Operation: Polyglot

I guess I officially have a new hobby: learning new languages. I always thought it would be cool to be a polyglot, but it never seemed practical to learn.  I mean, I was fluent in Spanish at the end of high school, but haven’t used it much since, even after moving to California.  What would be the point of learning a bunch of languages nobody else I knew could speak?

Well, I finally found an excuse.  Writing secondary world fantasy, I generally don’t invent new languages to go along with the cultures, but I do need naming languages: that is, a consistent way to name characters and places within the world that will sound consistent and be evocative of the atmosphere I want to create.  If I push that a step further, though, and have more than one culture, one of the best ways to differentiate characters is through their dialogue and speech patterns—speech patterns that I can set using foreign languages as a base.


English: “Arabic Language” in the Arabic Al-Bayan Script (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, over the last months, I’ve spent over 40 hours learning Eastern Arabic; ninety 30-minute lessons in an audio program that fits conveniently into my evening commute.  I have no practical daily use for the language, of course, but one of the cultures in my latest project has a language based on Arabic (the other is based on Basque, but there was no readily available audio course for that!), so I figured that would be as good a place to start deepening my understanding as any.

(photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just last week, I finished with Arabic and began learning French. I chose it partly to give myself a break (for the record, French is so much easier than Arabic), and partly because I’ve been reading the Temeraire books aloud to my husband, and I always hated not knowing how to pronounce the French words.  I’m going to have to steel myself at the end of 30 lessons to switch to Polish, which I expect to fall somewhere in between in difficulty.  Eventually I’ll return to French to get beyond the basics, but I want to be able to converse with my Polish grandma when I visit over Christmas.

Because I already knew Spanish, I was expecting to have trouble with mixing up the two Romance languages.  What I didn’t expect was to mix up French with Arabic, not because they’re alike, but because I managed to ingrain Arabic well enough that my brain is now going to that as my default second language.  It probably doesn’t help that the audio program is structured the same for every language, right down to the narrator’s voice.  I expect (hope!) the effect will wear off after a couple weeks.

Even though I started to enhance my writing, my new hobby has had an unintended side-effect: taking up some of the brain space I previously spent on my writing.  Some of the time I previously spent living in my created worlds is now spent living in my new languages, cutting into my productivity.  In future, I will probably need to pace myself, but for now, since I’m not on deadline and I’m enjoying the learning, I think it’s worth it.

Keep a lookout for posts on some specific differences between English and the new languages I’m acquiring, and my thoughts on how they might be useful in making realistic foreign dialogue without resorting to actual foreign words or dialects.  Until then, maʿa s-salāma! (مَعَ السّلامَة)

My New Ergonomic Writing Habitat

A few months ago, I wrote a post about my ongoing struggle with back pain.  I am happy to report that I’ve been doing much better, in large part because I finally got myself an actual desk for writing.  Here’s what the old setup looked like:

My "comfy" writing chair

My “comfy” writing chair

Short-term, it is actually a pretty comfortable chair, but sitting in it for hours every day, hunching over a laptop, was torturing my poor back.  You’ll notice the lumbar roll, which was my meager attempt a couple years ago to give my back the support it needed.  In hindsight, I think it may have actually been counterproductive; compared to the bare chair, it was comfortable enough that I didn’t notice for too long that I still had a problem.

Fast forward to this spring.  After lots of online research, measurements of me and the available space, and several trips to go sit in every office chair I could find within 20 miles, here’s what I put together:


The key here is the laptop stand and the new keyboard and trackpad, which lets me put the screen at eye level and keep my hands down where they belong.  The chair is not as fancy as some available, but it’s got good support, and I was able to take off the arms (or rather, not put them on to begin with) to keep them from straining my shoulders.  There’s a footrest hiding under the desk that lets me adjust my chair to the height of the desk, and keep that neutral ergonomic posture that was so lacking before.

I won’t pretend this new desk has magically increased my productivity—it hasn’t—but back pain was an easy and guilt-free excuse to not write, and one that I am heartily glad to be rid of.

Motivation and Writing Every Day

Motivation’s a tricky thing.  Sometimes, it seems like staying motivated is the hardest part of writing.  Like when I’m stuck in a scene and three days into a migraine, or when my favorite author’s latest book just came out and it’s so much more interesting than what I’m writing.

I’ve tried various schemes to keep myself going.  For a while, setting a daily word count goal and reporting in every week to an online crit group worked.  I drafted The Null Prophet in twelve weeks that way, and it was great.  But straight word count goals don’t work for editing.  And what about the time spent plotting and researching for the next book?

I had a rockier time drafting Unborn, and I found I just couldn’t make the same word counts as before.  Instead of changing my goal, I kept beating myself up about it.  By the time I did change my goal, failing had become a habit.  All of these tricks are just mental games we play with ourselves, and this one had lost its power for me.

Editing Schedule

My failed editing schedule

After wallowing along for a while, I finally decided I needed a new trick last fall.  I Should Be Writing is a pretty good source for these, so I tried Mur’s “don’t break the chain” trick.  I printed a couple months’ worth of blank calendars, and I put a big green X through every day that I wrote.  No word counts, just a yes or a no.  And below the X, I kept a running count of how many days in a row I had written.  It worked for a little while, but every time I took a day off for a migraine or for my writing group, the chain would break, and it’s a little depressing when it never rises above 13.

In the new year, I tried giving myself a deadline.  Finish the revision by the end of March.  I made out a schedule and hung it on my whiteboard, but after an initial rush, I stalled out and fell behind.  March ended, with weeks still to go on my revision.

Turns out, these tricks only work if I never fail.

Well, I think I might have found one that works.  A couple ideas got mashed together in my brain, and instead of taking someone else’s trick whole, I custom tailored it to me.  Idea #1: Chuck Wendig wrote two posts on a writing plan and an editing plan, the basic idea of which is that you can set a very reasonable daily goal for each of these tasks (Chuck uses 350 words for writing and 5 pages for editing).  Idea #2: Mur Lafferty started talking about her friend Tony’s Magic Spreadsheet on I Should Be Writing, which combines a daily writing goal of 250 words with a weighted point system that rewards you for keeping up a long writing streak.

My Custom Magic Spreadsheet

My Custom Magic Spreadsheet

I mixed these two together to make my own version of the Magic Spreadsheet.  I have two goals: 250 words written or 1000 words edited (I write in Scrivener, so there are no page breaks).  When I feed in my numbers for the day, my spreadsheet calculates my combined progress, so if I only edited 500 words but I wrote 140, it says I met my goal and gives me my points for the day.  First day, one point.  Today, 42 points.  If I double my goal, I get double the points.  That’s my motivation to keep writing once I’ve hit 250, and I know it works, because several times I hit 350 or 400 words, and thought “Wow, I’ll get another 13 points if I just write a little bit more.”  And then it turns out I hit 700, and I’m so close to another 13 points, or 15, or 22…

The last feature of my spreadsheet may be the most important.  If I skip a day, I get no points and the streak starts over.  But if I write a little and don’t hit my goal, I don’t get any points, but the streak doesn’t change.  If I come home exhausted from my writing group and eke out a single sentence, I get to keep the streak alive.  I’ve had three days like that so far, and it’s probably the reason the spreadsheet is still working.  And just as soon as I get a handle on how quickly the points add up, I’ll start bribing myself with prizes when I hit the big targets.

Yes, I designed the spreadsheet to give me as many points as possible.  But it’s not cheating when I’m only playing against myself.  The points are just a sideline, anyway—the writing is the objective.  And right now, I’m at 18,594 words written and 13,804 edited.  Not bad for a silly mind game.

Staying Healthy as a Writer

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

One of the unavoidable hazards of writing is that it’s almost always a sedentary activity.  There are exceptions—Kevin J Anderson dictates his first drafts while hiking—but that kind of process doesn’t work for everybody, and all drafts eventually need to be read and edited.

I get a double dose.  My day job has me sitting in front of a computer for nine hours a day, and then I spend another hour in the car.  I’m a very visual person, so when my writing time comes around, I have to sit down again, and I spent most of my leisure time curled up with a book.  It worked for a while, but lately bad habits have been catching up with me.  For the last year or so, I’ve been in pretty much constant pain.  Back pain, neck pain, and I’m not even going to get into the chronic headaches and allergies.

This post is not about complaining.  Think of it as a public service announcement.  This kind of stuff is all too common, and you don’t want it to happen to you.

I guess the first thing you should know is that I’ve never been an active person.  I hear about people feeling energized when they’re done exercising, but it’s never happened to me.  I mostly just feel sore and tired, and if we’re talking aerobic exercise, sweaty and gross on top of it.  I’ve never had a weight problem, so I always regarded exercise as an unpleasant waste of time.  I mean, I knew it was good for me, but I never saw the benefits, and I never had enough time for things I wanted to do, much less something I disliked.

Bad idea, in case you were in doubt.

It’s been an excruciatingly slow process, identifying the problem and deciding that no, it’s not getting better on its own, and then figuring out what to do about it.  The pain started in my neck, so my first move was to change pillows, and then change again.  I may have to try a third pillow if this latest one doesn’t do the trick.  I’ve slowly become more aware of the strain placed on my body when I contort it into my habitual fetalesque sleeping position, and I’m trying to train myself into a more neutral posture.

The backaches snuck up on me.  The first acute pain happened about a year ago, bad enough to send me to the wellness center at work. They gave me an icepack and a prescription for muscle relaxant, and in a few days it was back to normal.  I figured I’d pulled it somehow, and went back to worrying about my tension headaches.  It wasn’t until last fall that the back pain became strong enough and constant enough to catch my attention again.

I got an ergonomic evaluation of my workstation.  I tried lumbar support pillows.  I finally started seeing a chiropractor, which at first made things worse, and then a little better.  But I didn’t see any real hope until I found the discipline to start doing yoga every morning.  I changed up my entire schedule in order to form the habit, but yoga’s a great gateway into exercise: low impact, minimal sweat, and I can do it on a mat in my living room where nobody can see me.

It’s slow going.  I’m definitely improving, but six weeks in, my back still hurts almost constantly.  The difference is, it’s dialed back from Something Is Really Wrong to Wow I Haven’t Used These Muscles in Forever.  And as I keep using them, I have faith that the pain will become less and less.

So, the point of all this is, take care of your body.  For years, I coveted that half hour a day as time to write or relax, but when you’re not healthy, it gets damn hard to do either.  When the body gets sluggish, so does the mind.  There’ve been a lot of days this past year when I didn’t write at all.  Now, slowly, that’s starting to improve as well, and I’m happy to say that I’m on an 18-day writing streak (and counting!).

Sometimes, giving up a little writing time really can help you write better.

Happy New Year

Happy new year

Happy new year (Photo credit: Amodiovalerio Verde)

Happy New Year!

I’ve been kind of quiet lately, most of which I can blame on the holidays (Three weeks off work!  Snow!  My annual Christmas cold!), but not entirely.  This wasn’t intended to be the kind of blog where I talk about everything that’s going on in my life, and unfortunately, most of my energy this winter has been spent dealing with Things That Are Not Writing.

I don’t really go in for New Year’s resolutions, but I did take a little time to think about my writing goals for the year: finish my rewrite of Unborn by April 1, get a first draft of my next novel (working title: North) finished by October 1.  It also seemed like a good time to reassess the website.  Breaking news: I’m probably not cut out for a regular, post-a-week schedule.

And you know what?  I think that’s fine.

When I started the blog, I read a lot of advice, most of which focused on Building a Platform, i.e. how to get as big an audience as possible, and of course they all stressed the importance of getting good content out to your readers on a regular, predictable basis.  But that was never really the point for me.  I never expected my blog readers to be potential fans who would start clamoring for my work before I’ve ever been published.  No, I’m pretty sure the readers I’ve managed to attract are all writers like me.  (And family.  Hi Dad!)

Ultimately, the blog is for me.  There’s no point in writing posts just to be writing.  I’ll save that for my fiction, thanks.  The internet at large, and the writing community in particular, don’t need me regurgitating the same old advice, retreading the same tired topics.  Instead, I’m hoping to dig a little deeper.  I read constantly, but I tend to get lazy, and not spend much time thinking about any one book or article.  One of the reasons I started the blog was to encourage myself to slow down and establish a coherent opinion on Things I Think Are Important.  I know myself.  That’s not going to happen once a week.  But over the course of 2013, I’m hoping it’ll start to happen more often.