National Novel Writing Month 2018: Possible doom

I can’t say why, exactly, but I’ve been unable to outline any of my finalist story ideas. I’ve thought about them and had some ideas, but nothing that could be applied to an outline in any useful way. When I try to think of how to outline one of the ideas, I experience this strange sort of blanking where my brain simply comes up with nothing and I eventually end up looking at kittens on the internet. It can be maddening because it feels like the harder I try to push against the blanking, the more resolute it becomes.

I’m not sure how to get past this, but I am soliciting the help of others instead of just flailing on my own. If nothing else, I’ll at least have company while I flail.

Also, I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, but it feels like NaNoWriMo itself is at a low ebb this year, with lower participation and enthusiasm. This has no actual bearing on my specific issue, but it makes me feel slightly better to think a general malaise is plaguing the entire thing. Actually, it doesn’t make me feel better, it makes me feel a little depressed.

But there are still 10 days to go before November 1st, so I remain cautiously hopeful that I can still pull this off. If not, there are still plenty of kittens out there.

Book review: Time Was

Time WasTime Was by Ian McDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This time travel novella zips along, taking the sorts of twists one often expects in stories of time travel, and McDonald’s facility with language elevates it. At the same time the brevity of the piece undermines the story to a degree, leaving some characters more as sketches than feeling like real, living people.

And like most time travel stories, if you pull at a thread you’re likely to unravel the entire thing.

The story takes place in the present, with Emmett Leigh, a book collector, coming across a mysterious collection of poems called Time Was. The volumes (there are multiple copies, though they come without any information regarding publication or any other kind of record) contain letters written by one lover to another during World War I. And World War II. And the conflict in Bosnia and so on. Emmett comes to believe they are jumping through time and becomes obsessed with learning all he can about them.

The two lovers, Ben and Tom, are featured both through the letters, and in separate scenes, with the story jumping between different eras and the present. McDonald does fairly well with the protagonist and the present-day characters but Ben and Tom never feel particularly real, perhaps in part due to the way they are presented in the story. This also happens to contradict the marketing push for the novella, which sells it as a love story. It’s more a mystery and the focus is very much on Emmett Leigh, not Ben and Tom.

Still, McDonald has tremendous fun with his prose and it buoys the story beyond the wobbly time travel shenanigans and thin characterizations. It’s a solid, if flawed, read, but one I’d still recommend to those who are suckers for time travel adventures (as I am).

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Run 600: 600th run, 600 people

Run 600
Average pace: 5:54/km
Location: Burnaby Lake (CW)
Start: 12:37 pm
Distance: 5:03 km
Time: 29:43
Weather: Sunny
Temp: 11-12ºC
Humidity: 70%
Wind: light
BPM: 167
Weight: 165.3 pounds
Total distance to date: 4580 km
Devices: Apple Watch, iPhone 8

Today’s run was a milestone, being the 600th run I’ve officially tracked, so hooray for me on sticking with this. This works out to an average of 66.6 runs per year, which is positively devilish. If I break it down further, it’s 5.5 runs per month, which is both less Satanic and also a lot less impressive-sounding. This is because some years I’ve run a lot less due to injuries and/or laziness. If I stick to my usual three-times a week my monthly average would be 12, more than double.

So I’m pretty lazy and prone to injury.

All that said, I was of course concerned how today’s run would go with two weeks off, but the results were pleasant in that they were nearly identical to the last run. My total time was 29:43, only three seconds slower than the run on October 6th. It’s actually a bit eerie how similar they are. In other good news, my BPM was down to 167, back below the 170 threshold. While some abdominal cramps threatened around the midway point, they never fully materialized.

In terms of stamina, then, the run actually went decently. I never felt like I was plodding (or blazing along, of course), and keeping pace with my previous effort is a victory of sorts. Conditions were fine, too, hovering around 12ºC and with a light breeze. I wore a t-shirt so this was the first run in awhile where I didn’t feel overdressed.

But it was crowded as all heck. I keep meaning to start earlier because at mid-morning the trail is relatively deserted, but just a few hours later it’s booming with foot traffic. I compounded matters by running clockwise again. I did this because the proliferation of fallen leaves made the north side of the lake, with its many exposed tree roots, a greater hazard for running. Running clockwise puts me in the same direction as most walkers, meaning they can’t see me coming.

And they couldn’t hear me, either. There were so many people–usually walking in twos, threes, or larger groups–that I settled into a refrain of “On your left!” or occasionally “On your right!” when that seemed easier. And in nearly every instance, the people did not show any sign of hearing me. They would seem startled as I nipped by them. This happened over and over. It was baffling. I even started saying it louder, to no avail. I never screamed it, because I didn’t want to seem rude or suggest people are blithering idiots that need to be screamed at.

There was a kid about 3 or 4 on the second boardwalk, slowly and somewhat randomly walking down the middle, oblivious to everything around him (as an aside, this is probably not the best spot to let a small kid get ahead, because if he goes exploring over the edge, he’s in the swamp). I figured “On your left!” would make no sense to him and tried to think of a phrase that would work as I got nearer. At the last moment I settled on gently but firmly calling, “Look out, kid!” then slowed down further, put out a hand and made sure we would not collide, as his parents fruitlessly called to him from behind.

There were also several cyclists, but my vow to not complain prevents me from saying more. For the best, anyway.

Post-run went well once again and in some ways this is now becoming my favorite part of the outing, because I don’t worry about pace, I just run for as long as I want, then walk for a bit, then run again. It’s unstructured, less demanding and makes the running part feel more fun, somehow.

Here’s to the next 600 runs.

Photo of the Day, October 17, 2018

Testing the iPhone at night and unsurprisingly, with little light, it does not take outstanding photos.

This one had a harsh floodlight from a nearby warehouse creating harsh shadows and it turned out decently, plus it fits with Halloween approaching. Boo.

Book review: Snowblind

SnowblindSnowblind by Christopher Golden
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Snowblind is like a reliable sedan–it safely gets you where you want to go, and with no real surprises along the way, unpleasant or otherwise. But like that reliable sedan, you’re not likely to long remember the trip riding in it, either.

Having now broken my solemn vow to never use analogies, there is one odd bit I will remember and it has nothing to do with the story per se. Christopher Golden really likes the word “bitch.” He uses it (32 times) both as a verb and a descriptor, and every time he does it stands out in the same way that unironically using the word “groovy” to describe something in positive terms would. It was kind of distracting.

The Stephen King blurb on the cover promises Snowblind will be “deeply scary” but I didn’t find it scary at all–and I don’t even like snow! Or demons. Or snow demons, which Snowblind features, with icicle teeth and bottomless dark eyes filled with cruel intelligence (though they actually seem kind of dumb when it’s time to put plans into action). But not being scary is perfectly fine with me. A horror novel doesn’t have to make me want to keep the lights on, it just has to tell a good story within the milieu of horror.

While I was okay with the premise–otherworldly demons ride in on blizzards and attack the living–and thought the framing device of having them attack, then leave survivors to deal with their return when another monster blizzard strikes a dozen years later–was also interesting, there were aspects of the story that didn’t hold together as well as they might have, diminishing the overall experience.

I felt there were a few too many characters and switching back and forth between different groups didn’t really add much to the story, it just left me feeling less invested in everyone’s fate. This was exacerbated by some of the characters being rather shallow. I didn’t feel connected to them and at times it felt more like they were moving to help the plot rather than acting naturally (probably my biggest pet peeve when it comes to fiction).

There are predictable turns–the noble sacrifice is set up early, so by the time it arrives all I could do was let out a small sigh and keep reading–but for the most part these don’t actively detract from the story, but neither do they enhance it. The prose is straightforward, perhaps setting a low bar, but also easily clearing it. This may sound like damning with faint praise, but there is something to be said for authors not journeying deep into their navels when trying to tell a simple story.

However, the actual demon-things are presented in a way that makes them not so much menacing as cartoonishly evil, and this undercuts much of what Golden has built. Whenever they showed up I found myself imagining more effective ways of depicting them. And while the framing device of splitting the story into two storms separated by twelve years is not a bad one, it leads to a lot of not much happening between the blizzards. The characters go about their lives and things happen, but none of it is especially compelling.

This paragraph contains a spoiler on the ending. Read at your peril! (Apologies if the spoiler tags don’t work.) (view spoiler)

Despite what I’ve written, I don’t think Snowblind is a bad book, it’s just ordinary, a story that has all the right pieces, but doesn’t do anything to elevate what’s there into something better than just serviceable.

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The strange satisfaction of a new coffee table

I went to IKEA and bought a Lack, which is their made-up name for a coffee table. It was cheap–only $25–and easy to assemble. It’s a little narrower than the one it replaces and much lighter. It’s dark and has clean lines. It is very Swedish. And it looks sharper than the heavy, glass-topped table it replaces, which looked more appropriate to something you might find in your grandparents’ home around 1975.

I also replaced my dresser, a piece of furniture that came with me when I first moved to Vancouver in 1986. So this is not just a piece of furniture that looks like it came from the 70s, it actually did come from the 70s (I had it for a few years back in Duncan). Of late it had gotten incapable of containing all of my clothes, with my running gear and jeans piled on top. But it’s one of those things you never really think about until you finally do and then you’re navigating the IKEA maze, picking up the three boxes of boards, screws and braces that will take hours to assemble and voila, I have a new giant dresser that fits this century and holds all of my clothes. And it smells nice, too.

My current nightstand is a stack of six cardboard boxes in a pair of 2×3 stacks. These are filled mainly with books I will never look at again and covered with a blue bath towel to give it a “level” surface. This doesn’t look like grandma furniture, because it lacks any style at all, even simple kitsch value. It does look a bit like what a poor student might slap together (the boxes were cheap because, like IKEA furniture, they had to be assembled). I’m going to replace this soon with an actual nightstand.

I have no idea why I literally waited decades to replace some of these things, much like I have no real idea why I am suddenly doing it now, but it feels right and good and I feel a little less tacky and very slightly more stylish for having done so.

Also, now that I look at my computer desk, I suddenly want to replace it, even though I don’t need to. Like I need a drawing table next to it or a separate place for the printer or…something. It’s suddenly inadequate. But we’ll see. It’s actual furniture, so it isn’t as high a priority as a stack of boxes. That was a bit of clever improvisation that was never meant to be permanent, but much like the dresser, it’s just there and I never thought about it, but now that the thinking has started, the furnituring will continue.

National Novel Writing Month 2018: The Winnowing, Tool Edition

I’m still deciding on what to use for writing this year’s novel.

I’m leaning against Scrivener for a few reasons:

  • the 3.0 version for Windows seems very unlikely to go live before November 1st. The older version works fine, but is not directly  compatible with the current Mac version.
  • I am still not comfortable with how fragile it is with cloud storage. I get that it’s not that hard to just use Dropbox and remember to save, close and sync before returning to a project on a different system, but it’s 2018 and it just seems like this shouldn’t feel like a hack at this point. Plus my preferred storage solution of OneDrive is actively discouraged.
  • I am still not a big fan of the UI, though it is certainly better in 3.0.

That said, it has a lot still going for it, especially for a novel, so I haven’t absolutely ruled it out.

Speaking of Scrivener, the Scrivener-like Atomic Scribbler seems out of the running as its cloud-saving is even more fragile, and the author of the software offers dire warnings to those who would trust an online service in conjunction with it.

I’m also actually considering Microsoft Word. Since novels don’t use a lot of formatting, it wouldn’t get too bogged down and unlike Scrivener, cloud saving is easy-peasy across devices. But it’s still Word and despite having a billion features, it lacks a lot of things that are useful for novel-writing.

WriteMonkey 3.0 is still in beta, doesn’t (yet) support paragraph indents and is unlikely to even come out of beta this year, let alone before NaNoWriMo. Version 2.7 is still very capable and the text-only files it produces make cloud-saving simple and the files themselves very light and quick to load. This is probably still the leading candidate.

FocusWriter is like a stripped-down version of WriteMonkey that supports a lot of its core features and offers an easy-to-use interface. Since it can save in text format, it’s easy to switch between it and other editors that use text files without anything mucking up. I’m not entirely sure why I don’t consider it a stronger contender. It’s almost as if it may lack some feature I need but I can’t think of what it might be.

There are a billion other editors out there, but as I’ve recounted before, most have one or more features (or lack of the same) that make them unsuitable.

The three contenders above are also among the few that support both Windows and macOS, though the latter is less important since I’ve gotten a ThinkPad and seldom use my MacBook Pro now (every time I do I still want to start a rant about the keyboard). Scrivener and Word do offer the bonus of iOS versions, too, though in theory any iOS text editor could work if I stick to using the text-only format–though paragraph indents would likely remain a problem.

Unlike the story itself, I can pretty much put off making a decision about what tool to use until the last minute. And I just might!

Photo of the Day, October 14, 2018

A dandelion by a light standard in Lower Hume Park.

I don’t know what compelled me to take this–maybe the contrast of the yellow against the black of the light standard. I also kind of like the low perspective. I could have cropped the photo to leave out the background, but in this case there’s enough there to provide some interesting context–sunny day, nearby road, trees, a gravel path.

When narcissism and mauling come together

You might think this sign would not be needed, but apparently it is, because it exists. This particular one is at Robert Burnaby Park.

If you see a bear, do not take a selfie with the bear, because the bear will eat you and post its own selfie on Bear Facebook, featuring your mangled corpse.

The same sign also advises that you should not:

  • approach a bear
  • feed a bear
  • run from a bear
  • chase a bear
  • get close to a bear

Basically, if you spot a bear, immediately teleport away, if possible.