PicoWriMo Results

It’s the end of November and the last day of PicoWriMo, a stripped down version of NaNoWriMo in which each participant set his or her writing goals for the month. My goal was to write and complete two short stories and to write 500 words a day in my journal.

I wrote one story and started another before I became too discouraged with it to finish. I did, however, manage to write 28,459 words in my journal in November and I posted about 10 blog entries during the month. Given that I’d never tried my hand at fiction before, I didn’t do too badly on that side of things and that second story keeps calling to me with suggested changes to make it work better. I intend to work on more fiction writing if I can manage it.

I nearly doubled my goal for my journal and that pleased me very much. By deliberately writing faster than I’ve ever written before I found I was enjoying the experience more and breaking through to more creative material. I was outracing my inner editor.

Nonetheless, I’m glad PicoWriMo is over. While I intend to keep up a good pace of writing, I found myself feeling pressured. A little pressure is normally a good thing, but that’s not necessarily true when you’re also in cardio rehab. I need more downtime and relaxation than usual to allow my body to recover after exercise.

The best part of the PicoWriMo experience was getting into the space of a creative writer, albeit briefly. I’ve picked up a few recommended books on fiction writing, and I’ve listened to many writers discuss their craft on podcasts such as Writers on Writing. I’ve developed enormous respect for those who write and gained some insight into the process.

It’s been a worthwhile experience and it’s given me plenty to ponder in the months ahead. Excuse me now while I sneak off to my favourite reading chair and lean back with a good novel.


From my journal, 29 Nov 2007:

I solved a sudoku this morning. I’m definitely getting the hang of it for easy ones. I’ll continue along this path until I feel more confident of trying the medium and harder ones. Doc Khanna thinks this is good for my brain. We’ll see.

Ubuntu Linux

When it comes to computing, I’ve become lazy. I call myself lazy because, like many of you, I do many things unrelated to computing, I have a family, and I am not interested in having to wrestle my OS or programs to the ground every time I want to do something with my computer. Of course if I were totally lazy, I’d simply use Windows or OS X and be done with it.

The reason I keep returning to Linux is that I sympathize with the goals and philosophy of open-source software. I’m also impressed by the talented programmers and writers the world over who have given so much of their time and talent to creating and documenting open-source projects.

Furthermore, I’ve always liked Unix. My first computer experience was with a dialup shared account on the University of Toronto’s Zoology Dept DEC PDP-11. Sitting at a 110 BAUD dumb terminal, I learned ed, nroff, and a handful of command-line utilities to manage files and directories. It was a heady experience I’ve never forgotten.

I’m an ex-IT professional, now retired. During my 20+ years working in IT I worked in all kinds of environments including CP/M, TRS-80, AppleDOS, early Mac OS, MS-DOS, Windows, OS/2, VAX VMS, AOS/VS, a tiny bit of MVS, and a number of Unix or Unix-like systems, including Solaris, SCO Unix, AT&T Unix, BSD, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD, plus too many flavours of Linux to remember. My early favourites in Linux were Slackware, Red Hat, and Debian. I now use Ubuntu Linux.

I mention this mainly as background to remind myself that over the years I’ve done a lot of technical work and support, including programming, system administration, database design, user support, Internet infrastructure building, and even a bit of computerized typesetting. I don’t want to do these things any more. Instead I prefer to read fiction, take photographs with the cameras in my collection, enjoy my family, cook, go for walks, and do some writing. I don’t have time to hack at systems to make things work. I’ve become that dreaded thing: a User.

So this time around I freed up some space on my Windows XP workstation so I could install Ubuntu Linux and dual book my system. I tried Ubuntu once before and liked the ease of use it was acquiring. I hit it really lucky by installing right after the Gutsy Gibbon release (Ubuntu Linux 7.10). From what I’ve seen so far, this is a fine release for the lazy. Most things work correctly after installation without a lot of tweaking and reading. Exactly what I was looking for.

My Linux server in the basement, which I use mainly as an Internet server test bed for when I’m not feeling totally lazy, is a Debian system and I’m a fan of Debian-style packages. To me, Ubuntu is a slicked-up version of Debian for the masses.

Despite enjoying Linux, I’m not a zealot. In fact I’m pretty agnostic about operating systems and when I need Windows, I’ll be there. I use Windows extensively for digital photography and although I can accomplish some of what I do with photography in Linux, there’s nothing there that matches Photoshop CS2, Downloader Pro, or Irfanview.

Nonetheless, I’ll use The GIMP fairly regularly for casual work. It’s come a long way and I rather like it.

So, once again I step into the Linux world. Continue reading “Ubuntu Linux”

RR Tracks

RR Tracks
Originally uploaded by StarbuckGuy

Sometimes luck plays a big part in getting a nice photo.

Two days ago I walked to the harbour along Stavebank Road, a road that parallels the Credit River in Port Credit. It crosses over a set of CN rails just before I turn off the road and walk around the hockey arena to the park, usually on my way to Starbucks.

I got off to a very late start. I’m beginning to rehab from a cardio procedure and some days I have trouble getting things going. But I decided that, late in the day or not, I really wanted to get out for some fresh air and a walk.

As we approach winter, the sun hangs low in the sky by late afternoon and at times I could barely see, even with sun glasses on, as I looked in a southwesterly direction. As I crossed the tracks I could just make out that the sun was highlighting the rails.

I’ve tried many times to get a shot of these rails, and have never got a shot I really liked, but I took out my ultracompact Canon SD800 IS and framed it the best I could. With the sun so bright, I could only make out a few highlights on the LCD panel, just enough to let me frame the photo.

I honestly had no idea that there was a strategically placed leaf sitting on the track in front of me. I was concentrating so hard to framing the tracks, and could see so little, I simply didn’t notice it.

It wasn’t until later that evening when I uploaded my shots to my PC and reviewed them that I saw two things: I finally got the rail shot I’d been wanting, and that I had a gorgeous leaf in it, in just the right place.

I call that luck. Or perhaps modified luck. If I didn’t have a camera with me, there would have been no photo, so I give myself marks for thinking photographically when I saw the scene. For the rest, I thank the muse.


[originally posted 14 Nov 2007 at LiveJournal]

I don’t know what it is with me and beginnings, but until I have the beginning working, I don’t feel as if my writing is getting anywhere. I’m not temperamentally capable of skipping the beginning and coming back to it later. This has always been my way during essay and article writing, and today I discovered it applies to fiction as well.

I started my second short story today, part of my PicoWriMo target. The writing was flowing well. I had some plot points roughly worked out and knew where I was going. The characters were coming to life and acquiring personality. The descriptions were good. I was on my way, or so I thought.

Then, at around 700 words, I wrote something that I realized was the real beginning of the story. There was nothing wrong with what preceded it; it was simply not needed. So I started over, at the new beginning, and summarized all that preceded it in a single short, snappy paragraph.

When reading, I like beginnings that grab me right away and don’t waste time getting things started. There are many ways to do this, and they don’t have to be fancy — just interesting and effective. When writing I try for a strong opening. If I don’t have one, I don’t have momentum and the piece stalls until I get one. I have to get the beginning right, or close to right. Then it starts to flow into the right channels.

When I think of all the writers I’ve read, the one who does the best beginnings is Agatha Christie. I don’t always find her middles and endings as strong, but I’ve never read another novelist who can get a novel started so quickly and so well. Bang! You’re right into it, often chuckling or smiling at her wit. She doesn’t do it with a set formula either. Each novel opens uniquely. I think my favourite first chapter of all time is from The Body in the Library. It never ceases to make me smile. All of which contrasts sharply with the darker elements that arise later in the story.

Middles and endings have plenty of pitfalls of their own, but for me the critical part of any writing I do is getting the beginning right.

Speed Writing

Lately I’ve been using a creative technique I call speed writing. It’s simply my adaptation of the well-known technique of freefall, or associative, writing. You write anything that comes to mind or anything triggered by something in your surroundings then use word association to keep it going in a kind of stream of consciousness.

It can start with a simple observation of someone in a coffee shop. You might describe the person, then speculate on what their story might be. Or you might see a dog outside the window with a strange collar around its neck and speculate on the owner. Anything will do as long as you let it flow.

Some writers say they use this method as a warmup exercise before starting their more focused writing for the day. Many of them record these kinds of jottings in their journals, which is what I’ve begun to do.

The difference, for me, is that I have to do it fast. If I amble along at a moderate pace, my inner critic begins to notice what I’m writing and begins to comment on it: that’s a really stupid idea, or, do you think anyone with that name could do that, or why are you doing this instead of getting down to some serious work? You get the drift.

My inner critic is strong. I’m a highly rational person, prone to writing essays, and my inner critic thinks my foray into fiction writing is a silly waste of time. You’d be better off out taking photos, it says to me. It’s an ‘it’; it doesn’t even have gender. It’s squeamish about make-believe and writing things that can’t be verified or at least supported by a good argument. My inner critic wanted me to become a scientist or engineer, and I almost did. But I was saved by my discovery of English lit and I long ago turned sail in the direction of poems, novels, short stories, plays, and literary essays. I’m not sure my inner critic has ever forgiven me.

So, I have to run, and run fast. That is, I have to type like the devil, outrunning my inner critic before it can start to criticize. Which is one of the reasons I use a keyboard for writing most of the time. I can type at least ten times faster than I can write longhand. To give my inner critic even less of a grip on me, I not only type as fast as I can when freefalling, I don’t look at the screen of whatever I’m typing on. This speeds me up even faster. I forget about typos altogether, unless I feel them as I’m typing. Let Word flag them when I import my document.

So far it’s working, and nearly every day I give thanks to that inner voice that way back in 1962 gave me the courage to talk my high school guidance counsellor (who doubled as my dreaded geometry teacher) to allow me to take a typing class. I was in the academic stream and typing classes were offered only in the commercial stream. She bought my argument that I needed to be able to type essays and reports when I went to university, and I learned how to type on upright Underwoods and Royals with blank keys. But I digress…

I don’t know if this would work for anyone else, but if you want to try an interesting approach to freefall, associative writing, try typing as fast as your thoughts come to you. If you’re a good typist, don’t even look at the screen or keyboard. Look out the window and let the fingers fly.

The point is to loosen some creativity and let it spread. I’ve already found the nuggets of some interesting short story ideas in my speedos (my pet name for these flourishes, despite the unfortunate double entendre).

As a deep-seated rationalist, I need all the help I can get when tapping into the creative side of my brain. Speed writing opens me up to a playfulness that doesn’t always come easily to me. It doesn’t work miracles, but it does generate ideas, and that’s worthwhile, as long as I don’t stop there and later do the hard bit: turning it into some kind of story.

A Touch of Frost

A Touch of Frost
Originally uploaded by StarbuckGuy

Autumn is poignant with change and the final stages of plant life as winter approaches. Even with climate change and milder autumns and winters, the magic of the seasons continues.

I once lived in a land where there were no seasons, just climate. There was summer climate (hot, blazing) and winter climate (mild) and very little rain; I lived ten years in the Arizona desert. I prefer the real winter and real seasons of Ontario.

When the first frost comes the air is crisper, the light softer, and coffee tastes better. Buffleheads have returned to the harbour. A few tenacious birch and maple leaves are hanging on, in yellow and red defiance of the season, but soon they too must have their winter sleep.

Taken with Nikon D200 and Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 lens.

I didn’t know writing was this hard

[originally posted 6 Nov 2007 at LiveJournal]

I do most of my writing at my local Starbucks. This morning I didn’t feel particularly well but I walked there from my house (it’s about a 15-minute walk at a good pace). I arrived a little later than usual and the place was hopping. I was lucky to get a table where I could prop my AlphaSmart Neo and do some typing. (I should note that I try to limit my gear to only half of a small table in case someone needs to sit at the other half.)

I did some brainstorming and word association on paper first, priming the pump for my second short story. Then I typed in my journal for about half an hour. I was feeling worse by the minute so I used my cell phone to call Marion to see if she could pick me up in the car so I wouldn’t have to walk back. Because I’m still recovering from an angioplasty and stent procedure from about six weeks ago, she came right away. She found me with my head down on the table, like some old drifter in his cups. I was feeling so faint I couldn’t raise my head without passing out, and I couldn’t walk to the car. I was beginning to sweat profusely. When it didn’t improve in a couple of minutes, she called 911 for the paramedics. An ambulance arrived and, I’m told, they brought a gurney in through the front door. I was sitting near the back door. I recall being lifted on to the gurney and answering questions: “No, no chest pains, just feeling faint.”

But I was so out of it I couldn’t open my eyes. I heard the Starbucks assistant manager saying to someone, “He’s one of our best customers.” I’m a regular anyway.

I passed out for a short while, and on way way out thought I was dying. Too bad, I thought, so this is how it ends. I hadn’t the energy to care. When I came to, and obviously hadn’t died yet, I had vomit in my throat. I thought I’d burped it up. Then the paramedic began wiping my face down with a towel. I’d vomited in my oxygen mask and the top half of me was a mess. When we got to emerg, I was finally able to open my eyes and take in the surroundings. The usual questions, the usual procedures. Blood work, ECG, IV, questions. It was obvious to them that I wasn’t having a stroke — I was lucid and could answer questions easily, except what meds I was on. I couldn’t remember them all. My blood pressure was very low — the paramedic told the hospital people he couldn’t find a pulse. Marion told me later I’d turned as grey as my hair.

I was feeling better, and my blood pressure gradually rose to a normal level. The blood work came back fine — no electrolytes indicating a heart attack. I was kept under observation all day and blood work and ECG was repeated at 5pm. When both showed normal, I was released, after being treated to a hospital meal of overcooked corn, soggy potatoes, and some kind of meat dish I couldn’t identify.

I’m home now, none the wiser about what happened. The hospital didn’t know, other than it wasn’t a cardiac event. It might be a side effect of some of the aggressive new meds my cardiologist has me taking. Who knows?

But I made my PicoWriMo word count for the day. Does writing get easier than this?

My Office

My Office
Originally uploaded by StarbuckGuy

My local Starbucks, as many of you know, is one of my favourite hangouts. It’s situated beside the harbour lighthouse and provides a half-way point on my daily walks. Moreover, I like the coffee. It’s not the best I’ve tasted by any means, but it’s the best I’ve tasted in Port Credit.

The staff are friendly and the place has high windows, giving it a light, airy feel. The ceiling goes up very high — at least two stories — with skylights. The actual floor area is small and because it’s a popular venue, getting a seat is by no means assured. I fare best when I arrive relatively early in the morning.

I joke, only slightly tongue in cheek, that it’s my office. I do a lot of writing there. I often carry a writing device with me — a Palm TX with wireless folding keyboard, or this AlphaSmart Neo, a writing device designed for the school market, but very popular among writers. It doesn’t do much except provide a wonderful, full-size keyboard with a small but highly readable display. I think of it as a paperless typewriter. It turns on instantly, with no long boot cycle, and it runs for approximately 700 hours on a set of 3 AA alkaline batteries.

It’s come at a good time. On LiveJournal, where I maintain a writing journal called Silver Bullets, I’m taking part in a community project called PicoWriMo, a takeoff on NaNoWriMo. PicoWriMo is a less ambitious project than NaNoWriMo’s target of a 50,000 word novel written in the month of November. In PicoWriMo we set our own, more modest, targets. Mine is to write and edit two finished short stories during November. I’ve just finished the first draft of one — a story with a sci-fi theme.

The Neo is pictured here with my Starbucks coffee, Moleskine journal, and additional Nikon 100mm f/2.8 Series E lens. Taken with a Nikon D200 and 28mm f/2.8 Series E.

Feedback on my first short story

By acting as my first reader, my wife Marion helped me enormously with my short story, “Channeling Rusty” [since renamed “A Brief Encounter”]. She make a lot of perceptive comments and asked some good questions. Aside from pointing out some minor things, which were much appreciated, she helped me look at things that would strengthen the story. More conflict between rational disbelief and the desire to entertain belief is needed between the two human characters. They need more differentiation.

The main thing she helped me with was understanding that the plot was weak. She wanted it to have more of a peak and denouement. I agree totally. In the immortal words of the Everley Brothers, “the movie wasn’t so hot; it didn’t have much of a plot.”

Plot is my weakest area. As soon as she described what bothered her about the story it clicked, yes, this is what’s the matter with it. I knew something wasn’t right but couldn’t quite figure it out.

As an essayist, plot has never been an issue. My essay writing moves from idea to idea, concept to concept, observation to observation, across some theme. I’m not a natural-born storyteller, but if I want to write fiction, I need to become one. As I said to Marion, I need to practice making up stories about things as a mental exercise. Perhaps there’s a storyteller inside, waiting to be discovered.

I had an epiphany about this as I discussed it with Marion. If I try my hand at fiction, working really hard at it, and fail, I don’t mind. What would bother me is always wondering if I could write fiction, but not trying. I love essays and essay writing and have several in mind, so it’s not as though I would no longer be a writer. And who knows? I might succeed in writing passably good fiction. Time will tell. I think short story writing, and possibly a novel, is exciting territory to explore. Above all else, I love writing, even when I hate it.

They say that aging isn’t for wimps. Neither is writing. It’s hard work and has limited rewards. I think you need to be driven to write to stick with it.

What I love about this foray into fiction writing is that I’m learning and growing. As long as that’s happening, I’m not stagnating. I’m alive. Is that part of the reason why we write? I think perhaps it is.