Experiments in Perspective - The Big Break

Recently I’ve been reading through Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit and something that leapt out at me is the different means proposed to gain perspective of your work when editing. And I’ve noticed some of these are things I’ve done before with varying success, and given my recent foray into short stories, I thought this might be the perfect time to sit down and try to more objectively identify what works for me. And hopefully, in the process, offer some insight or alternatives to what was outlined in the book.

The first I’m going to start with is number 4 in the list; The Big Break. The choice for this one comes more from convenience of timing than any cunning plan I had concocted, there is a story that has been sitting in its drafted state waiting for a proofread (outside of the initial re-read I always do to make sure my characters have not spontaneously changed names - or possibly sex if my ‘s’ key was being stubborn). So come with me reader as I explore gaining perspective on written works.

The first thing I did when returning to this story was open up this very post in split screen with the story as a note taking space - primarily because I’m editing in markdown at the moment, it’s a long story (the reason for using markdown, not the actual story itself), and I can’t mark up or track changes in this editor - though it has come to mind that this may be more distracting than anything so I can’t recommend it.
The good news is I remember nothing about the story whilst reading, which makes it fresh and relatively easy to go through, in the past reviewing things I’ve written can become a slog especially after the second readthrough, so that’s definitely a plus. I’ve also found it much easier to pickup on errant contractions, I’ve tried my best to avoid using contractions in narration and make sure they only turn up in dialogue, it’s something someone said to me once that has stuck with me ever since.

While I do remember some of what I wrote, the problem with this particular story and the distance/time I’ve given it is that it (the story) jumps to characters who are never named and are there to show how long story is told over (along with giving allusion to some of the things that are happening outside of the other character’s viewpoints). While it made me reread entire chapters to determine who the scene is about it has helped me identify that it needs clarity, something that my initial re-reads didn’t because it was so fresh and the progression of the story was still present in my mind. Obviously, once the reader finishes the story it would have made sense but the fact that they may get confused is problematic so I’ve spent more time, not identifying these bit-part characters, but instead identifying the named characters more clearly at the start or during their scenes to help keep the reader on track.

All in all this feels very much like a normal edit, the few months I’ve gone without looking at it hasn’t done a great deal really, potentially this is because I did an edit previously that clarified a lot, or potentially the perspective a big break gives is more suited to longer form stories, I know it has helped with my longer form writing in the past (though the size of the break wasn’t really intentional in some of those situations).

I would definitely recommend this approach as one of the tools to use assuming you have the flexibility in deadlines. It gives you enough time to get over the ‘wow this is such a cool idea’ scenes and work out whether your character really needs to go skydiving off the Eiffel tower whilst playing a flame-throwing guitar to progress the story (they probably don’t, but who am I to tell you that?).

-Mechaquill

Motivation vs Job

Motivation. Everyone ends up writing about it at some point, (I guess it’s my turn). Especially writers and creatives, between motivation and inspiration I think a good portion of blog posts could be packaged under one of those two headers. They’re both elusive and when you don’t have them you feel worthless. Maybe you turn to self help books, those written by people who seem to have their life in order, confident enough in their ‘methods’ to push them on everyone desperate enough to read the book. And every self-help book I’ve read lately is straddling the line of helping with a personal level of motivational problems (with suggestions coming from someone who is clearly self-employed and can spend infinite time working on their journals and task lists and etc) while trying simultaneously to appeal to the managers of the world so that the ideas can be pushed by said managers (and hopefully that in turn drives book sales, because if nothing else, managers do love talking to other managers about their favourite manager books). So you end up reading books telling you to sacrifice yourself for you day job, give your all even if you’ll never get recognition or credit because you’ll regret it later otherwise.

But what if work is where the problem started?

I believe this image’s subject is frustrated because their phone only ever shows a blank white screen.

The idea of separation between work life and home life sounds pretty straight forward, you work at work, you do your own thing at home. But the human brain is not that good at compartmentalizing. There’s a reason there are a million articles about overwork, the fact that vacation less than eight days aren’t particularly relaxing and that ‘work-life balance’ is one of the new ‘come work for us’ pitches in job ads.
Maybe you’re unmotivated at work too, no recognition or credit (but you’ve been diligently giving your all like that self-help book said) and this lack of motivation leads to falling behind. And then work follows us home, lying in wait at the back of our mind while we’re watching Netflix or making dinner, waiting until about midnight to pounce and keep us up at night. Which leads to getting in late, or maybe less time to get things done. Or more pressure from your manager. You stay late (even alter than necessary because you feel guilty and need to make up for your tardiness) and the time you would have spent on your personal life and projects seeps away into more sleepless nights until your body starts rebelling.

Et tu, Body?

The body is actually pretty good at dealing with short burst of almost anything (admittedly very short bursts for some things). It’s also pretty bad at dealing with things being consistently terrible. An article published in the European Heart Journal titled Overtime work and incident coronary heart disease: the Whitehall II prospective cohort study found that there was a significant increase in the risk of heart-disease in workers who consistently worked overtime.

So you’ve ended up in a bad place, with no sleep, spending more time at the office (for those of us shackled to a job) and you’re exhausted when you do get home. And now instead of just your work worries seeping into your personal life, your lack of motivation from work flows into your personal projects too. It’s hard to stay motivated when you feel like you’re simply burning 8 hours a day on pointless work (and possibly for a pittance too if your boss is cheap). So how does one motivate themselves at home again? If you listen to the self-help books, you have to write tasks lists and pull yourself up by your own boot straps.
But task lists will only get you so far. Especially if they feel strangely familiar to the task lists you have at work. The ones handed to you by your manager, the ones with deadlines and demands.

The ones that are no fun.

Now you’re at the bottom of the hole, welcome to the abyss of failing motivation, insufficient time and a terrible work life.

So what now? There’s a few workable options, but take them all with a grain of salt.

1: Mediocrity & betrayal.
You can slow down at work. If your work is fairly stable and you’re confident in your job security you could redirect some of your energy, take it slower at work, save your enthusiasm for your personal life. Maybe get up earlier (as counterintuitive as it sounds) and work on your projects first (and avoid the internet, Srinivas Rao has a good article on why starting the day on the net is bad here), that way your “best” hours, where you have all of your focus, can be spent on your own projects, not your workplace’s (and not the workplace politics that infect everything in your work). Though if you’re more a night owl than an early bird that might be a very painful way to go about it.

2: Discussion & compromise.
Speak to whoever is in charge of your work life, a manager or HR or whoever it is and see if you can get some time off in the short term, perhaps a few extra hours of a morning before coming in or a few Fridays off. For smaller companies this conversation might be a bit easier, but in my experience larger companies are more open to actually engaging in discussions and providing help and solutions, small companies by their nature tend to only have one person per position so it gets harder for them to work without personnel. Which might be a contributing factor to overwork if you’re a small business employee. Because spending time on our own hobbies is extremely beneficial for our self-actualization (Gaetano DiNardi wrote a great article about why spending time on your hobbies is helpful here), if you can get this one balanced right it’s the best solution, but that’s a big _if_.

3: A holiday, but a long one.
An alternative to being mediocre at your job for a while is to take time off, again, you’ll need at least two weeks for it to be useful and you’ll need to bootstrap yourself a bit to get into the swing of things (if you let yourself lounge around for the first three days it’ll be hard to force yourself into work later). And then, you just have to hope you can make progress on your projects before your time is up. The best part of this is you have days of free time to sink into your project and an deadline for yourself that might jumpstart you. The downside? Well apart from possibly having to take unpaid leave to achieve the necessary length, you still have a deadline and limited time.

4: The thermonuclear option (I really don’t recommend this but it is fun to dream about).
If work is a mess and there’s nothing you can do to save yourself (and you have the financial means to support this option), you can always burn it all to the ground (metaphorically) by leaving your job. This is a no turning back situation (unless you’ve got a really understanding boss) and is going to be a do-or-die situation (well, a do-or-get-a-new-job situation at least). The biggest benefit of this is complete freedom to get everything in order, finally you can spend a day organising your task lists and journals just like the self-help books tell you to.

In all seriousness, a lack of motivation is difficult to overcome, often because there is nothing “stopping” your from doing the work but yourself, and by that I mean the mental roadblocks in your mind which do exist and do need to be overcome, but often, only you can do that. And if it is personal projects that you’re lacking the motivation for perhaps you need to re-evaluate the projects, because unlike work demands, these projects mean something to you and are actually good for you, especially if they’re creative in some way.

-Mechaquill

Labelling Reality Fiction

Have you ever been struck by the feeling that some piece of fiction you’re reading or watching is more real than many of the stories you see on the news daily?
Maybe you’ve watched something portraying real events that you knew about previously but having it presented to you in a new way makes it feel all the more real.

That was my experience watching the new HBO miniseries Chernobyl, I’d read about the Chernobyl disaster previously but the show haunted me more than it should have, and that got me wondering, why?

The Chernobyl miniseries was the catalyst for me coming into this thought process but it isn’t what I want to talk about, ‘Docudramas’ and ‘Based on True Stories’ exist all around us, but so does the news, news which is more real (though, granted, less glamorous) and should be more thought-provocative and more emotionally compelling, so why aren’t they?

Defined realness has an effect on how we as humans process information, Andrew L. Mendelson and Zizi Papacharissi explored this concept using images in their 2007 paper Reality vs. Fiction: How defined realness affects cognitive and emotional responses to photographs. According to their research in which they presented individuals with both fictional movie stills and news images labelled either are ‘Real’ or ‘Fictional’ (the labels switched for part of the sample group), they found that when presented with images labelled ‘fiction’ (regardless of which image was actually shown) that participants listed more ‘thoughts’ about the image when compared to the image labelled ‘real’. However it also showed that the emotional response to ‘real’ images was higher and that the ‘real’ images were considered more novel (new/interesting).
The proposal (from Mendelson & Papacharissi and also from Worth & Gross’s 1974 Article Symbolic Strategies) for why these two responses are the case (and I am paraphrasing a lot here) is that things labelled fictional convince us that there is some deeper meaning behind the content we are being given, that is, that the author of the content (whether they’re photographer, director or writer) has crafted the content in such a way as to hint at a meaning (which would make sense if the Law of Conservation of Detail is anything to go by). By contrast, we take the news we’re presented at face value and respond accordingly (whether emotionally, or not as may sometimes be the case).

Also, for those of you (like myself) with the obvious question of “How can we be sure the participants didn’t know which images were real and fake?”, prior to the study they tested whether the manipulation of labels worked, in this test people would rate the image based on how ‘real’ it felt. The participants rated the images labelled ‘real’ as more realistic.

The image on the left is real, the image on the right is computer generated, could you tell?

You’ll remember at the start of this I asked why isn’t the news more compelling emotionally, and you’ll also probably now be pointing to the paragraphs above with questions for me. My comparison was the cold hard facts of the Chernobyl disaster compared to the HBO miniseries and my theory is that when a docudrama, that is a relatively historically correct dramatic representation is compared to the real thing, the labels that are applied to them are blurred so viewers end up with a combination of both, an emotional response and to some degree a search for deeper meaning. The ‘real’ label makes the drama and lies all that more nauseating and rage-inducing, the emotional response is stronger, even when some of that drama was likely manufactured. Our minds are grasping the labels and reacting to the perceived realness of what is presented under that label.

This extra analysis in some cases can be good, and in others it can be bad. Being aware of what lens something is being observed through, especially in a world where deepfake now exists, is an extremely useful skill for both journalists, authors and the general public alike. And if deepfake doesn’t unnerve you, I don’t know what will, especially when experiments, such as the one explored in the article Can people identify original and manipulated photos of real-world scenes? by Sophie J. Nightingale, Kimberley A. Wade and Derrick G. Watson (and yes, given the subject matter the names Nightingale and Watson had me feeling very skeptical) indicate that we are not particularly good at spotting manipulated let alone computer generated photos.

-Mechaquill

Also, I lied about the images, they’re both real, but did their percieved ‘reality’ make you look at them differently?

People & Power: The Lion King's Lesson

Depose the ruler, put someone in power. It sounds like a relatively straightforward task, gather up a bundle of people, march on whatever capital you have (castle, seat of parliament, tribal leader’s hut, etc.) kill the king (metaphorically or physically, depending on the circumstance), sit them on the throne. Job done.

But why would all those people help you, would be dictator?
There’s a simple explanation, money. The people helping put you into power are doing it because they think you are going to reward them, why else would they put their lives and the lives of their families in jeopardy? If you can secure backing, you can secure the throne, but in securing backing you have to reward the people backing you. If you don’t, your rule will be very short indeed.

I want to take a quick look at The Lion King as an example to this (and yes I’m aware of what it’s based off but it is more contemporary and probably a little easier to remember the details of). Also, when I’m talking about this being a good example, it is a good example of coming to power not necessarily keeping it. Scar is the usurper in this scenario, throughout the movie he runs the gamut from schemer to usurper to king to ousted. Let’s take a quick look at the steps he goes through:

  1. Find supporters (and in this case an army), at the start of the movie he has been doing this for some time (feeding the hyenas to get them to follow him and support him).
  2. Remove the current ruler (he does this by killing Mufasa, the current king; this could be a problem but luckily they are the same bloodline so his claim to the throne is much easier to convince people of than if he was truly an outsider, this is probably why the support of the lionesses isn’t immediately withdrawn - that is, not until it is too late).
  3. Remove as much opposition as possible (Simba was meant to be killed, but this is a children’s movie and also, if he was, the story the movie presents ends pretty quickly. Instead he is banished with the threat of “If you ever come back, we’ll kill ya!”, which works for a time).
  4. Introduce more people that can be ‘swapped’ into influential positions (partially as a reward) to help maintain his hold (he does this by bringing the Hyenas, his most loyal supporters into the system, that’s the: “…where lions and hyenas come together…” speech).
    At that point he is effectively in power and doesn’t have any real opposition, the next in line is gone, the lionesses are outnumbered by Scar’s army (the Hyenas) who are now getting paid well (now have food where before they were banished to the elephant graveyard). The populace (lionesses) are unhappy but there isn’t a great deal they can do without fear of reprisal from Scar’s now loyal army.

At this point you might be forgiven for thinking he is in power and will stay in power. In the minds of many people a dictator’s rule is absolute, complete and unwavering, a dictator, unlike a democratically elected representative, isn’t afraid of the populace kicking him out. And this is true, the populace can do little to a dictator in power. But that is the wrong side of the deposing-a-dictator coin. The real threat to the dictator is the ones who helped him to power and help him stay in power. Now let’s turn our attention to his fall from power.

Scar’s fall starts well before Simba ever returns to the scene, Simba is what finally topples Scar’s house of cards, but from a political decision standpoint Scar has been failing for a time. The gold is largely gone (there is no food, the herds are gone, the lionesses are hungry as are the hyenas) and he is ruling on force of will and fear alone. When Simba returns (an eventuality he is not prepared for) suddenly a viable alternative has presented itself. In an extremely short time the people (lionesses) effectively storm the palace (obviously there are no palaces but this is functionally where the now unrewarded army steps back and lets the people riot and depose their leader). The army (the Hyenas) having lost their reward for keeping Scar in power (the hyena army is a key supporter of Scar’s rule) turn on him, they let the people riot instead of keeping the peace, and in fact, they attack their king themselves (there’s a whole scene dedicated to this which is a bit twisted in a children’s movie if you consider what they probably end up doing, it is not quite cannibalism since hyenas and lions are a different species but it might as well be).

The reasons I wanted to write this little look into Scar’s politics is because I’ve been writing a more politically involved book (not real world politics obviously, that’s just nightmare fuel regardless of which side or branch of politics you analyse) and that’s led me to start thinking about the big powerful characters that appear in it. And, by extension, what those characters need to do to remain powerful.

If this topic is of interest I suggest having a read of The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, they give a much more in depth look into the behaviour of people in power and a whole host of real-world examples.

-Mechaquill

My Nanowrimo 2018: An Exercise in Failure

I started doing Nanowrimo (a writing challenge where you write 50,000 words in 30 days, it can actually be fun, even though it sounds ridiculous) in 2015, at the time I had just finished my final year of university and was starting a new job. I finished it well that year (after a big dip into the ‘not enough per day’ territory) even with moving and the new job cutting into my time.

Fast forward one year and I’m working full time, this time, no moving, no real hassles at all, but I fail spectacularly. At the time I blamed no planning of the story (as in, none at all, not even a vague notion of where my plot was going), but I fear it was just general laziness that got me that year.

When 2017 rolled around I was just finished moving, our whole office had also moved and I was pretty in the swing of things, I would write walking to work (that 60 minutes each day was getting used one way or another) and, after a slow start (I didn’t break 10k until the 22nd day) I managed to hurl myself across the finish line with a 10k word day and several 5k days. But I made it, incidentally that story (the one I wrote, not the story of how I did it) has sat collecting the digital equivalent of dust at the bottom of a labyrinthine folder tree on my computer ever since.

This year, I tried a different tactic. I started early. Like a month early. I had a story that I needed to get written, just to get it out of my head, so I started early, with the goal to finish it off (having, just barely, started it a few months prior). I pumped out 16k in 22 days, only about 727 words a day. Then nano started, but the characters and the story were steaming along and the momentum carried on after a rough 2 days where I couldn’t get in front of my keyboard the words rolled out, 2k, 2k, 2k, 2k, 2k, 2k, and on the seventh day in a row, 4.5k. The next day I missed the 1667, but I finished the story.

And here comes the snag; my plan had been to complete the story that I did and move onto other unfinished writing projects I had, the rules aren’t specific to it having to be the same story to finish Nanowrimo, in fact it is almost encouraged to switch, anything to keep you writing. Obviously sticking to your guns with one story is how you get something complete out, but I had already completed one and it needed time to fester in my mind, for the flaws and weaknesses to become apparent with my mental absence from the idea. But, a friend of mine suggested I write something ‘different’ he’d read some of my other stuff and wanted to see what something without the action (I’ve been told my writing isn’t exactly slow-paced) would look like coming from me. I made him a deal, he finish reading my story that he was dragging his feet on (I’d asked him to give me feedback months before, though I don’t blame him, I hardly have time to read either) and I would write ‘the different story’. Two days later he suggested I enter a competition with another story I had previously written. The catch: I had 15 days to make changes, copy-edit, re-read and submit. And, < insert cliche about working late here >, I made it before the deadline with something I thought was at least passable for the competition. There were patches that weren’t as polished as I would have liked, but there was a deadline, and finished is better than perfect or so I keep telling myself. That was the 25th, and the changing of priorities shows;

Fast forward to today, the 29th and I’m flailing. Ten thousand, five hundred words to write today, the same again, tomorrow. I have been rushed off my feet with work (same workplace, different position) for the last few days, so only mere whimpers of writing have come out, 1k, 2k or maybe 3k at most, nothing like the 10k that saved me in 2017 or the slow ratcheting up that gave me the steamroller momentum for the end of 2015. Just a whimper, a flail, and a lot of cursing and caffeine abuse as I struggle to stay awake.

What’s the moral of this little story? Sometimes caffeine can’t save you.
Or, on a less depressing note: Sometimes it is better to try something else, to attempt to finish an idea and give it to an audience, be they a panel of judges or a friend, than it is to create a new shambling abomination, at least in the short term (something-something have to be able to close something-something).

Also, the thousand words from the editing got added to my Nano word-count. Because, dammit, I’ve got 24 and a bit hours and I’m still trying.

-Mechaquill

Building A Keyboard

I fell down a dark, deep rabbit hole. For those of you unfamiliar with mechanical keyboards (and the amazing subreddit by the same name),
run.

Seriously though, if you get sucked into this it will get expensive fast.

Initially when I dreamed up the project I’ve since nicknamed Forty Six (the number of keys it has) I was looking at modifying the Mitosis keyboard (a bluetooth keyboard with a peculiar layout made by redditor Reverse Bias). I initially got my own boards made with modifications to include a Li-Ion battery, charging circuit and a fourth row to include the number keys (and to sacrifice some of the extra function keys they had laid out below the keyboard).
I won’t bore you with the details of manufacture (it was just a long slog through several iterations using DipTrace, getting them produced by a PCB manufacturer, the external plates laser cut and, 3D printing a spacer to hold everything together). After it was built I immediately ran into the issue of having lost all of my function keys (no F5, Home or End key really hurt) and despite their presence on higher layers (I could hit a button on the keyboard and all of the keys would change what they do) I couldn’t stand doing that for even basic functions. So I built another board, a connecting board that would sit between the two freely moveable “hands”. So back to the drawing board, an evening of DipTrace and a few weeks of waiting and I had a console with the numpad and all the extra keys ready to go.

Small problem. I lent it to a friend to try out and, through no fault of their own, they discovered that the microcontroller’s USB connector had dry joints (hence why it’s unplugged in some of the images). Which would be fine, but my design, to save vertical space, had the components of the Pro Micro (the controller board) sandwiched between the PCB of the controller and the PCB the switches were mounded on. And there’s no way in hell I’ll be able to get the controller desoldered without destroying something, PCB, controller (which doesn’t matter as much) or the plastics (the brass-look top plate can’t be removed without desoldering the switches which can’t be done without desoldering the controller). So another lesson learnt, keep the components within easy reach.

The last problem I have is… That I’m going to do it all again.
My intent is to take everything I’ve learnt from this little endeavour, fix the mistakes I’ve made and build a slightly more traditional keyboard (it’s hard to get used to).
In the mean time I’ll make do with the Corsair Strafe I bought a while ago, even though it frustrates me to no end (whoever thought a fixed 8mm cable was appropriate for a keyboard needs to seriously reconsider their choices).
So stay tuned, this time I plan to document the process better, from start to finish.

-Mechaquill.

Beginnings

It’s late at night, everyone else is asleep and I’m up writing the first entry in a blog. A first entry that may never see the light of day (hint: if you’re reading this, then it did). I’ve spent the last few hours trying to get my head around Hexo a static generator of websites that this blog is using. I had thought to use wordpress or something else equally mainstream and proven but I also like the idea of relative simplicity.

So, as it’s 2:30 AM and I’ve all but exhausted myself today I invite you to tune in next time to follow my adventures in stuff. Yes, I haven’t narrowed down what this is going to be all about, probably writing, almost certainly building things, maybe some code, if we’re lucky I might even get to upload something new once a week. But I make zero promises.

-Mechaquill.