Saturday, February 02, 2002

Cures for Writer's Block

Apparently, what works best for me in getting rid of writer's block is to complain to my bosom bud Janis about it. Then, sometime later that day, one or more ideas will rear their heads.

Of course, this technique may not work for you, and I'd wager heavy odds Janis does not want total strangers contacting her just to whine. Consider accosting your own best buds instead, if you want a little advice on that subject.

Actually, having writer's block these past couple weeks was a really good thing. Since no fiction ideas were popping, I spent a lot of time getting to know John Scalzi from a distance [reading his site], thinking about being a freelance writer, and going through my Children's Writers and Illustrator's Market for 2002, after realizing there was nothing stopping me from writing articles while I waited for the muse to strike next with a story. Well, duh. I enjoy explaining things to people, particularly young'uns, and particularly science, so now I've got magazines targeted and query letters etc., etc., and I'm generally just pleased with the whole outcome. Especially because I then just casually mention the whole thing to Janis and suddenly bam the Story Train arrives.

Muses. Bless their little pink hearts.

Thursday, January 31, 2002


My fave movie soundtracks:

Empire of the Sun [I don't have it on CD, though, so now I never listen to it]
The X-Files
Strange Days
Lost Highway [which I've never actually seen, I just have the soundtrack]

I can't really add the Star Wars soundtrack to this list, it's not like I can work on anything and listen to the bulk of it at the same time, which really does have to be my criteria for music. I listen to music all the time, but almost always while I'm doing something else. So, I select based not just on what I like, but what I need to do.

Vivaldi, in particular The Four Seasons, is superb for programming. Unless I'm tired. 3AM pulling an all-nighter? You can bet I've hauled out the Nine Inch Nails or Rammstein. When I was working at Alpine, you could identify specifically what I was doing: debugging, researching, writing fresh code, writing documentation, and whether or not I was tired, just by examining my musical selections. Loud obnoxious rock? Sidra stayed late and came in early.

Writing in general? Frequently I select music based on the mood I'm trying to work into the story. If I'm writing horror or something very dark, Nine Inch Nails is a consistently good selection. Writing fairy tales? Classical music -- perhaps Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. Science fiction or fantasy? Almost anything, as long as it's not something that I have to jump up and sing along to. Being that I love to sing, that can be a real problem. Sometimes I have to simply stop for an hour, put on a musical choice, get the singing out of my system, and then go back to work. Other people take cigarette breaks. Whatever works.

Technical writing, like a how-to, or manual? Then I look for something very low-key and calm, as the point to this branch of writing is to be very factual and mood-less. Unless I'm allowed to have a sense of humor, which happens more when writing what I consider semi-technical material, like FAQ pages for a web site.

Anyways, if I were going to be stranded on a desert island and I could take 5 CDs with me? Set aside the whole fave music selection concept, my friend, I'd be looking for the audio edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Let's not even talk about if I could only take one book, friends and neighbors...

Travellin' Woman

My friend Kim just got back from an extensive trip to Asia -- Hong Kong, Taipei, and a brief stop in Tokyo. Even before she left, I was filled with the urge to study Cantonese or Mandarin. Now that I've read her trip report, I'm all envious. I wanna go, too!

Tonal languages, how fascinating. I must know more. How do tone-deaf people manage?

Anyway, reading Kim's report I was reminded of the fact that I never publicized my travel journal from when I went to Japan in 2000. I really must do that sometime. I don't take pictures, I bring paper and a pen everywhere I go. In Japan, I carried around a nice little book all the time and filled it with notes on culture, where I went and what I saw, and in one case, a drawing of a beautiful temple might have been Nara. Keeping a journal and carefully saving all my maps works really well, otherwise I wouldn't remember trips at all! I just relegate stuff quickly to secondary memory storage, I guess. Maps in particular make excellent memory-jogger tools for reconstructing the events of a trip. Plus they're so....flat. So handy. I love maps. I collect them. So tidy, so informative, so telling. Every new place I go, I get maps.

Anyways, I don't photograph well, IMO, and I really like how writing during my trips introduces me to people and gives me a chance to really capture the feeling behind a moment, not just its look. I'm not a good photographer, so if I want a really beautiful photo of a place, I just buy a postcard and get it over with. If you're at all interested in my trip journal from a visit to Utah, follow me.

Tuesday, January 29, 2002

Once Upon a Time

There lived three kings with one son each. The kingdoms were not far apart, and the three princes grew up riding, fishing, and studying together. Crispin, the eldest of the three, was known for his swift wit and skill with a sword. His temper was quick to rouse and quicker to wither, and he could spear a fish in a stream with just his dagger. Bernard, next eldest, was known to wrestle bears in the spring when they were meanest, and win. He loved his princely cousins with a deep heart and deeper loyalty. Samuel, the youngest of the three, though not by much, for they truly were almost all of age, had accidentally destroyed -- and then rebuilt -- the bridge over the River Gray, and once, spent a whole summer lolling about reading nothing but poetry.

Monday, January 28, 2002

"Classic" Literature and Pop Culture

Finally got around to the movie theater this past weekend. Saw The Count of Monte Cristo on Saturday and The Fellowship of the Ring on Sunday. COMC was good, and I was awestruck by LOTR.

During the course of the weekend I was reminded of the fact that I haven't actually read The Count of Monte Cristo. Speaking of which:

Y'know, one of the things that's immeasurably sad about getting a "modern education" is the deep resentment many people I've met form for "the classics". This lack of having read 'defining works' is ingrained culturally today: the TV character who hasn't read "the classics" is the everywoman, the one we all identify with, maybe even going head-to-head with the artsy snob who talks about Descartes like they had dinner together last week. As if.

The whole thing's a shame, and I'm left oddly grateful that I managed to slip through the cracks by going to 3 different high schools, and avoided reading a great many things I might now hate, otherwise. At this later date, I can come to them as a reader first, and an analyst second -- which is how most of the intial readers of these works would have come to them. As readers.

Now, on the one hand, it's important to have exposure to the literary history of "Western Civilisation". One of the ways we teach and learn "critical thought" is by analyzing literature. So all that paper writing on Oedipus or Othello or Captain Ahab was an important part of the process of trying to teach you how to think coherently, maybe even articulately.

In fact, reflecting back on those high school years, science classes -- another way of teaching and learning to think critically -- were usually optional in later years of study. English for 4 years, but science you could get away with just 2. That means the stereotypical science-avoiding teen of my youth slogged through The Red Badge of Courage and Of Mice and Men, but managed to get out of chemistry and physics. So the only consistent exposure to critical thought during high school years was via literary criticism.

Furthermore, literature as a whole represents a common language, or set of symbols, for relating to other people. If you haven't read Great Expectations, you can't use it as a way to relate to someone else who has, and thereby begin or further a relationship with them. Having a common ground is important, a basis for forming partnerships or communities. It's the underlying concept behind "pop culture". Popular culture -- how many of you discuss TV shows with coworkers? When you do, you're interacting with them, solidifying your relationship, demonstrating your membership of the same community by properly using this common set of symbols.

On the other hand, forcing overanalysis and armtwisting someone into reading something leaves you with a person [or can leave you with a person] who resents the thing they've just read, won't remember it for long as a result, and quite possibly dislikes reading. Maybe consciously, maybe not.

What does this have to do with The Count of Monte Cristo and The Fellowship of the Ring? Lots, and not much. Both are works by very important writers who should be read not just because they're great stories, but because they are part of our common literary heritage, and thus part of what makes "Western Civilisation" what it is, and we should know them. From this perspective, I'm glad to see cinematic versions of tales like The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Three Musketeers being brought to life via the most widely used distribution channels available to popular culture: film and television.

Of course, I'm also a dedicated reader, so I could go on for hours about how each and every one of these tales are infinitely better if you read them rather than see them. Go on, be daring, read a book. But you know what? Go see the movie, too. It's OK. Let your love for the film, be it based on work by J.K. Rowling, Tolkien, Dumas, whomever, serve as your introduction to the author as well. Read the movie, see the book.