Sharing: November 23, 2018

More things I like:

Used first-year university textbooks
I live within fifteen minutes of two universities: the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. Both have stores where you can buy used textbooks for under $10 each. The books that go for such low prices aren’t the latest editions—they may be around five years old. But even in 2018, the introductory principles of various disciplines don’t change much in five years. If you buy a slightly old textbook, you still have an amazing resource as a starting place for learning a subject.

So I’ve bought first-year textbooks in dozens of fields, from anatomy and economics to Italian and microbiology. Wikipedia is certainly great for quick-and-dirty fact finding, especially when I already know the basics of a subject…but when I want to learn something from scratch or in depth, I love textbooks. They’re designed to teach topics in some rational order, where one thing builds on another. So I strongly recommend that everyone should make a trip to the nearest university campus and see what gems you can get for a surprisingly low price.

By the way, let me add one way that I use such books: I keep one in my kitchen. Whenever I’m taking a break from writing and go for a snack, I can read a few paragraphs while I’m munching. Also, when I’m cooking and waiting for water to boil or something like that, I can also read a bit. I like having something to read that I can pick up and put down without too much angst.

 

The Comics trilogy by Scott McCloud
I’ve long been aware of Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud’s 1993 book on how comic books work. (The book also covers comic strips, manga, graphic novels, etc.) If you haven’t read it, rush out to your library and grab a copy now.

I was also aware of the follow-up, Reinventing Comics, published in 2000. It was McCloud’s attempt to nudge the creators of comics to aim higher and be more ambitious.

But I only recently discovered that he’d written a third book in 2006: Making Comics. I have no idea how I missed it…but I’m reading it now, and it’s full of great insights on how to create comic books that work. Highly recommended.

Sharing: November 18, 2018

More things I like:

Book-: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Tharp is a long-time dancer and choreographer, and this is her book about the creative process. As the title suggests, she recommends developing the habit of being creative, and she offers numerous ways to improve your creative process. I first read this book many years ago; now, as I’m rereading it, my creative juices have started bubbling fiercely.
Newsletter: Orbital Operations by Warren Ellis
I think of Warren Ellis as a comic book writer, but he also writes novels, screenplays, and a heck of a good weekly newsletter. Every posting talks about books that I’ve never heard of but immediately want to read. His Morning, Computer blog is also well worth following.
App: Freedom
Freedom is an internet blocker, available for most operating systems. I use it on both my iPad and my Windows desktop. Freedom helps you avoid indulging your vices; I have it set up to prevent me from reading Twitter when I’m supposed to be writing, and from playing solitaire anytime after 10:30 at night. In other words, Freedom has willpower when I don’t. It lets me work and sleep when I want to, despite the addictive nature of the web.

Cryptic Crosswords

The other day, I met someone who had never heard of cryptic crossword puzzles. Since I’ve been addicted to cryptics for (OMG!) more than thirty years, I thought I’d talk about them today.

I assume that everyone reading this is familiar with normal (i.e. non-cryptic) crossword puzzles. A cryptic looks much the same, except that most of the answers have letters that don’t cross with other answers—every ACROSS word has letters that aren’t in any DOWN word, and vice versa. You can only complete the puzzle by solving every clue, both ACROSS and DOWN.

Another slight difference is that every cryptic clue tells how many letters the answer has. For example, if you see (7) at the end of a clue, it means taht the answer has 7 letters. Of course, you could get that from looking at the puzzle grid…but you might also see something like (4,3) meaning a 4-letter word followed by a 3-letter word, or (5-2) which means that the answer is hyphenated as shown.

But the major difference between cryptic and non-cryptic crosswords is that cryptic clues are deceptive. They don’t just give a synonym for the answer word; they usually give a synonym and a secondary hint, both disguised to make it hard to tell what’s what.

Here’s a simple example:

Midnight running event creates elegance(5)

(I’ll pause while experienced cryptic solvers figure it out.)

Okay, the answer is GRACE. Midnight = the middle of “night” = “G”. A running event is a RACE. Add G+RACE and you get GRACE which can mean “elegance”.

Here’s another:

The arctic is mapped with some of my minor thoughts(5)

Pause…

The answer is NORTH. The arctic is mapped up north, and some of “my miNOR THoughts” is NORTH.

These are common types of clues. You can see more such standards in the Wikipedia entry on Cryptic Crosswords.

If you’re interested in trying a cryptic or two, the Globe and Mail offers a free online cryptic six days a week. Doing the puzzles online lets you guess and get immediate feedback by clicking the “Check” button. (Warning: Canadian spellings.)

I also recommend the Two-Speed Crosswords in the UK’s Sun. “Two-Speed” means that there are two sets of clues: cryptic clues, and “coffee-time” (i.e. normal) clues if you can’t solve the cryptic ones. I should note that the Sun puts the T&A in TAbloid, so be prepared to see links to sleazy articles. The puzzles are good, though.

Both the Globe and Sun puzzles are reasonably easy. Several other newspapers, especially British ones, also run regular cryptics, but they’re usually much harder. They may also require knowledge of cricket and British football teams. But hey, it’s an education just trying to understand the clues, even when you know the answer. And if you’re a writer, cryptics are also good for your vocabulary.

[Blank crossword grid by Wikipedian en:User:Michael J, published under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2]

Sharing: June 17, 2018

More stuff I like:

Book: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
This made me laugh a lot: wry and honest cartoons about being an well-meaning misfit.
App: Feedly
Feedly is an RSS subscription reader…and if you don’t know what that is, you should. RSS is method of summarizing and syndicating blog posts. Almost every site you care about creates its own RSS information; software like Feedly can look up that information and tell you about any articles posted since the last time you checked. In other words, RSS readers let you follow blogs and quickly find out what’s new. I use Feedly as a fast way of checking many different web sites, so that I’m always up to date. (And by the way, you can use Feedly to follow this web site too, i.e. jamesalangardner.com. Never miss a posting!
Web Site: Reductress
Reductress is The Onion but with articles slanted toward women. Some of the articles are only titles…but the titles are so great, adding content would only spoil them. So yes, I just read Reductress for the headlines; it is a wonderful use of my time.

RPG Setting: Divergent Hogwarts

I run role-playing games for various groups, and I thought it might be of interest if I shared some of the settings that I’ve “invented” (which often means “egregiously stolen”).

So let’s start with one I came up with for a group that included several teenagers. I knew they were interested in YA books, particularly the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth and the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling. So I invented a setting which combined the two in a way that I hoped would appeal to them.

As is only right for a YA-based campaign, the background is post-apocalyptic. The apocalypse was caused by an outbreak of magic in our modern world. (I was thinking of something like the Conjunction of Spheres from the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski, but it doesn’t really matter.) Things went to hell in a handbasket, thanks to the abrupt appearance of magical creatures and uncontrolled sorcerous outbursts.

Numerous enclaves and cultures arose out of civilization’s ashes. One such enclave was established by people who were fans of Divergent and Harry Potter. They created a school to train troubleshooters who could help other communities deal with problems. As you might expect from the school’s two inspirations, “Divergent Hogwarts” taught both magic and other useful skills as in the Divergent books.

Many role-playing games describe characters using an “X-axis” and a “Y-axis”. If you’re familiar with Dungeons & Dragons the X-axis is race (human, elf, dwarf, etc.) and the Y-axis is class/profession (wizard, fighter, rogue, etc.). Each axis choice gives you a set of abilities. By mixing and matching (elf wizard, human rogue, dwarf fighter, etc.), you get a wide variety of character possibilities that can be further developed in other ways.

In Divergent Hogwarts, the X-axis was Divergent faction (Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite) and the Y-axis was Hogwarts house (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin). Players would choose their character’s faction and house; each choice conveyed certain skills and attributes, giving the character a useful operating base.

For the game system, I chose Mage, the Awakening (Second Edition) from Onyx Path Publishing. Mage is well-suited for both magic and ass-kicking (as well as investigation and social life, which the teens were interested in too). Mage subdivides magical powers into ten arcana: Death, Fate, Forces, Life, and so on. Every mage has two primary arcana that they’re most adept with. In Divergent Hogwarts, one of your primary arcana was determined by your faction while the other was determined by your house. For example, a Dauntless Gryffindor would be good at Forces and Spirit, while an Erudite Slytherin would be good at Mind and Death.

With five factions and four houses, they almost covered the ten arcana. I decided that nobody would be good at “Prime” (which is essentially magic dealing with magic itself). Everyone would have to struggle with that.

The lovely thing about this set-up is that the teens didn’t have to read the rule book much to get started. They were, after all, just beginning students at the school. They’d know what types of magic they were good at (thanks to a version of the Sorting Hat which helped them determine their faction and house), but beyond that, they’d pick up the niceties as they went along.

Whenever they wanted to cast a spell, I just asked them what they wanted to do and what kind of magic mumbo-jumbo they’d do to improve their chances of success. Of course, shouting magic words and waving “wands” are basic (although lots of objects could be used in place of wands…guns and knives, for example). But the players soon started using other familiar tricks from fantasy books. For example, if they were trying to find someone who was missing, they knew it would be useful to get an article of the missing person’s clothing or perhaps some hairs off their comb. The players had a lot of fun figuring out cool ways to improve their chances of successfully casting spells.

Early adventures were restricted to the Divergent Hogwarts enclave…and I admit I stole some scenarios straight from the books. When the group got more comfortable with the game system and with working together, they started being sent on outside missions: helping other enclaves with various types of problems.

All in all, it was a really fun setting. We spent about a year there, until they discovered a big secret which propelled them into something completely different. But I offer this up as inspiration for anyone who wants to game with YA readers and is looking for something they’ll connect with.

[Rabbit picture from “Easter Bunny Rabbit The Magic Hats Clip art – Hat Bunny @kisspng”]

A Regular Day

Someone recently asked me what a regular writing day looked like for me. So…here you go (or at least the highlights):

  1. Get up & eat breakfast, during which I read email and Twitter. I usually don’t answer any email immediately unless it can be done in less than 3 lines. Also I do the NY Times mini-crossword puzzle and review my to-do list.(NOTE: I keep a daily to-do list in a straight-up text file. The file contains stuff for at least a week in advance. I also use my iPad’s calendar program to keep track of dates, but I copy any appointments from the calendar into the text to-do list. The to-do list is inspired by bullet journals but more informal.)
  2. Write a few morning pages longhand, mostly reviewing things I saw or heard the previous day. I try to record tangible experiences, rather than just chatting about ideas.
  3. Transcribe any longhand writing from the day before. Basically, when I’m writing something new, I write longhand first (yes, pen on paper). The next day, I start my writing session by transcribing the longhand stuff into Scrivener. This helps remind me where I was, and also gives me a chance to do quickie rewrites on what I produced the previous day.
  4. Use the Pomodoro technique to write longhand for two hours. That means 25 minutes of nothing but writing, then five minutes of break-time (bathroom, having a snack, etc.). Repeat the 25-on/5-off for a total of four sessions, giving about two hours of new writing.
  5. Take a longer break: half an hour. I’ll do my daily Duolingo (currently learning Japanese, and keeping up on Spanish) and have a small lunch
  6. Back to another four Pomodoro sessions: either writing or editing (if I have an editing job…and by the way, if you ever need editing services, feel free to inquire).
  7. Another longer break. Usually, this is when I go for a walk to my local library. I almost always have something I want to pick up at the library, or something I have to take back. Even if I don’t have anything to get or return, going to the library is a nice break.
  8. Back for another two hours of work. This is either editing work, or business stuff. Here is when I answer email, deal with business paperwork, etc. If I’m working on a definite project (e.g. editing), I’ll do it Pomodoro style again, but often it’s just little bits and pieces that don’t fit the work-in-depth system.
  9. Thus ends my writing/editing day. Now into other stuff. Half an hour for hobby-like activity.
  10. Walk or drive for errands (shopping, etc.) in the late afternoon.
  11. Most nights, I either do kung fu or role-playing games.
  12. Read for at least 15 minutes before going to bed.

Auxiliary reading:

For bathroom reading, I (very slowly) work through something “classic”. Recently, I worked my way through Christopher Logue’s poetry version of the Iliad. Now I’m working through Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo”.

For kitchen reading (when I’m eating snacks or drinking coffee), I do idle research. In preparation for writing Miranda in NOBODY TOLD ME YOU COULD BREAK THE MOON, I worked through a first-year physics textbook. Now, I’m reading BLACK EDGE by Sheelah Kolhatkar, so I’ll know about sleazy financiers. (This is preparation for something secret I think I’ll call Project 3H.)

And for times when I want a break from reading, I do cryptic crossword puzzles. Right now I’m working through a book of New Statesman crosswords from the 1980s.

So there: if there is such a thing as a typical day, that’s how it goes. Any questions?