Writing about writing

Language, Pedantry and Pleasure

November 4th, 2008 - No Responses

I was reading a blog entry (or blessay, if you will) by the excellent Stephen Fry this morning on language, pedantry and pleasure, and a few thoughts have been percolating. Some of this is brain-dump material, but, as always, I’m not trying to make you think the same as me. I’m just trying to make you think.

I think about language often. I collect words and phrases hither and thither. I make up funny (in the dual senses of humourous and strange) little rhymes or phrases or songs to amuse myself. I make up words for their sound or their feel (there aren’t nearly enough ideophones for my tastes), or because they fill a much-needed gap. I’ve spent idle hours wondering at the fact that our writing and speaking voices are comfortable in different registers and with different idioms. You might say that makes me a geek, and to that I say “well spotted” in a sort of dry sarcastic font remarkably similar to my everyday speaking font. I am indeed a language geek, among my other geekeries. I’m sure most of my (two?) readers are geeks in a few ways themselves. Language as a love for me, however, is an artistic rather than intellectual pursuit.

Anyone who knows me well will attest to the fact that I have an abiding love for words and language. I delight in wordage. In building and sculpting and tweaking phrases that trip or flow over the tongue of the mind with just the right taste. In distilling from these scratchings on silicon or paper or stone an essence composed of not just an intellectual concept, but also primal elements of emotion: a touch of familiarity, a dash of awe, a sprinkling of forbidden thrill. The connections with stories, another of my great loves, should be obvious. One connection worth pointing out, however, is that neither of them are really worth bothering with unless you’re at least trying to do something new. At some point that means breaking rules. And, indeed, as long as the communication aspect is not interfered with it’s tough to make a case for ‘knowing the rules before you break them’. Which quite neatly (as if it were happenstance) brings me around to the pedantry aspect.

As a sometime amateur futurist (purely for the purposes of self-amusement, you must understand) I feel I must ascribe any pedantry I hold over the usage of language to a vested interest in our ability as human beings to communicate, and to continue to be able to communicate. I applaud creativity in language, even if I sometimes cringe at new words or ‘creative misspellings’. Two parties need a common set of rules in order to communicate, however, and I see those rules potentially breaking down in two ways: dilution and divergence. Don’t get me wrong, the last thing I want to do is stifle the growth and evolution of language. And don’t think I’m unaware of the fact that people have been prematurely despairing the demise of languages for as long as they’ve had words to allow them to do so. I posit that the internet changes the playing field, however. Anyway, I’m not asking anyone to stop doing anything. Let’s just say I’m watching with interest.

The first concern is the dilution of language. Let’s take that perennial example of internet forums and comments, there/they’re/their. Using your eyes you’re sure to see there that they’re distinct words, but their usage in general would seem to contend that all three are valid spellings of one word with three very distinct meanings. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some forum vigilante who flits from board to board righting the writing of the many, but I do see that loss of distinction as something to be lamented. Ideally they wouldn’t be homophones to begin with. It’s not like we’ve run out of potential words. I submit that gryzik/they’re/flibbin would be less confusing, assuming we all learned it from an early age. As long as communication isn’t affected, the effect of all this is negligible, but I still don’t feel that losing words is a good thing under any circumstances.

The second concern is the divergence of language. Here’s the thing: the internet is the Tower of Babel all over again. Not just in that we’ve built something bigger than any of us could even conceive individually, nor indeed in that large parts of it are built solely to demonstrate to others just how clever the builders are. Perhaps more than any invention of humanity, this is the one thing that echos “nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” To some, it seems to pave the way to the long-sought-after Tribe of Humanity. The danger is that people get caught up in the smaller tribes. The Tribe of Mac and the Tribe of PC are good examples of this, or the Tribe of Facebook and the Tribe of Myspace. The fact is that the connecting properties of the internet bring together tribes that couldn’t possibly have existed before, to the point where everything is a tribe these days. Microcultures spring up around the smallest of shared experiences, spawning memes and traditions and yes, even language. If I identify with even as few as a dozen tribes, and you another wholly distinct dozen we each have large tracts of our language space inaccessible to the other. As an unqualified amateur observer, I only see these trends accelerating. Let’s just hope we don’t all end up speaking different languages. Still, for the most part, I think it’s brilliant. You can’t make the omelet of the Tribe of Humanity without breaking a few memetic eggs. More than that, the internet is one of the single greatest advancements or advancers of human science and culture, and it only works because everything is (at least in potentia) on the internet. (Which is yet another reason why liberty-eroding internet censorship schemes such as the horrific ‘Clean Feed’ debacle will either fail, or result in massive community efforts to transmute the internet into something that simply cannot be corralled.) So, lest ye be called a n00b, embrace the blogosphere, and the podcast and the vodcast, and the lolspeak that is even now in ur tubes.

But if you ‘LOL’ out loud, as it were, we’re going to have to have words.


August 12th, 2008 - No Responses

Reality is made worthwhile only in the sharing. This is largely because of, and largely hindered by, the fact that no two people agree on what reality is.

It is widely accepted that there are great truths, although fewer than one might suppose. It is widely ignored that the chances of even one of these truths having been hit upon by even one person in the history of the world is astronomically small. This is further confounded by the fact that the opposite of any great truth is also likely to be true. There is probably no way of proving that something is a great truth, but many mere ‘facts’ can easily be shown not to be great truths by virtue of the fact that they contain the words “but”, “except”, or “assuming”.

And, so, we construct bubbles of approximations, assumptions, half-truths and flat out lies and proceed to call this conglomerate ‘reality’. This process is called ‘growing up’. Everything we see from inside these bubbles is distorted by their shape, and tinted further by the worst assumption of all: that the inside of every other bubble either is or should be the same as our own. Every injustice perpetrated by humanity can be explained by this, and it is only natural therefore that we are wretched.

If we are worthy of elevation above this status it is only because of our ability and our willingness to build bridges between these bubbles, to attempt to understand their contents and see the world through them.


May 25th, 2008 - No Responses

The second pass of my novel edit is finished. It’s an improvement, definitely, which is something I was a little concerned about, having grown so used to how it was before. I think the distance I had gained from not reading it for a year and a half helped. Plus, even though I still wasn’t writing much in that time, I feel that my writing improved a lot. It’s not a technical proficiency thing, it’s an attitude thing – one that I can’t put my finger on exactly, but I feel it when I write now. There is still the chance that I’m so attached to some things there to see that they need to be done again from scratch. These edits weren’t structural, because I don’t feel that structural edits are needed, but I could be wrong.


If I’m being honest, an external editor is needed. Not because there is necessarily anything wrong with what I have, but because I know I have blind spots and I have to allow for that. I’ve had a few offers. I don’t need someone to read it to offer opinions or check spelling, though, I need someone to read it with scalpel in hand, whilst still understanding what this story and these characters mean to me. I only trust one person with that job. Which means that, for now, I’m going to tag this one as work in progess. Don’t give up hope, the novel is closer to seeing the light of day than it ever has been, but I want this done properly.

* * * * *

I’m not sure if anyone’s following this show or not, but if you are you will have noticed that the new website layout is up and going strong. Categories have been purposely separated into ‘Blog’ and ‘Stories’, so you can just track one or the other if you wish, and the story blog is getting (so far) a post a day. The only restriction I’m putting on myself at this point is that at least one hundred words get posted to it every day, but for now that schedule is just for me, not any potential readers I may or may not have. Some of the pieces fit together, and are categorised as such. Some don’t fit together yet, some never will.

On that note, I have a story post to write.

Novel, Website,

May 13th, 2008 - One Response

The first pass of my novel edit is finished.

For anyone who is interested, this ‘two-pass’ system I’ve mentioned before works like so: The first pass is focused mostly on reading. This is particularly useful in the case of the novel (which I last read straight through nearly a year and a half ago), in that it makes the narrative fresh in my mind. I read out loud, partly to test dialogue for authenticity, partly because it forced me to actually pay attention to each word, and partly for another reason I’ll touch on later. Anything that stood out as awkward or a break in the flow, I marked, noting any suggested changes alongside the text. Anything that stood out as wrong, of course, I changed then and there.

The second pass will be going back to the yellow bits. I have a tendency, during edits, to stress over synonyms and phrasing and even punctuation. It is necessary, of course, but it is time consuming and it is disheartening. Hopefully I now have a road-map that tells me where it is worth putting that effort in.

So now I have a manuscript filled with yellow highlighting and parenthetical suggestions. Honestly there is less yellow than I had suspected. All in all, I’m very proud of what I’ve managed to do with this novel. The characters really are the most important for me, and the vehicle does most of them proud.

One thing that does occur to me, and it’s a hard one to catch in a technical edit, is that maybe it does better by the characters that are my favourites. Mind you, that means five out of seven main characters. There are no really standout moments for two of the characters, though I think they are characterised well. I could be wrong, people who end up fans of those characters might find plenty to enjoy, and certainly there are things that happen down the track that will vindicate them, but perhaps they need more page time or at least some dialogue tweaking here and there.

This is quite indicative of one of the reasons that the first pass is a good idea: reading every word out loud really gets the novel as a whole solidly in my short-term memory, and lets me see things from a broader perspective. As far as the character thing goes, I don’t really know that I can make a call here. I’ll need an external opinion for that one. In terms of the narrative, though, I feel that the order is spot on, and the pacing is too for the most part. Hopefully by the time all the yellow is gone it will be spot on too.

* * * * *

So, let’s talk other writing stuff.There have been two additions to the website: It Rained and A Tale of Yores.These additions probably went unnoticed even by people who were paying attention due to failings in the current layout. The writing pages were never meant to stay as they are, but I’ve been tossing around various solutions to the problems as I see them and I think I finally have an answer. The problems are as follows:

  • Stories need individual comment pages
  • Stories need to be arranged by date, so that the newer stories are obvious.
  • Some way of alerting people when I add a new story is needed.
  • Some of my stories aren’t really stories. They are pieces of stories – some stay as single pieces, some gather other pieces around them.

The solution, as I see it, is to tweak this blog so it is more suitable and use it as the back-end for the site. I should be able to use tags to keep posts like this and the creative stuff apart, and to keep linked story pieces together, plus there is a perfectly serviceable comment system and RSS feed already here. I’ll have a go at fixing this as soon as I get the chance (I’m supposed to be working on my PhD right now), and the two stories I posted today will be the first on the new system, as they are most definitely pieces. There are other pieces hanging around for one of them, too.

This “pieces” thing is actually an end in itself, too, for I am forever coming up with little snippets that never get attached and never get read. I would like to add some new piece of writing here every day. At least a hundred words. I’m not going to claim a daily update schedule yet, I know that would be folly, but if I get it running and manage that for a while then I’ll try to make it a permanent thing. Watch this space.

* * * * *

There was one more thing. I’ve been thinking about podcasting. I haven’t been thinking about podcasting because of podcasting, I’ve been thinking about podcasting because of Daniel Kitson. If you don’t know who he is, go see him the next time he’s in your town. What struck me the most after watching his two latest shows was not how funny he is (very), but that it was still possible to get up and tell a story. I look at how shows like Firefly get cancelled and shows like Big Brother are in their nth season and I sometimes despair that any significant proportion of people give a damn about stories or characters at all. And, let’s be honest, that’s probably the case. But if the stories are good enough, then there are people that care. Enough people that as unlikely a performer as Kitson is (No offense meant Daniel, if you happen to read this. I’m not saying you’re not a brilliant performer, I’m just saying I doubt your guidance counsellor predicted it.) he can tour the world on a regular basis, get up in front of sold out rooms of people and tell stories.

There are things that can be done with voice that cannot be done with written word alone, and vice versa. Part of the reason I read the novel out loud for editing was to see what it sounds like. It sounds pretty good. There is a part of me that is considering podcasting an audio version alongside the chapters as they are released online. There is another part of me that realises that if something is to be read aloud you should write it to be read aloud (Slithy Toves was written to be read aloud, if you were wondering). I’ve been experimenting a bit with that voice, and I think it’s something I can do. Hopefully something will come of it. Then, one day, maybe you’ll see me in front of a room full of people.

Site News, Novel News

April 28th, 2008 - 2 Responses

Neon Winter (2.0?) has launched. Sort of.

The main site (www.neonwinter.com) has a layout (a ‘flavour’, if you will), but no new content as yet. By ‘no new content’, I mean that most of the ‘old’ content is back (and yes, by now I am partly just enjoying seeing how many parentheses and ‘quotes’ I can put in this paragraph) and as exactly the same as ever.

Some of the prose is embarrassingly æsoteric, some embarrasssingly angsty, some embarrassingly awkward, some embarrassingly awesome. There are two main reasons it’s here, though. The first is that it’s true, and that’s important. To go back to the garden metaphor of my first blog post, this stuff is in the soil. It is organic matter, composted and fertile and it lives in some form in everything written since then. It has earned its place here, though I imagine it will be moved away from the light once new things start to sprout. As for why it is currently on the surface, I’m coding the site to be modular and adaptable: I want to be able to update by just dumping a text file on the server, not recoding every page like I used to have to do back in the day. That interface is to an extent already up and running, but to get a decent idea of how it works and fine-tune it properly the site needs content. This content will do as good as any other.

And, frankly, I’ll be as proud of Slithy Toves and the Francésca story in sixty years as I was the day I wrote them.

There is no comment system set up on the main site, though I think I will try to get that sorted in time, but if anyone cares enough to have opinions I want to hear them. I’m talking mostly in terms of the site, not the content, but of course any constructive comments are always welcome. The chances of me effecting a rewrite on any finished piece currently on the site are slim to nil, but I can and will take comments on board for the future. As for the site, what do you think of the layout and the style? Any suggestions for features or changes? I have plenty of ideas myself, of course, as it is far from finished, but running a site and using it are not the same thing and there’s little point running a site that’s unusable. Leave all comments here, for now, or send me an email over at zane@neonwinter.com.

As for new content, there is some around. A few stories written in the intervening time between websites, and more than a few unfinished pieces. I’ll start to gather the finished stuff together and trickle it onto the site, and if anything new gets written/finished it will make its way here as well.

* * * * *
In other news, yes, I am editing the novel. Getting in the mood for that when taking a break from editing my PhD is difficult, but I’m trying to push it and I think my new two-pass editing technique is helping that. I’d suggest I’m just under halfway through the first pass, and that is the quicker pass. When I finish my second pass it could use an edit from someone who isn’t me. Since I can’t really pay anyone for that at this ‘give it away for free’ stage, I’m looking at a couple of options there (one of which is “fuck it”). Not sure which way it will end up going but I’ll keep you updated.

One thing I was considering was the possibility of starting to release some ‘special features’. There are myths, character profiles, a sort of annotated atlas and various other bits and pieces that might interest readers. I’m less convinced they will interest people who aren’t yet readers, but reacquainting myself with the world probably can’t hurt – it exists in a lot more detail than will ever make it into the novels.


April 23rd, 2008 - No Responses

It started with love.

It always does, of course. I’ve wondered about that, and I think it has something to do with love being the only truly spontaneous emotion. Love, the kind of love that starts things, doesn’t need any ‘because’. You like things ‘because’. You hate things ‘because’. When you love something, even though you may say ‘because’, it exists even when you take away the because. Love is the because of other things. The turtle. All the way down.

I’m not here to write about love in any explicit way, though. (Insert standard “If this be false, and upon me proved…” caveat here.) I’m here to write about stories.

I can only assume everyone starts out life believing all stories are true. I’m no chemist, so I’m not going to call so few data points a trend, but it just seems natural to me that people come into the world that way. Maybe that’s some kind of species memory, maybe it’s simple naïveté. I tend to think that it bleeds in from somewhere else entirely.

The next step is the whole ‘harsh reality’ kick. Toughen the kids up so they can be ‘functioning’ adults. Tell them that stories aren’t true. That stories aren’t real. We lose most of them here, of course. It’s to be expected. And when it comes to it you can’t really blame the ‘functioning’ adults. It’s very hard to imagine things from a different perspective than your own, so if that’s how you function that’s how you think it’s done and that’s what you teach the children in your care so that they can function too.

Steps three and four are part observation and part speculation for me — I left the path at step two. Still, even if I’m wrong and even though they’re optional I still think they are instructional so I’m going to include them anyway. Step three is when you realise that some stories are inarguably true. Maybe that happens when you start coming across books and movies of true events, more likely it’s when you figure out that people think and communicate in stories. When you figure out that news is stories, that decent conversations are stories, that lives are stories. That puts a crack in the “stories aren’t real” theory, and it’s enough that we get some of them back at that point.

Step four seems to usually happen around university age, though that is not a hard and fast rule. It’s part arts-kick, part philosophy-kick, and it boils down to the thought: “All stories are true, for a given value of true.” Many people who reach that point just feel smug and leave off there. Some go on to the much better: “All stories are true, here and now, for a given value of here and now.”

It was love for a character, you see. I don’t even remember which one. Maybe even love for a place. Love, the kind of love that starts things, for something that most people wouldn’t even consider real. And look, I understand that. I do. If you’re reading this and starting to form the opinion that I’m crazy, let’s agree to disagree. Because I understand your position. I respect your position, even. These things aren’t real in any useful way to most people, and to most people that amounts to the same thing. It’s like Pluto. People got all up in arms about it because people like to get up in arms about things, but when it comes down to it most people don’t care whether Pluto is a planet or not because to them Pluto might as well not be real. And keep in mind that there’s physical evidence for Pluto. Faith without evidence is just plain faith. Faith without impetus is scarily close to madness. So, yes, I understand people that don’t consider these things real. I’ve even been known to get along with people who don’t consider them at all. But they are real to me.

I have love for places. The sprawling castle of Gormenghast. Hogwarts. I have love for characters. Alice. Peter. Dozens more, besides.

That’s what started it. It was love.

Me & CC, Part 2

March 10th, 2008 - No Responses

No decisions made yet, but a couple of points were made to me about this affecting the chances of it being published in a physical book.

Admittedly yes, this is a possibility, given that we live in a world where the people who produce content and the people who consume that content are separated by corporate entities who are scared to let anything out of their control. It has been widely shown that releasing stuff for free on the internet only helps commercial sales. The problem is that there are a lot of companies out there who see the people who download content as extra potential customers rather than the reality, which is that in the majority of cases they either become customers regardless of free access to the content or never would have been customers or even experienced the content if it hadn’t been free.

That last one is actually a very important point to someone who isn’t in all of this for the money. The only reason I want my writing (and music) to make money is so that I can support the making of more writing (and music) without resorting to some mind-numbing soul-stealing day job on the side. Other than that, it is not a motivation. I don’t want to be rich, I don’t want to be famous, but I do want my stuff to be read. If someone who would never have bought my stuff in the first place gets access to it for free, that’s a bonus for me. If someone who would have bought it reads for free then decides it’s not worth paying money for or at least donating some small amount then yes, that’s a bit of a shame but I’m not trying to trick people into giving me money, so I can live with that. If someone thinks it’s worth money they will give me money somehow. Whether it’s through a donation, or buying the next one, or random merchandise or just buying me a drink when they see me out and about. Unless they’re a real asshole, and honestly there’s nothing you can do about them anyway.

So, the publishing thing. There are companies that will publish something that’s been released under a CC license. Speculative fiction publishers (Tor and the like) in particular seem to be reasonably forward-thinking. (Just as an aside, speculative fiction includes sci-fi, but is not restricted to sci-fi. And yes, all fiction is speculative, but I could argue that all music is folk so let’s not get bogged down in semantics here)

There are examples of works being picked up wholesale from the net and published, examples of publishing deals where the work is released simultaneously to book and electronic form, and examples where old works are released under a CC license to generate renewed interest (perhaps for a new book release). And there are thousands and thousands of examples of CC works that haven’t been picked up for publishing. Is that because companies aren’t forward thinking enough, because the works themselves get lost in the aether of the ever-changing web, or because they are just crap? A mix of all three, of course, but I’ve been around this web a couple of times and I’m convinced that if something is deserving of notice and the author/artist is in any way savvy and puts in any effort then it will be noticed. Word of mouth is pretty powerful when all those mouths are connected so tightly to one another, and whether or not you like the morals, the free market does for the most part work.

If I release my book under a CC license it is done and cannot be revoked. I can of course take the book offline. The license will not apply to any copies released under different terms, and it doesn’t stop me from making money from the books. Anyone who got a copy from me under a CC license, however, will be bound only under the terms of that license and will thus be free to distribute it as they see fit so long as they attribute it to me and don’t make money off it. So too will be the people they give it to. I’ve got to say that that doesn’t bother me. It might bother some publishers, but chances are those are the publishers who have always secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) been against lending books to friends and second-hand bookstores and libraries.

I meant to focus on the flipside here as well, but I really should go do some work or I’ll never get this PhD. To be seen in a future note some time soon: Why releasing this for free might make it more likely that I get published.

Me & CC

March 7th, 2008 - No Responses

(This post and the one after it are crossposted from my facebook. Originally I was planning on just asking a question, but it turns out I have quite a few opinions on this whole topic so I decided that my blog really should start being a blog. After these two I will try to do it the other way around – link my RSS feed to my facebook in case anyone over there cares and post the rants themselves here. )

So I’ve been tossing around a little idea lately, and I thought I’d see if anybody has any feedback. The basic background, for anyone that doesn’t know, is that I love to write but haven’t quite had the energy/motivation/inspiration to write anything from start to finish for a while now for a number of reasons, including one that starts with “PhD” and ends with pain and suffering.
A few years back I wrote a novel. It’s quite hard for a first-time author to even get a manuscript onto the desk of a publisher, so I had to try to get an agent, and they had a different vision for the book than I did (based on what little they actually read). So I got disheartened, then distracted by uni workload ramping up and it all just fell by the wayside.

The thing is, sappiness and needing a good hard edit aside, I love that novel. Or, maybe more accurately, I love those characters. They want to be read, and they want the other two books of the trilogy to be written.

So here’s the idea: I am considering publishing my work for free online under a Creative Commons license. By-nc 3.0, to be exact


The basic idea with that is that it’s free and anyone can download it and send it to their friends, even do fan translations or similar projects, so long as they don’t make any money off it themselves. Furthermore, it doesn’t sign away my own commercial rights, so if a publisher did want to pick the book up eventually there would be no problem there.

I’m hoping that if it is actually good enough to read then word will get around a bit and people will comment and perhaps make suggestions, or even better demand that I write the other books. The bigger plan is that some kind of feedback may help to kickstart my writing again.

If I do decide to do this it won’t be instant, because like I say there are sections (mostly the beginning) that need a good hard edit. Not to mention the fact that I am trying to finish up my PhD here, so I spend the majority of my time either working on that, procrastinating from working on that, or recovering from working on that. But the characters want to be read, so I think I should probably do something about that.

Does anyone have any comments, suggestions, or demands for immediacy? I’d like to know if people think this is a good idea or not.