Here, Here! vs. Hear, Hear!

From The Grammarly Blog:

If you want to voice your agreement with someone during a debate (especially if you’re a member of the UK Parliament), you will shout “hear, hear.” But as long as you’re shouting, no one will notice you’re wrong if you shout “here, here” because the words are pronounced the same.

The United Kingdom has a long and proud history of parliamentarism. The current incarnation of the country’s Parliament, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, has a history that can be traced through its predecessors, the Parliament of Great Britain and the Parliament of England, all the way to the early thirteenth century. As is often the case with places and institutions that have a long tradition, we can find relics of the past that persist in modern times. For instance, MPs are still offered snuff before they enter the Chamber. There is still some use of Norman French in the legislative process. And MPs still shout “hear, hear” when they agree with something one of them has said.

Link to the rest at The Grammarly Blog

The Easy-ish Way to Create Believable, Unforgettable Fictional Worlds

From Writer Unboxed:

Worldbuilding gets a bad rap sometimes. If you ask certain people, worldbuilding is either for nerds looking for almanacs, not fiction, or it’s a useless distinction that should be an intrinsic part of writing.

But there are plenty of writers who recognize the essential nature of worldbuilding separate from the act of storytelling—for science fiction and fantasy, sure, but also for all genres. And there are a ton of amazing, detailed guides to creating worlds. But years ago, when I was first looking to build out the world I had created for my first foray into fantasy writing, I looked up resources for worldbuilding and quickly got bogged down in the sheer number of details these guides wanted me to know.

These guides offer hundreds of questions about the world you’re creating, insinuating that answering each one will lead to developing a believable, original world. I found weeks-long online courses dedicated solely to building a world from scratch.

I like to call these types of resources sandboxes. They give you lots of blank space to play around. “Where are the mountain ranges in your world?” they ask. “What military tactics does each nation in your world use?”

These are good questions, depending on the type of story you’re writing. Sandboxes are fun places for free play and for letting the mind run wild.

But once I had determined the election procedures of a specific political party in my book, which was decidedly not about election procedures or political parties, I was left no closer to a better story. I wondered: “…Now what? What does this have to do with my story?”

This is how I came to begin thinking about story-first worldbuilding.

Story-first worldbuilding falls somewhere on the worldbuilding opinion spectrum between “almanac” and “intrinsic” by exploring the details of the world around the story you want to tell. You don’t need to know where every mountain range is in your world unless your characters intend to cross them. What follows are a set of exercises that are geared mainly toward writers of fantasy who are creating secondary worlds, but hopefully applicable to all writers. The goal of these exercises to help you build a believable world that will add depth and color to the story you want to tell—without making you spend hours writing out the dominant flora on a continent your story will never visit.

How to Build a World Around the Story You Want to Tell

To complete the following exercises, I will assume that you have at least a smidgen of a story idea in mind. It’s okay if it’s not a fully fleshed-out plot yet. I will also assume that, since you have a story idea, you also have a vague impression of the world in which it’s set. It’s okay if most of the world is a blurry mess at this point.

This section contains a couple of exercises to get your mind thinking about how your world interacts with your story. The exercises are intended to be done in order, but this isn’t school. Do what’s most helpful to you.

Exercise #1: Write down everything you already know about your story’s world.

Set a timer for five, 10, or 30 minutes—however much time you think you need—and write out everything you already know about the world in which your story takes place, stream-of-consciousness style. Focus on the parts of your story you’ve either written or can picture clearly in your head. For example, if you know a critical scene in the climax involves an escape from a desert prison, write, “There’s a prison in the desert.” Do not consult Wikipedia’s list of desert flora and fauna. Even if you list things that are contradictory or illogical, write them all down anyway. Give yourself permission to let your mind run free. Important: This is not the time to make up new things about your world. If new ideas come to mind as you’re writing, don’t stop to examine them—just write them down and keep going.

When your time is up, read back over what you wrote. What are the things that are intrinsic or critical to your story and/or characters?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

How to Write Faster

From the Grammarly Blog:

In a perfect world, deadlines wouldn’t be a thing. You’d have unlimited time to complete everything you need to write, like essays, reports, reading responses, and even the kinds of writing you do for fun, like blog posts and short stories.

Obviously, we don’t live in a perfect world. But we do live in a world where you can learn how to write faster. Writing quickly is a skill that’s helped thousands of writers, especially writers with time-sensitive assignments like interviewers and journalists, meet their deadlines without breaking a sweat.

. . . .

Learning how to write faster is easy. To help you streamline your writing time, we’ve gathered a few helpful writing tips that will have you hitting deadlines in no time. 

Streamline the writing process

You’re most likely familiar with the writing process. It’s the six steps just about every piece of writing goes through to develop from an idea to a published piece. Working through these steps means doing a thorough job of brainstorming, outlining, writing, editing, and perfecting your work . . . but it can be a slow process. When you’re crunched for time, you simply don’t have the luxury of working through the unabridged writing process.

In a pinch, you can streamline it. One way to streamline the writing process is to combine steps one and two and outline your work as you brainstorm it. This might mean a less coherent outline, but that’s fine—you’ll smooth it out when you write. 

After getting an outline on the page, get right to writing. We’ll later on cover strategies that can help this step go faster. During the writing stage, the goal is to start getting words down. Don’t worry about irrelevant, superfluous, or awkward words winding up in your text—you’ll fix these up when you edit your work.  

Speaking of editing, you’ll also need to cut out an important step in the writing process: editing your work with fresh eyes. Ideally, you’d wait about a day after writing to edit your work so you can catch mistakes more easily. But with a limited amount of time, you’ll need to dive right into editing after you’re finished writing. Depending on how pressed for time you are, you might also have to combine the last two steps in the writing process, editing and proofreading. 

Type faster

It might sound like a sarcastic tip at first, but we mean it sincerely: Train yourself to type faster. You can do this by playing typing games and doing typing exercises that build muscle memory in your fingers. If you look at the keyboard when you’re typing, it’s time to learn how to type without doing that. Similarly, if you’re using the “hunt and peck” method or otherwise using any fewer than all ten of your fingers, it’s time to become a stronger, faster typist. 

Websites like typingtest.com can tell you how accurately you’re typing and how many words you can type per minute as well as providing typing lessons and exercises. The average person types about 40 words per minute, with 65 to 70 being the general target for “fast typing.” Typing 90 to 100 words per minute is considered to be very fast typing, with some of the fastest typists achieving more than 120 words per minute. When you can type faster, you can literally write faster. 

Write what you already have in mind

You might have no idea how to start your essay, but know exactly how you want to support your argument. Skip right to your body paragraphs. 

There’s no rule that says you have to write your piece in order of first to final paragraph. Write in the order that makes it easiest for you to start writing and maintain momentum, which often means jumping right to the parts that you’ve already worked out in your head. 

Writing the parts that you already know you want to say achieves two things:

  • It gets text onto the page: For you, seeing text on the page can be hugely motivating—it’s a lot easier to keep writing when you already have a foundation to build on, rather than starting with a blank screen.
  • It can help you determine what to say in sections you haven’t written: If you’re struggling with an intro paragraph, writing your supporting paragraphs can give you the phrasing and organization you need to introduce them in your opening section. Similarly, if you’re having a difficult time with certain body paragraphs, but you’ve written at least one, determine how that paragraph you’ve written fits into a broader piece. What does it follow? What follows it? Think of the piece you’re writing as a jigsaw puzzle and the sections you’ve written as puzzle corners you’ve completed. Which shapes fit into that partially completed puzzle? 

Link to the rest at the Grammarly Blog

Computer Programs for Authors

Late yesterday, PG took a dip into the world of software created for the purpose of helping authors do their work.

He claims no expertise or knowledge of any of these programs, although he tried out Scrivener on an experimental basis several years ago.

To the best of PG’s knowledge, most authors use plain vanilla word processing programs for their writing. In the US, for all intents and purposes, that means Microsoft Word.

(Let the more mature among us pause for a moment of silence in remembrance of WordPerfect – The real WordPerfect, not the sad and hollow shell of its former self still sold by Corel.)

After his quick scamper through cyberspace, PG found the following story creation programs, listed in no particular order.

Scrivener

Dabble

Plottr

SmartEdit

Quoll Writer

Campfire Blaze

PG would be interested in comments by anyone who has used one or more of these programs and suggestions of others that PG has missed. PG did not include the several software programs that are focused on the particular needs of scriptwriters.

One of the inherent problems with creating software for authors to write stories and books is that (1) the market for such software is not particularly large and (2) virtually everyone in the target market is already quite familiar with word processing software, namely (today) MS Word or Word for Mac.

PG hasn’t forgotten Pages from Apple but is under the (perhaps mistaken) impression that most authors with Macs use Word.

Feel free to share thoughts, experiences, ideas, additional programs, etc.

An Ode to Sticky Notes

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

Occasionally someone in one of the various on-line writing groups in which I hang out will ask how people organize their research. It usually generates a discussion of digital versus paper filing systems.  And I occasionally weigh in with my own multi-layered, always evolving system of computer files, notebooks, 3 x 5 cards, and the glory of the project box (courtesy of Twyla Tharp).  Within that system, one thing stays constant:  sticky-notes.

I literally don’t remember what it is like to do historical research without sticky-notes.  3M marketed the first Post-It notes the year I wrote my master’s paper and I embraced them with enthusiasm. Over the years, they’ve become one of the pillars on which my research process rests.

When sticky-notes first came out, they were expensive for someone on a graduate student budget, so I used them sparingly.  I cut them in two.  I reused them until the sticky strips grew fuzzy and refused to stick any more. I reverted to using scraps of paper as bookmarks.  (Because real bookmarks were also a luxury on a graduate student budget.)

Now I use sticky-notes with abandon.  I even stopped trying to re-use them about a year ago.  (I finally realized the aggravation of losing information I had marked when they fell out a book outweighed the virtuous glow of reducing paper usage one small square at a time.)

At the moment I have a large (and growing) pile of books on the floor near my desk, stuffed with more-or-less color-coded sticky-notes and tabs.  The tabs mark sections I want to capture for the books.  The regular sticky-notes allow me to annotate a page in a library book with an idea or response to the author.  (Because while I happily underline and scribble in the margins of books I own, I do not write in library books.  I am not a barbarian.)  

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

PG admits to being a heavy-duty sticky notes user from very shortly after the beginning of the Post-It Note in 1980.

Can technology help authors write a book?

From the BBC:

Celebrated American author Mark Twain was very dismissive of people who think it is possible for someone to learn how to write a novel.

“A man who is not born with the novel-writing gift has a troublesome time of it when he tries to build a novel,” he said. “He has no clear idea of his story. In fact, he has no story.”

British writer Stephen Fry puts it another way. He says that successful authors are those who know just how difficult it is to write a book.

Every year around the world a whopping 2.2 million books are published, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), which monitors the number. The figure includes both fiction and non-fiction titles.

For most of these authors the writing process is relatively unchanged since Twain’s heyday in the late 19th Century. Plot outlines and ideas are written down to be deciphered, developed and refined over time.

These days, however, technology is increasingly making the life of an author a little easier.

For Michael Green, a US data scientist turned novelist, the need to use technology to simplify and streamline the writing process came when he was in the middle of writing his first book.

With 500 pages of a complex story written, he recalls that the process had become difficult to manage: “In the midst of editing, I got to the point where I started feeling like I had a lot of plots and characters.”

“I had all these documents on the deeper aspects of the world I was creating. I was worried about being able to keep track of it all. That’s when I switched into my more data science-minded approach to solving a complex problem with a lot of different pieces.”

The end result was that Mr Green created Lynit, a digital platform that helps authors visualise, plan and weave together the various elements – such as characters, plot arcs, themes and key events – that form a story.

The app is now in its beta stage, and is being tested by a number of writers. Currently free to use, users can draw and update intricate digital templates or story maps.

. . . .

Mr Green says that many novelists begin their work with little more than a general idea of a plot or a particular character. With Lynit he says that the process of adding to this initial idea is simplified.

“As the author gets a new idea that they want to bring into the story, they are able to input it into a natural framework. They’re building a visualization.

“Piece by piece, they’re adding to the story. As new ideas come in, they change, maybe by creating new nodes [or interactions], new relationships.”

Link to the rest at the BBC

A New Brain Implant Translates Thoughts of Writing Into Text

From Wired:

ELON MUSK’S NEURALINK has been making waves on the technology side of neural implants, but it hasn’t yet shown how we might actually use implants. For now, demonstrating the promise of implants remains in the hands of the academic community.

This week, that community provided a rather impressive example of the promise of neural implants. Using an implant, a paralyzed individual managed to type out roughly 90 characters per minute simply by imagining that he was writing those characters out by hand.

Previous attempts at providing typing capabilities to paralyzed people via implants have involved giving subjects a virtual keyboard and letting them maneuver a cursor with their mind. The process is effective but slow, and it requires the user’s full attention, as the subject has to track the progress of the cursor and determine when to perform the equivalent of a key press. It also requires the user to spend the time to learn how to control the system.

But there are other possible routes to getting characters out of the brain and onto the page. Somewhere in our writing thought process, we form the intention of using a specific character, and using an implant to track this intention could potentially work. Unfortunately, the process is not especially well understood.

Downstream of that intention, a decision is transmitted to the motor cortex, where it’s translated into actions. Again, there’s an intent stage, where the motor cortex determines it will form the letter (by typing or writing, for example), which is then translated into the specific muscle motions required to perform the action. These processes are much better understood, and they’re what the research team targeted for their new work.

Specifically, the researchers placed two implants in the premotor cortex of a paralyzed person. This area is thought to be involved in forming the intentions to perform movements. Catching these intentions is much more likely to produce a clear signal than catching the movements themselves, which are likely to be complex (any movement involves multiple muscles) and depend on context (where your hand is relative to the page you’re writing on, etc.).

With the implants in the right place, the researchers asked the participant to imagine writing letters on a page and recorded the neural activity as he did so.

Altogether, there were roughly 200 electrodes in the participant’s premotor cortex. Not all of them were informative for letter-writing. But for those that were, the authors performed a principal component analysis, which identified the features of the neural recordings that differed the most when various letters were imagined. Converting these recordings into a two-dimensional plot, it was obvious that the activity seen when writing a single character always clustered together. And physically similar characters—p and b, for example, or h, n, and r—formed clusters near each other.

(The researchers also asked the participant to do punctuation marks such as a comma and question mark and used a > to indicate a space and a tilde for a period.)

Overall, the researchers found they could decipher the appropriate character with an accuracy of a bit over 94 percent, but the system required a relatively slow analysis after the neural data was recorded. To get things working in real time, the researchers trained a recurrent neural network to estimate the probability of a signal corresponding to each letter.

Despite working with a relatively small amount of data (only 242 sentences’ worth of characters), the system worked remarkably well. The lag between the thought and a character appearing on screen was about half a second, and the participant was able to produce about 90 characters per minute, easily topping the previous record for implant-driven typing, which was about 25 characters per minute. The raw error rate was about 5 percent, and applying a system like a typing autocorrect could drop the error rate down to 1 percent.

Link to the rest at Wired

PG didn’t notice any mention of a Grammarly implant in the OP, however.

Top Two Anathemas

From Daily Writing Tips:

On National Grammar Day, the AP Stylebook editors tweeted a question for their readers:

What grammar rule do you find yourself getting wrong no matter how many times you look it up? Tell us your grammar kryptonite.

The feed I saw had 72 Quote Tweets. If “Quote Tweets” means “responses,” then I read them all. I did not take the time to count the repetitions, but I did note some clear winners. I’d say that the top two were these:

affect vs effect
lay/lie and all their tenses

It’s not as if the people who responded to the AP quiz haven’t been trying. They have looked up these bêtes noires numerous times in the AP Stylebook. The bitter truth remains that for some of us, some points of grammar and usage just won’t stick in our brains. Lack of grammar instruction in the early grades accounts for some persistent errors, but not all. Sometimes our brains are just blind to the reasoning behind the rule.

In this post, I’ll address the top two “kryptonite” examples given in the Twitter thread.

affect and effect
Although spelled differently, these two sound identical in speech, so it’s not surprising that speakers stumble when putting them into written form. It doesn’t help that effect functions as both noun and verb. As for affect, its most common use is an action verb, but psychologists sometimes use affect as a noun. Here are examples of correct usage of affect and effect:

We hope that the pandemic will not permanently affect social interaction. (verb)

What is the effect of gamma rays on Man-in-the-Moon marigolds? (noun)

The new law will effect a much needed change in wetland protections. (verb)

Often, the patient’s affect changes with his environment. (noun, in the sense of “feeling, emotion, mood”)

TIP: When used as a noun, effect will usually have an article in front of it: the effectan effectthe uncertainty effectto have an effect, etc. A clue to the use of effect and affect as verbs is the presence of a helping verb in front of them: will effectmay affect.

lay and lie
Sorting out the usage of this family of verbs requires a mastery of the concept of transitive and intransitive verbs. I don’t think that young people are being taught this concept anymore. Plus, so many speakers and writers now use the words interchangeably—even in professional contexts— I believe that attempting to maintain the distinction is a lost cause. While writing this post, I glanced at a news item in the Daily Mail, in which I read that a person shot a man and “then approached him while he was still laying on the ground.” I’ve seen lay used for lie in The New York Times and in The Washington Post. It’s a dead horse, folks.

Nevertheless, I’ll provide examples of preferred usage.

The verb lay, meaning, “to place” or “to put”
The verb forms are lay, laid, have laid, laying

Lay the book on the table. (Lay is transitive here. Its object is “the book.”)

My father is laying tile in the basement. (Laying is the present participle of lay. The object is “tile.”)

I think I laid my keys on the kitchen counter. (Laid is the past of lay. The object is “my keys.”

TIP: When the verb lay (to put or to place) is used correctly, it will be followed by a word that answers “what?” Lay what? “the book.” Is laying what? “the tile.” Laid what? “my keys.”

The verb lie, meaning, “to recline”
This verb is intransitive. It does not take an object. There is no word that answers “what?” after it.
The forms are lie/lies, lay, have lain, lying

He lies in bed until noon. (Third person present singular)

lie in bed until seven. (First person present singular)

The man was lying in the parking lot. (Lying is the present participle of to lie (to recline))

The dog lay in the shade. (Lay is the past tense of to lie (to recline).

We have lain on the beach since dawn. (Lain is the past participle of to lie (to recline)

TIP: I can’t think of a universally helpful tip for this one. The problem is that both verbs, the one for “to place” and the one for “to recline” share a form spelled lay. The speaker who is unable to remember the difference between present tense lay—place or put—and past tense lay—reclined—will continue to use them incorrectly. The best tip I can think of requires a person to understand the concept of verbs that have objects. Lay in the sense of “to put” needs an object and lie in the sense of “to recline” does not.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

More Ways of Thinking about Relationships in Writing

Following his earlier post about a Relationships Thesaurus, PG was intrigued while considering the enormous number of various types of relationships and shades of relationships between people (and groups of people) as compared with the more limited scope of relationships he sees in many books and stories.

Here a single sub-part under Relationships from WordHippo that PG picked because most of the synonyms had little or nothing to do with romantic or family relationships.

Noun

The state of cooperating, being allied or working together:

cooperation

partnership

union

communications

confederation

rapport

collaboration

conjunction

alliance

hookup

linkup

association

liaison

affiliation

connection

tie-up

coalition

relation

compact

federation

trust

axis

league

cartel

coterie

clique

copartnership

society

brotherhood

club

combination

fraternity

sisterhood

sorority

co-partnership

joint venture

strategic partnership

contractual cooperation

strategic relationship

strategic alliance

mutually beneficial alliance

mutually beneficial relationship

cross-holding

mutually beneficial

partnership

equity alliance

confederacy

guild

combine

consortium

group

syndicate

organization

block

order

bloc

congress

sodality

organisation

labour union

workers’ association

labor union

trade union

Bund

companionship

consociation

faction

link

ring

party

fellowship

mob

friendship

togetherness

body

gang

community

participation

enterprise

crew

chumminess

cahoots

bargain

arrangement

contract

deal

link-up

protocol

understanding

settlement

covenant

entente

accord

bond

accommodation

coordination

hook-up

tie-in

business arrangement

The cheap pen that changed writing forever

From The BBC:

On 29 October 1945, the New York City branch of Gimbels department store unveiled a new product. Billions upon billions would follow in its wake.

Gimbels was the first to sell a new kind of ink pen, the design of which had taken several decades to come to fruition. The pens, made by the Reynolds International Pen Company, promised an end to the messy mishaps users of fountain pens encountered – leaking ink, smudges and pooling ink blots.

The new ballpoint pens did away with this, using a special viscous ink which dried quickly and didn’t leave smudges. At the heart of it, the rolling ball in the nib – and gravity – ensured a constant, steady stream of ink that didn’t smear or leave solid pools of ink on the page.

The new ballpoint was clean and convenient. What it wasn’t was cheap.

The new Reynolds ballpoint cost $12.50 – convert that to 2020 money and it’s more than $180 (£138.50). Today, if you were buying your pens in bulk, from stack-‘em-high superstores, you could end up with more than 1,000 for the same price.

. . . .

The creation of the ballpoint pen is usually credited to a Hungarian-Argentinian inventor László Bíró, whose name inspired a catch-all term for modern ballpoints. But it is, in fact, a lot older.

An American, John J Loud, received the first patent for a ballpoint pen back in 1888. Loud, a lawyer and occasional inventor, wanted an ink pen which would be able to write on rougher materials such as wood and leather as well as paper. His masterstroke was the revolving steel ball, which was held in place by a socket. In his 1888 patent filing, he wrote:

“My invention consists of an improved reservoir or fountain pen, especially useful, among other purposes, for marking on rough surfaces-such as wood, coarse wrapping-paper, and other articles where an ordinary pen could not be used.”

Loud’s pen was indeed able to write on leather and wood, but it was too rough for paper. The device was deemed to have no commercial value and the patent eventually lapsed.

Various inventors tried to improve on Loud’s design in the coming decade, but none were able to take it into production until Bíró in the 1930s. A journalist in Hungary, Bíró used fountain pens daily and was very familiar with their drawbacks.

“He was used to the fountain pen which was very leaky and left ink on your hands and smudged and he was very frustrated by it,” says Gemma Curtin, a curator at London’s Design Museum.

. . . .

Simply adding fountain pen ink to a ballpoint pen was not the solution, however. The ink itself needed to be rethought.

László turned to his brother, Győrgy, a dentist who was also a talented chemist. László had realised the ink used in fountain pains was too slow to dry and needed something more like the ink used on newspapers. Győrgy came up with a viscous ink which spread easily but dried quickly. What’s more, the pen used far less ink than the spotting, dripping fountain pens.

“Other people had thought of it before, but it was down to him, working with his brother – who was a good chemist – and getting the texture of the ink right,” says Curtin. “It is very like printer’s ink, and it doesn’t smudge.”

The principle at the heart of the ballpoint pen mimics the action of a roll-on deodorant – gravity and the force applied smear the rolling ball with a continuous stream of ink as the ball rolls along the writing surface When the pen isn’t used, the ball sits tight against the end of the ink reservoir, preventing air entering and drying out the ink. Most often, ballpoint pens run out of ink long before they dry out.

. . . .

László received a patent for his new pen in Britain in 1938, but World War Two put paid to plans to market his new invention. As László and his brother were Jews, they decided to flee Europe in 1941, and emigrated to Argentina. There, László returned to his new invention, helped by a fellow escapee, Juan Jorge Meyne.

The first “birome”, as it became known in Argentina, was released in 1943, while war was still raging in Europe and the Pacific. The design piqued the interest of the Royal Air Force (RAF), who put in an order for 30,000: the pens were able to be used by aircrew at high altitude unlike fountain pens, which tended to leak because of the pressure changes. Otherwise, the original pen was little-known outside its South American home – the few original models current all for sale on online auctions all hail from Argentina.

. . . .

In 1945, two US companies – the Eversharp Co and Eberhard Faber Co – teamed up to licence the new pen for the US market, having spent half a million dollars ($7.2m or £5.6m in today’s money) to sew up the rights to North and Central America. But they were too slow on the draw. American businessman Milton Reynolds was visiting Buenos Aires and was impressed with the new pen – he bought several, and on return to America set up the Reynolds International Pen Company to market a new design.

Crucially, the Reynolds design had enough changes to sidestep László Bíró’s patent, and was the first to go on sale on October of that year. It was, almost instantly, a must-have accessory. As Time magazine reported, “thousands of people all but trampled one another last week to spend $12.50 each for a new fountain pen”, noting that the new pen only needed refilling once every two years. Gimbels had ordered 50,000 of the new pens and had sold 30,000 of them by the end of the first week. According to Time, Gimbels made more than $5.6m in sales ($81m or £62m in 2020) from the new pen in the first six months.

. . . .

The masterstroke which would change the ballpoint pen forever came not from the US but from France. Michel Bich was an Italian-born French industrialist who ran a company making ballpoint pens. “No one understood better than Marcel Bich that potent 20th-century alchemy of high volume/low cost,” ran his obituary in the UK’s Independent newspaper when he died in 1994. “To this formula he added the magic catalyst of disposability. He invented nothing, but understood the mass market almost perfectly.”

Bich realised the ballpoints so far had been premium products – an alternative designed to be regularly replaced could be a lot cheaper. Bich acquired a dormant factory near Paris and set about creating his new company, Societe Bic. An advertising executive had suggested the industrialists shorten his surname to create an instantly recognisable three-letter trademark. The company’s trademark logo, the Bic Boy, had a smooth featureless orb as a face – a reference to the metal ball in the point of the pen.

“The first ballpoint pens in the UK cost around 55 shillings (£82.50/$107.50 in 2020 prices),” says Curtin. “One of Bic’s biros only cost you a shilling. It combined functionality with affordability.”

The new pen had an equally dramatic effect on the act of writing itself, says David Sax, the Canadian journalist who wrote the book The Revenge of Analog. “The ballpoint pen was the equivalent of today’s smartphone. Before then, writing was a stationary act that had to be done in a certain environment, on a certain kind of desk, with all these other things to hand that allowed you to write.

. . . .

“What the ballpoint pen did was to make writing something that could happen anywhere. I’ve written in snow and rain, on the back of an ATV and in a boat at sea and in the middle of the night,” says Sax. Biros don’t drain batteries, they don’t require plugging in in the middle of nowhere, and even the tightest pocket can accommodate them. “It only fails if it runs out of ink,” Sax adds.

Link to the rest at The BBC

Winning NaNoWriMo with Scrivener

From Writer Unboxed:

Whether you’re plotting in advance or completely winging it, Scrivener can help you win National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

Here are some of my favorite features to help you hit 50K in November, or whatever your writing goal is, any month of the year.

Handling Ideas, or the Lack Thereof

When you’re writing for speed, you can’t afford to be slowed down by ideas for future scenes, or get stuck trying to conjure the perfect piece of dialog. Nor do you have time for additional research.

Instead, make a note and get back to writing. Scrivener offers several options for leaving notes.

Annotations and Comments: These are notes you can leave at a particular point in your text, which makes them great for reminders about fixing a bad description, looking up precise medical details for an injury, or anything else that’s spot-specific.

. . . .

Documents: For manuscript-level notes and ideas, you might instead create a document to jot down things as they occur to you. I also like the idea of having a Change Log document for notes on scenes I’ve already written, so I’m not tempted to fix them when I should be writing new material.

Another use for documents is to create one when you have an idea for a future scene, and use it as a placeholder. You can enter a brief description of what you think will happen in the Synopsis card, or maybe quickly write out the conversation or piece of action that came to you before you forget. When you get to that point in the manuscript, the scene will already be waiting.

. . . .

Synopsis: For those who plot—either the whole book in advance, or each scene immediately before you write it—the Synopsis . . . is a great place to keep a reminder of what’s supposed to happen, in case you forget. If you don’t plot at all, you can add a short description of what happened after you write the scene, to help you keep track as your story builds.

The Corkboard lets you view the synopsis cards storyboard-style. If this is your thing, I recommend not grouping your documents into folders until you’re done using the Corkboard to view, plot, and reorder your story.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG hadn’t thought about Scrivener for a long time.

Long ago, he tried out an earlier iteration for creating legal documents, but decided it wasn’t going to improve his efficiency.

PG would be interested in what real authors think about Scrivener these days (if they think about it at all). Feel free to comment.

An AI Breaks the Writing Barrier

From The Wall Street Journal:

Word has been making its way out from the technology community: The world changed this summer with the rollout of an artificial intelligence system known as GPT-3. Its ability to interact in English and generate coherent writing have been startling hardened experts, who speak of “GPT-3 shock.”

Where typical AI systems are trained for specific tasks—classifying images, playing Go—GPT-3 can handle tasks it was never specifically trained for. Research released by its maker, San Francisco-based OpenAI, has found that GPT-3 can work out analogy questions from the old SAT with better results than the average college applicant. It can generate news articles that readers may have trouble distinguishing from human-written ones.

And it can do tasks its creators never thought about. Beta testers in recent weeks have found that it can complete a half-written investment memo, produce stories and letters written in the style of famous people, generate business ideas and even write certain kinds of software code based on a plain-English description of the desired software. OpenAI has announced that after the test period, GPT-3 will be released as a commercial product.

The name stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer, third generation. Like other AI systems today, GPT-3 is based on a large, organized collection of numeric weights, known as parameters, that determine its operation. The builder of the AI trains it using large digital data sets—in this case, a filtered version of the contents of the web, plus Wikipedia and some others. The number of parameters is a key measure of an AI model’s capacity; GPT-3 has 175 billion, which is more than 100 times that of its predecessor, GPT-2, and 10 times that of its nearest rival, Microsoft’s Turing NLG.

. . . .

I copied and pasted the first paragraph of George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address: “The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant, and the time actually arrived when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.”

GPT-3 gave me its translation: “I am not going to run for president.” Take a bow, HAL 9000.

I got similarly cogent summaries when I entered the First Amendment and other sources. I wondered whether GPT-3 was simply lifting language from websites, but I couldn’t find any evidence of that.

Yet when I gave it the famous first line of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”—“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”—the AI was puzzling to watch. In the course of my first four tries, a few of its answers were sort of in the ballpark without being quite right. (For instance, “A man with a lot of money must be looking for a wife.”) Then on my fifth try, it seemed to crack up: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man with a good fortune must be in want of a wife, because men are very vain and they want to be seen as wealthy, and women are very greedy and they want to be seen as beautiful.”

. . . .

If the price is right, there’s a good chance that GPT-3 will make major changes in our working lives. For a range of knowledge workers—news reporters, lawyers, coders and others—the introduction of systems like GPT-3 will likely shift their activities from drafting to editing. On the plus side, the biggest barrier to getting work done, the tyranny of the blank paper or the blank screen, may become much rarer. It’s simple enough just to keep clicking GPT-3’s “generate” button until something halfway usable appears.

The tyranny of the blank screen, though, forces us to think through a problem in a way that editing does not. Human nature probably means that people will often be more intent on massaging an AI’s output to the point that it looks acceptable than on doing their own work to sort through ambiguous data and conflicting arguments. Like GPS navigation, which started as just a tool but has reduced our engagement with the act of navigating, AI language generators may start by sparing us labor but soon spare us thought. (With regard to possible misuse, a representative of OpenAI told me that it bans uses of GPT-3 that may cause harm, including harassment, spamming, deception or radicalization.)

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Marlowe, A.I. for Novels

From The Book Designer:

I recently had the opportunity to evaluate Marlowe, Authors A.I.’s analytical software for novels. Created by Matthew L. Jockers, Ph.D., and his data team, Marlowe is an artificial intelligence that serves to help authors improve their novel before sending it off for professional editing. The goal of this software is to “help authors refine their manuscripts and identify new market opportunities for their works.” (Note: I searched their website but did not find any reference to helping authors “identify new market opportunities for their works.”)

Marlowe is relatively new—first released in January 2020—and so I was a little skeptical about the reliability of the algorithms, fearing its creators could still be working out the kinks. Also new is the Authors A.I. organization itself, a June 2019 venture.

The manuscript I submitted to Marlowe was the final manuscript for my latest novel Nineteen Hundred Days, a book in the literary fiction genre that had gone through three levels of professional editing:

  • manuscript critique
  • line editing
  • copy editing

The 24-page report I received for this manuscript includes 15 areas of analyses.

Plot Structure

This section of the Marlowe report is about narrative arc and major turning points in the story line. Below is the visual representation provided for my novel.

The dotted line running across the graph indicates emotional neutrality.

The purple line represents conflict and conflict resolution. Upward slopes mark instances of conflict resolution where the story takes a positive turn, and downward slopes indicate the story taking a darker turn or some level of complication.

The more peaks and valleys, the more of an emotional roller coaster the character(s) is going on, which could be an indication of how successful the novel is in engaging readers. If the purple line doesn’t veer away much from the dotted line, the story is likely flat and uninteresting.

According to Marlowe, a good story will result in this line vacillating between above and below the dotted line with highs and lows throughout. And it’s not just about the number of spikes, it’s also about the depth of each one.

The green line represents the narrative arc. Marlowe claims there is no optimal shape for the narrative arc, and they are working on obtaining some comps from bestsellers for future reference. But my experience is that fictional stories are best structured if they include these narrative arc components:

  • exposition
  • conflict
  • rising action
  • climax
  • falling action
  • resolution

When optimally included in the story line, these components form a definitive narrative arc.

My interpretation of this analysis for Nineteen Hundred Days is that it has a typical narrative arc (at least according to my knowledge and experience). With respect to the level and depth of conflict in the story line, I can only compare it to the sample report that Authors A. I. has on its website for The Da Vinci Code which has five peaks (compared to my six) with approximately the same depth and occurrences above and below the dotted line. While my novel is not in the same league as The Da Vinci Code, I can only feel good about this comparison.

. . . .

Pacing

Marlowe analyzes the story’s pacing by plotting where it thinks readers will turn the pages more quickly (peaks on the graph) and the slower moments (valleys) where there is likely scene setting and background information given, claiming that the most successful writers vary the pace of their story to provide variety.

When I saw this analysis for my novel, I immediately wondered what was going on at the 57% mark to cause such a prominent “valley.” So I looked at chapters 20 through 25 and found three significant events:

  • the protagonist’s best friend dies of cancer
  • he is asked by police if he can identify someone they are looking for
  • he learns of his mother’s jail sentence

I would not call these “slow moments,” so I am at a loss as to why the graph dips so low at the 57% mark.

Link to the rest at The Book Designer

How Studying Psychology Has Influenced My Writing

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

This is a ‘what came first – the chicken or the egg’ kind of question for me, or as my daughter asked me last week – the seed or the tree? Did my study of psychology influence my writing, or did my love of stories and characters develop into a love of psychology? 

Even as a child I was fascinated by both. When I was around seven or eight years old I designed a quiz that I gave to everyone who came to the house. It was only basic questions like favourite colour, best friend, dream job, but I loved reading the answers. I found it interesting that people in the same family, who lived in the same house, were so different. And when I wasn’t designing quizzes, I was either devouring every book I could get my hands on, or I was filling notebooks with my own stories about children who could fly, orphans starting new schools, and evil witches. 

. . . .

A few years (OK a decade) after I’d finished my degree, I had an idea for a novel about a distraught widow (Tess) and her young son, and what happens to them when a charismatic grief counsellor comes into their lives. I knew immediately that this was a novel that would need me to draw on my psychology degree. I dug out my old text books from the loft and poured through them for days on end, reminding myself why I loved the complexities of the human mind so much. This idea became my debut, The Perfect Betrayal

I wanted to pull the reader into Tess’s daily struggles with her grief and depression and I wanted them to feel the full range of emotions that we can feel for those around us experiencing mental illness. Feelings like sympathy, pity, desperation, exasperation, and frustration.  There were times when I was writing the book when all I wanted to do was tell Tess to snap out of it. Unfortunately it’s never that simple with mental illness. 

With my second novel, One Step Behind, I once again pulled out my psychology books and delved into the murky waters of what drives obsession, and how even the most moral person can be driven to cross the line if pushed far enough. The main character, Jenna, is a doctor who has dedicated her life to saving others, but when she is asked to save the life of the man responsible for destroying hers, will she do it?

I write these stories because the themes fascinate me, but one thing that studying psychology has instilled in me is the need to do the behaviours of my character’s justice. Readers are a savvy bunch, and won’t buy into an anxious character suddenly not caring anymore. While we are complex individuals, we all have certain traits that guide our behaviour. Equally, if I’m going to write about a character struggling with a mental illness then it’s important to me and the readers that I portray that illness as realistically as I can. With Tess and her depression in The Perfect Betrayal it was important to me that she didn’t get a little bit better every day. She had some good days but they were often followed by bad ones. 

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

Pens, Ranked

From Writer Unboxed:

Like cameras, umbrellas, and getaway cars, the best pen is the one you have with you. We writers tend to have a dozen pens with us at any given time, though—when the muse comes to you and whispers profundity into your ear, which pen do you grab to write your masterpiece? This month, the Hacks for Hacks team looked at hundreds of pens, from ball points to gels to smear-resistant models for lefties. Using our scientific rating criteria, we ranked the best pens available.

10. Pilot Precise V7. I have one of these in my pocket at all times. Versatile and affordable, the V7 is perfect for everything from a novel to a grocery list. Don’t take it on an airplane, however, as the differences in altitude and cabin pressure will cause some leakage. As long as you’re on solid ground, though, the Pilot V7 will remain a trusty friend your whole life long.

9. The fancy pen you got as a graduation gift. Doesn’t it look nice on your desk? Don’t you feel like an author just looking at it? These are stylish, and will never run out of ink because you can’t bring yourself to actually use it.

. . . .

2. The white, cap-less, dried-up Bic ball-point pen in your desk drawer that you can’t bring yourself to throw away. Once upon a time, this had blue ink, and still does if you shake the hell out of it and scrawl on a nearby napkin to get things flowing. You have lots of pens, and you don’t even remember how you got this one; why don’t you just throw it out? But we both know you can’t. And that’s why it’s ranked #2.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

For PG, there is only one pen to rule them all:

Microsoft Editor

From Microsoft:

Get intelligent writing assistance

Write with confidence across documents, email, and the web. With features that help strengthen your spelling, grammar, and style, let Microsoft Editor be your intelligent writing assistant.

. . . .

Have help anywhere you write

See Editor’s suggestions in Word, Outlook, and on your favorite sites. Try Editor in Outlook and download the browser extension to have Editor’s assistance across the web.

Get suggestions in different languages

Receive basic guidance in more than 20 languages, and spelling suggestions in more than 80, to help you communicate clearly, no matter what language you’re writing in.

. . . .

Get help with the basics of spelling, grammar, and punctuation for free. Receive advanced grammar and stylistic feedback on clarity, conciseness, formality, vocabulary, and other premium features with Microsoft 365.

Link to the rest at Microsoft

PG and Mrs. PG aren’t likely to move away from Grammarly unless/until MS Editor becomes substantially more effectively than Grammarly.

However, PG would be interested in the experiences of others with MS Grammar. Feel free to drop a comment to this post or click on the Comment button on the main toolbar, just below the banner image.