Quit Procrastinating

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One of the most important things a creative person needs to learn is to recognize when you’re procrastinating. For example, I often have ideas to put on this blog – two or three times per day – but I’m a quiet person, and I think far more strings of speech than I ever put to paper. So it’s important for me to blog whenever I can.

So I’ve had several blog ideas today – “Getting Traction”, “Logic Versus Rationality”, “Rating Your Own Work (and How I Rate)” and the one I just thought of that made me open Ecto, “Advantages of Offline Blogging Clients” and its companion piece “How to Use Photoshop Filters and Photo Booth to Make Watercolor Art Because You Don’t Have Clip Art Handy.”

All of these are procrastination.

I owe my editors feedback on Traci Odom’s reading of the audiobook of FROST MOON. I didn’t get to send it after I finished it because I finished it at 3 in the morning in the hospital and then spent the next day getting my loved one back home safely before hopping on a plane and getting back to all the work delayed by this unexpected trip.

During this whole family quasi-emergency this week, I deliberately focused on taking on tasks like listening to FROST MOON or blogging or cleaning up my hard drive, all of which didn’t require building up a lot of mental state, which made them ideal for tasks for sitting up next to a hospital bed ready to help at a moment’s notice.

But the operation’s over, the result’s a success, the loved ones are back home and my reading’s done. When you’ve got an outstanding task that requires thought, it’s SO EASY to switch gears to something that doesn’t require a lot of mental effort. But no. Not this time. Time to write the notes, record the pronunciations, send the email, and get this audiobook out the door.

Finish blogpost hit Publish.

-the Centaur

“He likes to take pictures of his food.”

Those familiar with my Google+ stream will have noticed I take a lot of pictures of food, generally posted in my album Cuisininart (pictures of food – cuisine in art – cuisin-in-art – a riff on cuisinart – get it? No? Oh, you don’t WANT to get it. Oh well.).

This got started because I wanted to do restaurant reviews on this site. I love eating out; I’m a definite foodie, and I think a lot about what makes a good restaurant, from a dive bar to a five star. I’ve evendone a few reviews but I noticed I wasn’t writing reviews because I wasn’t taking pictures.

I prefer using pictures in blog posts based on the ideas of my good friend Jim Davies (and seconded by my wife Sandi Billingsley) who both think pictures make blog posts stronger. This is basic comics theory: words and pictures are stronger together.

So I started taking pictures. As usual, I found I was really good at collecting input, not so much at producing output. I was taking pictures all the time and not doing things with them because most of my free time is spent writing.

Around the time Google+ came out, I had a brainflash: why don’t I just post the pictures I’ve taken as a way of using them up. So I created the Cusininart album … which prompted me to take more and more pictures, even without reviews in mind.

I got so good at taking pictures of what I was eating it became a joke. My wife once explained it to a friend joining us for dinner: “He likes to take pictures of his food.” Which in turn prompted this post of me explaining this to you.

But I’m trying to turn this into more than just random photographs. Following the example of people like Jim Davies, Andy Fossett and Waldemar Horwat, I’m trying to make this a learning experience, to discover how to take good pictures of food.

What I’ve found so far isn’t scientific by any stretch of the imagination; consider this lessons learned from a few case studies.

  • Don’t use your camera’s flash. As many of you probably already know, camera flashes wash out the pictures. Don’t use it unless you absolutely have to; try increasing the exposure of your camera to instead.
  • Take lots of pictures. Take pictures of each dish, of the whole spread, from more than one angle. It’s not just that two or three shots of each one helps you avoid loss to a blurry jiggle; it gives you more choices for the article.
  • Take pictures from different angles and distances. Thirty to forty-five degrees seems to be a good angle, but you should experiment with closeups, overhead shots, distance shots. You’ll be surprised what looks best once you review the pictures later.
  • Most of the shots should be of food. For what I want to achieve in my albums, having most shots be of food works best. Restaurants are less interesting than their dishes, unless it’s a special restaurant. One out of five is OK.
  • Keep it candid. It actually helps to take pictures before you’ve eaten, and even to spend a moment posing some of the food. But don’t waste a lot of time on it: the immediacy of the dishes in their natural arrangement is often enough.

I’m sure I could refine that list more. Perhaps I will after I spend more time experimenting more systematically, maybe even throwing in findings from food I have cooked. But until then … that’s what I’ve learned from taking pictures of my food.

-the Centaur

The Stack is Growing

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FROM THE WRITER’S ANONYMOUS 12-STEP SUPPORT GROUP MEETING: Hi, I’m Anthony Francis, and I’m an author. (“Hi, Anthony!”) To feed my addiction, I get stuff published.

My first published novel, the urban fantasy FROST MOON featuring magical tattoo artist Dakota Frost, won an EPIC e-book award. It’s out in paperback, Kindle, in German as SKINDANCER, and soon to be audiobook thanks to the wonderful reading skills of Traci Odom. The second book in the series, BLOOD ROCK, came out last year to good reviews, and the third book, LIQUID FIRE, will come out later this year. A spinoff series starring Dakota’s daughter Cinnamon Frost, HEX CODE, will come out next year, also part of a planned trilogy.

One of my short stories, “Steampunk Fairy Chick,” was recently published in the UnCONventional anthology. The story, featuring steampunk adventurer Jeremiah Willstone, is based on a novel called THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE (again part of a planned trilogy) which I’ve got in rough draft form with a possible release late this year or early next year. Another of my short stories, “Sibling Rivalry,” was published in The Leading Edge magazine in 1995, but is now available on my web site. I also write flash fiction. One of my flash shorts, “If Looks Could Kill”, was just published in THE DAILY FLASH 2012 (pictured above) and another, “The Secret of the T-Rex’s Arms”, was just published in Smashed Cat Magazine.

My nonfiction research papers are largely available on my research page, including my nearly 700-page Ph.D thesis (hork). I and my thesis advisor Ashwin Ram have a chapter on “Multi-Plan Adaptation and Retrieval in an Experience-based Agent” in David Leake’s book CASE BASED REASONING: EXPERIENCES, LESSONS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS, and Ashwin, Manish Mehta and I have a chapter on “Emotional Memory and Adaptive Personalities” in THE HANDBOOK OF RESEARCH ON SYNTHETIC EMOTIONS AND SOCIABLE ROBOTICS.

I have more writing in the works, including a novelette called “Stranded” set in the Dresanian universe from which this blog takes its name, and more writing on the Internet. But what I list above is The Stack At This Time – what you can get in print. Enjoy!

-the Centaur

It’s Better to Be Done

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I am very interested in promoting creation. I think the world would be a better place if more people wrote, drew, painted, sculpted, danced, programmed, philosophized, or just came up with ideas. Not all ideas are great, and it’s important to throw away the bad and keep the good – but the more ideas we can generate, the more we can test.

One of the biggest problems I see in unprofessional, unpublished or just unhappy creators is not finishing. It’s very easy to start work on an idea – a painting, a novel, a sculpture, a program, a philosophy of life. But no matter how much you love what you do, there’s always a point in creating a work where the act of creating transforms from play to work.

Whether you stall out because the work gets hard or because you get distracted by a new idea, it’s important to realize the value of finishing. An unfinished idea can be scooped, or become stale, or disconnected from your inspiration. If you don’t finish something, the work you did on it is wasted. More half finished ideas pile up. Your studio or notebook becomes a mess.

If you don’t finish, you never learn to finish. You’re learning to fail repeatedly. The act of finishing teaches you how to finish. You learn valuable skills you can apply to new works – or even to a new drafts. I know an author who was perpetually stalled out on a problematic story – until one day she made herself hit the end. Now it’s on it’s fourth draft and is really becoming something.

The tricky thing is you have got to put the cart before the horse: you’ve got to finish before you know whether it was worth finishing. This does not apply to experienced authors in a given genre, but if you’re new to a genre, you have to finish something before you worry about whether you can sell it or even if it is any good.

You don’t need for something to be perfect to finish it. I know too many amateurs who don’t want to put out the effort to finish things because they don’t know whether they can sell it. No. You’ve got a hundred bad programs in you, a thousand bad paintings, a million bad words, before you get to the good stuff. Suck it up, finish it, and move on.

Procrastination is a danger. This is the point in the article that I got distracted and wrote a quick email to a few other creators about ideas this (unfinished) article had inspired. Then I got back to it. Then I got distracted again doing the bullet list below and went back and injected this paragraph. The point is, it’s OK to get distracted – just use that time wisely, then get back to it.

Finally, sometimes you just need help to finish the first time. The biggest thing is to find a tool which can help you over that hump when it stops being fun and starts being work – some challenge or group or idea that helps you get that much closer to done. To help people finish, I’m involved with or follow a variety of challenges and resources to help people finish:

  • Write to the End: It’s not a critique group; it’s a writing group. We meet almost every Tuesday at a local coffee house and write for 20 minutes, read what we wrote, and repeat until they kick us out. We normally hit three sessions, so I usually get an hour of writing in every night – and hear a half dozen to a dozen other writers. Inspirational. Our web site contains articles on writing, including my new column The Centaur’s Pen.
  • National Novel Writing Month: A challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel in the month of November. This seems daunting, but Nanowrimo has a truly spectacular support group and social system which really helps people succeed at the challenge. Even if you don’t “win” the first time, keep at it, you will succeed eventually!
  • Script Frenzy: Write 100 pages of a script (play, screenplay, or comic script) in the month of April – another event sponsored by the creators of Nanowrimo. This is an event I haven’t yet tried, but am planning to tackle this year to get back into screenwriting (as part of my 20-year plan to get into directing movies).
  • 24 Hour Comics Day: It’s a challenge to produce a 24 page comic in 24 hours, usually held the first weekend of October. I’ve tried this 3 times and succeeded once. It’s taught me immense amounts about comic structure and general story structure and even improved my prose writing.
  • Blitz Comics: Because I failed at 24 Hour Comics Day, me and my buddy Nathan Vargas decided to “fake it until we make it” and to put on a boot camp about how to succeed at 24 Hour Comics Day. We produced a Boot Camp tutorial, a 24 Hour Comics Day Survival Kit – and along the way taught ourselves how to succeed at 24 Hour Comics Day.
  • Other Challenges: There are a couple of events out there to create graphic novels in a month – NaGraNoWriMo and NaCoWriMo – though both of these are 2010 and I don’t know if either one is live. (If they’re not active, maybe I’ll start one). There’s also a 30 Character Challenge for graphic artists to create 30 new characters in a month.

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Finally, I want to finish with what inspired this post: the Cult of Done. I won’t go too deeply into the Done Manifesto, but from my perspective it can be summed up in two ideas: posting an idea on the Internet counts as a ghost of done, and done is the engine of more. Get your stuff done, finish it, and if it’s still half baked, post it to force yourself to move on to newer and better things.

The plane is landing. Time to get it done.

-the Centaur

Credits: The BlitzComics guy is penciled, inked and colored by me and post-processed by Nathan Vargas. Joshua Rothass did the Cult of Done poster and distributed it under a Creative Commons license. This blog post was uploaded by Ecto, which is doing well (other than an upload problem) and is probably going to get my money.

Vibrancy in Social Media

Some social networks vibrate with life: tweets ripple through Twitter, three quarters of a billion people use Facebook, and Google+ grew faster than either of them in their early days. Others, like MySpace or Orkut or LinkedIn, may not exactly be suffering, but they don’t have the same buzz and aren’t growing at the same rate.

I don’t have access to all the numbers when I’m interacting with a social network: I only have its interface to my local network. But there’s a side effect to a network’s rapid growth and activity: some of that activity will flow through MY part of the network. Now, that’s true of even non-social media like newsgroups and RSS feeds, so activity by itself isn’t enough.

What’s interesting is how likely MY inputs are to garner a response or even start an ongoing conversation. Let’s call that the network’s vibrancy. Now, the measured vibrancy will be different for different users, different inputs and different times. But we can hold that constant if the user in question, like me, crossposts similar content to different networks.

I do this because I’m an author, and I don’t require my fans to be members of Facebook or Google+ or Twitter or to have an RSS reader – so I need to post many announcements to every service that my fans might be on. So what follows is my brief, purely unscientific judgments about the vibrancy of several social networks.

General Social Networking: Facebook, followed by Google+, followed by Twitter. Within minutes of me posting to Facebook, I usually get a number of likes or responses. Google+ is also good, but not quite as fast, or quite as deep. Twitter, while being great for hearing announcements from people I’m interested in, isn’t as responsive as the first two. Other services I’ve tried, like MySpace, Orkut and Buzz, were either less active to begin with or not vibrant at all.

Literary Networking: Goodreads. I’ve been on LibraryThing for a while, but I haven’t yet seen much activity. Goodreads, however, after some unfortunate business with spamming some of my contact list, has nonetheless proved both very active and very reactive to what I have posted.

Business Networking: No winner. I’ve used Linkedin, but my primary activity on it has been receiving connection requests and there’s been very little response to my updates on its interface.

Thinking about these services, what makes the vibrant ones vibrant is a combination of features: Enough users, enough activity, ease of posting, ease of sharing, and in particular with Goodreads, enough different activities to make the interface a game. With Goodreads, you can post reviews, book progress, shelving and so on and this activity is exposed. Goodreads is like a game played with your literary friends and the fans of the books you’re a fan of. To a lesser degree, services like Facebook and Google+ which make image and link sharing and commenting fun do the same thing.

I haven’t taken this analysis any deeper. Right now this is just a thought posted to the intarwubs – the ghost of done (from the Cult of Done manifesto) since done is the engine of more. More thoughts after I spend more time researching social media.

-the Centaur

The Centaur’s Pen at Write to the End

I’m part of a fantabulous writing group called Write to the End that meets at Mission City Coffee. This group, which started at Barnes and Noble at Steven’s Creek before the economy and contracting book market convinced B&N to cut back on their community programs, has been the best thing for my writing productivity since … well, ever. I’d even stopped doing National Novel Writing Month until I started attending the WTTE, but now I do Nano every year … and go to the writing group almost every Tuesday. SO … it’s now time to give back.

I’ll be doing a monthly column on the WTTE blog titled “The Centaur’s Pen.” In it, I will write about writing: about why to write, what to write, how to write, how to edit, how to get published — and how to behave AFTER you get published. Now, I am not a great writer, but I’m trying very hard, I think about writing almost all the time, and I’ve spent a lot of time talking to other aspiring writers and learning about the art, craft and business of writing. So I hope my insights will be of use to you!


January’s inaugural article is on “Learning from Publication:” how seeing your work in print can be an opportunity to improve your craft, even though you can no longer change it. An excerpt follows:

Recently I wrote a short story called “Steampunk Fairy Chick” for the UnCONventional anthology. Even though the story went through many revisions, lots of beta readers, two editors and a copyeditor, when I read through my author’s copy I found there were still things I wanted to change. Nothing major—just line edit stuff, a selection of different choices of sentence structure that I think would have made the story more readable.

I can’t react to this the way I would with a draft; the story’s in print. And I don’t want to just throw these insights on the floor. Instead, I want to analyze the story and find general ideas I could have applied that would have improved the story before it hit the stands—ideas I could use in the future on new stories.

To read more, click through to Write to the End and “Learning from Publication.” If you want to read the story the article is talking about, click through to Amazon and buy the UnCONventional anthology (in print or ebook).

Enjoy!

-the Centaur

The Photoshop Filters of Luxury

Following up my previous post on using offline blog clients, here’s an example of something harder to do with an offline client: uploading images with the originals as clickthrough.

I haven’t quite figured out how to do that in Ecto but perhaps it’s an easy thing. Regardless, what Ecto posted was an image resized to the size it would be displayed at, whereas sometimes what you want is a resized thumbnail where you can click through to the original, which is what the standard WordPress interface will do for you nicely:

These images are a comparison of two different filters in Photoshop on the same original.

Amazing what we can do with graphics filters today.
-the Centaur

-Anthony

Testing Ecto as an Offline Blogging Platform

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My ideas for blogging fast outpace my patience for actually blogging them. One problem with systems like WordPress or Blogger is that the interfaces for creating posts are a bit complex and work only online. Simpler “microblogging” systems, like Facebook, Twitter and Google+, enable you to post easily, but limit what you can post (and are walled gardens, to one extent or another). So I’m always looking for good offline blogging clients.

Part of the problem is that I’m on the Mac. Nothing against Windows or Linux, but Macs are (for me) more reliable even though the interface isn’t quite as easy to use. But working on the Mac limits your software choices. I’ve tried Qumana, which isn’t bad but sometimes has bad interactions with my blogging settings. (I need to update it, so I’m not giving up on it yet). I’ve tried a variety of Android blogging clients, such as the WordPress app, but I haven’t figured out how to make them obey my image sizing restrictions. So I’m trying other blogging clients, starting with Ecto.

Nice category / tagging interface, easy uploads. Doing something weird with carriage returns, which was a problem with Qumana, but it may be fixable. OK, this is enough of a post to try it out. Here goes nothing!

-the Centaur

Pictured: Gabby, my most computer literate cat, in the lap of luxury (as seen through a few Photoshop filters).

UPDATE: Ecto *gasp* did what I wanted. One point for Ecto!

Testing 1 2 3

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Trying out a new Android WordPress client…

-the Centaur

UPDATE (via WordPress’s interface): Well, the software shrank my image. And for those who asked, Minneapolis, I think, which is where my connection back from Arisia got rerouted. No, actually I think this might have been from Boston, which had snow when I left. Minneapolis was worse.

A Toast to 2011

It’s the last post of 2011, but I give you no year end summary, no predictions for the future.

We’ve celebrated a lot, but there’s not even a party today, just chilling with my wife, remembering good times.

I just send you good wishes, and wish you happiness in the holidays, however you find it.

Because, Lord knows, there are a lot of ways, now more than ever.

So from all of us at the Edge to you and yours, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

-the Centaur