Archive for January, 2016

Money From Heaven

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

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I like to pick up coins when I see them, but this is getting ridiculous. Recently I’ve netted 50 cents from money falling from heaven. Today’s find was weird: a quarter in the middle of my brand new copy of Principia Mathematica, Volume 1, which I’m reading as part of my quixotic quest to reinvent number theory for a young adult novel. :-P

Shipped from Amazon. Apparently a reprint (there are handwritten notes in my text which are apparently copied from whatever they used for camera-ready copy for this one). But with a quarter in it, stuck in the beginning of Chapter 3. It survived shipping, survived me carrying it around for a while … how?

The other one was weirder. A couple of months ago, I stepped out of the shower and pulled on a towel. I turned around, and a shinggg sounded, followed by the unmistakable sound of a coin falling to the floor. I looked around and found a quarter, which apparently fell from roughly where the bathrobes hang.

Only … we rarely use the bathrobes. There are no holes in the bathrobe pockets. The quarter fell, like from the air.

Now this is totally possible. We forgot and put a quarter in a bathrobe pocket, and I jostled it. The quarter got stuck in a knot. The quarter wasn’t on the bathrobe at all, and was stuck to the towel. The quarter was on the bathroom windowsill and I knocked it off. Et cetera. Et cetera. There are a thousand “rational” possibilities.

But it was still damn unusual.

Now I have 50 cents. That and four bucks will get me a Starbucks. Until the rest of my grande mocha Frappucinio falls from heaven, I gotta ask: who’s trying to tell me something, and what?

-the Centaur

Nanowrimo Triples Your Productivity

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

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So I’ve got enough data now – two months – and it shows my productivity in non-Nano months is about one third of the Nano goal. Because December and January are 31 day months, by now I should have produced a notch over 100,000 words if this was National Novel Writing Month … but instead I’ve produced a notch under 30,000.

The picture is a bit muddled since my productivity in successful Nano months is slightly higher than 50,000 words, and my productivity this month is slightly higher since I’m not counting some writing (some edits to stories, plus all the nonfiction writing I do at work). But it shows the social effect.

Nano triples your productivity.

-the Centaur

Haha!

Friday, January 29th, 2016

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I have completed 31 blogposts for January! (Not even counting this one!) I’m on schedule for my “blog once a day” New Year’s Resolution! Huzzah!

Now only 335 posts to go. Sigh.

-the Centaur

It Always Takes Longer Than You Expect

Friday, January 29th, 2016

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So my wife and I talk – a lot – about life, the universe, and everything – and we decided we should try to capture some of our thoughts on the matter as a series of video blogs. I grabbed dinner at Aqui, she was grabbing dinner at home, and then we were going to get the studio set up so we could do a test run.

None of that happened as planned.

I was late leaving Aqui; I never got to run all my errands. Sandi started to cook eight-minute paste thirty minutes before I was scheduled to get home; I got home late and she was still cooking. I tried to get the software set up on the kitchen table while she finished up, hoping the two of us would both finish in time for a trial run in the great room which we planned to use.

When our time was up and it was time to go to the gym, I’d never left the kitchen table, and she’d never left the kitchen counter, working on her pasta, watching over my shoulder while I wrestled with the software. I did get it installed, and, in the end, we managed to capture a handful of screenshots and a few short videos, the longest of which lasted only five minutes.

I heard a study once which claimed that when it comes to estimation, there are two groups of people: optimists, who underestimate schedules by a lot, and pessimists, who only underestimate schedules by a little. Both groups in the study failed to estimate the actual time it would take them to complete the task.

This is a natural human instinct. My wife and I have speculated that people wouldn’t really ever take on large tasks if they knew how long they took — certainly in my experience in computing, if you give people a realistic schedule, they’ll either push back or even cancel the project. Now I freely admit I make mistakes – but when I’ve called bullshit on schedules, I have never been wrong.

Here’s a few rules of thumb for you:

  • If you’re estimating by the seat of your pants, you’re wrong. It will take longer.
  • If you need it done in a short amount of time, you’re out of luck. It will take longer.
  • If you’re an administrator and can crack the whip to get it done, quit fooling yourself. It will take longer.
  • If you’re estimating based on past experience, and you think it will take less time, you’re kidding yourself. It will take longer.
  • If you think there’s really good reasons it’s easier this time, you’re even wronger. It will take longer.
  • If, on the other hand, you’re an expert on this kind of thing, congratulations: you’re the wrongest. Thanks to the process of automatization, through which humans learn to become experts, your mind has abstracted away all the details of the problem so they’re out of sight, out of mind – so what seems easy and quick to you will take longest of all.

There is no substitute for a formal process of estimation. I personally use function point analysis (breaking tasks into small parts, estimating their cost, and applying a function that produces time) and Gantt charts (calendar-like diagrams showing people and length of tasks and their dependencies) to get an idea of how long things will take, and this gets a good estimate, even though as soon as you start work you have to rework the design and throw the Gantt chart away.

This process offends some I know who are really into “agile” development, in which you forgo that kind of formal planning in favor a more flexible approach involving user “stories” – but these people are fooling themselves. The point isn’t the Gantt chart, it’s going through the formal estimation exercise, getting a realistic estimate of both task complexity and dependency chains. I knew agile back when it was called “extreme programming,” and its techniques have only gotten more sophisticated – but REAL, experienced agile development uses a training process to get people up to speed and engages in estimation of the velocity of development. If you ape agile with daily standup and a few post-it notes, congratulations: you’re fooling yourself, your schedule will slip.

THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR DECOUPLING THE PROCESS OF GENERATING TASKS AND ESTIMATING THEM. If you come up with tasks and score them on the spot, you’re flying by the seat of your pants, and will subconsciously generate estimates that show you will succeed.

You will not.

Once I dealt with a sharp CEO who recognized that I was right when I told him his three month project would take nine months. (I had to literally resign my position to get his attention, but that’s another story.) His response: ok, you’re right, it will take nine months – but we can’t track anything that long. We need three month milestones. Something we can see and manage. That way we’ll know we’re slipping. That’s what we did, that worked – and in nine months, we delivered, in three steps along the way. And, strangely enough, I find this is more generally true: in any given time period, I get about a third as much as I want to – but if I keep at it, and break things apart into smaller chunks, eventually I do get done.

So don’t imagine you can travel in time; instead, realize you need to take baby steps. Break your problem into the smallest chunks you can, relentlessly work on them to get them done, and doggedly track your next steps. You may not produce an hour-long video describing your views on life, the universe, and everything the first time you set out to do it, but maybe you can spend a pleasant evening getting your film studio set up, so that you’re ready to take the next step, when the time comes.

-the Centaur

Pictured: a shot of me and my wife. We tried to take a picture. We expected to take a couple. It took six shots, and I had to composite two of them together with four Photoshop layers to get a good one of both of us at the same time. :-P

The Blog Wolf Pursueth, Doggedly

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

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Welp, closing in on my first month of the “blog every day” challenge, and while I didn’t build that backlog I wanted, I have (with a few lapses) kept more or less on top of it.

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I’m at one of my favorite restaurants, Aqui, hacking away on five different projects, trying to finish up them all in the next few minutes before the next thing on my list. I could have gone to one of the two Aqui directly on the drive home, but I headed to downtown Campbell, hoping to have time to walk by a bookstore before it closes (I won’t).

And so maybe it would have saved time to have gone to someplace more convenient.

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But there’s something wonderful about going to a new (or at least different from routine place), and something serendipitious about studying how opinions change in human social networks while two tables around me, loudly gossiping and socializing, showed in full-blooded life what my colleagues in the scientific community are trying to understand with math.

Ah, the human mind, the human condition. What a wonderful environment for such a glorious machine.

-the Centaur

Announcing 30 DAYS LATER, a Steampunk Anthology

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

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The small press I’m associated with, Thinking Ink Press, has just announced its first anthology, 30 DAYS LATER, edited by A.J. Sikes, B.J. Sikes, and Dover Whitecliff of the Treehouse Writers’ Group! Check out the Thinking Ink Press announcement for more details, but it should be coming out around the time of the Clockwork Alchemy conference this May.

-the Centaur

Pictured: A clock, image credit: Deutsche Fotothek, downloaded from Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Not the cover or anything, just something I liked – we’re saving the cover reveal.

The Presentation Went Well

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

The presentation in preparation for which I wrote “Overcoming Writers Block” went well. That is all. Off to the gym.

-the Centaur

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Overcoming Writer’s Block

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

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(Self-deprecating note: this blogpost is a rough draft of an essay that I’m later planning to refine for the Write to the End site, but I’ve been asked to share it, so I finished it up and am sharing it as is. When the full article is cleaned up, I’ll link to it … but in the meantime, enjoy, and try not to wince too much).

So for way of introduction to the Write to the End group, I’ve been asked by a lot of people recently “How can I become a better writer?” — a question for which I’ve generated a bit of stock advice I frequently sum up as, “Just Write!” But, when I dug a little deeper, I found almost half of the people asking me that question were really asking the question, “How can I overcome Writer’s Block?” Well, I have some theories. And I’m going to tell you about them. But more importantly, I’ve got some techniques which I’m going to share with you, and even better, I’m using one of them right now: if you sit down to write and get writer’s block, then write down very explicitly why you sat down to write, and what kind of writing you hope to have produced when you get up again. If you don’t know why you want to write, and you don’t know what you hope to produce before you get up again, congratulations! You’re done. Get up from the page and go have a soda, something really nice, not diet, like with Italian flavoring or an ice cream float. If you do know what you want to write, or what you want to have written, congratulations! Actually writing that down can get you … um … on the order of 227 words, according to Scrivener’s count, probably 300 by the time you’re done. The hope is that getting yourself writing ANYTHING will get your pen moving, and saying what you want to write will get you rolling in the right direction; however, if you finish saying what you want to write and remain stuck, then be really explicit about what you want to say next and what you feel is your barrier to writing more. That’s the big thing I want to leave with you: if you have writer’s block trying to write something, you can overcome it by either describing what you want to write, or why you want to write it, and springboarding off that with more questions and answers, until, in the end, you’re just writing.

Huh. A notch over 350 words. I underestimated.

Now, I know some of the people who are reading this are technical writers, and so I want to warn you up front that there’s a problem with my approach that doesn’t apply to fiction writers: describing what you want to write is not a substitute for the thought that needs to go into the technical meat of whatever it is you’re writing. For example, if you’re trying to, say, write a design doc for your teammates, you may think that outlining the project, its goals, its problems, and its possible solutions is enough to make a design doc—but it’s not. That’s what a fiction writer calls an outline. While there are fiction stories that are essentially nothing but outlines, and even more that are outlines in narrative, fiction generally isn’t an outline, but is instead people in places, talking and doing things, told in a particular way — or what we technically call character and setting, dialogue and action, and scene and narration wrapped in that stylistic veneer we call voice. But technical writers, we can get tricked by outlines of technical items into thinking we’ve said something about a problem — so it is really critical that after you get a rough outline down that you go back over it, extract the important ideas, to think about they fit together, and to identify the key ideas that are not obvious about the problem — and those key ideas are what should go into your design doc or project proposal or product requirements document or launch announcement or marketing communication or scientific paper or anything else. The value of your document is not the structure of the problem, which is often well known, but the original thought that you bring to the table.

And that brings us to the primary reason for writer’s block, at least for experienced writers, that is: not having thought clearly enough about what comes next.

But wait! Because I’m writing this extemporaneously — a big-ass word for saying I’m pulling this out of my orifice — I’ve forgotten to tell you about the other kinds of writer’s block, which is somewhat important in case you’re possibly getting bored and want a quick way to figure whether slogging on through the desert of this essay in search of water that will quench your particular search is a vain hope or not, but which is actually far more important because some of those kinds of writer’s block can KILL YOU. Well, actually, no, that’s not very likely, but they can get you to kill your story and end up back at stage one.

So how can you get blocked? Let’s tick a few of these off so we can hold your interest while I drag out the big red warning sign. First, sometimes writer’s block is caused because you just don’t want to write — Ayn Rand used to call this “white sneakers disease” because she knew a writer who’d’ve rather cleaned their sneakers than write. Ayn Rand thought that, technically speaking, this wasn’t a block, but nevermind, since people have developed a good technique for resolving “white sneaker’s disease,” and that technique is called BIC — Butt In Chair. If you think you want to write, and you are not writing, then stop whatever you are doing, go put your butt in chair in front of a pen, piece of paper and writing surface, and sit there until you get bored enough to write something, or find that you cannot and AHA NOW this is writer’s block, congratulations, move on to the techniques for tackling writer’s block proper.

Second, as I said earlier, experienced writers can have writer’s block because they haven’t thought through what comes next. Third, inexperienced writers can have writer’s block because they’re cognitively overwhelmed — which is the real point of this essay, and which is why I started the essay off with one paragraph specifically tackling this problem in case that was all that you read, but, don’t fear, if “inexperienced writer staring at a blank page feeling just that, a blank” describes you, then hang in there, I’m writing this essay specifically for you and will come back to this in detail.

But the fourth kind is the real dangerous kind of writer’s block, a particular kind of voluntary writer’s block which can hit writers of any stripe, both unmotivated and motivated, inexperienced and experienced; in fact, it almost hit me writing the second section of this essay, and if I’d given into it, I never would have written the words you’re reading right now — because I would have spent the same time editing the first section of this essay, and that right there is Writer’s Block of the Fourth Kind: editing while you write.

Trying to edit while you write is particularly dangerous for reasons I’ll get back to when I explain Why Novices Feel Fear At The Dreaded Blank Page, but the more immediate reason is that you can spend arbitrary amounts of time editing without adding to your draft. Now, there are some writers who edit while they write all the time — especially poets, who may spend as much time working over ten words as it takes me to write a thousand words —but right there that shows you that if you’re trying to cough up a ten thousand word story, it doesn’t behoove you to drill down on a perfect first sentence. There’s a reason we call our writing group Write to the End: it’s because we believe you should finish what you start before you try to edit it, or you will never finish anything at all.

Okay, that’s a first pass at why Writer’s Block of the Fourth Kind is dangerous: it can stall you out, and worse, trick you into thinking you’re actually writing. But what if you don’t have anything to edit? What if you’re suffering from Writer’s Block of the Third Kind, the Dreaded Fear of the Blank Page? This feeling of blankness is the feeling you get when you’re cognitively overwhelmed, and to understand the reasons I separate it out from Writer’s Block of the Second Kind, AKA Not Thinking Through Your Shit, we need to talk a little bit about cognitive psychology — specifically, working memory and cognitive skill acquisition.

You see, when a writer sits down at the page, we may imagine we’re creating worlds — but we’re not gods, and can hold only a finite amount of information in our heads at one time. Our working memories can only manipulate a handful of chunks of discrete information at a time — famously estimated in cognitive psychology as a short term memory holding roughly seven plus or minus two items. Of course, it ain’t that simple when you dig into the details, but as a rough rule of thumb, it holds — and that explains both writer’s block for experienced writers and the Dreaded Fear of the Blank Page for inexperienced ones.

When faced with a blank page, you can easily see how you could get blocked not knowing why you want to write, or what you want to write about, or what’s the meat behind the structure of the idea — there’s just nothing in your short term memory to put on the page. But why do so many inexperienced writers who know the answers to all these questions nevertheless come to me complaining that they feel a blank when sitting down at the page? Well, that’s easy: I’m a psychic magnet for those kinds of problems — just kidding. The real reason is that inexperienced writers have, by definition, a set of skills which are not fully developed — and we don’t actually have short term memories that hold information, we have working memories which are both the product of and are used by our skills.

Yes, that’s right — I tricked you! I started talking about working memory, then smoothly slipped to talking about short term memory in the same sentence, because for a long time cognitive psychologists made the same mistake. We imagined that humans had a short term memory like a buffer that passively held information, like a briefcase, but when you carry through the implications that model breaks down, and that’s not really how the cortex of the brain is organized anyway. It’s better to think of the brain’s fixed storage capacity as less a passive buffer and more of an active internal dashboard reporting the state all the brain’s cognitive systems. Now, there are no photogenic cartoon characters monitoring that dashboard like in Inside Out—in part because of licensing issues with Pixar, but mostly because it would involve an infinite regress—if there’s a little character monitoring your internal dashboard, who’s monitoring their internal dashboards? Cognitive psychologists call that homunculus fallacy, and so a better image of the mental stage of the mind is an empty spherical cockpit filled with instruments projecting their findings to each other. Your consciousness is just the part of your mind that is easily accessible to other parts of your mind. For example, you can recognize a person’s face, but unless there are really obvious features, like Salvador Dali’s mustache that points all the way up to your eyeballs, you can’t describe a face in sufficient detail for someone else to recognize it, because the details of your facial recognition system aren’t accessible to conscious awareness.

In most animals, the instruments of the cockpit are fixed by the design of the system, like the gas gauge on your car, which reports the status of your fuel tank, or the flashing light on the fast return switch of your TARDIS, which shows that the Ship is trying to return to its previous destination.What distinguishes humans is that many of its screens are programmable, the same way your car’s GPS can update itself when the manufacturer pushes an update, or the way your TARDIS reconfigures its controls to match your personality every time you regenerate. Over time, the systems of the cockpit collect information, slowly improving over time with respect to the problems for which they were designed, like a GPS picking up new roads. But the human mind isn’t a car, with an army of of engineers designing updates that get pushed to it over a wireless network, or a TARDIS, with a billion years of engineering designed into its architectural reconfiguration system to help it adapt. No, the human mind has to update itself from scratch, often adapting to skills for which it has no evolutionary precedent — like, for example, writing.

You’ve got dials on your dashboard for hunger, sound, even speech, but writing is something humans made up from whole cloth. And when you’ve got to learn a skill for which you’ve got no precedent, no inbuilt system that can just pick up new roads, your mind has to fall back on more powerful general problem solving techniques. These techniques involve representing the information we know about a problem explicitly, collecting the implications of that knowledge from our long term memory, and putting all that data together into new conclusions. Once again, the components of your dashboard notice these leaps from information to conclusion, storing it to make it available to solve new problems. This process is called automatization, and it’s called that because it’s transforming explicit information that you’re representing in your conscious dashboard into skilled knowledge you can use automatically without conscious awareness.

You’d think that automatization wouldn’t help you, since you’re trying to store new information, but all you have are existing systems – but one of the fundamental tricks of computing is that any sufficiently powerful process can simulate just about any other process, and the cockpit of your glorious machine—in which all the systems you’ve accumulated over a billion years of evolution can talk to each other—certainly qualifies as a very powerful process that can simulate almost anything. SO, if you keep learning basic facts about a new skill, and keep storing them in whatever systems you have that are even remotely compatible, over time, your overall cognitive system will learn a new, automatic skill—but hang on. To represent the information about a problem, to dredge up its implications, and draw conclusions, your mind needs scratchspace—temporary storage to hold this information so your general problem solving processes can work it over, and that information must be accessible your conscious awareness. Learning a new cognitive skill needs your dashboard. It needs your highly limited working memory.

But wait! Weren’t we using that to hold what we wanted to write about?

Exactly. Now you’re starting to see the problem.

As a novice writer, you may know how to physically write—how to generate words on the page in response to prompts, like writing down items for a grocery list for your spouse in response to spoken requests, or writing down the contents of a shipment from the Queen of Sheba as it comes off the boat—but when you’re writing an article or story, what you’re actually doing is the separate and more complex task of composition — the task of creating new sequences of words. Take a simple example, composing your Captain’s Log. You can’t just hit a button on the Captain’s Chair and start jabbering about what happened on the planet: the task involves creating a specific set of words in a specific sequence which is stereotyped. You start with “Captain’s Log”, followed by the stardate, followed by a sentence reporting the location or situation, followed by one or two more sentences discussing the key questions of the mission and whatever red-shirted disposable crewmembers were eaten by the monster of the week. That structure itself is information, information which you need to call to mind, somehow, in order to organize the words that you speak, and if you’ve been rattled by a bunch of red-shirted disposable crewmembers being eaten by the monster of the week, you might have trouble gathering your thoughts. An experienced Starfleet captain like Picard or Kirk, however, will have no trouble—because for them, the structure of the log is automatic.

The way that cognitive skill learning works is through the transformation of declarative knowledge to procedural knowledge: that is, the process of automatization takes information you express explicitly and turns it into information that’s the output of a skill. That means if you are skilled at a task, you don’t need to pay attention to it: the actions of the task will happen, well, automatically; but that also means that if you are not skilled at a task, you’re relying on your general purpose processing power to perform it—and that the information you need to perform the task will compete with what you know about the task.

The problem is even worse because the act of writing relies on many sources of knowledge. Let’s review for a moment what some of those are, and I’ll throw in some you may have not thought of yet:

  • Purpose: Why you’re writing (for creative expression, because your boss asked you)
  • Goal: What you want your writing to do (to be fun, to help your teammates, etc)
  • Content: What you want to write about (the specific information you contribute)
  • Form: What kind of thing you’re writing (a story, an article, a blogpost)
  • Style: What tone of voice you want to use (lighthearted, formal, quirky)

Each of these is better thought of as a skill for generating answers to questions, rather than a source for information—and if you’re not practiced at the skill, you’ll have to store information about it in working memory, competing—but wait a minute, let’s go back to content for a moment. Think about it. To answer the question about what you want to write, you need to generate several pieces of information:

  • Content: What you want to write about
  • Structure: What topics do you need to cover?
  • Questions: What questions should your piece answer?
  • Ideas: What do you think about the questions?
  • Answers: How does that translate into answers?

I’m not trying to be pedantic here—I’m making an important point, or I think I am. What you want to say involves several kinds of information: the general topic of your piece, the specific issues you want to address, whatever thoughts you have, and how to express them—but each of these types of information is, itself, a skill, which, if it is not practiced, will compete with whatever it is you have to say.

This is why inexperienced writers dread The Blank Page: because they’re actually drawing on half a dozen skills, none of which are practiced, and those are driving their ideas straight out of their head. This is why my wife, who’s a great artist but not an experienced writer, a woman who’s put a great deal of thought into eco-friendly art, who knows why she wants to write, what she wants to accomplish, and can easily spend forty-five minutes talking to me about her ideas, can nonetheless get totally stymied when she sits down to write, staring at the blank page. And this is why I separate the Writer’s Block of the Third Kind—the inexperienced author’s Dread of the Blank Page—from the simpler Writer’s Block of the Second Kind—the experienced author’s Lack of Shit Together—because if an experienced author is willing to sit down and think hard about their problem, once they get their ideas, their skills will take straight over—but if an inexperienced author tries the same thing, their very skills may drive their ideas right out their heads.

That’s why inexperienced writers may need different tools to write other than “Just Write” or “Butt in Chair” or “Stop and Think”. In cognitive skills acquisition, one way you can teach a complicated skill is to teach it in parts—we call this scaffolding. Rather than try to become a great basketball player all at once, you instead practice dribbling, taking shots, holding the ball, playing one-on-one, then pickup games—slowly building up a body of skills that eventually become the foundation for real mastery. Writing is the same way; if you’re having trouble getting started, focusing on sub-skills and developing them can give you the scaffolding you need to get started.

One scaffolding technique I’ve recommended to people is morning pages—a technique recommended in The Artist’s Way to write three pages longhand the first thing in the morning. There are a lot of reasons to do this beyond scaffolding, but it gets you past the problem of composition by giving you a safe environment to write, and it can also help you express your ideas. If even this is too hard, you may be blocked on the simple act of writing, and I recommend you try writing “bla bla bla” until you get bored with it. This doesn’t work for everyone, but you could also try the “Finding Forrester” technique of taking an existing story and typing it in until you get tired of their words and start writing your own.

Another scaffolding technique is what I call the inventory method. I hinted at this at the start of the article: ask yourself explicitly the questions you need to perform the task of composition:

  • Why do you want to write?
  • What do you want your writing to accomplish?
  • What should people learn or feel after reading your article or story?
  • What is the most important specific idea that you contribute to this topic?

And so on, and so on, with the whole list of questions that I had earlier.

If even this is too hard, there’s another method I call the one page assessment. Get a piece of lined composition paper—and I mean this literally, this is for totally blocked people, so I want you to literally do these steps physically—and draw a line down its center so it has two columns. On the left, write out, one per line, the numbers one through ten, and then the words “Who what when where why how;” on the right, write out the days of the week and the months of the year. Now, for the numbers one through ten, write the top ten most important thing about your project—these can be single words or sentences, but rack your brain until you can get ten single words—and then write brief answers to each of the “Who what why …” questions below. When you’re done with that, for each day of the week or month of the year, write something significant about your project—either in the story you’re telling, or about when you as a person can work on it, or whatever (you can also do this with other breakdowns, like states or countries or oceans or planets—whatever categories work for you). When you’ve filled the sheet, pick the five things most important from the page, flip it over, write down these five as your headings, and try to write at least one sentence about each of the five things you picked.

The purpose of this exercise is to take away the need to do composition AND the need to generate questions, just focusing you in a very general, nonthreatening way on properties that affect your problem. If you make it through the page, consider doing it again, with your own headings this time. Process repeats, until you’re generating full outlines.

On the note of outlines, the technique I used for my first novel was what I called a recursive hierarchical outline. I knew I wanted to write a novel about a genetically engineered centaur, so I wrote that sentence down in a Microsoft Word document. Then I copied that sentence, italicized it, and wrote a paragraph about that sentence detailing the plot. Then I copied that paragraph, italicized it, broke it into sentences as new headings, and expanded each of those sentences into a paragraph. I repeated the process until I had a good outline; then I expanded it further until I had sections and finally paragraphs—at which point, I just started writing.

Another way to get at this information that’s locked in your head is the interview method—having a trusted friend ask you questions, and either writing down your answers or recording it for transcription later.

Finally, Bjarne Stroustrup, the creator of C++, recommends the template method—if you want to write an article on a topic, find a similar article to use as a template, and use that to help establish your questions and find the rough structure of your outline. Since he built a whole career around basically doing that to C by turning it into C++, and since he’s done it with several books and articles since then to great effect, I guess this approach has worked well for him.

The point of giving all these potential scaffolding techniques is that each writer is different, and no technique is guaranteed to work for you. We can see why this is—everyone has a slightly different set of internal equipment, and even for equipment that’s the same, everyone has a different history of learning and a different set of skills that work with facility, or not, on any given problem.

So, to sum up, the ways of tackling writer’s block are:

  • Writer’s Block of the First Kind: What We Have Here is a Failure to Motivate.
    Solution: Butt In Chair
  • Writer’s Block of the Second Kind: Not Thinking Through Your Shit.
    Solution: Stop and Think
  • Writer’s Block of the Third Kind: The Dreaded Blank Page.
    Solution: Cognitive Scaffolding
  • Writer’s Block of the Fourth Kind: Editing While You Write.
    Solution: Write to the End, then Edit

So now you see why I sum up my writing advice as “Just write—bla bla bla if you have to so your pen’s moving—because the more you write, the easier it gets, and the better you get; but if you sit down to write and get writer’s block, then write down very explicitly why you sat down to write, and what kind of writing you hope to have produced when you get up again, and then you’ll know how to proceed.” This sums up all of the problems in one Butt in Chair, provides a Cognitive Scaffold, incorporates Stop and Think—in fact, it tackles just about everything except the editing bit, which might be summed up as “Don’t critique yourself, finish your damn story!” And as for that bit …

That’s why I go to a writing group called Write to the End.

—The Centaur

Writing Advice in One Sentence: “Just Write”

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

IMG_20120218_213416.jpg

Recently, someone asked me if I had any advice for young writers. I just had a minute, so I could only give them one sentence – and I so wanted to say “Just write!”

But that’s not fair. Writer’s block is the biggest problem people have when they ask me how to be a better writer – and so it’s not enough to say “Just write!”

So the sentence I gave was: “Just write – start with ‘bla bla bla’ if you have to, just to get your pen moving – because the more you write, the easier it gets, and the better you get!”

And that sums up what I think about writing – literally the most important things I think you need, in a single sentence. But if you gave me just two words, I’d say: “Just write!”

So just write!

-the Centaur

Nobody knows nothing about the future except it’s going to happen

Saturday, January 23rd, 2016

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WTF? Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, running for president as an independent? As a liberal Republican?

https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/editorials/2016/01/23/bloomberg-out-ruin-hillary-clinton-party/mKsbeYSs7I3ocd6O9mwZJI/story.html

Q. Why is this coming out now if Bloomberg doesn’t plan to make up his mind until March? What’s the game plan?

A. Michael Bloomberg realizes that he could be in the best position to become the first independent elected candidate, going all the way back to 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt ran as a Bull Moose and won 27 percent. Bloomberg is a nationally known figure, and he has financial resources — he doesn’t need the financial support and structure of a party. Both sides will say that Bloomberg is running to help the other side — that’s always the way it is with a third-party candidate. But Bloomberg does not like Bernie Sanders’s social democratic philosophy at all. And I don’t think he likes Donald Trump’s statements on deporting people who are here illegally. Bloomberg has very good political instincts, and he is sensing that a lot of Americans are probably concerned, too.

Regardless of how it turns out, I don’t recall anyone predicting this. Let’s check the Google for answers, doing a search from the beginning of last year to the middle of last week … welp, I’m wrong, someone’s been talking about it, though as of October they were predicting that he won’t run, and that this is yet another in a series of endless rumors:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/10/stop-trying-to-make-bloomberg-happen/411514/

Are you into gambling? You are? Well, here’s a tip: Don’t put any money on Michael Bloomberg becoming president, no matter what you read in the New York media.

[reviews history of unfulfilled rumors from December 2006 to October 2015]

Perhaps this is all a charade—Bloomberg playing it all off until the moment he launches his campaign. Or you could just take it from Mike, whose bluntness and frankness his friends always cite as an important qualification: “I’m not going to run for president, period … No way, no how … It’s just impossible … No is the answer. Plain and simple.”

So it looks like this is another Wild Biden loose in the theater – watch out, raar. On the other hand, few people predicted in advance Trump would run again – as far as I know, not even professional Trump-watcher Scott Adams – so I go back to the one thing I know about presidential politics (actually, this is a sum of many things I know, but this story tells it well), which is this:

The Parable of the Man Who Was Obscure

Back in the day, there was a man who was obscure. He was so obscure, in fact, that no-one ever remembered anything he did: he even went on a nationally televised game show and none of the contestants could recognize him – though one did figure out he was a former governor. The man decided to run for president, but he was so obscure he had name recognition of two percent, and in the Iowa caucuses, he came in second after Uncommitted.

Hopeless, eh?

We now call him former President Jimmy Carter.

[cue scratchy audio clip of Paul Harvey saying “And now you know the rest of the story.”]

Nobody knows nothing about the future except it’s going to happen.

-the Centaur