Scratching the Reading Itch, or Some of the Books I Liked in 2017

December 23, 2017

First of all, happy holiday of your choice, fellow human. We’re a celebrate-Solstice-then-act-like-sloths-for-a-couple-of-days kind of family. Which means that, practically speaking, any craziness of the season is behind us. As I write, Billie and Tamsin are enjoying future cool thing recommendation Jane the Virgin (no link, but it’s on Netflix), while I grab some quiet time at the computer.

This week, I wanted to share with you some of the books I’ve enjoyed in 2017, in case you need some written or audiobook entertainment over the holiday period. Most of them were not published this year, but were the ones I’ve read or listened to all the way through. You can see the full list of what I read this year up on Goodreads (and while you’re there, give me a follow, if you’re interested.) (Links below are all Amazon.)

I previously recommended as cool things my favourite books of the year. In fiction, it was Max Barry’s Lexicon (along with his Jennifer Government), and in non-fiction John Cleese’s So, Anyway…. You can read my thoughts about them on my Cool Things page.

So, let’s look at some others.

I’ve become quite the fan of John Scalzi, and read four of his this year. My favourite this year was Lock In, followed by his most famous work, Old Man’s War (book one in a series). One of my overall Scalzi favourites was read in a previous year, Redshirts, which might or might not have been inspired by the red shirted characters on a certain popular TV space-based show. If you’ve not read any of him, and like sci-fi with humour, he’s worth a go.

From the speculative fiction department is N. K. Jemison, who is a multi-award-winning author, including the 2016 Hugo for The Fifth Season, and the 2017 Hugo for its sequel, The Obelisk Gate, which I enjoyed this year. Both books include some second-person writing, which is pretty rare, and works in a very interesting way. Also, Jemison is female and a woman of colour, which is a pleasant change in a world of writing dominated white dudes.

On the non-fiction side, most of the non-Cleese books I read were writerly ones. If that is of interest to you, then I commend to your reading the most excellent The War of Art, Write. Publish. Repeat., The Story Grid, and Take off Your Pants (a book about plotting, not anything more salacious).

I hope there’s something in the above for you to enjoy. Happy reading.

So, what was your favourite book to have read in 2017? Drop me a note. I’d love to hear.

25 1/2 Things I Learned in 2017

There’s a guy named Tim Whitwell who’s a consultant with Fluxx who does a list of 52 Things I Learned each year. Here’s 2017 and here’s 2016. A couple of gems from this year:

  • 2. Traders in Shenzhen electronics markets now rely on smartphone translation apps to communicate — not just with foreigners, but with people speaking other Chinese dialects. [Mark Pesce]
  • 29. Amazon Echo can be useful for people suffering from Alzheimers’: “I can ask Alexa anything and I get the answer instantly. And I can ask it what day it is twenty times a day and I will still get the same correct answer.” [Rick Phelps]
  • 34. An American TV viewer who watches Netflix rather than normal ad-funded television could avoid 160 hours of ads every year. That’s equivalent to a month of eight hour working days. [Dan Calladine]
  • 41. Men travelling first class tend to weigh more than those in economy, while for women the reverse is true. [Lucy Hooker]
  • 52. Ten out of twelve British water companies sometimes still use divining rods to search for leaks. [Sally Le Page]

This got me thinking. What have I learned in 2017? (Mine are more personal that Whitwell’s, and not all were necessarily learned this year, but may have been reinforced.)

  1. If you are overzealous enjoying archery for the first time in many, many years, you can both have fun *and* pull a muscle that helps you end up spending a week in bed.
  2. Small, consistent efforts accumulate over time.
  3. Being married 30 years is a delight.
  4. Sometimes the process can be flawed, even painful, but the right outcome can still result. (I’m looking at you, marriage equality in Australia).
  5. It can take a long time, but sometimes bad behaviour gets its just desserts. And sometimes, those in power will ignore it for their own ends. The latter is is odious as it has ever been.
  6. Sometime people you admire do things you don’t admire, and it matters. (Al Franken, anyone?) (See also What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?, which I’ve considered writing about but don’t think I have anything to add.)
  7. Going to live rock/pop concerts has the capacity to make you feel both young and old at the same time.
  8. It is never easy to share your life with someone and then have to bury them. This applies, of course, to animals as well as people.
  9. If you detach yourself from the brain suck of social media, you tend to feel better.
  10. It is OK to leave old, familiar podcasts behind if they no longer fit your head space. This applies to people, too.
  11. Having a 22-year-old daughter is a delight.
  12. Comparison-itis is debilitating. So don’t. Just don’t.
  13. Making time for things that matter helps you make time again for things that matter.
  14. Don Miguel Ruiz’s second agreement continues to be valuable (along with the other three, of course).
  15. I once again am looking forward to new Doctor Who episodes. I didn’t think that would happen.
  16. It is, in fact, possible that a dumpster fire will end up in charge. Despite this, good people will continue to do good. (This may or may not be about the person you might think it is about.)
  17. An almost ten-year-old computer can still make a positive contribution to one’s life, if just.
  18. There is no need to rush into being part of the Internet of Things. Other people can work out the kinks, especially those that have to do with security.
  19. Good password hygiene is more important than ever. (I use 1Password to help with this.)
  20. Lorde and Sia can both still sing like rockets.
  21. It is still fun to read stuff you’d normally think, “That’s not for me.” (No, I didn’t cry reading The Time Traveller’s Wife. Why do you ask? *Wipes eyes*)
  22. Libraries are still awesome, even in the digital age.
  23. If something blows your mind, there will be others who share the feeling.
  24. Putting out a weekly email is trickier than I thought, and more enjoyable than I expected. Also, sometimes “weekly” is “weekly-ish”.
  25. It is still true that when people are kind, things are better. So being kind to others is still worthwhile.
    25 1/2. Kindness toward animals (especially by not eating them) is as rewarding as anything on the planet. (OK, I learned that a long time ago. That’s why it’s 1/2. Still worth including.)

I’m sure I’ll think of more as soon as I post this, but for now, that seems like enough lessons.

So, what has 2017 taught you? Leave a comment. I’d love to hear.

Mind Blown: Order of Adjectives

November 24, 2017

Some things we just know.

We grow up with them, and they become part of how we operate. Sometimes you know they are there (like washing hands before eating), and sometimes we don’t.

Today, I share with you something you do as a native English speaker that you didn’t know you did, but for which there is, indeed, a rule. When I read about it, I had a small *mind blown* moment, and had to share it with you.

I learned about it reading this Guardian article, which was triggered by this tweet, which was a photo of a paragraph from the book The Elements of Eloquence (Amazon).

How do the following feel?

  • Old silly fool
  • My Greek Fat Big Wedding
  • Canvas walking brown boots

They feel *wrong*, don’t they?

That’s because (and here it is:) adjectives in English follow a set pattern. As author Mark Forsyth puts it in The Elements of Eloquence:

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons can’t exist.”

Mind blown.

But wait, you say. What about “big bad wolf”? (Well, I didn’t think that. If you did, points to you.) “Bad” is an opinion. It should come first. The article covers that one as well, with a rule called “ablaut reduplication.” From the article:

“Other examples of the rule in action include chit-chat, singsong, flipflop and hip-hop. When you shift vowel sounds for effect this way, the vowels always follow a specific order: I, then A, then O. You’d think it was more complicated, that it depended on mood or context, but no, it’s that simple – bish bash bosh.”*

Once again, mind blown.

Like I said, just had to share that with you.

*Note: I edited the above quote to be “bish bash bosh,” following the rule given. At the time of writing, if you clicked to the article, they had it as “bosh bash bish,” which runs counter to the point the paragraph is making. I suspect a small error mistake.

What We Bring to It Matters

November 19, 2017

What we bring to it matters.

If there’s anything that can make one’s life better, it has to be that thought. Or more, choosing to act based on that thought.

I was talking to my mom today (hi Mom), and we discussing the fact that there are so many opportunities for unhappiness in life. Take your pick. Politics. One’s health. Someone else’s health. Divorce. The loved one with a mental health challenge. Drug addiction. Finances (always and ever money, eh?). Did I mention politics? The end of the world as we know it (although, isn’t the world as we know it always in an on-going process of ending?). The list of potential sadnesses is limitless.

But…

No matter what it is that we face, we have a choice of what we bring to it. Do we bring grousing or grace? Flexibility or righteousness? Acceptance or resistance? Optimism and hope or catastrophe and despair? What we bring to it matters.

We’ve all have heard those stories about how one’s attitude toward an illness can sometimes affect the likelihood of a better outcome. The can-do patient versus the woe-is-me one. And even if the two patients end up with exactly the same result, surely the better attitude makes a difference to the experience overall, for the human and those around them. (To be clear, I’m not saying that “thinking positive” will cure someone’s cancer. I’m saying that in a hard situation like that, bringing grit to it is different to bringing despair, even if both are valid responses.)

“What we bring to it matters” isn’t a digital concept—all or nothing. This is an analogue idea, one of gradations, continuities, and shading. To do this effectively, one has to leave the realm of Pollyanna, and work out awareness. That’s what tends to get me tripped up. If I’m raging or sad or whatever, being able to be aware of it is a good first step to changing what I bring to whatever is going on.

That Buddhist idea of of “X has arisen” is so useful. “Anger has arisen.” “Sadness has arisen.” “Irritation toward that bastard has arisen.” That’s instead of “I’m angry,” “I’m sad,” or “I’m irritated.” The former depersonalises. They help you not identify with the emotion directly. It is a great tool for shifting, to foster awareness so one can change what one brings to the situation.

So, do you raise others up? Fill up their buckets? Bring up the ambient vibe? Exude hope and positivity? Do you look at issues as problems that can be solved?

Or not.

Because, what we bring to it matters.

A lot.

Useful Rituals

November 10, 2017

I’ve been thinking about useful rituals, and trying to embrace some that make me better at what I do.

By “useful ritual” I mean anything that one does that is habitual, formalistic, not necessarily directly productive, and which provides a sense of direction, benefit, or improvement. For some people, this is a morning coffee (go caffeine!). For others, exercise or yoga or walking the pooches.

For example, author Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art (a most excellent book), talks about starting his writing day by invoking the muse: “The last thing I do before I sit down to work is say my prayer to the Muse. I say it out loud, in absolute earnest. Only then do I get down to business.” He uses a passage from Homer’s The Odyssey that goes like this:

O Divine Poesy, goddess, daughter of Zeus, sustain for me this song of the various-minded man who, after he had plundered the innermost citadel of hallowed Troy, was made to stray grievously about the coasts of men, the sport of their customs, good and bad, while his heart, through all the sea-faring, ached with an agony to redeem himself and bring his company safe home. Vain hope — for them. The fools! Their own witlessness cast them aside. To destroy for meat the oxen of the most exalted Sun, wherefore the Sun-god blotted out the day of their return. Make this tale live for us in all its many bearings, O Muse. . . .

That’s a bit highfalutin for my tastes (also, as a vegan, the “meat” bit is unpalatable). But I can see where Pressfield is going with it.

So, I’ve begun starting my writing day with, “OK, Muse. Lay it on me. Let’s get some words out.” Not quite Homer, but the intention is there, and that’s the point.

Another useful ritual I have: closing the three rings on my Apple Watch activity tracker.

And another: planting at least one thing in the garden every week.

The most important one for me right now? Writing every day, come heck or high water.

So think about useful rituals this week. Which do you already have? And is there one or two that you’re happy to add in to your daily life? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Power of Small Steps

October 20, 2017

Recently, I’ve been thinking about small steps and how they can accumulate.

For me, the most obvious one is writing. Every scene, every paragraph, every word written is a small step toward completion and publishing. A phrase I say to myself literally every day is, “Just write the next sentence.”* If I can encourage myself to write the next sentence, then it’s a win. Writing is rewriting, but you can’t rewrite something that does not exist. I find there’s a real power in taking the one small step, and then the next small step, and the next.

I’ll share a secret. Right now, my daily writing goal is just 300 words. That’s in the face of the Day Job and taking are of the sanctuary. Normally, I get in more, but I won’t go to bed until I’ve scrawled out at least that amount for the day. That very doable pace yields around 110,000 words a year, which is two short novels or one and a bit longer ones. Step, step, step.

Worthwhile small steps are everywhere, if you’re willing to take them. Like making the effort to vote “yes” in a marriage equality referendum. Or figuring out a small change to the meal you’re making to make it healthier. Or increasing your step count goal on your fitness tracker by 200 steps (literally, a small step of steps). Or fasting once a week or 13 hours a day. Or choosing to be nice to that irritating person for just this one conversation. Or donating a small monthly amount to a charity you like.

Or or or.

So this week, I encourage you to simply think about a new small step you could add to your life that will move you in some way in the direction you want to go.

And then take that step every day for the coming week, and see what difference it makes.

*(I like the phrase “Just write the next sentence” so much, I stuck it on merch up on Redbubble. If you know anyone doing NaNoWriMo, it’d be a nice gift.)

(Also published as part of my weekly email.)

What Shape Is Your Dent?

October 6, 2017

(This is an excerpt from this week’s email.)

Do you know the Sting song, If You Love Someone, Set Them Free? I’ve thought about that song a lot over the years. Not so much because of the song, but because of what I once heard him say about it.

You’ll remember, his band The Police had a massive hit with Every Breath You Take. Big, big hit. Catchy tune. Horrible sentiment. The stalker vibe and obsessive control were woven into a total ear worm of a song. I remember hearing Sting talking about how he’d written it, recorded it, had it become a hit, and at some point, thought, “My God, what have I done?”

HIs later song “If You Love Someone Set Them Free” was deliberately designed, released, and promoted as a kind of antidote to “Every Breath You Take.”

Lesson: the art we choose to make matters; what we put out into the world matters.

I think about this a lot as I move closer to getting my current work out there. I don’t think that everything needs to be rainbows and unicorns. Some of what I’ve written is a tad eerie and dark (or so my first beta readers have said). But I really do think about how far I want to take things, and what I hope people come away with. What we do creates those ripples out into the world, some small, some large. If we’re lucky, we get to do what Steve Jobs said, and “put a dent in the universe.” (And may we all be so blessed with having such impact.)

I guess I’m thinking about what shape that dent will have.

Maybe I should create a T-shirt that says, “Tell me about your dent.”

Or, like last week, I could just plant potatoes.

Of Perspective and Potatoes

September 29, 2017

(This is an excerpt from this week’s email.)

I’ve been thinking about things that can help shift one’s perspective. Take for example, my veggie garden. About five years ago, we rescued our first mob of cows. Cows, we soon learned, have a much more, shall we say, relaxed attitude toward fences than the horses. The new cows had a little chuckle at the fence around the veggie patch and wandered on it. This meant that the goats, too, could also head in whenever it pleased them. The result: I started referring to it not as the garden, but as “the alleged garden.”

I’m hardly a green thumb, and certainly not like some of the garden magicians that I know. But for five years, I’ve been missing the chance to grow things, to put my hands in the dirt, to pluck a leaf of silverbeet or a sprig of parsley with a “thank you” and help nourish myself and my family.

Then a few weeks ago, we had our fencer, as part of a fencing refurb, redo the garden fence, making it cow, horse, and goat proof (I had to add the bit that made it geese-proof as well). And boom, a shift in perspective. Now, instead of an “alleged” garden, there’s an actual garden again, which has its first new plants (potatoes and garlic), and awaits more love and attention. Now there’s a part of me that can think again about putting my hands in the soil. I can again think longer term, about trying again with fruit trees and berry bushes and a few more veggie and herb beds. I can move the potato patch over there, and maybe grow the pumpkins over there so they’re a bit more out of the way.

A fence has given me a new perspective.

So, here’s my question to you. What small step could you take to change your circumstance so you can change your perspective?

And flip that around, too. Billie, wearing her shaman’s hat, talks about shamans being people of the percept. Shamans change the world by changing their perceptions of it. So, what change of perspective can you engage in to help foster a change in your circumstance? Maybe what really happened is I changed my perception about the importance of a fence, and the feasibility of getting the work done, and circumstances changed from there. Hmmm…

Or, you know, you could just plant some potatoes. There’s value in that, too.

Milestone

December 6, 2016

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I reached a milestone today.

You might know I’m working on my first novel, and today, I crossed 100,000 words. I’ve never written anything this long before, and while there are plenty of caveats to be had (it is a first draft, there are still a few tens of thousands of words to go, writing is rewriting — all of that), it feels good to have achieved this step.

Watch This and See Why Sorkin Is Still My Hero

July 24, 2016

Karel Segers, who Billie and I had the pleasure of working with through the 2015 ScreenACT Accelerator Pod, has a couple of posts up about Aaron Sorkin. The first talks about the Sorkin Masterclass that has had ads blanketing Facebook (spoiler: Karel says to do it, but for the fun of it more than the learning of it). The second picks apart his favourite Sorkin scene, from Charlie Wilson’s War. You should go read both.

Sorkin remains my all-time favourite screenwriter (I know, I’m not alone in that). Karel linked to this hour-long interview with Sorkin that’s a must-watch if you like his work and are curious about how he does it. Happy viewing.