Messy desk report for Q1 2014

April 2, 2014

…whereupon the Job Change craziness strikes with a passion. But routine is settling in, and so long as I can get myself to write on trains and busses, I should be able to finish the several things on my plate. Someone asked me recently, “how do you get so much done?” I had to admit that I don’t, not lately.

The desk: I have a standing desk configuration. Getting more serious about ergonomics, and now have a standing option. It’s the same cheapo drafting table I’ve had for a while, with a desk extender atop. It’s roughly IKEA-grade quality, but it gets the job done. That desk is large enough to feel spacious, but small enough that you can’t get too much crap piled on top. Right now, I have: a mouse, a trackpad, an ergonomic keyboard, a little grippy cable management thingy, a laptop stand, a wrist-rest, two sticky-pads, and one book–which if you’ve read previous installments of this column, you’ll recognize as insanely clean by my usual standards.

Now all I have to do is finish. Finish and submit.


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Friends with cancer

February 23, 2014

More and more of my friends are getting diagnosed with cancer. This is tragic in every sense of the word.

And here am I, blogging about it. Poor me–it must be rough having to go through all the pain and suffering of having friends with cancer.

“If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know,” I say, but so does everyone else. It’s not an information-bearing phrase. The truth is, there’s not much I can do, other than impotently rage, and perhaps write about it.

One day I run into a writer friend of mine at a writerly event. “I’m sorry that cancer is a thing your body is doing,” I want to say, but I feel bad about the prospect of saying something so cliché. Instead, I smile sympathetically, with a bit of a nod. “I’m here for you. I’m thinking about your terrible situation constantly,” my smile says. “I understand what you’re going through, in the abstract sense of one who hasn’t experienced it,” my nod adds. Friend smiles back, but it’s not the kind of smile that reaches the eyes. I wonder how many conversations Friend gets to have that don’t involve cancer. Probably not many, but I can’t think of anything else to say.

“How’s it going,” I ask, lamely.

“Not bad,” Friend says. Another non-information-bearing phrase if ever there was one.

I hate this. And there it is again–poor me, having to navigate the conversational pitfalls of someone else’s suffering. Now I feel bad about feeling bad, and again and again, recursively, until the spiral of grief threatens to overwhelm me.

“I know everyone says ‘if there’s anything I can do to help let me know,’” I say, “but I super-really mean it. Seriously, ask me to run an errand for you. Call me at 3 am, even if it’s only because you need someone to talk to.” Just because we live in completely different parts of the country doesn’t mean I can’t put myself out for you, right? But it still sounds flimsy, even with the explicit disclaimers. Because in all likelihood, there isn’t a fool thing I can do.

“Thanks, that means a lot to me,” Friend says. I wonder how many times that exact line have come up in post-diagnosis conversations, but it’s too depressing a thought to follow through to the end.

Not a thing I can do. Except write.



Messy Desk Report for December 2013

January 3, 2014
Tags: , ,

In which things reset.

I have a day job like 99% of writers, and this month brought change. It was a good change. I’m happy, and more importantly, can make mortgage and have enough left over for books and food. But job changes have a way of soaking up time from nearly everything else.

Especially writing. Especially maintaining a non-messy desk. Things are stabilizing, so I’ll keep this short and focus my time on writing stories. Commute changes will for more time to do this, if I play my cards right. More soon.

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Messy desk report for November 2013

December 1, 2013

The desk has reached new heights of messiness, which coming from me is saying something.

It’s been a hectic time, as marked by a rare miss in schedule–there was no MDR for October. There are big changes coming in the paying-the-bills day job, which is stressful. I did not NaNo this year but did commit to (and successfully accomplish) a goal of having no zero-word days during the month. This is both a blessing and a curse, because it seemed to establish a baseline of a few hundred words a day. The episodic project is progressing slowly because of this, but mainly because I’m really terrible at writing episodes. Practice, practice, practice.

As part of the ritual of new beginnings accompanying the new job, there will probably be a large-scale office/desk cleaning in the near future. I’ll be on the train more–let’s see if that translates into more reading, or even better, writing time.

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How much is widespread surveillance chilling writers?

November 16, 2013

Nice look at this issue in the LA Times.

Of more than 520 American writers surveyed, 16% have avoided writing or speaking on what they consider controversial topics, and 11% “have considered doing so.”

I think part of it is the ridiculous power imbalance. Writers know better than most that having any player with so much easily-available information is ripe for abuse, as scandalettes like LOVEINT have proven. Doubly or triply so when oversight is cloaked in secrecy, which breeds corruption. Anyone even loosely familiar with cyberpunk/technothriller fiction (not to mention actual news coverage) has visions of early morning armed raids resulting in the seizure of all computers, tablets, routers, phones, pocket calculators, remote controls, coffee makers, extension cords, and so on–equipment never to be seen again. Makes you really think about your disaster recovery planning, especially if you assume, as most people now commonly do, that pretty much every online backup service is compromised and could at a minimum be frozen on a moment’s notice.

Think about how many important pieces of fiction have crucially pivoted on controversial topics or stances. Sucking the lifeblood out of that would be a huge blow to our culture. I worry about this often, though selfishly more about how it affects me personally.

Enough that when I’m working on a piece of cyber-satire, I have a pervading sense of someone looking over my shoulder. I write notes to the faceless handler(s) who are poring over mountains of keyword searches. For example:

It feels a bit weird to be writing this piece of satire, knowing who might be reading it as I go. I keep backups of things on Dropbox, and have at one point used AT&T as an internet provider, so you’ve pretty much got me covered. I apologize to any analysts who get to trawl through my rough-draft fiction that has to be triggering all kinds of keyword alerts.

Since you’re wondering, none of the people here are based on particular individuals, though if I’m doing my job right, they should seem familiar to native Silicon Valley dwellers. I also tend to avoid particular companies as satirical targets. Any code names I refer to here are completely made up, or widely available via Google searches, or both.

I have no particular insight into any classified anything. I merely read the news, know a bit about technology, and have a good imagination for how things could go. If you have questions about any of this, I’m happy to talk. Let’s grab a beer some time. Please don’t knock my door down and scare my children.

Your harmless, law-abiding citizen,

And yes, I’m fretting over even posting this on my blog.

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October 15, 2013

On this week’s This American Life, a fascinating tale of a false confession. If you write stories with humans (or human-analogues) you need to be a connoisseur of the soul. It’s shocking how easily we can be convinced of counter-factual truths simply by repetition combined with fatigue. Worth a listen. P.S. 2 + 2 = 5.

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Writing longhand

October 14, 2013

I’m starting a new longer project, and doing so longhand. I have a 100-sheet notebook (graph paper, natch) and am beginning to densely fill the pages. I counted 634 words on one side of one sheet, which means an entire novel-length piece can comfortably fit in one notebook. I haven’t done serious longhand work since roughly college days* . A few observations.


Seriously, this is cramping my style, literally. I’ve invested in a few of those funky-shaped ergonomic pencil grippies, and we’ll see how it goes.

I’m by no means a fast writer, but this slows it down even more. My high point over the past week was only both sides of one sheet, or ~1250 words. Not even NaNoWriMo-level output. At this pace (and this was my peak) it would take 71 days to write a 90,000 word draft. Then comes retyping.

But, at least so far, I’m happier with the writing. Going slower means that things seem to come together better, and the draft feels higher quality than starting out in a word processor.

But, I fear for larger-scale issues. There’s no document search here, people. Perhaps this will force me to embrace just writing, and fixing problems in post.

A blank sheet of paper is a lot different than a blank screen. Getting started on a new chapter requires flexing a different set of muscles.

Any writers out there like to work in longhand? What are your tips and tricks?


*(Not counting one 70-page disaster that I shall not speak of again)

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Messy Desk Report for September 2013

October 2, 2013

September flew past. Work is work.

I have, tentatively, started running again. The right supplements (glucosamine) and hardware are helping.

But where did the month go?

I began the arduous process of querying agents on my novel.

I had zero caffeine yesterday. I got eight hours of sleep last night.

A few new stories have left the nest. Another is coming along well, but still needs that last bit of oomph before it’s ready.

I want to start a new longer piece of fiction–and finish it before the end of the year.

I want to update this blog more often, but I’ll be traveling for a chunk of October.

My desk may qualify for federal disaster remediation funding, if only the government was still functioning.


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Oyster: in depth review

September 27, 2013

I’m trying out a new app called Oyster. It’s iPhone specific for the moment. Think of it as Netflix streaming, except for books. I’m paying $10 out of pocket per month for the service, the standard rate.

The reader

Everything about the reader seems aimed at a smooth reading experience. Pages scroll upwards, like Reader view in Mobile Safari except that it’s divided into little phone-sized pages, not a continuous scroller. Turning the page is an easy upward flick of the thumb. There are no overall page numbers–at the level of an entire book there’s no real indicator of how long it is. Your reading position is tracked as a percentage. Within a chapter, it does tell you how many teensy phone-sized pages are left to the end of the chapter, a small feature I find a close match with how I read paper (I tend to peek ahead to keep track of how close I am to the next major boundary). It also estimates time to end of the chapter, but for my reading rate I found the estimates to be almost exactly 3x too big. Each page is about 100 words with an estimated reading rate of 5 pages every 3 minutes. So apparently the app is calibrated at a reading rate of 166 wpm, and I read somewhere around 500 wpm.

The iPhone screen resolution is sharp, and the fonts the developers have chosen are easy on the eyes. I never had to change the defaults.

The app can render a table of contents, a “read privately” switch, and a mark completed feature. There is no search-within-the-book. You can highlight and even copy to clipboard passages within a teensy page. There is also a dictionary lookup feature.


It’s quite useful to have things to read on your phone. When you’re stuck in line at the grocery store, or at a doctor’s office, or driving (kidding!) you probably have a phone on you but not necessarily a mid-size or full-size tablet device.

I’ve read two books and am currently working on a third. First I read City of Truth by James Morrow. It was an easy, pleasurable experience, not to mention a fantastic story. The hardware/software didn’t get in the way at all. A great deal of this story I read on a train, and it was well suited for this environment.

Next I read The Goldilocks Enigma, a science book by Paul Davies. Here some of the limitations of the format began to show. The book has many diagrams, some of which were on the small size. When the text references or cross-references a diagram there is a small angle bracket you can follow to jump there, but in several instances this affordance was missing. The book also had extensive endnotes, which worked like little numbered hyperlinks, but due to a bug (which might be fixed by now) sometimes the return link would get confused and take you back to the start of the chapter, losing your place–and it may a hundred page swipes to get back. This only happened occasionally.

If you like to read the first bits of a book in order to see if you’d like it, this is also a good platform. There were several books which I will not call out by name that looked interesting or that I’ve heard about, but by about 6% of the way in I decided wasn’t for me. If you do this often, you’ll find this service useful.

Currently I am reading The Best American Short Stories 2012, a format for which this is just about perfect.


During the sign-up process you pick five books, and I had no problem finding five things that interested me. They advertise “Over 100,000 books” but that’s little consolation if they don’t have what you’re looking for. How does someone writing an in-depth review categorize this? 100k titles could be either fantastic or terrible, it depends. So let me mention a few searches I did, and see what comes up. Aside: the in-app search doesn’t have any autocomplete to help guide you. I presume this standard search feature is coming soon.

[Count of Monte Cristo] -> Returns a all-in-one title as well as separate parts 1-4, as well as another book of that title by Monica Corwin plus other stuff from Alexandre Dumas

[Neal Stephenson] -> Cryptonomicon, plus two of the three books in the Baroque Cycle. Not present: Snow Crash or Anathem, the two things I was looking to re-read.

[Pynchon] -> Nothing from Thomas. Interestingly, one of the three results was Ubik by Philip K. Dick.

[Neuromancer] -> Not the title itself. The one result was a William Gibson biography.

[Libriomancer] -> Heard wonderful things about this new title from Jim C. Hines, but no results in Oyster.

The Netflix streaming comparison is probably apt in terms of selection as well. Behind the scenes, I’m sure lots of negotiating with rightsholders is going on, and the list of available titles changes frequently.

Oyster vs. library?

In discussing this with friends, the inevitable question comes up: why pay for this when you can go to the library for free*? A few reasons: the grocery-line thing may be significant depending on how busy your life is. If you tend to sample lots of books but always find yourself on the go, it’s useful. In my neck of the woods, we’re talking about the Northern California Digital Library, which also doesn’t have the latest from Thomas Pynchon or Jim C. Hines, nor any available ebook edition of Anathem. When they do have titles available electronically, it can be in awkward formats (did somebody way protected Adobe PDF?) and/or with outrageous wait times. I’m not opposed to reading print books, far from it, but even there, the current hold list for popular titles like the Pynchon book is multiple weeks. And I don’t treasure lugging huge hardcovers on the train.

I’m an omnivorous reader. I also usually get my one-book-a-month from Amazon Prime, but that’s annoyingly restricted to actual Kindle hardware, and I don’t have my Kindle near me 24×7. I regularly come back from the library with more books that are strictly advisable. And now I read more on my phone. If a month goes by and I haven’t used the service at all, then I’ll probably cancel.

I have one remaining invitation to Oyster (at full price, natch). If you’re interested, let me know.

*taxes not included

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Brainstorm: the story you wish someone would tell

September 23, 2013

What is the spec fic story that you wish someone would write but hasn’t?

In an effort to flex my self-promo muscles I am going to (gasp) produce more on-topic, useful content on these pages.

So join the discussion. No promises, but if any of the ideas grabs me, I just might do something with it.