Pardon My Introspection

It is hard to think when you are tired. To a large degree that is because when you are tired and you close your eyes to think for a moment, you wake up after another moment and realize that you’ve just gone to sleep. It’s not that difficult if you have a topic in mind. The words just seem to flow from your finger tips and there is no need for the misadventure of pausing to think.

Alas, I have beaten the commentary on writing horse to absolute and utter death. I find myself repeating myself about the virtues of Lisp and other similar computer languages. I’ve written the draft of a science fiction story, one that petered out toward the end for lack of an ending. I’ve written a number of posts focused on something that I saw on TV or read somewhere that day.

The problem is, I can’t count on the inspirational article or TV show to supply a topic every day and I find it exhausting to sit and try to think of a topic off the top of my head when I have been up for sixteen hours or more. I say this not so much to complain as to attempt to get at the heart of my problem. I often write an essay to attempt to clarify my thinking on a particular subject so that is what I’m doing now.

Perhaps the ultimate solution is multi-forked. I need to think of a number of topics to write about and keep them handy for days when I can’t think of a topic. I need to start thinking about a topic earlier in the day before I get so tired when it gets close to bedtime. I would love to actually write my blog earlier in the day but that hasn’t worked out so far. There just isn’t enough time in the morning to get in all the various tasks that I’ve set for myself.

Perhaps I am being overly ambitious. Perhaps I need to drop one or two tasks from my daily list. I’ve thought about doing that on numerous occasions but I can’t decide which task to drop. I am beginning to get quicker at getting them all done as my Circadian rhythm shifts. I foresee another struggle on the horizon though when we change to daylight savings time again.

I’m not sure this really helped me find any concrete solutions. It did allow me to get the things that I have already given some thought to down on the page so that I can study them to see if I’ve overlooked any alternatives. But for tonight, I’m going to call it a night and head for bed. Tomorrow is another day.


Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

So You Want to Write a Blog?

How to blog.

I’ve been blogging every day for six months now. I have learned a few things about what works. I’ve learned lots of things that don’t work. I decided that it might be worth while to capture some of these ideas, both for my own reference and for any of my readers that might be considering taking the plunge and starting a blog. I highly recommend it.

Know why you are blogging.

It is a lot easier to succeed at something if you understand what you are trying to accomplish. I wrote about why I blog in a previous post so I won’t go into any further detail here. I’ll just say that it does help to get you started in the first place and to decide when your finished.

Understand your audience.

This is an aspect of blogging that I’m still struggling with. It is critical though. You obviously can’t please everyone. The better that you know exactly who you are writing for, the easier it will be to please them.

I’ve often said that I write for someone who is interested in the same things that I’m interested in. I’m interested in too many things for that to narrow it down enough. Also, a lot of things that I am interested in are so personal that I doubt anyone else would be interested in them.

Definitely give it some thought and spend some time trying to write a succinct statement describing who you are writing for. Revise it periodically as you find your voice. The clearer you are about this the better your blog will target them.

Have an opinion.

If you are motivated enough to write a blog about something, you probably have an opinion on the topic. You should state your opinion firmly. There is no need to preface your statements with “I think”. It is your blog. By definition, this is what you think. That is what people are looking for, an informed, rational position on the topic. Either that or a controversial rant. No one likes to read wishy washy prose written by someone who can’t make up their mind one way or the other.

Do your homework.

Before you go out on a limb, check your facts. See what other people have written about the topic. You don’t have to agree with them. In fact, it will probably be more interesting if you don’t. If your post is just going to be a rehash of something someone else has already written, you either need to think of how to say it better than they did, not an easy job, or, think of a way to spin your topic so that you discuss an aspect of it not covered by other authors. Of course you always have the option of picking a new topic altogether.

Organize your thoughts.

This is a step that I’ve only recently mastered. Up until then I would start writing without thinking things through and I’d write until I had written everything I could think of pertinent to the topic. I would often contradict myself and sometimes totally leave out critical points of my argument.

Then I started writing a simple, single level, bullet-point style outline of what I wanted to say. This has had two effects. First, it has helped me focus the post on a single topic instead of wandering around it hit or miss.

Second, after I’ve written down my points, I find it much easier to actually write about them. I actually understand what each section is trying to say. It is also easier to decide when I’ve said enough in a section and can move on to the next one.

Write.

You know who you’re addressing and why. You know what you’re going to say and the order you’re going to say it in. Now comes the fun part. You sit down and fill in the blanks. You write your heart out. You tell it like you’re talking to a friend. The words will fly off your finger tips.

Be sure you cover each of the points that you’ve laid out in your outline. While your at it, you can check to see if you forgot something in your outline. Maybe it came to you while you were writing. It is perfectly okay to adjust as you write.

Read what you’ve written.

Now comes the hard part. I can’t emphasize how important this step is. Once you’ve written your blog post, be sure to read it carefully. Look for words that, while spelled correctly, may not be the word you intended, after all who writes with an editor that doesn’t have a spelling checker these days.

I often find that I leave words out entirely or, in the process of editing a sentence, I will mangle it up so that it no longer makes any sense at all. It is better to catch these errors before you hit the publish button than discover them the next day after everyone has had a chance to see how careless you are with your proofreading.

Every time I publish a post without proofreading it first I have found that I have published mistakes. That’s not to say that I don’t miss mistakes when I do proofread, only that there are always mistakes of one sort or another to be corrected when I don’t.

Give it a catchy title.

When you’ve put the time into writing a post, you want people to read it. Remember that first impressions are important. The title is how your reader forms their first impression of your post. It has got to be attention grabbing while at the same time capturing the essence of the piece.

A good rule of thumb for organizing your post is to put the most interesting things first and then add less interesting details as it progresses. This is not always possible, especially if you are describing a process, like this post for example.

Promote it.

You’ve written your post. You’ve given it a good title. Now you need to take a moment to promote it. There are two things that you need to do at this point. First, take advantage of the category and tag features of your blogging software. They make it easier for people to find your post with search engines.

Second, you need to post pointers to it on social media like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. Some blogging platforms have features that help you automate that process. I have found that most of my new readers find out about my blog on Facebook or Twitter.

So that is what I’ve learned about how to blog. I hope it helps you if you decide to write a blog of your own. There are plenty of free blogging sites out there that make it easy to set up a blog. You’ve got no excuse. Set up a blog and start posting today.


Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

In a Glass, Darkly

I’m learning to do a number of things. I am learning to plan the plot of a novel. I am learning that if you don’t stick to the plan you can find yourself at the end of the story before you have told the beginning and middle, or even the bulk of the end, in sufficient detail.

I am learning that setting, and keeping daily goals are the key to achieving long term goals. I have also figured out that a time based goal may serve my purpose better than a word count based goal. For example, I can decide to write for an hour each morning instead of writing a minimum of a thousand words a day. I will keep up the word count based goal until the end of the month in order to meet the fifty thousand words in thirty days challenge of NaNoWriMo however.

I have learned that in order to accomplish things you have to do something first. It sounds trivial but it’s true. I’ve also learned that just because you do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you will accomplish anything. It’s one of those “necessary but not sufficient” type of constraints.

In the final analysis, it turns out that writing a good, entertaining, exciting, grammatically correct, coherent, story is inherently difficult. You have to combine a lot of skills. You have to give it lots of thought. You have to show up and write every day. You have to finish a draft, and then another, and yet another, until eventually you get it right.

If you give up before you finish, you will fail. If your idea is not as good as you initially thought it was, you may fail. But if you don’t sit down and write every day until you’ve written it, you will certainly fail. As unfair as it seems, sometimes just showing up every day is the bulk of the effort.

It’s not down to talent, luck, or connections. It is persistence, pure and simple. Talent, luck, and connection can help, but again, they are not sufficient alone.

These realizations ought to depress me but they are having the opposite effect. I am actually more encouraged after writing this blog post than I was when I sat down. I have written a coherent essay, off the top of my head, without having composed it before hand. I have proof read it and discovered only minor usage edits. And now I post it.


Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the ones you love that you love them, and most important of all, be kind.

Prescription for a Program

Here is one way to solve a difficult problem. It is described in the context of developing a software solution but the process can be similar for a broad selection of problem domains.

First, ask questions. Ask lots of questions. Ask every question that you can think of. Questions are more important than answers, especially at this stage. Do not be tempted to try to answer these questions at this point. If you look for answers too early, you may stop asking questions before you’ve thought of the important ones.

Write them down as you ask them. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you will forget them if you don’t write them down. Also, if you write them down you can read them later and evaluate them from a fresh perspective. Not only can you read them later, you should look over what you’ve written. See if you have forgotten anything. See if there are any patterns to be discerned among them.

At this point, you can start looking for answers. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t capture any good questions that occur to you while you do. Consult with people that are familiar with the problem. In the case of a software project that would include the intended users of the program.

Write a concise description of the problem as you understand it. Review the questions and any answers that you’ve found to see if you have overlooked any details in your problem description.

Next, imagine potential solutions. Write them down as you think of them. Frame them in the form of stories from the perspective of the user of the program. Try to think of several different approaches. Read what you have written and see if any of these stories can be broken down into smaller stories. Keep breaking big stories into collections of smaller stories until you feel like you could write a program that implements one of the small stories.

At some point, pick one of the small stories. You might pick an easy one. That will let you see results quickly and build your confidence. You might pick a  hard story. You may have to struggle more to implement it but you will have a sense of accomplishment when you are done with it. After implementing each story you should write a test framework that demonstrates that it works.

This description has been written as a linear sequence but often in practice it unfolds iteratively. You start out asking questions. You think you are ready to look for answers to them but you think of more questions. The more you learn, the more questions that you have.

As you start imagining solutions your understanding of the problem may be clarified so you can revise the problem description. You may start to implement a story and decide that it should be broken into smaller stories. You may think of more questions at any stage. This is as it should be.

Don’t be afraid to start trying to implement a solution. There is such a thing as analysis paralysis. Software is cheap. The raw material for it is ideas. The principle cost is labor and that is relatively cheap in the broad scope of things. Do experiments along the way to help you understand the problem better. Experiments can also inspire story development.

Finally, understand that you will rarely find a problem that you will be able to completely solve. Usually the best you will be able to do is create a solution that is good enough. It remains for you to decide when you’ve achieved that stage.

This sounds simple but it is hard work. Just remember that you haven’t failed until you quit trying. Sometimes a good night sleep can inspire new perspectives on the problem. Sweet dreams, don’t forget to tell the people you love that you love them, and most important, be kind.

 

The Ayes Have It

Writing without the use of the personal pronoun is challenging. It requires a confidence that is hard to muster. The perspective is implied and yet the resulting prose is stronger when it is written in that fashion. Points are asserted and it is left to the reader to evaluate their veracity.

It requires the author to think about the arguments they will make and the facts they will to assert. When a statement is made in this way, there are no apologies to soften them. The reader knows who is making the assertions and will hold the author responsible for them.

This style results in simpler, clearer prose. There are no words wasted on personal appeals. The prose has been trimmed to the bone. It may not suit all purposes but it is the best way to present factual narratives.

Our educational system has become lax in teaching its students concise thinking and clear writing. It is left for other avenues of tuition to hone the skills of modern writers. One such mechanism is the blog. It provides a platform upon which the aspiring writer can practice their craft. It is then a matter of Darwinian selection to see which blogs attract a readership and which languish in obscurity.

Another platform that champions the spoken word is the podcast. It offers a similar low barrier to entry while potentially providing greater exposure for the author that captures the interest of their audience. There is a wide range of styles of podcasts ranging from very informal to carefully scripted. It is left to the consumers to determine which styles flourish and which do not.

The ubiquity of the smart phone has made it possible for many people to produce short videos. You Tube was one of the first to provide a platform for video distribution and remains a major source of engaging amateur video content to this day. This provides yet another way the aspiring writer can distribute their work.

It is clear that there are plenty of avenues for authors and artists to deliver their creations to an audience in the modern world. Although this discussion has focused on the online platforms for expression there are also other venues that aspiring authors can employ to publish their work. These include local paper publications, commercial broadcast media, and even open mike nights at local restaurants and other entertainment establishments.

On Writing, Programming, and Composing

I used to be daunted by a blank page. Now I am beckoned. It is an invitation to pour out whatever I am thinking about. I grew up in a time when you either laboriously wrote out your thoughts in long hand with pen and paper or you typed them with a typewriter. In either case erasing was complicated to the extent that it wasn’t really a good option. I think many writers just marked through their mistakes and kept writing.

I remember sitting in the spare bedroom of the trailer in Carbondale surrounded by a bunch of wadded up sheets of yellow paper containing discarded starts of the screen play I was attempting to write. I had no concept of how to write a draft. I was a perfectionist. If it wasn’t exactly what I meant to say, I ripped the page out of the typewriter, wadded it up, and loaded a clean page.

Even when I finally got a computer, I didn’t know how to write with it. I spent hours typing a few words and deleting them and then typing a few more. I had similar problems with programs. I have started many programs that never got much further than a skeleton and a few simple primitives. The important thing in both cases was that I didn’t quit trying.

For a while, I kept just starting over again doing the same thing each time. Then, I started varying my approach. I had some successes with programming at work. I eventually found The Artist’s Way and learned how to bootstrap my writing by sitting down every day at the same time and writing a minimum of 750 words. I eventually became confident enough in myself that I was able to write 50,000 words in a month.

I have learned that I must keep raising the bar, demanding more of myself. I recently increased my daily minimum to 1000 words. I decided that I would spend at least part of my words writing something that was more focused than a journal entry. Some days I find that I still spend the whole entry rambling. Others, I actually dive into a topical post as soon as I start writing. I feel the quality of my writing improve with practice. I notice my mindset while writing changing. It has become an exercise in organizing my thoughts instead of struggling with the mechanics of writing.

I have struggled off and on with integrating what I know to be good grammar with the conversational voice that often ignores such faux pas as dangling participles. I have also have had problems with sounding pedantic when I write. I am still struggling but I seem to be doing better with less struggle lately.

On the programming front, I have had similar experiences. I have learned that good tools are very important to being productive. They can help you be more productive so that you have more time to think about the code you are writing. This means that you don’t have to take the first thing that works as the final product. I am feeling the urge to rewrite more often. Too often in the commercial world the people that are paying for the software don’t appreciate the value of iterating a couple of times to improve the design of a piece of software.

I am to a point now that I am facing a common challenge in all of my endeavors. To finish. I suppose there is a corollary that has just occurred to me. Each time you iterate over a piece you should strive to finish that iteration. Each iteration should have as its primary goal to improve over the previous iteration. If you make the practice of finishing each iteration, it doesn’t matter if you have an iteration that is a regression. You can fall back to the last iteration and try again.

This is true of writing, programming, and my other artistic endeavor that I haven’t even discussed yet, composing music. In fact, it is even more applicable to composing music. So much so that there is a special name for it. It is called improvisation. There is improvisation in writing and programming but it is not as exposed to public scrutiny as musical improvisation is. It occurs to me that essay writing is literary improvisation though. And live coding is programming improvisation. So the paradigm does translate across all three fields.

A good essay would draw some conclusions at this point. I’m not claiming this is a good essay. It is certainly not a bad start though. So I’ll leave it at that.

A Process, at Last

When I started looking at tumblr, one of the first people that I followed was therealkatiewest. Katie West is a lovely young woman from Toronto that teaches English in college and takes incredible nude photos of herself and posts them on the internet. I had noticed that she hadn’t been posting much lately and wondered why. Today, she posted a short text post to tumblr and pointed to her blog. It is just what I needed to read.

She has been spending time on a Teacher and Trainer of Adults graduate certificate program and had been very busy. She was also licking her wounds from an unfortunate run in with a narrow minded and vindictive person in authority but I’ll let her tell her own story. I was inspired with her attitude toward the whole experience and the way she threw herself into becoming a better teacher and rekindling her muse.

Earlier this week I watched a YouTube video of Ron Carter, the famous jazz bassist, giving a master’s class. He said a lot of things that have affected me profoundly but the most important thing he said was to practice honestly. He further clarified that when you practice, you aren’t making art, you are refining the skills that you use to make art. When you sit down to practice you should have an objective and you should keep practicing until you have mastered the skill that was your objective.

I realized that the whole morning words exercise was practice. The missing thing was having a clear objective. At first, just writing seven hundred and fifty words a day was objective enough. Then I started refining the objective. I wanted to write the words without spending most of the time talking about how many words I had written or how many I had left to go. I sketched from life. I made lists of things that I had to do. I observed what was going on around me.

Then I decided that I wanted to earn badges. The most prominent badges revolved around how many days in a row you had written or how many words you had written since you had started. One of the badges was for not getting distracted. Another, that I am still actively pursuing, was for writing your words in under twenty minutes ten days in a row. Now that I have acquired many of the badges, I realize that I need to focus on goals that are too specific and in some cases too personal for there to be badges awarded for them. I need to set my own goals and award my own personal badges when I achieve them. I also need to start making art outside of my practice sessions.

I remember the point where I realized that I could actually play the violin. All the practice that I had done had finally paid off. I need to practice the things I love to do more so that I can hone my skills at them. But, I don’t need to practice at the expense of not creating anything.

Another spin on the whole practice thing is to practice until you get to some level of competence and then give yourself permission to fail when you attempt a piece. Keep attempting things until you succeed but don’t let the interim failures get you down. Sucking at something is a necessary step on the path to mastery.

I also thought a little bit about the process of creating. I thought about it in the context of writing but it is equally valid in other creative contexts. The origin of this line of thought was the assertion that writing (or more generally, doing) and thinking (about doing) are not necessarily the same thing. You don’t necessarily have to do them at the same time.

In fact, a little bit of thinking beforehand actually enhances the process of creation. It lets you decide what you want to say, where you are going with a piece. It’s not that doing and thinking are necessarily mutually exclusive, i.e. you can take notes (sketch) while you are thinking and you can think while you are creating. The important epiphany was that when you thought about what you were doing first it was easier to achieve the elusive state of “flow” while you’re actually creating.

I think I have discovered an artistic process that works for me. I sketch my writing with an outliner. Then, I sit down and write what I’ve sketched. The amount of effort that I put into the sketch depends on the size of the work that I am sketching. At some point though, you’ve got to quit sketching and just do it.