The whale awaits your judgment

May 24th, 2014

Robin Sloan contemplates The Moby-Dick variations:

Where does one novel end and another one begin?

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Tale of the Transcriptionist's Tape

February 8th, 2014

Matt Seidel works as a transcriptionist:

The best transcriptionist is one who doesn’t attract notice to his work. Unlike the translator, whose work is always a form of betrayal – traduttore, traditore [translator, traitor] goes the famous Italian saying – the transcriber aims for nothing short of absolute fidelity. And thus, given that my job is literally to reproduce the material as accurately as possible, I am only as good as my material. So what keeps me motivated? Well, it's the hope that one day – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon – I will transcribe an iconic line. I often think of those fast-typing legends of yore, whether their hands trembled while captioning, commas and all, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

The company I freelance for has its own voice recognition software. Its engineers run client audio files through the software to produce a rough transcript that can be quite accurate depending on the recording. After being thus processed, the files are placed on an online marketplace, at which point the editor logs on to choose one to transcribe. The editor can see information about each file: the client, running time, and price per minute. An audio and visual preview is also available so that one can avoid the most difficult files – faint recordings seemingly set in a wind tunnel and featuring multiple motor-mouthed speakers with accents that confound the voice-recognition technology, which is set to American English. These files lure in many a young transcriber by offering higher rates, but wily veterans know to search for the hidden gems that maximize one's dollar-to-effort ratio (which reflects the real hourly rate more accurately than the dollar per audio minute does). My greatest such discovery was a documentary about a wandering yogi wherein three total words were spoken, two of which were subtitled and needed only a [SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE] tag. I measure every new project against this Platonic ideal.

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The Jewish Mark Twain

December 28th, 2013

Speaking as someone who adores the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof but knows not a thing about the source material beyond the fact that the story had been a successful stage play before being filmed, I found William Deresiewicz's introduction to Tevye's creator Sholem Aleichem fascinating:

Dracula, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe: it takes a special kind of greatness for a literary character to achieve autonomy from his creator. Like those "folk songs" that are actually the products of a single pen ("This Land Is Your Land," say), such figures come to seem as if they'd sprung directly from the popular imagination, effacing their originators altogether. Everyone has heard of Frankenstein; not many know who Mary Shelley is.

Such is the case with Tevye, the jocular giant of Yiddish literature. With his trio of marriageable daughters and his eternal little town of Anatevka, his largeness and simplicity, he seems to come to us directly from the pages of a folktale. You'd almost have to be a Yiddishist to recognize the name of his creator, Sholem Aleichem. Yet once he was a giant, too: the voice of Eastern European Jewry by universal acclamation; the creator, Jeremy Dauber tells us in his new biography, of modern Jewish literature as well as modern Jewish humor; the man to whom the author of Huckleberry Finn replied, upon being introduced to "the Jewish Mark Twain," "please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem." His death in 1916 was the occasion of the largest public funeral New York had ever witnessed. […]

Damn. More reading to catch up on.

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133 to 1

October 21st, 2012

Michael Frayn, writing in 1995, on the problem of titles:

This year, for various reasons, four different works of mine will have reached the point where they need titles, and I've reached the point where I need hospitalisation. It's not that I can't write titles. I've written far more titles than anything else in my life. For one of these four projects I have 107 titles. For another – 74. For the third – 134. 134 titles! For one short book! 134 pretty good titles, though I say so myself. The trouble is, you don't want 134 pretty good titles. You want one perfect title.

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The Magazine

October 16th, 2012

Marco Arment1 has been teasing us on his last few podcasts about his new iOS app, which was revealed last week as The Magazine.

Basically, it's an iOS-only magazine that asks for US$1.99 a month and promises in return to give you four articles every fortnight written by geeks, for geeks, but not necessarily about technology.

The app looks good and reads nicely even on a small screen like that of my iPod Touch, as you'd expect from the man who created Instapaper.2 Navigating between articles is slick and speedy, a huge contrast to a heavier, more blatantly commercial product like the iPhone/iPod Touch edition of the New Yorker. Limitations on tweaking the way the content looks notwithstanding, The Magazine is clearly a child of the web, and all the better for it.

As to the content, essentially it's longish, self-contained pieces from people who've been publishing similar material on their blogs over the years, but who now have a chance to stretch out a bit and get paid along the way.

It probably didn't help that the jumping-off point for the first article in the free trial issue was about one of my least favourite notions to have gone the rounds of the Mac blogosphere in the last few months: the proposition that John Gruber invented the Linked List style of blogging about six years ago. Getting over that hump, I enjoyed what I read, but there's a problem.

[Where's the quote? Where's the link?]

Because for now Marco isn't posting the content on the app's web site as it's published in The Magazine, I can't link to a piece I liked to persuade you to read it, let alone to get you to subscribe to The Magazine to read more like this.3

Obviously I understand that the idea is for people to subscribe to The Magazine rather than read the authors' work for free online, but I have a nasty feeling that'll work about as well as it did for The Times of London. If you publish behind a paywall, aren't you cutting yourself off from the conversation taking place across any number of blogs? If the content isn't trying to be particularly timely then this may not be a major issue, but it still makes it harder for customers to persuade others by word of blockquote. At the very least, I hope that work published through The Magazine is displayed in full on the magazine's web site a month after publishing, so that we don't have to go haring off to the various authors' personal sites to track all that content down again.

For all that, I'm still going to let the automatic In-App purchase go through and follow The Magazine for a few issues.

  1. Who I hope will forgive me, a total stranger, from calling him by his first name throughout this piece. I've been reading his blog, using his software and listening to his podcast for long enough now that it seems weirdly appropriate to be on first name terms with someone who has no idea that I exist.
  2. I find the lack of flexibility in setting up display preferences like choice of font, line spacing and so on to be a bit odd given how good Instapaper is at letting users adjust their reading to suit their taste. I can only imagine that Marco is trying to establish a brand here so he wants the app to look recognisable.
  3. Authors retain the right to publish their work from The Magazine one month later on their own web sites, but that's not much help when I've just read the article and want to tell you about it now.

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July 18th, 2012

Author and TV screenwriter Stephen Harrigan's account of a career spent writing TV movies and miniseries includes the worst line of dialogue ever from a miniseries:

[Harrigan had been brought in by producer Robert Halmi Sr. to write the miniseries 'Cleopatra', before the arrival of a new director who brought in a writer to rework the script…] The new director brought in a new writer, Anton Diether, who had done an excellent adaptation of Moby Dick a few years earlier for Halmi. This was the first time since Moonwalker I had been rewritten, but enough of my original work was left that I'm pretty sure it's me, and not Anton, who must bear the responsibility for what has been pointed out to me as the worst line of dialogue ever uttered in a miniseries. Julius Caesar has just aided the young queen Cleopatra in crushing a rebellion in the Egyptian capital. In the battle, though, the great library of Alexandria, the repository of all the world's wisdom and knowledge, has gone up in flames. As Cleopatra tends Caesar's wounds, he turns to her and whispers, "I'm sorry about your library."

The worst ever? There's just so much to choose from. In any case, it's a brave man who would publicly claim authorship of that line.

[Via feeling listless]

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Thank God, it will soon be dark.

March 30th, 2012

Oh, My Hand: Complaints Medieval Monks Scribbled in the Margins of Illuminated Manuscripts.

As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.

[Via LinkMachineGo!]

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In the presence of a sufficient genius

February 27th, 2012

Whatever his employers are paying Dr. Kaufman to mark essays like this, it's not enough:

First, my professor told me to write a paragraph like a hamburger. Can you believe that? That is not a rhetorical question: my college professor told me that the best paragraphs are structured like a hamburger. But I must follow my muse, Montaigne, and insist that I am not interesting in stabilizing my subject, however slight, in a structure of such déclassé fare, or that if I were, mine would tower above that base alternative in direct proportion to the extent of my genius. My paragraphs will, instead, inform my audience about the manner of their composition, paying special attention not to structure or transitions but to the brilliance that I mustered to tame into interest material others might find trite.

There's more – so much more – and it Just Keeps Getting Better.

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The Small Penis rule

February 8th, 2012

The small penis rule is a tactic that writers can employ to avoid libel suits:

One way authors can protect themselves […] is to say that a character has a small penis, Mr. Friedman said. "Now no male is going to come forward and say, 'That character with a very small penis, that's me!'"

Given that the basis for the Wikipedia article that defines the rule appears to be a single New York Times article (quoted above) in which precisely one writer uses the term in passing during a wider discussion about the perils of writing about real people, I have no idea whether the phrase 'small penis rule' is a genuine term of art among libel lawyers or just a throwaway line from one writer during an interview that somehow stuck in the reporter's mind. I'd say that if the term isn't widely used then it probably should be.

[Via Pop Loser]

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Alternatively, go straight to step 9

September 10th, 2011

Georgette Heyer's advice for novelists:

1. Induce your publisher to hand over at once a sum of money grossly in excess of what the book is likely to be worth to him. This gives one a certain amount of incentive to write the thing, and may be achieved by various methods, the most highly recommended being what may be termed as The Little Woman Act.


3. Brood for several weeks, achieving, if not a Plot, depression, despair and hysteria in yourself, and a strong desire to leave home in your entourage. This condition will induce you to believe yourself to be the victim of Artistic Temperament, and may even mislead you into thinking that you really are a Creative Artist.


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August 11th, 2011

Robert Benchley on How to Get Things Done:

The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it very deliberately on a well-known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. I shall have to begin coarsening it up again pretty soon.

The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.

[Via Kevan Davis]

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'Francis Brown died last night, funeral on Tuesday.'

August 2nd, 2011

Charles Simic on The Lost Art of Postcard Writing:

Unlike letter writing, there never has been, and there never could be, an anthology of the best of postcard writing, because when people collect postcards, it's usually for reasons other than their literary qualities. If there was such a book, I'm sure it would contain hundreds of anonymous masterpieces of this minimalist art, since unlike letters, cards require a verbal concision that can rise to high level of eloquence: brief and heart-breaking glimpses into someone's existence, in addition to countless amusing and well-told anecdotes.

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A Fairly Humongous Doctor Who Q&A

June 10th, 2011

Neil Gaiman has posted a Q&A on writing his Doctor Who episode. Quite a few of them focus on the effect being pushed back in the schedules had on his script:

Hi Neil,

One of the things which struck me the most was how well you'd written the Eleventh Doctor (as opposed to the Tenth). My question is this:

How different was the portrayal of the Doctor when it was originally written? Were there any lines that you would have had the Tenth Doctor say, which you removed or changed to be more in keeping with Matt's portrayal of the Eleventh Doctor?


Good question. I think my very first draft was for a sort of a neutral doctor who probably sounded a lot more like David Tennant's Doctor than anyone else because he was what I was used to (see the dialogue above) – but then, Matt hadn't been cast when I wrote it. So I just wrote it as best I could for "The Doctor" and tried not write it for any particular Doctor. By the time I got onto the second round of rewrites, putting Rory in, I'd seen a series of Matt and Karen and Arthur. I knew what they sounded like. So it was easy to imagine them as I wrote and revised. Some of the Doctor's lines changed a bit — I wrote the "bunk beds are cool" stuff here for example, — but not as much as you'd imagine. A lot of the Doctor's dialogue you saw on screen was there in the first draft.

As an exercise I'd try and imagine lines of the Doctor's dialogue said by Patrick Troughton or Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker or Colin Baker or Christopher Eccleston (and the rest) and I felt happiest if I'd written a line I felt any of them could have delivered — each in his own unique way. "Fear me, I killed all of them," for example.

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The Thermoliath

April 24th, 2011

Why Frederik Pohl never went to Hollywood (from a talk he gave in 1978):

A couple of years ago, I was coming to Los Angeles and my Hollywood agent called me up and said: "When you come, I've got somebody for you to meet. He's a producer and he wants you to write a script for him."

And I said: "What kind of script?"

"It's a Japanese monster movie!"

And I said, "I don't write Japanese monster movies. I've never tried."

"Well, he wants to take you for lunch at the Lambs Club."

It was a big old theatrical club, and I'd never been in it. I said, "Well, sure, I'll have lunch with the sonofagun. But he's not going to send me off to Buenos Aires and make me write the thing. I'll just have lunch and talk to him."

And he showed me what he wanted to do. He had built a monster. It was called Thermoliath. It had six limbs and it was run by two men inside the suit, one sitting on the shoulders of the other, and the man on top did the head and the hands and the man underneath did the feet and the middle set of tentacles, or appendages. They were not exactly arms; they had ray-guns on their ends – heat-ray guns, which is where he got the name Thermoliath – it was supposed to melt things.

I said, "That's not my kind of thing."

And he said, "I don't care what kind of script you write as long as you do three things for me. First, you have to use Thermoliath because I've already got the suit built and I don't want to waste the money. Second, you've got to use some stock footage I own of hurricanes and earthquakes – you've got to work at least 10 minutes of that into the film somehow. And the third thing is that you have to destroy the city of Palm Springs, California."

I said, "Why do I have to destroy Palm Springs, California?"

He said: "Well, one of my Japanese backers wants it destroyed!"

[Via James Nicoll, who linked to a different story from earlier in the same talk transcript.]

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Written in blood

February 5th, 2011

Courtesy of the Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviewer:

[anechka27 …] shared with me this fabulous anecdote about Robertson Davies:

Ok, so, basically, years ago my adviser was in a two speaker conference with Davies (different perspectives on the arts or something) and before the talks Davies bet my adviser that someone in the audience after all the normal questions would say "Mr. Davies, I've been retired for 12.3 years and i feel ready to write a Great Novel, what do you suggest?"

My advisor did not believe him.

Advisor speaks, fields questions. Davies speaks, fields questions. After a few minutes, an old lady raises her had and says "Mr. Davies, my kids are all grown up and away in school and I feel like I wanna write a book, what do you recommend?"

Davies' Santa Claus face, which apparently was naturally red gets redder and with great composure and in one breath he responds:

"Madam, if there was an ounce of writing talent in you, you would have slaughtered your children YEARS ago and written a novel in their blood."

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RPS CV-speak

December 12th, 2010

The Redundant Public Servant has been so busy submitting job applications lately that he found himself quite unable to change gear when the time came to draft his family's Christmas round robin letter:

Mrs RPS has had significant experience of leading and change management over the last year should have been Mrs RPS has had to deal with an increasingly grumpy husband who is losing his job.

RPS Daughter 1 has a strong track record of achievement in key aspects of the person specification was where I meant to say RPS Daughter 1 has continued to get great grades at school.

Son of RPS has demonstrated his commitment to personal and professional development through his pursuit of a comprehensive learning plan should really have been Son of RPS appears to have an active university social life so far as we can tell from what he writes on Facebook.

RPS is now looking for a new opportunity in an organisation which shares his commitment to excellence and passion for customer service was a convoluted way of saying His Nibs is being made redundant, any chance of a job?

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Enjoy the warmth

December 8th, 2010

Hugh Laurie allegedly wrote a letter to accompany preview copies of the start of season 7 of House that were distributed sent to critics. Authentic Hugh Laurie or not,1 it's rather amusing:

Friend of House,

As an attractive and exquisitely dressed shaper of public opinion, you are no doubt showered daily with novels, movies, gadgets, tropical vacations, government policies – all whimpering for your approval: five stars, three check marks, two thumbs up, six garter belts, whatever your coin of gradation may be. […]

  1. Lots of people are suggesting that the letter must be Laurie's own work because it sounds just like him. I think it's worth noting that the writers for House probably have a pretty firm grasp on the way Laurie sounds too, and could almost certainly come up with a letter like this. I don't know one way or the other: I just don't find the "It sounds just like him" argument all that convincing when applied to an actor who is supported by a team of writers who probably do know far better than you or I how Hugh Laurie sounds.

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August 30th, 2010

Scott Rosenberg has posted the first of a three-part series of posts in defence of links:

For 15 years, I've been doing most of my writing – aside from my two books – on the Web. When I do switch back to writing an article for print, I find myself feeling stymied. I can't link!

Links have become an essential part of how I write, and also part of how I read. Given a choice between reading something on paper and reading it online, I much prefer reading online: I can follow up on an article's links to explore source material, gain a deeper understanding of a complex point, or just look up some term of art with which I'm unfamiliar.

There is, I think, nothing unusual about this today. So I was flummoxed earlier this year when Nicholas Carr started a campaign against the humble link, and found at least partial support from some other estimable writers (among them Laura Miller, Marshall Kirkpatrick, Jason Fry and Ryan Chittum). Carr's "delinkification" critique is part of a larger argument contained in his book The Shallows. I read the book this summer and plan to write about it more. But for now let's zero in on Carr's case against links, on pages 126-129 of his book as well as in his "delinkification" post. […]

This first post suggests that some of the studies into the relationship between reading, comprehension and hyperlinks cited by Nicholas Carr weren't looking at hyperlinks as they're used in the vast majority of web-based writing today. I look forward to seeing where Rosenberg takes the argument in his next two pieces.

Tomorrow, in the next post in this series, I'll examine some of the ways links are being misused on the Web today – driven not by some abstract belief in the virtues of hypertext but rather by crude business imperatives. Then, in the final installment, I'll make the case for good linking practices as a source of badly needed context and a foundation for trust.

For what it's worth, when I read Nicholas Carr's post experimenting with delinkification I did consider whether it might be worth adopting the idea, but concluded that it's a technique particularly ill-suited to a linklog like this site.

If I were in the habit of writing longer think-pieces then my gut feeling – based, I'll freely admit, primarily on the way I've learned to read pieces on the web since I first encountered it in late 1992/early 1993 – is that it's much more helpful to have the link appear at the point in the text at which I discuss the material at the other end of the link than it is to require the reader to bounce between the text and a list of links at the end of the piece1 to get the full sense of my argument.

The key, to my mind, is that it's up to the reader to choose whether to hare off after my link as soon as it appears or to defer following it until they've reached the end of my argument. As long as I don't style my link text in a way that makes it difficult for the reader to skim the entire sentence2 I think that readers should be fine dealing with a few links scattered here and there throughout my piece.

  1. Or in footnotes/endnotes, or in a sidebar. And yes, I do notice the irony of my placing this text in a footnote.
  2. By which I mean, for example, styling the text in a way that jars with the surrounding, non-linked text.

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The Merits of Making Do

August 22nd, 2010

Author Jessica Francis Kane on her quest to find the right place to write:

One of the first essays I ever wrote was about my room. I was in high school, and the class assignment was to write about a place that was important to us. Five hundred words was expected; I think I turned in three times that. I described everything, from the Renoir poster over my bed to the black-and-white satin musical notes mobile over my desk. I delved into the critical importance of each item on my bookshelf and dresser. I highlighted the "I'd Rather Be Dancing" bumper sticker I'd stuck on my closet door (though I didn't end up a dancer). A major theme was my love of the color blue, how it calmed and inspired me. I remember working hard to get my description of the way the sunlight filtered through the blue curtains just right.

The piece didn't have much shape, but with hindsight I see what it revealed: I spent too much time setting up my room! […]

[Via The Morning News]

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July 10th, 2010

Shalom Auslander hears voices when he sits down to write:

The Writer's Digest How-To-Write-Books Voice: To do this, you should start with an ending. You should end with a beginning. You should start at the middle and write backwards. You should start backwards and write sideways. You need a hook. You need a good story. You need a stronger theme. Nope, nope – now the theme is too strong. You need to start over. You need a more dimensional villain. You need a more dimensional protagonist. You need to know more about your character. Is he tall? Is he short? Where did he go to school? Is he well-hung? What's his favorite ice cream? What makes him break out in hives? What gives him explosive diarrhea? What's that rash on his neck? Is he for or against a two-state solution? What kind of car does he drive and what's the bumper sticker and which scent air freshener does he hang in the car, or it not a hanging one at all but rather one of those little plastic bottles that sits on the dash? Until you know all of that, this is just never going to work.

The Voice of American Express: This better sell well, you're carrying a tremendous amount of debt.

My Publisher's Voice: This was done once, and it didn't sell very well.

[Via Lance Mannion]

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