Three Rules for Writing

Back in December, while walking the Downs Link with Kaylee, she asked me about my writing. During the conversation I explained that the biggest improvements in my writing came from three simple rules. She emailed me yesterday to ask me to remind her what they were. I thought I’d put them here.

Rule 1 – Never use adverbs

I first encountered this rule in Stephen King’s book On Writing. Any time an adverb is used, there’s a stronger single word that can be used. ‘Walked quickly’ can be replaced by ‘rushed’ – or ‘dashed’, or ‘scurried’; ‘said loudly’ can be replaced by ‘shouted’ – or ‘boomed’ or ‘yelled’.  Leaving out adverbs makes the writing tighter. English has a massive vocabulary available so losing the adverbs isn’t much of a constraint.

Rule 2 – Edit by reading aloud

Reading a text aloud slows you down enough to spot more mistakes. It’s also good for spotting when a sentence is too long. If you feel awkward or breathless as you read it, add a full stop somewhere. You’re also more likely to spot words that you’ve used too often (my greatest weakness).

Rule 3 – Write simple

Pick the simplest possible way of writing your sentences. Which isn’t to say to never use long words – if phosphorescence is the only word that will do, great – but you might be as well off with glow. Lovecraft is the classic example of this, someone who is a great writer despite their vocabulary, not because of it.


None of the above rules are revolutionary – they’re fairly common instructions. But they are all things I wish I’d known sooner.

There are also other ‘rules’ I follow: don’t use the passive voice; never start a sentence “There was/is”. I also like the rule Tim Clare often talks about where you put the most interesting part of a sentence at the end.

Having said that, there are lots of common rules which, I think, are applied too often. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a good rule for certain types of voice, but it’s not absolute. Someone like Vonnegut makes his books much more entertaining by telling the reader the story – you know, like an actual storyteller.

The importance of blogging

I’ve recently been doing a blogging challenge with some friends, trying to write a post a day. I’m doing pretty well so far, managing a continuous stream of posts since the 19th. Some days it’s easier than others.

I like blogging. I try to produce complete thoughts, more developed than they would be on FB or twitter. Unless you’re doing a link blog, you can’t just chuck out a URL but need to give it some context. Writing daily is working well for me, and I’m looking at drafting my book by writing lots and lots of smaller posts.

My first blog started in October 2007. The initial post was throat-clearing:

I figured that it was about time that I put some stuff on my web-pages. I’ve put up pages before and then not touched them for months so I decided to use Blogger. This way I can add updates without having to use an FTP client. There is no guarantee that I will find anything interesting to say, but we shall see. Wednesday, October 03, 2001

I still have the files on my hard drive, and one day I’ll add them to this site. I’ve added content from some of the other blogging platforms I’ve used. A lot of the images have disappeared over time, but the text is there. And I like looking back on those memories, or being able to call up the little mini-essays I’ve written.

I’d love to see a revival in blogging. Facebook tends to produce less considered, less complete thoughts. And, while Facebook does a good job of distributing updates, it’s not as neutral as a blog. It shows you the things it thinks you’ll be interested in, the things that keep you interacting with their site. That isn’t quite the same thing as what is actually interesting. It also cuts out a lot of content. Some people seem to get screened-outcompletely by the algorithm. Facebook hides too much. It picks which posts it thinks should be distributed.

We need to see the boring posts. It’s good to know what other things someone is into, even if we find ourselves skipping them. It’s the same problem with online news – when you buy a physical newspaper, you get the articles you want and a load of other ones. You can see the space taken up by things you don’t care about, work out how important your passions are. As news becomes filtered and sorted, we lost that comparison with the boring things.

Blogging isn’t perfect. It’s not obvious to most people how to follow them, and it seems less convenient than Facebook. The Indie Web is promising, but it’s still difficult to use – it’s missing its Blogger moment, where it becomes easy for most people to get it working. And a guide on ‘how to follow blogs’ deserves a whole post of its own.

The best thing about blogs is that they produce a collection of thoughts, that they do some additional work with the links and ideas we encounter online. Quoting Warren Ellis for the second day in a row: “If we’re not doing something with the information we’re taking in, then we’re just pigs at the media trough.

The Papernet

The idea of the Papernet emerged around 2006-9. It was discussed in a talk by Aaron Straup Cope, and worked on by people such as design-group BERG, who created the Little Printer. Broadly, it’s the about combining paper with the Internet. Or, as the Papercamp announcement put it:

“Whether that’s looking at material possibilities of paper itself, connecting paper to the internet and vice-versa with things like 2d-barcodes, RFIDs or exotic things like printing with conductive inks… it’s about the fact that paper hasn’t gone away in the digital age – it’s become more useful, more abundant and in some cases gone and got itself superpowers”

Even in the internet, paper has its uses. Paper maps can be passed around and drawn on. I can give a stranger a print-out to look at, but might not want to pass them my phone. Paper is for scribbling and sharing. At festivals, everyone still has small paper timetables dangling on lanyards – you don’t have to worry about running out of battery between stages. There’s also a charm to hand-drawn maps that online services can’t compete with. You can tear paper, scribble on it, glue it over offensive adverts, post it, use it to support a wobbly table-leg.

One of my favourite ideas was Warren Ellis’ suggestion of an email-to-print service for “a podcast that spits out paper“, inspired by Schulze & Webb’s 2006 “social letterbox.”. Ellis said it should not be referred to as a papercast, despite that  being an excellent name. Yes, in some ways this is reinventing the fax machine, but it’s an interesting reinvention.

Most applications involve printing, but not all. There is potential for photography (and the use of printing terminals) and cardboard (google and muji  binoculars). Improvements in OCR and image recognition promise a flow of information from objects back into the internet

There was even a Papercamp, in January 2009, which was liveblogged by Jeremy Keith. This was a day to “talk about, fiddle with, make and explore what’s possible with paper based on a blog post”, and “hacking paper and its new possibilities”. It was based around the barcamp format, where slots are available for the attendees to fill out the schedule. Some interesting things turned up:

“Nick O’Leary is talking about graphs. He wants to represent them with paper rather than simply on paper. He came up with some code that generates an image including lines showing where to fold and cut. Print it out, cut it and fold it and voila!, 3D graphs. He holds up an example. It’s beautiful. He wants to make a pop-up book of statistics.”

and then there is what Keith describes as “the missing piece of the papernet puzzle: edibility. [Sawa Tanaka] has made edible prints on rice paper: English breakfast, fish’n’chips, soba ….”

There is so much that can be done – such as using print-on-demand services to create one-off notebooks. Or even gamebooks, like the old I-spy book. Using software to help produce decorated origami (something I’ve used to hide stories inside origami designs). Creating simple A7 booklets. Printing off day-planners before heading out to work. Several people have used receipt-printers (one similar project being Tom Armitage and Jeff Noon’s collaboration, The Literary Operator). Some were influenced by Moleskine’s city guides, wondering about ephemeral tourist guides. You could even combine GPS and paper in dead letter drops.

The Internet can bring paper alive.

25/3 – Some further suggestions from @6loss: “digital pens, ozobots, conductive ink.”

Don’t you have time to read?

I wrote this post a few years ago and never published it. At the time, I was thinking a lot about the point of novels and fiction. We’ve had about three ‘revivals’ of the short story announced in the press since I wrote it, but short stories are still not loved by publishers. I also suspect people are reading fewer novels now than when it was written – although they may be buying more, given the number of cheap paperbacks and Kindle offers that are available. Meanwhile, I now rarely read novels, finding myself more interested in creative non-fiction. Reality Hunger.

BS Johnson’s novel, Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry is very short. It stretches the definition of novel, coming in at about 20,000 words. Johnson pre-empted this with a meta-fictional intervention from the eponymous Christie Malry:

“…who wants long novels anyway? Why spend all your spare time for a month reading a thousand-page novel when you can have a comparable aesthetic experience in the theatre or the cinema in only one evening? The writing of a long novel is in itself an anachronistic act: it was relevant only to a society and a set of social conditions that no longer exist”

My reaction to long novels these days is to feel affronted: who does this writer think they are? I don’t know how anyone has time to read long novels. The average UK work week is 41.4 hours. Add in time to sleep, cook, read weblog posts, update twitter and facebook, and play video games, it’s a wonder anyone reads novels. Considering that most people read 2 words per second, an average-sized 80,000 word novel takes about 11 hours. How long does it take most people to read an epic?

The time available to read is also dissected into smaller gaps, periods of dead time when it’s hard to do other things: flights, waiting rooms or the daily commute. I always wondered why people didn’t turn to short stories – after all, a half-hour commute is long enough to read a decent short story. Or you could get stuck into a couple of poems, and gaze out of the window while digesting them. Why do people stick with novels?

I found one possible answer in a round-table discussion, where Ra Page claimed “People read novels on the bus because it’s their little bit of down time, and they want to link those moments up and bring them together to make a longer experience.” If Ra Page is correct, people want novels to give a their day-to-day life a structure.

This was something else that obsessed BS Johnson. Jonathan Coe’s book on Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, quotes a letter in which he says, discussing his films, “I would like to make an audience think about WHY they demand a story from films but not from life.” We burrow into novels to find something lacking from our routine.

A major problem with restricting reading to these dead moments is that such moments are suited for certain types of novels: novels you can fall asleep to without losing the plot; or novels that can be followed despite the annoying conversations around you. Such books need to be simple, so they can be interrupted at any point and resumed with little effort. And if that’s true, then great novels are something that can only be enjoyed by students, the sick and the under-employed.

Maybe the novel is no longer suitable for the world we live in. I still enjoy reading, when I have time, but I’m aware that I might be one of the last generations to see novels as an essential part of life. New technologies are eroding the audience for the novel. They have to compete with movies and video games and mobile internet technologies – and I’d be hard pressed to state that novels are an intrinsically worthier method of entertainment than computer games or social networking.

The MechaPoet experiment

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The MechaPoet has now retired from performance. She currently sits on a chair in my flat beside the printer. I like to think they are friends; possibly, in time, something more.

MechaPoet was an attempt to produce a performance poetry robot. The idea came from discussions about creating real-person slash fiction with text generators. This led to the idea of MechaPoet, an attempt to relieve human beings from the drudgery of writing poetry. Me and Chris (my partner in the enterprise) have posted a few times about this (1, 2, 3 posts from me and one from Chris ), but I thought I’d do a quick overall post summarising things.

The technical side of MechaPoet was relatively unsophisticated, being based upon Markov Chains. The wikipedia page on this is not a particularly easy read. A simple way to explain them is that the Markov chains store every combination of two words in a text, and the word that follows them. This map of the text can then be used to generate plausible sequences of words that aren’t found in the original text. The best explanation of Markov Chains is by on-the-lambda.com, who illustrate the concept with the Smiths song, this Charming Man. They go on to show how Markov chains can be used to generate wine reviews.

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Obviously the project wasn’t just using Markov chains. I found a corpus of word pronunciations and used this to find generated phrases that ended on the same sound, and this could be used to generate couplets. The rhyming made the poems much more interesting. To quote Chris:

As someone who gets a bit sketchy and stressed out when I hear a lazy rhyme (part of the reason that I gave up rhyming altogether a couple of years ago), it might sound like quite a contrary request, but I think it gives a real shape to what MechaPoet comes out with, and makes the leap from the sort of Avant-Garde poetry that looks like an arbitrary list to the sort of semi-avant-garde-rhyming-doggerel that can be all too familiar to someone who goes to enough poetry nights. What was surprising was what eventually came out – sometimes, poems that are genuinely quite moving, and which contain some remarkable and surprising images.

The idea such an unimpressive way of generating the content was not simply laziness. I’d been thinking of something Matt Jones had said, about being ‘as smart as a puppy’: “Making smart things that don’t try to be too smart and fail and, indeed, by design, make endearing failures in their attempts to learn and improve. Like puppies.” The idea bring that it’s best not to try being too clever, but to cover for the shortcomings by being charming – hence the cardboard body of the robot.

A good example of simplicity working well is a bot written by Mark Humphrys which ‘passed’ the Turing test with “profanity, relentless aggression, prurient queries about the user, and implying that they were a liar when they responsed”. There’s also the classic story about the Eliza bot, where people felt their interactions with it were both significant and personal.

We had an interesting ‘uncanny valley‘ problem with the voice. The first version of the MechaPoet used the FreeTTS voices, which were good enough to tell that you were hearing poetry, but many of the words were garbled. After a show-and-tell at Brighton Java, Luke Whiting suggested using Google text-to-speech.  This is incredibly good, so much so that I had to make it sound imperfect to make the listener more sympathetic. (There was some research on this effect, and I’ll add a link when I find it again). The final version of the MechaPoet was a server-based poetry generator which was accessed by an Android phone providing the speech generation.

I look very young in this photograph

During the project I met up with zenbullets and shardcore, two local digital artists. I first met them after telling them their dedbullets collaboration was featured in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing. Zenbullets’ book Novelty Waves is worth a read, by the way, and some of shardcore’s talks are online – for example, What is it Like to Be a Bot?

Shardcore, quite rightly, pointed out many more sophisticated techniques I could use, but lack of time and focus meant I never explored them. It’s a great shame, as we were given some lovely ideas. As Shardcore writes about Markov Chains, “I’ve never been a huge fan of Markov chains for creating text, since the results can be somewhat haphazard and ungrammatical.”

There are still some fun projects involving the technique. King James Programming takes three texts as its source, moulding them into a new form. (“And it came to pass, that he who fleeth from the noise and confusion of ordinary software engineering or academic research.”) Or there is Garkov, which uses Markvo chains in an attempt to produce plausible Garfield strips.

I also wrote The MechaPoet in Java, which is a lousy language for hacking together prototypes, particularly for text manipulation – but when I wanted to produce the robot, I didn’t want to fiddle about learning Groovy, or sharpening my blunted Python skills.

MechaPoet was intended as a performance poet. She was involved in Chris’s award-winning Brighton Fringe show, as well as an appearance at the Hammer and Tongue night which, I think, baffled people more than it entertained. We never quite managed the trick of making MechaPoet entertaining rather than interesting.

(MechaPoet was a she, by the way. It’s amazing how many people assumed that a robot/performance poet must be a ‘he’. Hopefully, we weren’t sanctimonious in that, but if you’re going to gender a spray-painted cardboard box with a phone inside…)

I do want to return to the MechaPoet project at some point. I started work on a haiku generator (referring to haiku as the 5-7-5 version of the form). I’m convinced that the constrained, gnomic style of these haiku means it would be easy for a computer to create poetry far superior to what humans could do. My eventual plan is to use some sort of Bayesian filtering to pick good haiku. So far, I’ve got no further than a rather scrappy github repo. But it does at least have some unit tests.

I must also recommend Bot or not, which allows users to guess whether a piece of poetry is wtritten by a human or a computer. Apparently Blake’s The Fly is the most human-like poem written by a human being.

An experiment in publishing

Along with the book of short stories, I’ve also been working on something longer: Lovecraft in Brighton. This is a ‘novella in fragments’, telling the story of a man haunted by the ghost of HP Lovecraft. It’s also something of an experiment, with the work-in-progress being sent out – each time someone buys a copy, a new story is added and the work so far sent by post – with a final version being sent to everyone at the end.

I love horror stories and sending them by post allows me to play with the intimacy of the genre: the loneliness and terror evoked by Lovecraft. The stories sent out will shift somewhat, because there are some stories I can only tell to people I know well; and others I can’t commit to open publication. So far, three people have read it and been very excited about it. There are more details and a link to buy copies on the Postal Press Lovecraft in Brighton page.

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The Return of Not for the Faint-Hearted

Photo by dade_p
The bucket was too small for Mickey’s head. But Minnie kept the ears (Photo by Dade_p from flickr CC)

Some years back now, Ellen de Vries and I started Not for the Faint-Hearted. It was intended as a one-off experimental writing workshop but was so much fun that it became a monthly event. It’s been on hiatus for a while but I brought it back last night for another session at the Skiff. We had 14 people, a mix of old faces and new, and it was as much fun as ever.

The aim of NFTFH is that we show the group a picture and they have three minutes to write a response – a story, poem or some dialogue. Then everyone has to read out something of what they’ve written. And you’re not allowed to apologise. What I like most is how funny and entertaining the pieces are – whether or not the people doing them consider themselves writers or not.

Next month’s event is on March 9th and tickets are now available. The pictures this month were:

  1. Airport Motel, 1956
  2. The TukTuk and the street food clients
  3. Time for supper everyone
  4. Waiter smoking, Paris
  5. Kansas Farmhouse
  6. A 1919 Sunday Supper
  7. WWPW-Brighton-19
  8. Voie ferree de cave
  9. The Secret History
  10. Containers
  11. Echo

Where to publish your stories?

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On Thursday 25th I was involved in Flash-Fiction cinema with my friends Amy and Chris. The main feature of the night was a series of filmed short stories that had been sent in; and Chris and I each gave a talk about new types of fiction.

I spoke about Creepypasta, Slenderman, and the way truth and fiction merge. Writing the talk was interesting, provoking nightmares and night-terrors for several nights. Chris’s talk was about online hoaxes as storytelling, something he has quite a reputation for.

We learned about the Bicholim Conflict, an entire conflict that was faked on wikipedia, lasting five years before being discovered. Chris also revealed a hoax of his that I hadn’t heard about. Check out the wikitravel article for Shoreham-on-Sea, archived from November 2012. Notice anything strange? This lay unaltered for about 18 months. At one point, the Lovely Brothers excitedly showed Chris this strange thing they’d found.

At the end of his talk, Chris urged the audience, “Leave your stories lying around in unorthodox, unethical locations,” pointing out that his quick hoaxes had gained larger audiences than his self-published collections. Maybe people should embrace this new genre, flinging stories into the world to see which take root.

 

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On Writing

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an author – wait! That’s not right, I’m just quoting a film. But anyway. Since I was a child, I wanted to write a novel. Which is a slightly strange ambition, since I had no clear idea about the book, just that I wanted to be an author.

I’ve spent a significant amount of time over the last twenty years writing novels. Some have been awful, but there are others that I’m quietly proud of. They’ve been fascinating to construct, both in terms of craft and in learning about a subject. I’ve enjoyed producing these strange works, but I’ve never successfully sent them into the world. A few have received very positive responses, but none led to publication. Some people have returned the book with nothing but a standard rejection, sometimes just a quarter-strip of A4 paper. Which, considering the effort I’d put in to researching agents and writing appropriate cover-letters, seemed downright rude. I like sending out novels far less than I like writing them.

I recently finished another project, Tourist Planet, about the experience of travelling in India. And I got to thinking, what now? And I realised that I don’t want to spend any more time writing novels. Obviously, as I’ve argued in the past (notably on the Literature Network site), writing should not be coupled to the idea of publishing. But, really, when you’re spending that much time on an activity, there should be a little more to show for it than a few hundred kilobytes on a hard drive. No, I don’t want to waste my life writing computer files.

And it’s not as if short stories are much better for me. I don’t even bother to send out most of the short stories I write. As much as I love stories like Richey Edwards vs Godzilla, it’s hard to find an appropriate home for them. And since I’ve pretty much stopped reading literary journals these days submitting to any would be pretty arrogant. (At this point, I should call out Alex and Elle who ran Penumbra, which stands out as the best place I’ve been published. If there were ever to be a fifth issue, I’d dust something off for them. Nothing else tempts me).

I’ve had two major life changes this year. Firstly, since April I’ve been working a full time job with Crunch. I’m having a great time but the cost is that I have much less free time than before. I can’t do everything I’d like to, which means I have to make choices. Writing has taken up a lot of my time and I’m not sure it justifies its place against other activities, or even spending more time thinking about programming – which is, after all, what’s likely to be feeding me for the next 30-years-or-so of working life.

What it comes down to is that I want to stop writing fiction. To make a clean break with it. Which is one reason for declaring it on a weblog – to underline that I’m serious, both to myself and to other people. Another is that I have a few commitments to break and it would be useful to have an explanation I can point to.

Writing has been fascinating. I’ve met some amazing people – without the MA at Sussex I’d not have made some wonderful friends. I’ve enjoyed doing spoken word, and have been very grateful for all the opportunities in Brighton. But writing takes up a lot of my time and there are other things I could be doing. I’ve met people in their sixties who say that whose lives will feel like a failure if they never publish a novel. I don’t want to face that fate. I don’t want to have an imaginary career.

No, I want to focus on other aspects of my life. I realised recently that I can’t sew. My cooking, once hilariously woeful is now competent – and I’d like it to be more than that. And I want to spend more time exercising, to lose the chubby belly I’ve had since childhood. I’ve always been convinced there was a slightly thinner person inside me and, if there is, I’m sure he’d appreciate being found and rescued. 

Upcoming: Not for the Faint-Hearted produce an ebook in an evening

When Ellen and I originally devised Not for the Faint-Hearted, our creative writing event, it was an experiment. We had no idea whether it would work and were delighted when it turned out to be such a success.

The night is based around people producing written responses to photographs, which can be stories, poems, dialogues or anything else. Each round is usually three minutes, after which people take turns to read something from their work (you don't have to read, but it is encouraged!).

For December's event, based on an idea from Tom Hume, we're going to try something a little different: we're going to try compiling the evening's work into an ebook. I have no idea how well this will work. Over a hundred stories are produced and read most evening and I find them very entertaining. It will be interesting to see how well they work in e-ink.

More details on the session, which is on December 3rd, can be found on the sign-up page. I'm a little nervous and very excited about this. The best thing about a good experiment is that, whether it works or not, you learn interesting things.