2014 In Review

At the end of each year for the past five or so, I’ve written up a set of goals for the coming year. Not resolutions, or habits I want to establish that might help me achieve some vague goal, but concrete targets to aim for over the next twelve months.

Here’s what I wrote down as my goals for 2014:

  • Get 100 regular users for Rewryte.com
  • Find a permanent place to settle
  • Live abroad for the summer
  • Have one short story published
  • Post to the blog on a weekly basis
  • Keep the same job through the year
  • Open a retirement savings account
  • Learn Haskell

So with the year wrapping up, how did I do?

It’s a mixed bag: definite success for three of the goals, complete failure for the other five.

In the success column, we can put “find a permanent place to settle” (my wife and I bought a house in April), “post to the blog on a weekly basis” (with the exception of the holidays and NaNoWriMo, I’ve been posting thrice weekly for a good while now), and “keep the same job through the year” (I was developing a bad habit of switching companies every year or so, making our taxes more complicated and my resume look like I’d been playing employment hopscotch; this year I stayed with the same employer the whole way through).

I failed at everything else, though.

For a few, it was because my goals changed: rather than open a retirement account, we opted to payoff the credit card; instead of pushing for more users of rewryte.com, my business partner and I shuttered the site this summer to work on smaller projects.

Sometimes accomplishing one goal conflicted with another: buying a house meant we didn’t have the cash to try living abroad for the summer, and focusing on work-related skills while I stayed with my employer for the full year meant not spending time learning a new programming language (Haskell).

And for the last, I simply couldn’t do it. I submitted several short stories to be published, yielding a nice collection of rejection letters, but no sales.

So: 3/8 or, a 37.5% success rate. That’s a fine batting average, but doesn’t say much about my ability to set and accomplish goals.

Of course, not everything I ended up striving for is captured in that list: holding our monthly spending to a budget, winning NaNoWriMo, paying off the debt incurred from the sale of our previous house, taking ASL classes, taking cooking classes. So priorities shifted, and goals were pushed back or shelved.

Perhaps what this really reflects is poor judgement on my part at the beginning of the year about what will be important to me over the course of it?

Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston

Simply fantastic. Houston writes incredibly well and has done his research, teasing out the true history of a dozen different typographical marks out of a mess of false leads and myths.

Three of the many things I learned:

  • Punctuation was invented by the Greeks as guide for how a text should be read aloud. Before that, they wrote everything as a single stream of capital letters.
  • The asterisk and dagger marks got their start as part of literary criticism: either marking out questionable text or calling attention to something interesting in it
  • The original typewriter keyboard did not have an exclamation point. You had to construct it manually using a period and an apostrophe.

Lessons from NaNoWriMo

The novel I started for NaNoWriMo is now at 62,000 words, and I’m perhaps 2/3 of the way through it. My current goal is to have the first draft complete before the end of January, so I can spend February and March editing it down.

But I thought now was a good time to reflect on those first 50,000 words, written in a frenzy in November, and put together a few things I learned by going through NaNoWriMo:

  • I’m not just a short-story writer. True, I have no idea how good the final draft of this novel will turn out to be. But for a few years now I’ve been thinking of myself as a short-form author, so focused on brevity and quick pacing that I didn’t think I had any novel-sized ideas in me. That turns out to be completely false.
  • My inner editor has been holding me back. All that concentration on being brief, on using just the barest of brush strokes to convey action, hasn’t necessarily made my writing any stronger. Instead, it made me so scared of messing up the first draft that I didn’t get much writing done. Being forced to ignore that editorial voice has made me realize how much I’ve been self-censoring.
  • I can write 4,000 words in a day. I know because I did it, once, mid-month, to catch up to where I needed to be to finish on time. Previously I’d sometimes struggled to write 250 words in a single day, and 1,000 words was a great writing day. Now I know I can get 2,000 words down in a couple of hours, and push out twice that if I do two writing sessions in the day.

Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present by Brendan Simms

Incredibly well-written. Covers nearly 600 years of European (and world) history without oversimplifying or tipping over into names-and-dates territory. Digs deep into the conflicts of those years to show how the Holy Roman Empire, and then Germany, was at the heart of most of them.

This was a serious corrective for me, since when I was growing up Germany meant Nazis and Nazis were the Last Great Bad Guys (the Soviets were more sympathetic when I was little) so Germany was the country we didn’t talk about much in history class, save to point out all the ways in which Germany had effed things up for the rest of the world.

But leaving Germany out meant a lot of European history and strategy didn’t make sense to me. Why would Britain want to defend Belgian neutrality in WWI? Why did Germany talk so much about encirclement? Why did anyone care that Charles V held both the crowns of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire?

Simms’ book finally filled those gaps in my understanding, and also taught me:

  • During World War I, sauerkraut was renamed “victory cabbage” in the U.S.
  • Spain, as the last fascist power left in Europe at the end of WWII, was singled out as being banned from the UN until it had become a democracy, and was hated by both the US and the Soviets.
  • The experiences of Germany and Poland with weak central governments were used as examples in the Federalist Papers for why the new United States needed a stronger central government.

Final thought: In describing so many historical instances of reform and liberal freedoms granted so the state could raise money and wage war more effectively, Simms ends up making a better argument for war’s utility with just the sidelines of his narrative than Ian Morris did in his book that had that explicit goal.

Genre vs Literary Fiction

How can we tell genre fiction from literary fiction? It’s not enough to add some spaceships and call it science fiction. Nor does putting it in a medieval setting automatically make it fantasy.

I think one part of the difference is that genre fiction seems mainly concerned with jobs, and exciting things happening while people are working those jobs: noble, soldier, scientist, private eye.

Literary fiction is less concerned with jobs, and more concerned with life outside of work: families, holidays, dating. Work is implicitly boring, an obstacle to be overcome.

It’s two polar views of the human condition. In one, work is a calling, and the moral questions revolve around what kind of people get called and how they respond to their calling. In the other, work is background. It’s something that may create conflict, but it’s not usually central to the story.

In other words, fiction written in genre circumstances that doesn’t revolve around work as a calling feels literary, even if it’s set in a far-off alien landscape.

Hence Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, which could have been written as genre fiction, following the career of a scientist toward a breakthrough in cheap solar power, but instead is written in a literary style, more concerned with his life outside of his work and what that says about him.

There’s also Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth, which is sold as literary fiction but to me reads like genre: the central plot-line is the construction of the cathedral, and those called to build it. Characters move in and out of the narrative according to their impact on the cathedral’s construction, and there’s a lot of science-fiction-style description of building techniques.

Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior by John Man

An uneven but interesting short book about the history of ninjas. I like that he spends time dispelling most of the myths about ninjas and tries to get back to their real historical role in Japanese warfare. Towards the end, though, he stretches to try to attach the ninja ethos to the Japanese Intelligence officers of World War II, and ends up sounding like an apologist for actions that all too recently propped up a racist, genocidal regime.

Still, I did learn a few things:

  • Ninjas were basically mercenaries, and they could be samurai or peasants.
  • Ninjas were mostly used as scouts or spies (to find/count enemy troops, discover the weaknesses in a castle, etc) and occasionally hired as a strike force to sneak into a castle and raise hell (or the gate).
  • When ninjas did fight regular troops, it was usually as locals defending their homes from marauding armies.

Reflections: On the Magic of Writing by Diana Wynne Jones

An amazingly good book on writing, being a writer, and what it means to write fantasy in general (and children’s fantasy, in particular). Her voice is so strong, it sounds like she’s sitting next to you on the train, telling you these stories about her life and her writing process to while away the time.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Care about all your characters, even the very minor ones with hardly any speaking role at all
  • It’s ok to start the journey without knowing where you’re going, so long as you see it through
  • Don’t let yourself be boxed in by others expectations. Write the best story you can, while you can, that you yourself enjoy.