The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch

Very readable history of how the rules of spelling and grammar in English have evolved over time, often despite the efforts of those who attempted to set those rules in stone. Makes a great companion book for Shady Characters.

Three things I learned:

  • No one cared about English grammar or spelling until the 18th century. I’d always heard that Shakespeare was a bad speller, or a rebellious speller, but that wasn’t it at all: no one in his era cared about spelling very much, so however he wrote the words down, so long as their meaning was clear, was fine.
  • At least part of our spelling problems come from using a 23-sound alphabet (the Latin one) to write a 40-phoneme language. The original runic script for writing English had 33 letters, which made it much easier to distinguish the blended th in thing from the separated th of masthead.
  • Many of the differences in spelling between American English and British English (e.g., color vs colour) come from Noah Webster, who, in a spate of linguistic patriotism, wanted to give the new country its own English.

Brain is Out to Lunch

Decided to take two weeks off of writing. I’m one week in, and it’s only now that those writing muscles are starting to relax.

First few days I didn’t know what to do with myself. For five months now, all my free time has been given over to the novel. For the last two months, I’ve been spending half of each Saturday and Sunday on it as well.

So when I woke up on Saturday with nothing to do, I didn’t quite believe it. It’s like when you lost a tooth as a kid, and you kept sticking your tongue in the hole, even though the tooth’s gone and you know it’s gone. My mind kept wanting to remind me to get in there and write, but there was nothing to write, so it was just egging me on for nothing. Had to tell myself each time that I was done, that I’d finished the book, and I’d earned some time off.

Took me several days of repeating that to finally believe it. And only one day after that for my brain to start churning out ideas for the next book.

I’m not going to fight it, though. I’m going to gather the ideas as they come, jot them down, while taking at least one more week off. When my vacation’s over, I should have enough to start outlining the next book, and then we’ll start everything all over again.

I can’t wait.

Passage by Connie Willis

A frustrating book, in multiple ways.

Frustrating because it’s good, it’s really good, for about 2/3 of the book. Like her novel Bellweather, Willis really nails the feeling of trying to get something meaningful done while working inside a vast uncaring bureaucracy. By putting me through the minutiae of the main character’s days — including her thoughts on trying to decide what to eat — Willis pulled me into that character’s head, and gave me just as much emotional stake in her research as she had.

Frustrating, too, because the payoff kept getting pushed out. All that daily minutiae means it takes a few hundred pages before anything really happens in the book, and another few hundred pages before the next event, and so on. The last hundred pages of the second third of the book I couldn’t stop reading, I had to find out what was going to happen. This was partly because of how involved in the character’s life I’d become, but also because it took those hundred pages for something to occur.

I can’t decide if that technique is completely unfair to the reader — certainly felt unfair to me at the time — or a master stroke of writing something so addicting it kept me reading long past the point of where I’d have dropped something else.

I did drop it, though. The main storyline basically ends with Part 2. Part 3 is just other characters scrambling to duplicate the main character’s research from Parts 1 & 2, and by that point I’d gotten so frustrated with the pacing that I just skimmed the rest to confirm my suspicions about the plot, and moved on.

So I’m taking this book as a warning for my own writing. I think my novel has grown to the length it has partly because of how much time I’ve spent in my main characters’ heads, writing out their hopes and fears and internal debates. Looking at Passage, it’s a very powerful technique, but its use has to be balanced carefully against the action and dialogue that moves the story forward. Too much of it, and my story will become one long crawl upwards, with few drops or twists and turns to provide some release.

Achievement Unlocked

The novel’s done! It’s done it’s done it’s done it’s done!

Wrote the last 8,000 words or so in a white heat. Actually cried and shook at some of the things I was writing, at some of the pain the characters had to go through to get to the end.

But they made it, and so did I.

Going to take some time off writing and let my brain decompress…

Final word count: 139,528

Grinding Toward The End

126,154 words.

One of the characters surprised me again this week, committing an act I didn’t think they’d get to in this book, and triggering the start of the climax in the bargain.

For two full days (and 4,000 words) of writing after that point, it was smooth sailing. Words poured out of me, and I felt like I could do it, I could finish, I knew where things were going and every step of the way there.

That momentum slowed on Monday, died completely on Tuesday, and hasn’t come back yet. I continue to churn out words, and I still know exactly where things are going as it starts the final climb toward the climax, but I feel like I’m pushing the narrative uphill for each step of that climb, word by word.

I know that I’ll get there. It’s only a matter of time now, of sitting down and writing each days 1,000 words until I reach that point. That doesn’t make the work any easier, or give me any confidence that the final product will be worth reading.

But I am going to finish, dammit. If it turns out to be crap, well, that’s what the second draft is for, right?

How to Fix Superman Returns

Having watched Superman and Superman II: The Donner Cut last year, and enjoyed them, my wife and I decided to skip over Superman III and IV and go straight to Superman Returns (which itself ignores the last two movies, and is set five years after Superman II).

I remember seeing it in 2006, when it came out, and thinking it was a terrible movie. Rewatching it now, I think I missed what Bryan Singer was trying to do: this is a 1970s movie made with 21st-century special effects, an attempt to capture the mood and feel of the first two movies that mostly succeeds.

I definitely prefer its version of Superman — who, while flying by to rescue someone during the climax, casually uses his heat vision to melt shards of falling glass, keeping them from hurting people on the sidewalk — to Man of Steel‘s destructive hobo.

And in adopting the deliberate pacing of the earlier movies, it gives itself plenty of time to set up the relationships between Lois, Superman, Richard, and their son Jason that might have defined and deepened the sequels that (unfortunately) didn’t get made.

When Superman discovers he has a son, he’s presented with a unique challenge: he wants to be in his son’s life, and he needs to give his son guidance in the use of his growing powers, but he cannot reveal that he’s the boy’s father without destroying the life that Lois has built for herself while he was gone. That’s a great source of dramatic tension, and I wish we’d gotten to see more of it.

Much as I like it better this time around, two huge flaws still stood out to me: Lex Luthor’s evil plan, and the movie’s treatment of Kitty Kowalski (Luthor’s female companion).

Kitty is pulled right from the earlier films, a soft-hearted ditzy blonde that has no place in reality or in a modern movie. In some ways, she’s worse in this one, since the 70s version actually showed up Luthor a time or two, and her conscience led her to betray Luthor and save Superman. This Kitty is all tears and no action, a throwback to a more misogynistic period that should have been either updated or left out.

And Luthor’s plan — to destroy the Eastern seaboard to make room for his new continent — is simply ridiculous. I understand that Singer wanted to echo Luthor’s real-estate plan from the first movie, but they concocted something that was — frankly — dumb, and unworthy of a supposedly brilliant supervillain.

Instead, they should have had Luthor build his new islands somewhere in the Pacific, in the tropics, and set them up as new luxury vacation spots. Then the movie could have started after the islands were complete, and about to open for business. We drop in news stories in the background talking about the islands’ opening, about Luthor’s reform story, about how world leaders are showing up to get a personal tour of his creation, and possibly license the technology themselves to solve their own land shortages. Then, we get Lois assigned to cover the opening ceremony (against her will), with her family going along for the “vacation” part of the experience.

Once everyone’s on the island and the ceremonies start, Luthor unveils the evil part of his plan: he holds the world leaders hostage, shows them how destructive his island tech can be, then tells them he’s got seed pods scattered offshore of New York, Hong Kong, St Petersburg, Tokyo, etc. He demands a large payment, lucrative contracts, and sovereignty over all the land that he might create. He threatens to detonate the seed pods if his demands are not met.

This gives us the same basic setup for the final sequence of the movie — Superman arrives at the islands only to find he’s powerless because they’re Kryptonite, his child can discover his strength by defending his mom against kidnappers, Lois can save Superman, who in return lifts the islands out in to space before Luthor can detonate the seed pods — but now Luthor is threatening worldwide destruction in order to get what he wants, instead of causing destruction in order to get nothing.

It’s a smarter plan, and it gives us dramatic possibilities the other doesn’t, like Luthor setting off two seed pods at once, both to show the world leaders what they can do and to make Superman choose which one to save. It also helps drive home how long Superman has been gone, if Luthor’s had time to get out of prison, discover the Fortress of Solitude, create the islands, and rehabilitate himself as a purveyor of luxury.

Ooh, shiny!

The novel’s grown to 118,051 words.

Where last week felt like plummeting down the tracks in a mining cart, this week has felt like the slow climb upwards that follows. I keep thinking of new projects I could be working on instead of this one, shiny objects to distract me from finishing.

Just these past few days I’ve thought of two new novels to write and an iOS game to build. I’ve even caught myself starting to write dialogue in the voice of the narrator from a third novel (also as yet unwritten) while daydreaming.

I have to keep forcing my attention back to the novel I’ve got, the novel that every day gets longer and every day I feel like I have less grasp of.

Telling myself its okay for the first draft to suck is dangerous now, because my other projects come rushing in, tempting me with their promise of perfection. I know none of them will be perfect in the end, but I want it, I want to write something brilliant and moving that people will remember when I’m gone. I feel like I can see the flaws in my current work all too clearly, and I these distractions are my unconscious way of doubting that it’s worth finishing.

Cubed by Nikil Saval

Weaves together a history of the architecture, interior design, politics, and sociology of the office, from its rise in the countinghouses of the 19th century to the co-working spaces of the present. Made me want to re-watch Mad Men, this time to appreciate all the historical detail in the architecture and furniture that I missed before.

Out of the many things I learned from this book, three surprised me the most:

  • Human Resources as a discipline was invented by Lillian Gilbreth, the wife of the couple Cheaper by the Dozen was based on. It’s original name was Personnel Management, and it was based on the efficient workplace theories of Frederick Taylor.
  • The Larkin Building in Buffalo, NY, one of the first office buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (in 1904), set all the precedents for Google’s offices a hundred years later: rec areas, open floor plans, libraries, and outdoor spaces for employee relaxation.
  • The cubicle farm came out of a 1968 design that was intended by its inventor (Robert Propst) to be a more flexible, individualized, office. In seeking to make something more human than the offices of the past, he inadvertently created the inhuman office of the future.