A direct encounter with Oblique Strategies

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Oblique Strategies, how can I make headway on my book tonight?”

“Don’t avoid what is easy.”

“That’s what I like to hear! Don’t give me some mystical bullshit!”

(Actually, I like the mystical bullshit too.)


(Comments directly on the blog, please.)

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Weekend Writing Warriors, first visit

Found another group with whom to write in silence and solidarity. The Weekend Writing Warriors meet at Uptown Espresso in West Seattle on Sunday mornings. They are less social than the other group I attend, Waywords, which I rather appreciate.

Uptown Espresso is a good place to come write about imaginary games. The walls are lined with real ones. It’s like working inside the BoardGameGeek server cluster. Lots of copies of Cosmic Encounter here, whether opened for play, or for sale. A good sign, or “sign”.

What are the writing exercises like? Apparently writing for 10 minutes to a prompt at the very start of the session. I came late. No big deal.

We’re supposed to pick a goal for the quarter. My goal is to break 50,000 words by the solstice and keep going. After the session, I’m at 46,900 precisely. About 3,000 to go.

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Brainstormbringer, Eater of Black Moods

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First, let me say that if I were a good Stoic I’d be blaming the workman and not his – my – tools. That said, I’ve been trying to finish writing my third book (a book of fictional reviews of the board games, video games, and sports of a parallel Earth). I’ve been working in Emacs, and although I love many things about the program, I’ve come to think it’s not ideal. In fact, it’s too good.

I’ve gone through a couple of periods of creative block, and one of my initial home remedies was a browser add-on to prevent me from viewing my favorite websites during certain hours every day. It kept me from visiting those sites, all right – but I could still visit most of my bookmarked sites (I literally have 28,835 bookmarks at present) and I could engage in non-writing, offline computer interests such as interactive fiction (lately I’ve been fascinated by The Gostak).

Moreover, the Emacs editor itself has been too interesting – too tempting to tinker with and learn about – for me to write much in it directly. Now, the AlphaSmart Neo, on the other hand, is a limited-capability keyboard with a tiny screen they gave to children in schoolrooms ten years ago. What could be duller? It’s great.

To recap, the tragic flaw of Emacs is that it’s highly hackable and therefore intrinsically cool. That’s bad. You don’t want a writing tool that’s an end in itself.1 Your tools must be invisible enough, unattractive enough, not to draw you away from your work, or, Muse forbid, become your work. Emacs, like the slightly demonic mystery in “Step Right Up” by Tom Waits, will find you a job. It is a job.

That’s why tonight, after weeks of drought while trying to write in the excessively excellent Emacs, I completely shut down my Ubuntu laptop for several hours, broke out my Neo again (Marty has dubbed it Brainstormbringer, a much more exciting moniker than it deserves), and extended my manuscript substantially.2

What would you think of an auto mechanic you hired to fix your car but instead billed you for merely putting her toolbox in order? I’ve spent a lot of time messing around with Emacs, FunnelWeb, and Pandoc in my attempts to just write. This is the opposite of the “Fuck it! Ship it!” philosophy of Markdown I started with.

In conclusion, I frankly don’t care whether you fuck it. Just ship it, by any means at hand.

Footnotes:

1

WordStar is also powerful, and that’s why it has both plenty of fans (for retrocomputing software) and people saying they still get work done on it (as distinct from fans). It might also help explain why there’s a WordPerfect mode for Emacs. On the other hand, Emacs probably has Morse code and pizza-ordering modes too, so I shouldn’t find it remarkable it can emulate WordPerfect.

2

I used to get a lot done with boring old Gedit too – the Linux equivalent of Notepad.


What do you think? And hey, how about leaving comments on this blog, rather than on Twitter or F*c*b**k or wherever else you found this? Thanks.


Photo by João Pimentel Ferreira (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Job security nightmare

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I became gradually conscious I was doing some prolonged writing that amounted to repetitive text entry, and that I was strenuously arguing with someone. “Come on,” I was saying. “I can script this! No? At least let me set up a keyboard macro!” and so on.

I literally woke up in a sweat. I have had technical writing gigs where I had just this argument with management. Sometimes I lost the argument and was condemned to trudgery. Sometimes I won and automated myself out of a job.

There are other possible outcomes, but of the two, I usually prefer the latter. It’s more honest, and more fun.


Photo “Space-cadet keyboard” by Dave Fischer, Retro-Computing Society of RI (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Industry standard manuscript word counts under Linux

Last night I did a word count on my book in progress within Emacs, my text editor of choice. I was astonished that it had apparently gained 2,000 words with only a few edits – from about 43,500 words to about 45,500 words.

I had been using the Linux command-line utility wc to count my words before that, and it had been returning the lower number. I also tested Gedit (results on the high end), and LibreOffice Writer (on the low end).

I wondered on Twitter which I should trust, and a writer friend advised that LibreOffice would probably be closest to Microsoft Word, the standard among professional editors and publishers, so I should stick to the former. However, I ran a word count under my wife Marty’s copy of Word, and it was both highest of all and furthest from LibreOffice. Emacs was closest! Here are the numbers, from high to low:

Microsoft Word 2010 = 45,653
GNU Emacs 24.2 = 45,466
Gedit 3.10.4 = 45,309
wc = 43,855
LibreOffice Writer 4.2.7.2 = 43,726

Moral: M-x count-words in Emacs comes closest to the industry standard – a little low, in fact, which is better than a little high. Gedit is not bad. Stay away from wc and LibreOffice Writer for counting words if you are writing professionally.

Breaking news from my friend: With a much longer manuscript (around 190,000 words), he’s seeing a spread closer to 4,000 words than 2,000, but otherwise his results are quite similar.

A further postscript: A couple of days later, my word count dropped again by about 1,000 words for no discernible reason. I grabbed an older copy of the document from Dropbox and diffed it with the most recent version. I finally understood that I had turned section numbering off in recent versions, and those section numbers had been counted as words, sometimes more than one. For example, section 4.3.2.1 would count as four words. Multiply that by a couple of hundred sections, plus their appearances in the table of contents, and you’ve got a thousand words that can evaporate invisibly.

Work proceeds. Play proceeds.

Work proceeds, slowly, on the “imaginary games book”. I was aiming for a word count of around 50,000, and I currently have about 43,000.  I have about 75 game writeups in mixed states of completion — more complete than not, but always ready to take a higher polish, and there’s the rub.

Why has it taken me years to write 50,000 words (fewer), the length of a short novel? First, I’m a slow writer. To quote Thomas Mann, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Second, it’s slow subject matter. To say I’ve been writing 75 notional reviews of imaginary games for the past couple of years is to say I’ve been halfway designing 75 games during that time. The term of art is design fiction — in this case, game design fiction.

Third, it’s the slow subject matter multiplied by my slow writing. They’re not merely additive.

The parallel world is called Counter now, not Glob or Lila or Loka.  The little Roman penal colony that started all the trouble on Counter is called Victoriæ, home of the Caïssan Mysteries, and if you don’t know who Caïssa is, I politely suggest you look Her up.

And reviews of imaginary games?

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My wife Marty pointed me to this snippet from the Discworld series last night:

The Library of Ephebe was – before it burned down – the second biggest on the Disc.

Not as big as the library in Unseen University, of course, but that library had one or two advantages on account of its magical nature. No other library anywhere, for example, has a whole gallery of unwritten books – books that would have been written if the author hadn’t been eaten by an alligator around chapter 1, and so on. Atlases of imaginary places. Dictionaries of illusory words. Spotters’ guides to invisible things. Wild thesauri in the Lost Reading Room. A library so big that it distorts reality and has opened gateways to all other libraries, everywhere and everywhen …

–Terry Pratchett, Small Gods (1992)

See my other posts related to the parallel world of Loka.