in a couple of cases of fiction, because I love them so much and I want to have them with me when I’m travelling or just not at home.

At least that’s the case for non-fiction – sometimes, I love to read on paper. I think of it as hi-fidelity reading though – it’s a luxury, a treat – about time and place as much of the medium.

I’ve always read several books at the same time. Different books for different reasons and different times of day – some for projects, some for things I’m studying, some instructional, some fiction. With ebooks this habit has continued but with the number of books expanding even further. I’ll read some in bursts and then put them aside for a few days, weeks or months, and then pick them up again.

The other habit that has continued from reading paper books to ebooks – and been similarly exaggerated in the transition – is not finishing them.

Business or popular science books that lose their hold on my attention halfway through, get left behind, put on the virtual shelf.

I used to feel bad about not finishing books, but this was some kind of a vestigial puritan instinct, something about not letting things go to waste, finishing what you’ve started. Really, it’s a healthy habit – not all books deserve to be finished, not all need to be finished. There are other things you could be doing.

Rather than asking myself “why don’t I finish books?”, as if I had some kind of reading disorder, or lacked moral fibre, it is much more interesting to ask: “why do I finish books?” and then to wonder what that tells me about good writing.

Not finishing books is mostly a non-fiction phenomenon. Fiction books pull me through to the end with plot, with their beginnings, middles and ends. Non-fiction books rarely pull that trick off and very often fail to cohere past the first third.

A good many non-fiction books would benefit from being either shorter or serialised – Kindle singles hold some promise in this area, thought I’m not sure how well that format is doing. Not every non-fiction work needs to be 60,000 words plus (the minimum length for most paperbacks). A great example of an author showing restraint is Paul Adams’s Grouped, which is exactly the right length for what he has to say about social networks – about 45,000 words/170 pages.

To hold our attention and to be useful, books should be useful in every chapter – I’m not sure that this is the case. I think they get padded – stretched to fit the format. Chunking things up in to 10,000 word segments would suit readers and save authors a lot of time too.

Whether new lengths and formats catch on for ebooks is something I’m watching closely. Especially as I definitely have another book in me right now – I just need to decide how it should come out, as it were.

Hi-fidelity reading

The paperback book I am reading right now is The Big Sleep and Other Novels, by Raymond Chandler.  It’s a lovely Penguin Classics imprint, thick and light and good to hold.

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I bought it a month ago in paper version because I want to read it slowly, closely (as Francine Prose recommends). I first read Chandler when I was thirteen and fell in love – deeply – with his style. Coming back to it now is thrilling, especially taking time to read it word by word, feeling the shape of the sentences and paragraphs, letting the bright, colourful imagery hang in my mind for a few moments.

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Chandler writes in high definition. It’s prose that you want to play out on the best possible system: a relaxed mind, a calm room, off an analogue page that has texture, where the text has been imprinted.

I’m a reader and sometimes a writer, much more than I am a muso or a musician. So a paper page, read in a softly lit bedroom or attic study, with a warm drink next to me and near silence in the house – that’s the equivalent of an audiophile putting a vinyl disc onto a high-end turntable, connected to some valve-driven amp and played out through some speakers that cost as much as your car.

Working fast and slow

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Maria Popova blogged about a book called Reading Like a Writer – by the aptly named Francine Prose - that looks at the importance of reading for writers.

This quote made me stop and think hard:

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. . . . it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

Continue reading

Scrivener was created out of authorly procrastination

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Scrivener is the tool I wish I’d used to write Me and My Web Shadow, and it is almost certainly the tool I’ll use to write my next book (it’s already lightened the load on creating some e-books for clients over the last year).

If you don’t know it, Scrivener is a kind of heavy-lifting manuscript editor, a Photoshop of the written word.

Anyway, this video interview with its creator, Keith Blount, made me smile when he admits that Scrivener was created as a result of his not being able to find a writing tool that did what he wanted when trying to write a novel. Continue reading

For authors: Managing your reputation online: links & resources

I’m writing an article for the Writers & Artists Yearbook about how to manage online reputation. I’ve compiled some of the links I think are useful in a Storify story (below).

Let me know if there’s anything you think I should add. Will credit suggestions in the updated Storify story and be linking to it from the article…

Glinner vs. Doctorow: Notes from The Story – Pt 1

* * Update: Audio for this talk is now available free at Storythings * *

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Image: by Paolabililty ©2011 (as Cory Tweeted: “t

his pic PERFECTLY captures what it’s like to interview

@glinner

on stage”)

The Story 2011 was exactly like the inaugural event a year ago. It was like the day just continued from where it left off – and for anyone who had been before, that was exactly what they wanted.

The Story is the brainchild of art, TV and tech Renaissance man, Matt Locke. He curates it unashamedly as “the conference I want to attend”, and it brings together a collection of storytellers from every medium and persuasion, from scientists to sculptors, live action role players to documentary makers.

For 2011, let’s start near the end… with the conversation between Graham Linehan, who wrote two of my favourite TV shows Father Ted and The IT Crowd, and Cory Doctorow, spec-fic author and co-editor of one the most popular blogs in the world.

In geeky circles, this was such an exciting pairing, I’m surprised there wasn’t some kind of Twitter singularity…

Star power aside, there were some brilliant insights into the writing methods of two very different writers.

Graham Linehan’s Method for Writing Sit-Coms

Graham starts from the producer of Father Ted’s maxim, that every sit-com episode needs two or three memorable set-pieces, e.g. Dougal on a Milk Float in a spoof of Speed…

  • He spends six months of constructive procrastination – he calls it “systematised goofing off” gathering ideas while mainly surfing the web.
  • Everytime he gets an inspiration it goes on a card. Cards are colour coded by characters.
  • An example would be a YouTube video he saw of a child crawling into an amusement arcade machine where a claw grabs the prizes – that became a set-piece in The IT Crowd where Moss dives into one after an iPhone…
  • When he has about 100 cards, it is time to begin…
  • The cards are laid out on the floor and he begins to string set pieces into episodes, about ten per episode (presumably they get thinned out).
  • Once he has the stack of set pieces per episode he has ” a good place to start”

 

Graham Linehan on collaborative writing online

Graham was clear that crowdsourcing and writing didn’t mix well, or at least they didn’t sit easily with him. He mentioned issues around taking advantage of people, reward, keeping conversation on topic and the risk that people feeling that their ideas had been “stolen”.

Incidentally, his prize bit of advice for writers starting out was not to be so worried about people taking their ideas – it is them themselves that will be what is valued by producers etc. That’s great advice for all sorts of creators – ideas are cheap, it is who carries them through and how they do it that makes all the difference.

There’s no tool that makes this easy, says Graham, having spent a fair bit of his “systematised goofing off” trying anything suitable out. So he uses Basecamp. He’s also thinking about experimenting with Beluga, which allows Twitter-like conversations in smaller groups.

He and about eight writers collaborated on the last season of The IT Crowd, using all sorts of things to spark off ideas, such as posting photos from awkwardfamilypetphotos.com and asking: How would Roy and Moss find themselves in this situation?

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Cory Doctorow on blogging and writing

Whether he meant it this way or not, Cory’s approach to blogging was lovely, and I know I will be referring others to it as a useful approach to the format/platform in future:

  • Blog about why something is interesting in five sentences.
  • By doing that you are creating a searchable database.
  • If it is interesting, people will annotate it with comments.
  • After a while, there are enough posts and emerging themes that the case for a long-form piece of writing becomes clear.

 

: : Graham talked about the episode of The IT Crowd with the courtroom drama. In that there is a joke about malapropisms – one character talks about “a damp squid” while another talks about putting women on a pedal-stool. Maybe he was being slyly self-referential referential then when he was talking about “hyper-bowl“? Regardless, it tickled me. “We all have our blind spots, Jen…” (BTW – this how to pronounce “hyperbole” video is hilarious in itself (and yes, I appreciate I am writing an invitation to pedants to pick over my pronunciation, grammar etc, but that’s life on the web…).

 

: : Aside: Mostly these days I will take notes into an Outliner app on phone or Mac, or straight into Curio, but something about The Story made me want to take analogue, ink-based notes, so I grabbed notebook on my way out. When I opened it I realised it was the same one I used to take notes at The Story 2010. If I get the time (unlikely) I may even go back and put soem of those onto my blog as well.

 

Writing, running, pain and finding the perfect space

Writing is hell. That’s why writers spend so much time trying to find ways to make it slightly less helliish.

For instance, I gained a new impossible dream today – to have a writing studio like this one…

Private Library from A Space In Time on Vimeo. Via Open Culture

Funnily enough this incredibly expensive writing environment reminded me of a £4.99 one that I started using recently (thanks to a tip-off from my Dad) the Writer app for the iPad. It really is very lovely, basically because it removes all distractions from the screen and lets you get into your scribely flow… well worth a try.

I’m also reacquainting myself with Ecto, the Mac blog editor. Lovely. It is as close as I can get to Live Writer. (Please Microsoft, do a Mac version, I would even buy Office to get it. Seriously.)

The value of these editors is tat they remove fiddly bits from trying to write a blog post. They make it quicker, so you’re not mucking around with uploading images or trying to figure out with your knuckle-scraping understanding of HTML why the text is appearing without paragraph breaks, bullet points or with question marks in odd places (all issues for me using the otherwise lovely Canvas theme on my WordPress blog these past few weeks).

What you need for writing are tools and spaces (physical or just emotional, states of of mind) that let your mind go free and the words to come quickly.

Writing is torture. As one of my favourite crime writers Lawrence Block says in his book about writing Telling Lies for Fun and Profit (and I’ve heard this so many times, in different ways, from other writers) writing is, very often, incredibly hard, almost painful. No one writes on a Sunday just for pleasure, he says, unlike painters or musicians where even the amateurish practice of the craft can be an end all of its own. Writers must persevere, must prevail, if they are to create anything at all.

I think that writing my book last year actually took a long time to recover from. I don’t think my blogging has ever been the same since. It brought upon me some species of trauma.

That’s one of the reasons that What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami is one of the most useful books to read if you writing things of any length (beyond, say 10,000 words). Writing is like long distance running, he says: lonely, you compete mainly against yourself, against your deep desire to give up and do something less uncomfortable.

There are many moments of course when you hit that elation, that flow, that Hunter S Thompson is quoted about in The Proud Highway: “I haven’t found a drug yet that can get you anywhere near as high as sitting at a desk writing.

Acutally, when I was searching for that exact quote I found that Hunter S Thompson also said: “Writing is the flip side of sex – it’s only good when it’s over.

But still, it’s like running. Sometimes when you are training, on a long run, you get the runner’s high after 15 minutes of slogging through the rain. It’s hard to justify the rest of the misery sometimes, just for those moments though, you have to have a clear iea of a bigger goal, and more than that just a lot of bloody minded drive to make yourself get out the door in the morning to run. Get up to your desk and start creating prose instead of wandering through the web or your social networks.

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