Print Story Interstellar Overdrive
By TheophileEscargot (Sat Nov 15, 2008 at 08:21:37 AM EST) Reading, MLP (all tags)
Reading: "On Writing". Web.

What I'm Reading
Finished On Writing by Stephen King. Odd mixture of biography and writing advice, unity probably not helped by the fact that he had his terrible bone-shattering accident in the middle of writing it.

Covers his early life pretty well: brought up by an impoverished and somewhat peripatetic single parent, college, then a teaching job trying to pound Business English and creative writing into high-school kids. He discusses his alcoholism but without a lot of detail, beyond the fact he barely remembers writing "Cujo": there aren't any of the telling yet horrific details he might put in a novel. Eventually he gave up drinking, but he doesn't seem to think it had much positive or negative effect on his writing.

Most of the writing advice is fairly standard: the sort of thing you'd get from any decent creative writing instructor. He reckons you should write the first draft with the "door closed", just for yourself; but rewrite with the "door open", thinking hard about your readers and getting all the advice you can. He repeatedly stresses the importance of cutting out all extraneous stuff however much you like it, without apparent irony given some of his huger books.

He doesn't believe in working out detailed plots in advance, he thinks the storyline should emerge naturally from what the characters try to do. In fact he regards "plot" as opposed to "story" as almost a dirty word. His analogy is that stories emerge like fossils being dug up out of the ground.

No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it's probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer's jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It's clumsy, mechanical, uncreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.
A bit disappointingly, he doesn't really mention anything about how to write horror in particular: he seems to regard pretty much like any other fiction. He thinks that a fast pace is overrated as well, and that readers are happy with slow-paced fiction if the story is good enough. He doesn't think there's any particular way to write a bestseller, but thinks stories and truthfulness are the important things.
A critical assumption is sometimes made that we [bestseller writers] have access to some mystical vulgate that other (and often better) writers either cannot find or will not deign to use. I doubt if this is true. Nor do I believe the contention of some popular novelists... that their success is based on literary merit -- that the public understands true greatness in ways the tight-assed, consumed-by-jealousy literary establishment cannot. This idea is ridiculous, a product of vanity and insecurity.

Book-buyers aren't attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on an airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviours, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story. I'd argue that it's impossible to make this sort of connection in a premeditated way, gauging the market like a racetrack tout with a hot tip.

There are only a few tantalizing glimpses into his own fiction. "Carrie" seems to have been partly inspired by having seen real girls bullied at his own high school. He describes one girl, living in desperate poverty, who could only afford one set of schoolclothes, for which she was mercilessly bullied. Eventually she somehow managed to get together a new set of stylish clothes, do up her hair, shave her legs... only to be even more brutally bullied.

He mentions "Insomnia" and "Rose Madder" as not particularly inspiring books, and "Maximum Overdrive" as a turkey.

Overall, worth reading if you like King's books and are curious about him. Otherwise, wouldn't be exceptionally interesting.

I need a starship full of corpses so my boyfriend will marry me. (MC)

How to write a Daily Express front page.

360 degree video (click within) more.

Letter from Iceland.

Misleading gun panic in the US.

Articles. Extract from Malcolm Gladwell's book on genius "Outliers":

In the early 90s, the psychologist K Anders Ericsson and two colleagues set up shop at Berlin's elite Academy of Music. With the help of the academy's professors, they divided the school's violinists into three groups. The first group were the stars, the students with the potential to become world-class soloists. The second were those judged to be merely "good". The third were students who were unlikely ever to play professionally, and intended to be music teachers in the school system. All the violinists were then asked the same question. Over the course of your career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practised?

Everyone, from all three groups, started playing at roughly the same time - around the age of five. In those first few years, everyone practised roughly the same amount - about two or three hours a week. But around the age of eight real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up as the best in their class began to practise more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight by age 12, 16 a week by age 14, and up and up, until by the age of 20 they were practising well over 30 hours a week. By the age of 20, the elite performers had all totalled 10,000 hours of practice over the course of their lives. The merely good students had totalled, by contrast, 8,000 hours, and the future music teachers just over 4,000 hours.

The curious thing about Ericsson's study is that he and his colleagues couldn't find any "naturals" - musicians who could float effortlessly to the top while practising a fraction of the time that their peers did. Nor could they find "grinds", people who worked harder than everyone else and yet just didn't have what it takes to break into the top ranks. Their research suggested that once you have enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. What's more, the people at the very top don't just work much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

The Decline of Agile Development:
There are a lot of teams right now failing with Agile. These teams are working in short cycles. The increased planning frequency has given them more control over their work and they're discovering and fixing some problems. They feel good, and they really are seeing more success than they were before.

But they aren't working in shared workspaces or emphasizing high-bandwidth communication. They're don't have on-site customers or work in cross-functional teams. They don't even finish all of their stories by the end of each Sprint, let alone deliver releasable software, and they certainly don't use good engineering practices.

These teams say they're Agile, but they're just planning (and replanning) frequently. Short cycles and the ability to re-plan are the benefit that Agile gives you. It's the reward, not the method. These psuedo-Agile teams are having dessert every night and skipping their vegetables. By leaving out all the other stuff--the stuff that's really Agile--they're setting themselves up for rotten teeth, an oversized waistline, and ultimate failure. They feel good now, but it won't last.

Politics Compromises the Libertarian Project (via MR):
The blame, such as it is, ought to land not on vaguely named "libertarians" and certainly not on a set of ideological principles. But at the same time, the predominant cause of people seeing libertarians as shills for business interests is the fact that an awful lot of shilling for business interests does, in fact, take place under the banner of self-described libertarian institutions.

...on what would seem to me to be the simple and straightforward libertarian case that we should make Social Security benefits less generous, Cato has nothing much to say. Instead, it has an elaborate Project on Social Security Choice aimed at restructuring the program into one of mandatory, privately managed savings accounts. It’s not immediately obvious to me what this proposal has to do with libertarianism, but it would seem to offer some prospect of profits for fund managers.

Similarly, the free-market case for a revenue-neutral carbon pricing scheme seems fairly impeccable to me. But instead of organizing its climate change efforts around seeking to ensure that any future carbon pricing plan be as close to revenue neutral as possible, Cato prefers to steadfastly defend the rights of industry to unload air pollution unimpeded. Or consider the fact that Randal O’Toole is indignant about the prospect of public expenditures on mass transit systems, but appears to have little to say about public funding of highways. This, too, looks more like a case of narrow business interests than sterling free market principles.

< Now it makes sense. | How much music do you listen to? >
Interstellar Overdrive | 10 comments (10 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
On writing showed the world just why by Clipper Ship (1.00 / 1) #1 Sat Nov 15, 2008 at 09:09:00 AM EST
Stephen King will never be remembered for his writing. That was the main point of the book, I think. well, at least the half I suffered through before hospitalization forced me to put it down and never again pick it for fear of the same happening again.


Destroy All Planets

unrelated things by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #2 Sat Nov 15, 2008 at 10:24:32 AM EST
Famous, successful writer fails to give any silver bullets to good writing.  Meanwhile, scientists show  that those at the top tier got there solely through hard work.

I remember reading cog sci studies in the eighties that claimed that to become "expert" in a moderately complex field took on the order of 10,000 hours of practice.

I'm glad to see my biases concerning Agile confirmed.  Where I work, we do things on a two month cycle.  Given how much trouble we sometimes have with long-term architecture, I can't imagine a two-week cycle working in the long term.

I know that the article talks about how people are "doing Agile wrong".  But that, to me, just says "Agile is too difficult to do correctly."
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

You have to be fit to be agile by Herring (4.00 / 1) #3 Sat Nov 15, 2008 at 11:10:40 AM EST
LCC is trying to do some of this (as EssUP). Can you get user involvement? Can you bollocks. Can you get senior management to accept re-planning? Can you bollocks.

Agile type stuff can only work (if at all) if the entire organisation buys in. For us, well we've spent a load of money on consultants and had a lot of daily stand-up meetings, but the software is still shit.

In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.
[ Parent ]

Last place I was at was semi-Agile, but by wiredog (4.00 / 1) #5 Sun Nov 16, 2008 at 04:01:56 AM EST
we didn't call it that. The fact that, at 42, I was the second youngest developer on staff was why we didn't call it that. Hell, I didn't realize it was Agile until I read up on Agile.

We released a build with bugfixes on old features, and new features to test, every two weeks or so. Every Monday was the teleconference with the end users. We got quite a bit accomplished in a relatively short time, and no surprises.

But we didn't bother applying any trendy names or matrices/measures to it. We just did it. Maximal output, minimal bureaucracy, fast turnaround.

And the really funny thing about it: Most of the people on the job were government workers. For Department of Commerce. Go figure.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

[ Parent ]

I love that when it happens:) by Merekat (4.00 / 1) #6 Sun Nov 16, 2008 at 10:45:03 PM EST
When I did PRINCE2 training (fashionable PM methodology), the instructor kept going on about how it was very important not to apply PRINCE2 In Name Only but to do it properly. All the while I was thinking it is much better not to call what you apply a name at all and just pilfer from the methodology the bits that work.

[ Parent ]

Practise makes perfect by Herring (4.00 / 1) #4 Sat Nov 15, 2008 at 11:14:26 AM EST
The element missing in there is: why do people practise? Maybe average musicians don't practise so much because they don't enjoy it so much and aren't getting as much out of playing. Maybe for the genii, there is a positive feedback loop and for the rest of us, there's a negative feedback (until we reach our 30s and just play for fun without giving a damn how it sounds).

In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.

(Comment Deleted) by bobdole (2.00 / 0) #8 Mon Nov 17, 2008 at 05:26:47 AM EST

This comment has been deleted by bobdole

[ Parent ]

downhill from here by bobdole (4.00 / 1) #9 Mon Nov 17, 2008 at 05:28:42 AM EST
playing an instrument doesn't really get fun until you learn to do it properly. I believe it's a positive feedback loop for everybody, but it has increasing returns the longer you do it (I guess up until the point where you are the expert and settle for maintaining rather than improving your skills).

So the people that give up resign before they reach the top of the hill and the stuff actually becomes fun... of course there are some who are just hopeless, but for the rest... practise!

-- The revolution will not be televised.
[ Parent ]

I quite liked On Writing by nebbish (4.00 / 1) #7 Mon Nov 17, 2008 at 12:19:19 AM EST
It's years since I read it though.

I think Stephen King's writing suffered terribly when he stopped drinking, but slowly got better and better afterwards. I think the same thing happened with Will Self too.

King's advice is good but it's interesting how every writer gives conflicting advice. You need to find a way that suits you.

It's political correctness gone mad!

Practicing and music by Tonatiuh (2.00 / 0) #10 Mon Nov 17, 2008 at 10:54:23 AM EST
They choose the worst example to understand genius. By the age of 8 it is pretty clear to everybody involved, future musicians included, who is a genius, who is going to be a teacher, and those who will lay somewhere in between. The innate aptitude is patently obvious and for all to see.

I have had the privilege to see some musical geniuses when they were 8, they were ready to go and everybody knew it.

From that point the geniuses tend to invest more time in their confirmed talent, the stakes are higher for them and stacked on their favour. For the people without the innate talent it is a lost battle, and they apply themselves accordingly (i.e. not much, it would be pointless).

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