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What’s this blog for?

What’s this blog for?

As online writing moves to other places, why on earth do I still have a blog?

I experience work as constant learning, about what librarians and librarianship are becoming, and also about management and leadership and how people interact with both. I am forever a work in progress. This blog is a place where I capture my observations and learning in a longer form. It’s primarily an archive for myself, but I’m happy to share it with others.

Reading, Paper, and e-readers

Reading, Paper, and e-readers

I’m frustrated by the current state of research that claims that we read better and retain more from paper than from an ereader, and that this is because of the form, that somehow we need the permanency of paper in order to form memories of the plot of a novel. This makes zero sense to me, but I’ve heard this argument enough times at this point. Fortunately Spark did an episode that investigated this, and came to a better conclusion.

If you gave someone a short story and told them to read it in an empty library, you’d probably get a better result than taking someone to an empty carnival and telling them to read a short story there. Not because the empty library is quieter than the empty carnival, or because libraries are just naturally better places for reading. It would be because the person walking into a carnival isn’t prepared and primed for reading while the person walking into the library is. We already know this is true; this is why they tell you not to bring your computer to bed with you to finish up some work, because if you do work in bed on a regular basis, when you go to bed your head will be primed for work rather than sleep.

So I have doubts that these experiments with ereaders and books are telling anyone which form is better for the reading experience per se. It’s only telling us that people are currently primed to think of computers/tablets/screens as things to watch movies on, or play games on, or browse the internet on. Most people are not primed to consider a screen a reading surface.

But some people are. Some people read on screens all the time, for academic work or for fun. For books that don’t and won’t exist in paper, there are audiences who have already made the switch. They must have other cues that prime them for reading from the same screen they use for other tasks. Of course, readers of online books are always sitting in the bookstore as they read. If they don’t like the turn a story takes, I suspect they will back-button out quicker than a paper-book reader will give up on a book they’ve borrowed or purchased. With online novels, there is always a universe of other stories waiting if the current one doesn’t suit.

I would be interested to see studies like this done with more context. How do those who read fiction on a screen all the time fare against people who don’t? As ereaders get into the hands of more and more people and reading ebooks becomes just as common as reading any other kind of book, do the results change? If a person starts reading an ebook and has poorer comprehension results, do those results improve after a month of reading ebooks? A year?

I remember in the late nineties there was some discussion about how to talk about interaction with the internet. Browse won, but I remember someone on the news talking about “looking at the internet,” or “watching the internet.” As someone who was already far beyond “watching” or merely “looking” at digital material, I cringed. You can watch things online, that presenter wasn’t wrong. You do look at stuff on the internet. That guy saw a screen that looked a lot like a tv, and transferred the language and the modes of thinking to it. He was a passive viewer of internet content, and that’s how he framed his experience.

Ipads are not about being looked at, they’re about being interacted with. An ipad in particular is the first device to fit into that strange niche between smartphone and computer, a device driven entirely without a proxy roller ball or mouse or stylus or keyboard. You touch the content and it reacts. It’s an engagement device, not a device to be looked at or watched (though you can look at and watch things on ipads, too). It doesn’t really surprise me that giving a bunch of people ipads or ereaders doesn’t yet prime people to sink into deep contemplative thought. People are still primed to look at how their physical touch is interacting with digital activity.

Likewise, I wonder if anyone’s done any experiments on audiobooks. Read a page, hear a page: is one better than the other? I suspect it’s what you’re used to.

For many years I’ve been painfully aware of the anti-ebook league who are extremely keen to point out how inferior ebooks are. I know there was a similar group who objected to the written word in the first place (“if you don’t need to memorize it, everyone will become a gibbering idiot!”), and then to the printing press (“Bad! Cheap! Sloppy!”). While I still have a too-steady stream of paper books coming into my house, I’m glad books are going digital. To me, the story, the information, the content is the most important thing. Digital text isn’t limited by its font size. It can be read aloud by a screenreader. It can be translated by a braille display. I can twist it, add more notes to it than it contains in the first place. Like Dickens did it, it can be delivered serially. Digital text might mean more text, and to me that’s a plus.

Of Horseless Carriages

Of Horseless Carriages

Tablets are interesting. I suspect they are an invention of a culture that thinks of itself as mobile but actually isn’t; North America is more of a walk-and-sit culture, which wants portable more than it wants truly mobile. But what’s especially interesting about tablets is how hard it is for us to shift away from thinking about them as computers (where  “computer” means a screen that sits in front of a keyboard on a table).

I’ve been experimenting with hooking up a bluetooth keyboard to my ipad. I’ve resisted doing that for the longest time, because I don’t like to fall into the horseless carriage chasm. I don’t want to think about a tablet as a computer; it’s a different beast. It’s not a mini workstation, and I don’t want to turn it into one. But because I’m leaving on holiday next week, and because I’m currently working on a writing-intensive project, I started thinking about how I could use my ipad as a real writing tool.

I think a software keyboard is fine most of the time. When I’m not doing serious writing (upwards of 2k in a sitting), I have no problem using a software keyboard exclusively. But a writing project is a writing project, and for that many words, I’m fastest and most comfortable with a keyboard. So I broke down and worked out how to connect a keyboard to the thing. I took it out for a spin one day, keyboard and ipad packed up in a purse, and set it up in a pub, in a coffee shop, and even on a bus. I absolutely loved it. I loved it more than I expected to. It was great. I’ve got the right apps to make it work, they all sync back up with my computer. It’s like a remote port of my computer; the whole project resides on my laptop, but I can take a comfortable keyboard and just the pieces I’m working on out with me into the world and work on them wherever I happen to be. Scene by scene, nothing else. It’s nice.

As I get closer to turning my ipad into a mini computer, I’m getting more sensitive about the differences between those two, conceptually. I don’t have a keyboard that’s part of an ipad case. My keyboard is a second thing I carry with me. That might seem awkward or odd, or at least less than ideal, I realize. But writing is a singular activity for me, and not one I’m always planning to do when I stick my ipad in my purse. I don’t want my ipad to always be connected to a keyboard; sometimes I just want to read on it. So I’d rather have a separate keyboard and keep the slim ipad case I’ve had since I first bought it. I noticed, when looking up reviews of ipad keyboards, that a separate keyboard is considered a disadvantage. Too much to carry, I guess, and it’s considered a problem that the keyboard doesn’t contain some kind of stand to make the ipad sit up like a proper screen.

That it’s not turning an ipad into a mini laptop.

Horseless carriage: there it is, isn’t it. If you’re going to have a keyboard, your ipad is automatically turning into a workstation. Why do we want an ipad to be a mini laptop? It’s not one. It doesn’t need to be one. A keyboard doesn’t need to turn it into one, either.

I tried working with my ipad up close to the keyboard, like a monitor, as if they were connected; it wasn’t very comfortable. So I moved it. I moved several inches back, where it’s easier to look at. I shifted it over to the left when my food arrived so I could read what I’d done over dinner. And then, finally, after far too long, I realized I could lay my ipad flat on the table, like a pad of paper, and type on my keyboard even though there was no screen in front of me. Because there doesn’t need to be one. I’m working with a device that’s more like a pad of paper than a laptop, and typing with the screen lying flat next to me actually works quite well.

Though I suspect it looks a bit strange to passersby if I’m sitting in a café typing furiously into a keyboard with no screen in front of me. But it feels great. And it made me realize that a keyboard isn’t the bottom half of a laptop. It’s just an input device I’ve come to feel very comfortable with. That’s all.

Novel Outlines

Novel Outlines

I believe this belongs to @digitalinkwell on twitter: a bird’s eye view of a novel. Another outliner! I’m always happy to see someone else’s process.

Mine is entirely digital (though I have been tempted to cover over my walls with post-it notes). Here’s what it looks like:

That’s The whole thing, divided into chapters. I summed up each of the chapters in as few words as possible here for the slimmest bird’s eye view possible.

Here’s what it looks like when you open up a chapter:

Those are scene summaries for each scene in the chapter. I spend most of my time at the scene level rather than the chapter level. I think of chapters are mostly organizational.

And this is what it looks like when you actually start to write the story: the scene summary is on the right hand side, and the pane in the middle is where the actual words go. (This is a shot from before I started.) The software is Scrivener, and I am in love with it. Outlining for the win!

Adventures in Public Domain Reading

Adventures in Public Domain Reading

My acquisition of an iPad resulted in me reading my first ever ebook (Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel) followed promptly by my second (Holly Black’s White Cat). Having learned that I enjoy reading ebooks via ibooks, I discovered the collection of free ebooks available on the platform via project Gutenberg. So, I finally read through a few Arthur Conan Doyle books, some Daniel Defoe, and others. Now, reading books written prior to the 20th century isn’t exactly a novel experience for me. My first degree is in English. I took Renaissance literature, I’ve read Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress and Canterbury Tales and Pride and Prejudice and all those books you read when you do a degree in English. I discovered my love of Daniel Defoe reading Roxana and Moll Flanders. I know very well how many great books are out there.

But this time around, reading them next to modern books on a hypermodern platform, I’m noticing something odd about them. They seem slightly flat. That seems unfair, why would these books feel flat? I thought maybe it had something to do with current expectations of character building. I thought, maybe vie just become accustomed to reaching a particular level of intimacy with a character that wasn’t the fashion before now. But then unpacking that a bit more, I thought it was actually just what mascarades as the illusion of intimacy with a character.

In a 19th century novel, we are fairly intimately enmeshed in the lives of the protagonist. We follow them everywhere. We know most of everything that they do. But somehow that didn’t feel like enough to me. Following them around, hearing all their conversations, accompanying them to meals, it just doesn’t feel like enough.

So then I started to think about all the current fiction I’ve been reading, and what’s going on in the, that’s so different.

For a start, current novels stick to a structure for more tightly. I read a lot of YA, fantasy and science fiction, and these genres all adhere to a pretty strict narrative structure. A protagonist with a mission, a story with a powerful beginning, lots of action in the middle to hold your attention, enemies that have at least some life breathed into them, a crashing, satisfying conclusion. I can’t read anything written in the last 10 years without being hyperaware of now word processing has shaped it. Easy editing, storage, searching, sharing, the relative ease of writing incredible volume that still hangs together as a complete story arc; I don’t imagine any of this would have been so easy and routine without access to a simple word processor. I think about J.R.R. Tolkien and how there’s just no way the detour with Tom Bombadil would have made it past an editor today. And I know he edited a lot, but I don’t think The Lord Of The Rings would have been quite the same book if J.R.R. Had had access to a MacBook and a copy of Scrivener. For nor, it would have been even longer.

But it isn’t only that. I also realized, reading Conan Doyle and Cassie Clare at roughly the same time, that we have very few stories without a Sixth Sense sort of twist to them. I’m hard pressed to think of a single story vie read in the past 10 years that doesn’t have some kind of ancient twist in the latter middle or end of the story. Not just a twist, see, actually a secret hidden in the past of the character that makes everything they’ve done all along suddenly appear in a different light. It not enough anymore to just have a plot; I also need this huge, revealing understory to cast a pall over everything else. I’m used to getting two stories for every story I read. And somehow this dual story surprise is what makes the characters feel more open to me. We don’t just go through a series of events together, which I think has largely been enough to make a good, immersive novel until relatively recently. I also expect to be let into a whole other internal drama, with secrets, betrayals, alternate identities, and shifts so massive there is no going back.

In Harry Potter, we have the relatively simple story of the boy who is a wizard, off to wizarding school; but of course there is the understory about his dead parents and all of their choices and relationships, all of which is in the past but coexists and underscores the progression of the narrative. Couldn’t we have done without it? Would it have seemed even thinner if it had just been a story about the here and now, like Holmes and Watson? Moriarty isn’t revealed to be Sherlock Holmes’ long lost twin brother, tangled in feelings of rejection and jealousy of his brother’s familial support and ability to avoid turning to the dark side. Nor is Moriarty Holmes’ father.

I think my expectation of this deeper explanation, revealed fairly late into a narrative but hinted at along the way, is what makes stories without them feel thin, more surface. I have no idea really why Sauron is so evil in The Lord of the Rings. He just is. Just like Moriarty. Defoe’s Roxana is a sexy criminal, for no apparent reason other than that is simply who she is. Without the big reveal and subsequent rethinking of the entire sequence of events toward the end of the story, I feel as though there’s a sizable chunk of the story left to the imagination. No wonder everyone questions Watson’s devotion to the confirmed bachelor Holmes; we’re used to the other shoe eventually dropping, and if it doesn’t, we’re left to find it and reveal it ourselves.

I love these stories with the twists in them. They’re extremely satisfying. I’ve just never noticed until now that the twists have the effect of simulating a new level of intimacy with the characters and the story, perhaps because I the reader learn something alongside the protagonist. We become confidants rather than merely storyteller and audience. But I think it is illusion, and a powerful one. Can’t an old school narrative filled with descriptions of actions and decisions tell you just as much about a character as learning an old family secret? By all rights, shouldn’t it tell us more?

Real World Virtuality

Real World Virtuality

I started reading Spook Country last night before bed, the first chapter of which ends with a virtual world/real-world mashup that has the main character standing in front of the Viper Room in LA looking down at a dead River Phoenix on the sidewalk in front of her. Leaving aside a whole other post I could write about the significance of that particular moment to people born around when I was, it made me think about gaming and ubiquitous computing.

I suspect most of what I’m about to say is so passe to most people who think about gaming and the internet, but it was a fun revelation for me, at least.

When I first started talking outloud about ubiquitous computing in the library after the Copenhagen keynote about sentient cities, our chief librarian wilted a little. “We just built this place!” she said. But I think ubiquitous computing is not going to come from the walls at all; I think it’s just going to use the walls to interface with mobile computing.

Okay imagine it: you have VR goggles. You put on your goggles and you see the world around you, but also the game space. You have already entered in the usernames of your friends, who are also playing this game with you. You are synced up to GPS, so your goggles know where you are in relation to your environment. You have chosen a genre or theme, but the game is constructed on the fly by the system based on the environment you’ve chosen, the number of civilians in your view, weather information, and variables drawn from the user profiles of you and your friends.

So say you pick a large field by a river for your game space. Maybe you do a walkthrough it first with your goggles on so that the system can add more detail to the GPS and map data; that data would go into a central repository for geographical information. The system can then generate characters that wander past, hide behind bushes, sit in trees, etc. You and your friends can all see the generated characters because of the goggles, so you can all interact with them simulaneously. The characters might be generated by the game designers, or they might be created by users, like the Spore creature creator, with backstories and voices all supplied by fans, vetted by the designers. You and your friends can be costumed by the system; when you look down at your own (bare) hands, they might be wearing chain mail gloves and be carrying a sword.

Or say you pick a city block as your game space; the system connects to google map data, and then also takes in information about all the people around you, and uses them as part of the game. It could turn the city in a futuristic place, with flying cars and impossibly tall buildings. Running around the city, chasing aliens, avoiding civilians, being a big ole’ gaming geek in full view of the public. Awesome.

So now: the virtual library could come with a pair of goggles and a good series of fast databases.

That would be pretty cool. Just sayin’.

Poetry vs. Rationality and the Internet

Poetry vs. Rationality and the Internet

April is poetry month, so the local morning radio show had a poet on to read some of her poetry. I’m not going to mention any names, but the poems and the discussion of them annoyed me so much that I had to shout at my radio and then get out of bed to rant about it here.

First thing on tap on the radio program this morning: the presumption that real poetry, real art, comes from some sort of unconscious muse, not from any rational purpose or thought. Why is it that we believe (somehow) that beauty can’t be rational, or rationally created? Fractals are beautiful and are incredibly rational, after all. Aren’t the best forms and most beautiful shapes in the world mathematically perfect? I’m tired of the idea that somehow the real writer is buried inside you, underneath everything you’ve learned to be and say in an ordered society, and that if you just step back and unburthen yourself in some kind of “uncivilized” and “pure” way you’ll find true art spewing forth. Art is craft as much as anything else is, it’s a skill you learn and have to hone. Most honest writers will tell you this. Those who suggest otherwise remind me of anxious 19th century Englishmen getting taken in by the savage nobility of E. Pauline Johnson and mourning their own tamed inner beasts. If you’re writing for your own joy and self-expression, please, don’t let me stop you, but if (like the poet on the radio this morning) you intend to make your living at it, ie, you expect me to give you money and read what you’re written, you damn well better have thought of something valuable to say to me. This is an argument I’ve had with my artist sister for years; you have my attention now: say something! Say something interesting! Tell me a story, tell me a moral, tell me to do something for the good of humanity or make me feel sorry for something, provoke me, but dear god please make me think. And don’t say something trite. Cripes.

Paraphrasal from the radio: “Yeah, when I first wrote that it just dropped out onto the screen and I was like, omg, what’s going on here? But then after a bit I realized that it’s genius.” NO ITS NOT. IT’S VERBAL SELF-STIMULATION. IT’S JUST SOME VERY LAME WORD ASSOCIATION GAMES. But thanks for playing.

The second poem had this as a basic thrust: nature is pure and good, and non-competitive, and gentle, and wonderful, and we’re part of nature, so this whole digital communication thing is just unnatural. And cold. And too fast. And inhuman. We should remember who we really are, pure beings made of moonlight and sea water.

You know what else is human-created, fabricated, not springing directly from sunshine and sea salt? Language. GOD FORBID language take on new forms, and woe betide the day when difficult concepts become digital visuals, because that would be a real departure from our TRUE SELVES and would only CUT US OFF from our SAVAGE, ARTISTIC, NATURAL, GENTLE and WONDERFUL inner artists. Bleh. Poetry needs a big smack in the face from postcolonialism if you ask me.

In honour of poetry month, however, I give you my favourite poem by Dorothy Livesay, and the sexiest poem in the history of the world, The Cinnamon Peeler by Michael Ondaatje. Now there’s some art for you.

Winnie-the-Pooh Fanfiction

Winnie-the-Pooh Fanfiction

I’m not entirely sure how to spin this story. Disney is replacing Christopher Robin with a girl. I mean, on one hand, I’m a big fan of taking elements of popular culture and throwing them in the blender. I like the idea that fictional worlds are open; we can always wander into Wonderland and tinker with it, recreate it, set a new story in it. I like the idea that once a fictional world and fictional characters are released into the wild they become, on some level, the property of all of us; once we take them into our lives we create them in our imaginations, and the residue of them is left of us all to use. Fictional worlds and fictional people are like digital documents in that they can be endlessly replicated by each individual user. We make a copy, we don’t steal the original widget. So partially, reading this story about Winnie-the-Pooh, I think it’s sort of interesting that someone is very seriously stepping into his world again and see how he would respond to a little girl. (A ‘tomboy’, no less, whatever that’s supposed to mean these days.)

But on the other hand, this is Disney. This is less about stepping back into the 100 acre wood to reimagine it and more about wringing some more cash out of a classic.

“Pooh appears to be a robust brand that can handle expansion.”

Reducing Pooh to its market value makes my blood turn cold. But it makes me wonder: why replace Christopher Robin? What would a tomboy bring to this new audience that Christopher Robin couldn’t? He wasn’t a particularly masculine little boy, after all. He was a gentle little soul, not particularly exclusionary. Obviously this is less about being creative and more about repackaging something that sells to see if it will sell more. But the entire process rests on an interesting point; companies hate it when fans take possession of a character or universe and produce new stories featuring it, and often push forward the ‘integrity’ argument (something Anne Rice clings to). Interesting how corporate-driven fanfiction, which is what this Tomboy-girl thing is for Winnie-the-Pooh, is just fine to them.

So for now, Christopher Robin is out in the 100 acre wood, all on his own:

And so Christopher Robin began to run, first one way and then the next, looking for a tree or steam or path he knew, so he could find his way to his friends. He called out to them — “Pooh! Piglet! Tigger! Rabbit! Owl! — but none answered, or if they did Christopher Robin did not hear them. From time to time, however, it seemed to Christopher Robin that he could hear them, just over a small rise, all his friend’s voices, and a new voice he did not know. But when he ran that way he found nothing, just more trees and more leaves.

It was in a small pile of leaves that Christopher Robin finally lay, covering himself with their little brittle hands to ward off the chill of the night in the Hundred Acre Wood. “It’s a simple thing, really,” he said, bravely. “I’ve been looking for all my friends, and they have been looking for me! If I stay in one place, they will find me. And then we will go to Pooh’s, where I will be warm and have something nice to eat.”

And so Christopher Robin lay down in the leaves and went to sleep, shivering only a little, trusting in the love of his friends to find him and bring him home.

On Muses: The Process of Learning by Writing

On Muses: The Process of Learning by Writing

It amazes me what you can learn by starting to write something. While I’m trying to very hard to plot carefully, and I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about big plot elements and moving things around and being as clear as I can be with myself about everyone’s motives, still the discovery method rears its random head when I actually sit down to write.

I’m not a fan of the concept of the muse. My characters are my own, I invented them, they can’t do or say anything that I don’t imagine them saying (at least, so far, since I have not spawned any fanfiction universes). I get a bit bored when people talk as if their characters lead different lives outside of the writing, or are talking to them personally, or need to be cajoled or prodded into action, so on and so forth. And yet.

I find that I learn so much about a character once I start actually writing them. I can plan them out all I want, but writing seems like actually becoming them, or thinking like them, really getting into their psyche in a way that isn’t as precise in the planning stages. Because once I start writing a character I sometimes get completely new vibes off them. Rather than attributing this to a muse, or to some disembodied version of the character who knows me and can chat with me (I don’t know how people manage this; if my character knows I exist, the plot falls apart because then they know they’re fictional, and it’s a paradox, and argh), I’m attributing it to learning from writing.

I have two examples of this. I have a character who is bisexual. I have always known this about him, and there has never been a moment where I have strayed from that early conviction about his character. But one of the things I never wanted to write about was him telling his parents. I didn’t want to write a coming out story, it’s not the focus of this plot, and just the idea of that conversation made me tired. I just felt there would be drama and there’s enough drama in the book without that sort of thing. I’d rather have his parents die off before he felt any need to mention it. His parents are so committed to a very traditional way of life, I just didn’t see them ever accepting anything so non-traditional.

But then I started writing his dad. Nothing terribly dramatic, just a brief but serious conversation which has already been edited out. But in writing a simple bit of dialogue I just got that this bisexuality revelation wouldn’t break him or throw him into a frenzy. It just wouldn’t, he would just be happy that everyone was healthy and alive and at peace with the world, nothing else would matter. It was just startlingly clear to me. And what a shock, after all my planning told me not to broach this subject between these characters. Now, I haven’t tried this trick with his mom yet. But his dad at least would be on his side in a heartbeat. I’m not even sure they’ll have this conversation. I’m not sure his parents will ever know. But I learned something important about this character I just would not have known until I got inside his head by writing him.

The other thing I’ve been doing, here and there, is writing short scenes in first person present tense. I have such a love/hate relationship with it. In general I don’t like the first person OR the present tense. I feel like if you’re going to go first person present tense you have to write very conversationally, because it’s got to be 100% dialogue. Even when it’s not dialogue, first person is your character talking, even in her/his head. And generally speaking people don’t talk description. People don’t sit there and muse about things with adverbs and adjectives. They think conversationally, actions and people. So if I’m going to write first person present tense, I’m going to do it like a monologue.

But I’ve been writing short scenes to answer my own questions. Things happen in the story and I ask myself, how new is this or that? What’s so-and-so’s experience with X or Y? And these questions spawn these little monologues in the first person, between one character and another. (Not me. No no not ever to me! It’s my question but I guess I put it in the mouth of a character he would feel comfortable with, comfortable telling, and work from there.)

It’s weird to go from writing third person past tense to first person present. Suddenly you have this voice to deal with and that’s really quite interesting. I guess it’s like writing extended dialogue, but I find myself really learning about a character by doing this. What words would he use? How would he structure this story that he’s telling? Is he entirely factual? Does he go back and add his later interpretations of things, and does he recognize that he’s doing that? Does he gloss over things? And I guess the odd part about it is that I don’t seem to consciously ask those questions. I just try it, and do it. Learning as I go.

It’s amazing, really, how much you know about a story that never shows up in the story itself.

I’m not going to say I work with muses. But I can see where the idea comes from.