The Year of Not Reading or Writing

Based on the results from 2018, I set an ambitious goal for this year’s Goodreads reading challenge—52 books or one per week.

At this point, the third week of August, I would need to have read 33 books to be on track. I have read 19. I’m actually lagging behind last year’s pace, when I managed to read 40 (with a goal of 32). To hit 40 I’d need to read 21 books in about 17 weeks.

That ain’t gonna happen unless I cheat and read a bunch of 50,000 word NaNoWriMo novels.

Why am I reading so much less this year?

Before answering that, I’ll note that my writing has stalled out, too. I’ve been keeping up on the blog, but the fiction writing has sputtered like a campfire in a rain shower. In the last few months, even the blog writing has suffered.

So here it is, the latter half of August and I’m not reading much and I’m not writing much.

Why?

The answer is: It’s not any specific thing, it’s a series of things. Mostly it’s me.

As ridership continues to increase, it is increasingly rare that I get a seat at the start of my morning commute (which begins with a 30+ minute train ride), so I don’t start reading until I get a seat, as I am not comfortable reading while standing up. I could read while standing, so this is kind of on me. But it still means I don’t read as much.

But there are days where I could read and don’t, I just put on my headphones and try to blot out the sound (and world).

I sometimes read at home, but it’s rare.

For the writing, I enjoy the irony of The Journal, my unfinished novel, in which the protagonist struggles with writing, knowing all the ways to get going, knows that you don’t wait for the muse to arrive, that you make time to write, that you sacrifice and force yourself to do it.

And then still struggles. As I do. Why? Ennui? Laziness? I’m not really sure, anymore.

Also, I’ve been playing a lot of City of Heroes again and until the shine of that wears off, it will continue to occupy a chunk of my free time (I had a seven year gap where I didn’t play after the game was shut down).

There are other things I intend to do—draw me, look into meditation, stretching and more—and I dabble, but ultimately don’t follow through.

Maybe I just suck at time management.

I’ve looked at time management apps and have yet to find one I really like and click with. Maybe I’ll look again. I’ll just pencil the search into my current non-existent time management/to-do app, ho ho.

Anyway, I’m writing this on my lunch break and running out of time, so I need to wrap up in some clever way or come back to this later. Or both.

Or neither.

More later tonight. For real. (Probably.)

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer (Million Dollar Writing Series)

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer by Kevin J. Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This slim volume is basically Kevin J. Anderson and Martin L. Shoemaker telling you why they use voice dictation for their writing, and the specifics of how they do it. Their techniques differ–Shoemaker dictates while driving a one hour commute to and from work (and emphasizes the safe way to do so), while Anderson usually takes a digital voice recorder with him when he is out on hikes, keeping fit while staying productive. They sometimes overlap methods and Anderson in particular makes use of typing services, which can transcribe at a typical cost of one cent per word or thereabouts. He admits this is not suitable for all writers. A 100,000 word novel would cost $1,000 to transcribe, a hefty sum for a lot of people, especially those new to writing.

Each author also uses dictation for brainstorming, tossing out ideas, character background and more into their recordings. Shoemaker uses Dragon Professional 15.0 to transcribe his recordings and is satisfied with its accuracy, noting that cleanup is always part of the editing process, regardless of writing method.

They cover all the basics–when and where to dictate, overcoming the embarrassment of talking to yourself in public, getting comfortable with the sound of your own voice, and more.

All of this is good stuff, and both writers present their use cases in convincing fashion. The book does lack a certain amount of depth–this is Anderson and Shoemaker relating their experiences, with a minimum of advice, technical or otherwise. Those looking for more specifics on using voice dictation for writing may be better served by checking out The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon by Scott Baker (which still covers the latest version of Dragon as of this writing, August 2019) or Chris Fox’s 5,000 Words Per hour.

Still, this is very much a worthy read, if for no other reason than to provide a little more incentive to making the jump to using voice dictation.

View all my reviews

Best photo of a MacBook Pro accompanying an article on Windows 10 writing apps

Right here:

The best part is the editor’s note at the bottom of the list:

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2013 and has been since updated for freshness, and accuracy.

My own editor’s note: Windows 10 did not exist in 2013. Fresh and accurate indeed.

Book review: 5,000 Writing Prompts

5,000 WRITING PROMPTS: A Master List of Plot Ideas, Creative Exercises, and More

5,000 WRITING PROMPTS: A Master List of Plot Ideas, Creative Exercises, and More by Bryn Donovan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I did not read all 5,000 prompts.

But I did read most of them, actually, not just to get the inspiration, but to get an overall feel for how Donovan puts together her lists. Quite often you can see her riffing on a theme or flipping a prompt to generate another (“Write why you like scrambled eggs. Or why you hate scrambled eggs with the fire of a thousand suns.”)

There are a few things Donovan does that elevates this above so many other writing prompt books or websites:

  • Quantity. Yes, sometimes size does matter! The sheer volume of prompts means you’re bound to find some that appeal to you, even if you use her method of randomly picking one.
  • Speaking of randomly picking one, Donovan directly tackles the purpose of the prompts and suggest picking one to write every day for two weeks, to rekindle your interest in writing if it’s faded. This is an entirely sensible plan, but a lot of prompt books don’t address this at all, they just pile on the lists.
  • Speaking of lists, Donovan provides a great deal of variety and even the groupings that might seem marginal to you (for me it would be the poetry prompts) actually offer a lot of good ideas that can be applied to other types of writing.

Donovan offers commentary and background on some of her ideas, especially those that have cultural or historical significance.

Really, this is just a solid all-around collection. I expect to use a bunch of these prompts as I seek to re-ignite my own fiction writing (and if you don’t write fiction, there’s lots of material here for blogs and other forms of non-fiction writing). Recommended.

View all my reviews

Is 5,000 writing prompts enough?

I’m about to find out. I just picked up the book 5,000 Writing Prompts (Goodreads link) by Bryn Donovan, in an attempt to grease the wheels or whatever metaphor you prefer to get my writing rolling/moving/something other than very still and quiet again.

The book is divided into convenient sections and so far I like the little tidbits she adds to a lot of the prompts, noting stories that have used the same ideas, which are especially popular (and why) and more.

She suggests an exercise to pick a random prompt every day and spend 15 minutes writing something based on it, then repeating this for two weeks, to better build or rebuild the writing habit.

I’m going to try this starting today because why not? Because I’m reading the ebook version, I’m going to go with a high-tech solution for randomly picking a prompt, since they are numbered, by using a random number generator. It’s almost like having the internet write the story for me, or something.

Anyway, the first result will be ready later today, or else I’m a big fat liar.

Using my smartphone for good, not evil

Actually it would be more fair to say I’ve been using my smartphone (currently an iPhone 8) for harmless nonsense, which is still better than using it for evil.

I’ve made a few recent posts to the blog during my morning commute, using the Ulysses app to slowly tap out a post and then upload it directly to my blog. I marvel at the technology, even as I lament how few will see my carefully-considered nonsense. I even just recently had a two-day stretch of zero visits on June 21 and 22. This is bad even by my own sad standards. I clearly need to work on the SEO and other acronyms to boost hits. More clickbait! More gossip! More whatever it is people want. Maybe just a redirect to Facebook.

It feels like the writing muscles are finally starting to halt their atrophy, as I am using more little blocks of time to write errant thoughts down, moving ever-so-slightly closer to perhaps engaging in some fiction writing again.

Mainly, though, I am not using my phone for social media, except for using Slack at work, which is not really in any way fun, so doesn’t count. There’s hardly any clickbait.

What do I use my phone for? Here’s a list. I like lists.

What I use my smartphone for, in order of most to least

  1. Listening to music
  2. Sending and receiving text messages with my partner. A lot of this includes Bitmoji nonsense, which I love and adore.
  3. Logging food/water in the MyFitnessPal app
  4. Adding or removing stuff in the Reminders app
  5. Checking stats in the Activity app
  6. Occasionally checking email, either personal (Gmail) or work (Outlook)
  7. Checking calendar appointments (almost exclusively work-related)
  8. Adding errant thoughts using the Drafts 4 app
  9. Adding errant and less-errant thoughts using the OneNote app
  10. Sometimes checking the weather or news
  11. Using the flashlight function
  12. Making or receiving an actual phone call
  13. Playing a game
  14. Writing a blog post (this one may move up the list over time)

What I never use my smartphone for

  1. Making the world a worse place (to my knowledge)
  2. To smash open walnuts
  3. As a level
  4. To play music without earbuds or earphones. Seriously, why do people do this? Do you do this? Don’t do this.
  5. To plug in a nice set of headphones (zing!)

The amount of writing I’ve done since posting Inspiration Cat™

After posting the cat to inspire my writing on June 7th, here is how much writing I have done (excluding forum posts):

None!

That’s right, Inspiration Cat™, as I am now officially calling him/her, has achieved the opposite. I have written no blog posts, no fiction, nothing at all except stuff required for work and a few errant words to accompany photos on Facebook, which I feel bad for doing every time because I believe Facebook is actively making the world a more terrible place.

Also, why isn’t there a competitor to FB that just provides a place to hang out with friends and family and nothing more? Come on, Silicon Valley billionaires, throw a few dump trucks of money at this while the world burns.

Anyway, I should be writing more. I’ve read books about writing more. I know all the techniques. There are no secrets. It’s about discipline and making the time, making the commitment. I can do all of these things right now, instead of watching people rant on the internet about the $999 stand for the new $4999 monitor Apple just announced at this year’s WWDC. By the way, I’ll have my own thoughts on this in an upcoming blog post.

So here it is, another blog post about how I’m not writing. If I put all of these posts together, I bet they would stretch to the moon. Or at least to the end of the condo.

I’m past making promises now. No more promises. If I write, I write. If I don’t, you can find me ranting about $999 monitor stands or searching for funny cat videos, or sometimes going outside and stuff.

Amusing cat image: Metaphor edition

This is an apt metaphor to illustrate my writing efforts in May.

I promise to do better in June, which is a pretty low bar, so I should actually achieve this.

In the shallow end of the pool

I am a shallow person.

Funny cat videos amuse me greatly.

I can go to one of those auto-correct sites that are comprised of largely fake text message conversations and find myself laughing loudly, even as I acknowledge the fakeness therein.

I can become impatient with stories that trade heavily in metaphor. I resist reading more Harlan Ellison. I want my stories served up straight, without riddles. I don’t mind thinking, but I don’t want to think hard.

I’m exaggerating a bit for effect here. I don’t really mind metaphors. I finally got around to watching the film adaption of Annihilation (I read the book in August of last year) and it is steeped in metaphors. Some are explained rather plainly, others are left to the audience to pull together. And I get why this movie was not a big hit–it demands too much of those watching it. People don’t want to actively think while sitting in a movie theater while holding a $10 bucket of popcorn between their legs. They want action, romance, comedy and whatever else to be doled out quickly, frequently, and without complication. Annihilation often makes you want to rewind to confirm if you are putting the pieces together correctly (this is awkward in a theater, as the projectionist and other audience members are likely to object to your whims).

In going back to a spoiler thread started on Broken Forum discussing the film, I enjoyed everyone’s guesses and theories on what happened, and appreciated even more what people thought everything meant. The video below was linked and it’s a terrific companion piece to the film, highlighting how the right question isn’t, “Did aliens do it?” but what do the events in the film say about the characters, how are they changed, what does it say about us, our world?

Let me return to how I am a shallow person.

I could never write a novel like Annihilation. I could never write a screenplay for a movie like Annihilation. Why? Because my skill with metaphor, my ability to tease out deeper meanings is limited. Was it my upbringing? Is my brain too small? Did my teachers go soft on me? Are cats just so naturally adorable that they short-circuit my intellect? I don’t know. But I do know that any number of stories I write that attempt to say something more profound than ACTION SCENE and BIG LAUGH tend to make me cringe when I re-read them.

I do better now than when I was young, though. There is some seriously overwrought stuff that I wrote in my teens (I mean, who doesn’t write seriously overwrought stuff in their teens? Unless you spent your teens in juvenile or otherwise not actually writing). As a (much) older adult, I can rein in the worst excesses, but my stories are still pretty straightforward:

  • Man swaps bodies with cat
  • Superheroes clumsily save the world from a world-destroying asteroid
  • Man vows to lose weight and is helped by a candy bar-eating magic gnome

Okay, that last one contains a bit of metaphor. But it ain’t subtle.

I guess in writing about my shallowness, there is the idea that is must somehow bother me. And in a little way it does, but I am only actively reminded about how it bothers me after seeing films like Annihilation, and analyses like the one above that explain all the clever, layered things that are presented. Then I feel dumb for not quite fully understanding them or worse, missing these clever things entirely.

I’m not going to make a New Year resolution to write deeper stories or go on a metaphorpalooza, mind you. Frankly, just doing more actual writing would be good enough for now.

And with that, I conclude this post. It’s a metaphor for being lazy, see? Or something.

Road Closed: First draft (of the outline) complete!

I’ve actually written two outlines, the first is based on the outline template mentioned in this post, and I quickly sketched in some ideas about where the story would go, providing it with an actual ending and other crazy things a reader might expect.

The next was an outline of what I’d actually written, 20+ chapters (the number is imprecise because some of the chapters are themselves only outlines and not actually written out). This is right now the more interesting of the two (to me) because it reflects the story as it currently is. The process of putting it all down has laid out how lumpy the story is.

By lumpy, I mean how the story sometimes has scenes that don’t really add much, or seem to build toward something, then peter out. It’s not a smooth ride. The classic three act format is classic because it works, and Road Closed currently does not follow this. There are foundations in place and some of it works pretty decently now. There is, I think, a progression of the deterioration of Christian. The harder he tries to pull things together, the more things unravel, with his drinking accelerating and leading to near-collisions while driving, episodes of vomiting, the DTs and an overnight stay at the hospital. But the concurrent idea (spoiler alert!) of him inevitably leading toward a spectacular car crash that wipes out a bunch of innocent bystanders–which the ghost of Simon obliquely warns him about–is only hinted at very late in the story as written, and I wonder if it even works now as a conclusion.

Also left unaddressed is the entire plot point of revealing Russell Stave as Wendy’s killer, allowing Wendy to find peace, which is a plot point specifically referenced by Christian and Kevin multiple times, so this should really be expanded upon, which means Russell needs more than a few brief cameos.

But now that I have the whole story laid out in front of me I can start yoinking scenes that don’t work and figure out what to fill in, then come up with a convincing third act that pulls it all together in a spellbinding package of spellbindery. Or something.

The next update I’ll report on how this has progressed.