Category Archives: Books

Discover books update, day 2

I love how the Micro.blog community is using the new emoji topics that I wrote about yesterday. We started with books because many people were already sharing what they were reading or wanted to read in 2018. This is working out so well that I definitely want to improve and expand upon it.

Some people have asked for more topics, and several already work: music, basketball, football, and tv. I’m thinking that some of these will pop up in the Discover section when they are actively being used, or when there’s a special event. For example, during the Super Bowl you’d see 🏈 to click on.

On Micro.blog there were some good discussions around this feature. Chris Aldrich said he was already using different book-related emoji, and Ben Norris wondered about supporting those too:

I love this! I thought I was ironic that you started it almost right after I went through and posted the books I read this last couple years on my microblog. I used 📖 instead of 📚 though.

I decided to add the open book and bookmark to the books topic, so they all map to the same place, but stopped short of adding all the other single-book emoji because I thought they might be confused with notebooks. After a few more days it may be more obvious how we should treat this.

Belle Cooper also had a good question about whether this is really much better than hashtags:

This is a cool idea, but I’m not sure I get how it can’t be gamed compared to hashtags. Or is that not the point of using emojis instead?

My answer is that they can be gamed, but the limited number of emoji means we can have a better sense of what people are writing about. It’s just simpler. Also, the backend implementation is not a search; it’s a live collection of posts that is updated whenever Micro.blog sees something new, and there’s a mechanism to easily exclude any inappropriate posts that show up without needing to block users or delete posts.

The Micro.blog community has grown a lot in the last couple of weeks. Every new feature has the potential to change how people interact with the platform, and I think this experiment with books has been almost completely for the better. I don’t think every post needs emoji — most microblogs will continue to be mostly text and some photos — but sprinkling in an emoji every once in a while will start to add value to the Discover section, and it also keeps Micro.blog fun.

Books on Micro.blog

Micro.blog doesn’t have special support for hashtags. It doesn’t automatically link them. There’s no global search yet. While Micro.blog users can include hashtags anyway, especially if they are cross-posting to Twitter, I’ve found that the timeline is much cleaner and readable without hashtags.

I’m not saying we’ll never have hashtags. But I’m not in a particular hurry to introduce native support for them. (Once a feature is added, it can’t easily be taken back. So we try to be deliberate in everything we do.)

Hashtags and Twitter trends go together. They can be a powerful way to organize people and topics together across followers. But they can also be gamed, with troublemakers using popular hashtags to hijack your search results for their own promotion or unrelated ranting.

It’s the organizational and discovery aspect of hashtags that I most want to bring to Micro.blog. There have been several recent discussions on Micro.blog about book clubs and reading, and this seems like a perfect topic to experiment with. I’ve also noticed that people love to include an emoji in their microblog post as a kind of theme indicator — everything from 📚 to 🏀.

Today we’re introducing a search collection using emoji, starting with books. Just include 📚 with your microblog text about a book you’re reading or related topic, and your post will automatically be collected on /discover/books. There’s also an emoji link at the top of the Discover section in the iOS and Mac apps. (Make sure you’re on the latest version of the apps released yesterday.)

If people like this, we’ll generalize it and start surfacing other topics. Enjoy, and happy reading!

The Focus Course

Today, Shawn Blanc launched The Focus Course. Originally conceived as a book on productivity, it expanded during his research and writing to include 18 videos, PDF workbooks, and a discussion forum, wrapped together with 75,000 words in a 40-day course package:

“The Focus Course is for anyone who wants to increase productivity, personal integrity, morale, and overall quality of life. What sets the course apart is that it guides you in the implementation of these principles so that these topics go beyond mere head knowledge and into experiential knowledge.”

I love the scope of this. It sounds like he put everything into it.

The Future Library

The Future Library project will collect writing to be locked away and published for the first time in 100 years:

“Each year, the Future Library trust, made up of literary experts – and Paterson, while she’s alive – will name another ‘outstanding’ writer who will be contributing to the artwork. The trust is also responsible for the maintenance of the forest, and for ensuring the books are printed in a century’s time. A printing press will be placed in the library to make sure those in charge in 2114 have the capability of printing books on paper.”

Love this idea. Although for a different goal, I think we need a similar set of trusts to maintain electronic publishing. Domain names and hosting are much more fragile than the paper Margaret Atwood will print her story on for this project.

The new Day One

Shawn Blanc reviews the latest version of Day One, which now supports photos:

“Over the years, most of the major, monumental milestones of life were documented in my Moleskine. But not all. And that’s why I’m glad to have an app that let’s me easily and joyfully add a snapshot or a quick note about an important or memorable event. These are the things my family and I will look back on 20 and 30 years from now with great fondness.”

While I keep the important stuff in my journals, I also use a protected Twitter account for the everyday notes and photos while away from the house. It has no followers; it’s just to have a date-stamped entry with a photo that’s easy to sync. Now that I’ve read how people are using Day One for this, I’m going to switch away from my private Twitter account to use Day One on the iPhone instead.

I like having one place for this kind of stuff. If the same type of content is scattered across multiple services, it makes it less likely that everything will be together in the future when I finally want it.

Especially interesting to me from Shawn’s review is that he also keeps a hand-written journal, even after using Day One for a similar purpose. I’ll keep using real-world pen and paper too, and everything I write there I will also transcribe into Day One. But I’ll write new things in Day One that will stay exclusively digital.

Federico Viticci also has a great review. He starts with the big picture, the why of writing it all down:

“I don’t even know if I’ll be around in twenty years. But I do know that I want to do everything I can to make sure I can get there with my own memories. We are what we know. And I want to remember.”

I think the best writers know that it matters what their work looks like in a decade, or two decades, whether the writing is private or public. You can see it in everything from permanent URLs to blog topics to what software they use — a conscious effort to create content that lasts.

Journals

Steve Corona on keeping a journal:

“And for the past 1091 days, I’ve been journaling every single day — that’s about 3 years or 12% of my entire life. My only regret? I wish I started sooner.”

When I was younger, I had tried off and on to keep a sketchbook or journal, but it never quite stuck. Like blogging, or writing, or drawing, or anything you aren’t paid to do, it takes setting a routine. There’s always something more important to do.

journals Then in 1998, I started a journal again with a renewed commitment. I filled a book from that day up until I got married. Then another book through when my daughters were born. Another for the first 10 years of their life, and my son’s. The travel, the big life moments, the election, the work. It’s not everything — sometimes the entries are every day and sometimes months go by with nothing — but it’s the stuff that matters, and the snapshots in time of little everyday things too.

I would be devastated to lose these books. Open the pages and it rolls back the years like a time machine, to a previous life full of small details that are priceless today. I’m writing the books half for my terrible fading memory, and half for my children, who will only care what these years have been like when it’s too late to ask me.

So I’ve recently started transcribing the handwritten entries into digital form. One page at a time, into Day One, then exported as plain text. It’s a long and tedious process, but multiple copies are the only sure way to make something last.

Permanence

Nothing lasts on the internet. I could write on my weblog for years and the next day get hit by a bus. The domain expires, the posts are lost, and it doesn’t matter if I had 10 readers or 10,000; it’s as if it never happened.

I love real books. I keep flirting with attempts to catalog our bookshelves over the years. My daughter offered to help once, excited through the first hundred books before she realized the rest would take all day and lost interest.

Some people say “good riddance” to the cheap printed book, but I don’t agree. Recently in our house I found a paperback of an old favorite, Tigana, which I had bought while traveling in Europe. Inside the cover I had written “Oxford, 1999”. I flipped through the pages and out fell a wine label that I hadn’t seen in 13 years. It was from a bottle of wine my wife and I had in Greece, sitting on the sand of an island beach the night I proposed.

I had kept it back then because I knew years later it would matter — a memory fused into a piece of paper, waiting. That trip was a story told in events like that one, in personal journals, and through email to family. The digital parts of the story didn’t last; the email is gone.

Write on Twitter and it vanishes from the internet after 3200 more such posts, unlinked and unfindable. But write the same on a scrap of paper tucked into a book and it will be rediscovered again years later.

A self-published novel in PDF on your web site is a ticking time bomb, waiting for your hosting bill to go unpaid. But print 10 copies and give it to 10 friends and it lasts forever.

The only way to preserve something is to make multiple copies and distribute them. The problem with digital is that it makes it just as easy to accidentally delete or lose copies as it is to create them. Evolving file formats and storage devices require constant supervision and maintenance, pushing files up each technology bump from floppies to CDs to Zip disks to DVDs to hard drives. It never ends.

We need to solve this. It’s something Dave Winer has written about. It’s something anyone with a large collection of writing online probably thinks about. How do we preserve the culture and art and stories of our time when the preferred media is so fragile?

Bookshelf Touch

Bookshelf screenshot Although I had worked a little on iOS apps before, updating an existing app for the iPad and tinkering with unfinished apps, the first 1.0 for iOS that I played a significant role in just shipped last week: a “mobile version of Bookshelf”:http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/vitalsource-bookshelf/id389359495?mt=8 for VitalSource. The iPhone version has been in development off and on for a while, but I took over the project fairly late in development, with a coding frenzy through the summer as we switched file formats and scrambled to finish in time for fall students.

Today the app broke into the App Store’s top 25 for free Education apps.

It’s designed for existing VitalSource customers, supporting both our file formats (for XML-based reflowable content or PDF-like fixed layout), with synced highlights, figure search, and offline access. At its core the app is 3 parts: a large C++ codebase, brand new Objective-C UI code, and a bunch of clever WebKit and JavaScript work. In many ways it’s a more difficult project than my other iPad app (still in development), but some great coders contributed to different parts of the architecture, before and after I joined the project.

Nearly 10 years ago, when I was hired at VitalSource to build the Mac version of our e-book reader, we delivered textbooks on DVD-ROMs and our technology was years ahead of everyone else. Today, and especially post-iPad, the market is a lot different, with some beautiful competition like “Inkling”:http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/inkling/id379351586?mt=8. Bookshelf for iPhone wasn’t first to the App Store, but it inherits an existing user base, strong platform, and large book inventory. I like VitalSource’s chances.

Linchpin

I like “Seth Godin”:http://sethgodin.typepad.com/. I haven’t read all his books, but I really enjoyed “The Dip”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1591841666?ie=UTF8&tag=mantonorg&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1591841666 and “Tribes”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1591842336?ie=UTF8&tag=mantonorg&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1591842336. They were quick reads (I got the first on audio, the other in print). He seemed to crack the problem of getting a business book down to its core idea and not using any more pages than needed.

So it surprised me when I picked up his latest, “Linchpin”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1591843162?ie=UTF8&tag=mantonorg&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1591843162, and months later I’m still not even halfway through. There’s nothing wrong with the content; I like what I’ve read so far. But it doesn’t flow the same way his other writing does, and at twice as long it doesn’t have the same structure.

Finally I realized I was doing it wrong. The best way to approach Linchpin is non-sequentially. Now I just jump to any random page, read a few profiles for the people and companies he uses as examples, and then 5 minutes later put it down again. I get just as much out of the book, but without the guilt of staring at the remainder of unfinished pages.

Trade-Off

I’m of two minds about “Trade-Off”:http://bit.ly/beDE2m by Kevin Maney. I picked up the book mostly on the strength of its tagline: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don’t. The Ever-Present Tension Between Quality and Convenience. Pretty good, right?

The premise is great — that you have to choose when building a business whether to have an expensive, high fidelity product or a less expensive, more accessible product. Trying to do both usually leads to failure. It’s like when I see an application marketed as “easy to use, yet powerful!” That’s often a red flag that it is neither.

My issue with the book is that, like most business books, it simply drags on too long. What should have taken a couple days to read turned into months of slogging through a few pages at a time. There are some great stories in the 200 pages, but the idea behind the book, which is captured on the cover of the book itself, gets repeated over and over. It’s almost like Maney copied and pasted some of the key points and scattered them throughout the book as filler.

37signals said that in the final draft of “Rework”:http://37signals.com/rework/ they cut the page count nearly in half, and I think some deeper edits in Trade-Off would have helped too. Take the first 20 pages to explain the idea, and then another 80 pages of case study chapters with anecdotes, stories, and interviews. Done.

Complaints about the size and structure of the book aside, though, I got a lot out of Trade-Off. While Maney often strains to fit the book’s core on top of successful or failed businesses that are too complicated to be applicable (I didn’t appreciate the Newton-bashing), he makes some great points that helped me put my own app “Clipstart”:http://www.riverfold.com/software/clipstart/ in perspective, and will likely change how I market and build new features for it.

More on Kindle

I received a lot of feedback after “I first wrote about the Kindle”:http://www.manton.org/2007/11/kindle.html, so here’s an update. I admit I’m still trying to understand the device; it has not immediately fallen into a spot in my routine the way the iPod and iPhone did.

“Dan Benjamin”:http://www.hivelogic.com/ pointed out that it’s wrong to compare the Kindle and iPhone because they are two completely separate kinds of devices, and that’s true. But the fact remains that Amazon could have partnered with AT&T and required a monthly fee for connectivity. Instead they chose to eat that cost to provide a seamless user experience.

“Willie Abrams”:http://willie.tumblr.com/ bought a Kindle and then returned it, unhappy with both the contrast on the device and the slow page turns. As I pointed out in my original post, the page turns are annoying, but they won’t ruin the device for most people.

“Andy Ihnatko”:http://ihnatko.com/ wrote glowingly about the Kindle and spoke at length on MacBreak Weekly about the free wireless and adequate web browser. Personally I have found the web browser to be extremely poor and the slow refresh inappropriate for modern, interactive sites. I didn’t even realize it came with a browser when I ordered it, though, so I consider it a nice bonus.

When I left town to take a week and a half holiday road trip with my family, I decided to leave the Kindle at home. After all, I already had my MacBook, iPhone, Nintendo DS, and a hardback book that would easily fill the week. The Kindle is small but it would just be wasted clutter in my backpack.

This turned out to be a mistake. For one, I had spotty Edge coverage in middle-of-nowhere West Texas, and it would have been an interesting experiment to see how the Kindle’s EVDO faired in other cities. But more importantly, while checking blogs someone recommended a book that I was interested in. I clicked through to Amazon and noticed that it was available in Kindle format. It would have been the perfect opportunity to buy it and start reading right away.

That is what the Kindle brings to the table. The hardware design is not an improvement over the Sony Reader (the Kindle’s keyboard remains a definite mistake), but the integration with Amazon and the convenient downloads from anywhere are both well implemented. I think Amazon has a history of tinkering in public view (home page design, shipping experiments), and the Kindle is no exception. They’re no doubt already working on version 2.

Kindle

All we do at “VitalSource”:http://www.vitalsource.com/ is e-books, from working with publishers on converting their content to our format, to managing the delivery of digital files and building the web-based infrastructure to support it, and finally to designing and coding the Mac and Windows applications for reading and annotating books. My “Kindle”:http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-Amazons-Wireless-Reading-Device/dp/B000FI73MA arrived on Tuesday, the day after it was released, and here are my initial thoughts after using it over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Out-of-box experience. Amazon really nailed the first-use experience. The Kindle came in a nice box and was pre-configured with my Amazon account. No syncing or setup necessary; you can start reading books immediately.

Screen. If you haven’t seen an e-ink device — actually held one in your hands, like the Sony Reader — don’t bother “reviewing” it. The iPhone screen is beautiful and I would love to have a small Mac tablet, something even a little bigger than the Kindle, but for reading books, nothing beats e-ink. It’s in a whole different class, and this is one of the areas where the Kindle shines. (It says a lot that the first FAQ item in the Kindle manual is about how the screen “flicker” when flipping pages is normal, though. It’s a little distracting but not a show-stopper.)

Connectivity. Amazon has been innovating with free shipping for years, so in a way it’s perfectly consistent to also offer free wireless connectivity. As a long-time Apple fan, I’m a little disappointed that Amazon is the one innovating with service plans, while Apple is stuck in the past with service contracts and high monthly fees with silly text message caps. I pay about $80/month for the privilege of using my iPhone; with the Kindle, I pay only for purchased content.

Purchasing. You can buy books from Amazon on your computer or from the Kindle itself, and I’ve tried both. My first purchase was using Safari on my Mac, and less than a minute later the book “magically” appeared on my Kindle. Again, no cables or sync necessary; the Kindle notices a book purchase and downloads it wirelessly.

Hardware. It couldn’t all be good news, could it? The button design is where the Kindle just falls on its face, and it’s bad news for both major areas of the device: the keyboard and the page navigation buttons. I just don’t see how they justified taking up so much room for the keyboard, because in truth you almost never need to use it. For the page buttons, try handing someone a Kindle for the first time and the first thing they do is accidentally hit next or previous page. It takes a while to train yourself on the best way to hold the Kindle.

There are other things I could say — about DRM (unavoidable) or emailing documents to the device (clever) or the book cover (clunky) — but I want to keep this short. Despite it’s flaws, the Kindle is a good device, and it goes beyond being the first usable e-book reader to offer seamless purchasing and book delivery from Amazon’s large selection. It’s not as polished a 1.0 as the iPhone release was, but it’s a solid offering and more innovative in some ways. I’m looking forward to both reading books on it as a user and experimenting with ways to get other content on the device as a developer.

Five days, one paragraph

So I am 5 days or 700 characters in to my Story 140 experiment. Even though separation between each tweet is only implied, this is the end of the first paragraph, and on the web site I will be formatting it that way.

If you were to put the ideas you have in life into two buckets — and I don’t meant the little one-off ideas, I mean the big ones you care about and could passionately defend — you might divide them into ideas which are truly great, and ideas which sound great. The key here is to avoid the ideas which are neither great nor which sound particularly good at all. It’s too early to know which one of these idea types Story 140 is, but at this point I’m leaning toward the “sounds great” side.

Put simply, writing something 140 characters at a time is exactly opposite to the way I normally write. It is much more challenging than I thought, and after 2 days I immediately wanted to start cheating and writing a bunch ahead, so that the story flowed properly.

I’ll keep at it, but I did realize that I have to at least partially plan what the story is about. I have only a vague idea in my head, but as I give it some more thought I will probably jot down notes so that when it comes time to write the tweet each day I know a little bit about where it is going. Even so, please don’t expect greatness from this work of fiction. You will be disappointed.

On the plus side, I have received feedback (see “Ryan Irelan’s post”:http://www.ryanirelan.com/past/2007/11/03/story-140/) that it would be great for multiple people to contribute. As I said about NaNoWriMo, what makes some of these projects work is the community. I’d love to open up this concept, and I can turn the web site into more of an aggregator of sorts. If anyone has suggestions, please email me.

Story 140

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), but I’m way too busy to participate this year. (See “my wrap-up post from 2005”:http://www.manton.org/2005/12/50136_words.html for the last time I did it.) I would love to write something, though. Maybe I should consider “Ficlets”:http://ficlets.com/ or a similar site, but I’ve had Twitter on the brain lately. Why not take the embracing constraints approach and write a story through Twitter?

Introducing “Story 140”:http://www.story140.com/, a new web site and “Twitter account”:http://twitter.com/story140 where I will be writing a short story in 140 characters a day for 140 days. To make things interesting I set a few rules for myself (listed on the site), including that every tweet must be written the day it is posted and be reasonably grammatically correct while still exactly 140 characters. (I say “reasonably” because there will be the occasional use of incomplete sentences, and some people may question my spelling of dialog without the ending “ue”. That must be influenced by years of programming the old Mac toolbox.)

Even though it is extremely serialized, my hope is that the resulting story will actually be readable. We’ll have to see how successful I end up being at that goal. It’s already more challenging than I expected; the first tweet took me about 10 minutes to write, and the second one even longer.

NaNoWriMo 2006 attempt

Last year I participated in NaNoWriMo and successfully “completed a 50,000 word novel”:http://www.manton.org/2005/12/50136_words.html in one month. It was a great experience, but when someone conducted an informal survey on 43things of who would be doing it again this year, I answered that it was just something I wanted to do once in my life, like running a marathon, and I wouldn’t be doing it again.

And yet, before November rolled around again, the idea for a novel started growing in my mind. I had pretty much decided to go for it again. On the 1st of the month I wrote the opening and started organizing notes for the characters and plot.

But that same night I was sketching with friends at a coffee shop instead of writing. “Paul Adam”:http://www.untameduniverse.net/ and I talked about 24-Hour Comic Day, NaNoWriMo, and side projects. That conversation made me realize that I have a bunch of stuff I want to work on right now, and writing a novel which I have no immediate plan to publish just can’t fit into my schedule right now. NaNoWriMo is an all-consuming thing — you have to drop everything to finish it.

The story and characters I came up with have some potential, though. Instead of cramming it into a month, I may work on it a bit over the next year or two.

Da Vinci book, companion, and short film

The Da Vinci Code appealed to me and many others because it successfully mixes pieces of both art history and code breaking. The book captures in fiction the same fascination I had first cracking open Applied Cryptography.

A few months ago “Damon”:http://www.damonclinkscales.com/ completed a “companion to the book and film”:http://www.davincicc.com/, containing images and links to concepts organized by chapter. It uses the VitalBook digital book format, and is viewable in the software I helped write, “VitalSource Bookshelf”:http://www.vitalsource.com/. I’m working on some fun new stuff for Bookshelf at the moment that uses web services and “SSE”:http://msdn.microsoft.com/xml/rss/sse/, something I hope to post more about in the future.

In other Da Vinci news, story artist and animator Jim Capobianco has completed animation on his short film “Leonardo”:http://leoanimation.blogspot.com/. I saw a preview of this at “2d Expo two years ago”:http://www.manton.org/2004/07/california_adventure.html, and I can’t wait to see the finished product. Even in storyboards and rough pencil animation it was great.

Muybridge panoramas

In 1997 I walked into Half Priced Books to browse and left with a copy of “Eadweard Muybridge and the Photographic Panorama of San Francisco, 1850-1880”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?link_code=as2&path=ASIN/0262581213&tag=mantonorg&camp=1789&creative=9325 for $5. I had been familiar with Muybridge through his series of photographs of humans and animals in motion, which have been a classic reference for animators for nearly a century.

Now, I’m coming back to his San Francisco photos as I prepare a podcast about that city. I am very excited about this one, and hope to have it finished soon after I return from WWDC. The “video games podcast”:http://www.manton.org/2006/07/video_games_podcast.html was a lot of fun, but it had some problems that I hope to correct this time around.

I’ve tweaked this weblog design again, adding one of Muybridge’s panoramas to the header and experimenting with some different fonts and colors. I’ll switch the image out from time to time.

Book cover

Ingram

I don’t blog much about “VitalSource”:http://www.vitalsource.com/ in this space, but I should. When I joined the company, it was to return to designing and building Mac software, with the potential for working on something meaningful (education tools) as a refreshing bonus.

Over 5 years later, we have built up a great team and a mature set of products. Yesterday VitalSource announced it is being “acquired by Ingram Digital Ventures”:http://www.vitalsource.com/index/news-app/story.35, which should be a good complement to the work we are doing. Ingram is the largest book wholesaler in the country, but I don’t think that fact really hit me until three days ago.

We were downtown with some time to kill before a performance. We stopped at the Farmers Market for some fresh peaches, flowers, and breakfast tacos. When we detoured to see if the library was open, I noticed these boxes outside and snapped a mobile phone picture.

Ingram boxes

Set unreasonable deadlines

Damon and I have been discussing how time constraints can encourage creativity. I hinted at this in my first NaNoWriMo post, and it’s something I’ve been trying on other projects at work. Of course the concept is all through what 37signals is doing.

A few weeks ago there was a web application I wanted to write. I estimated it would take a couple of weeks to knock in the basic functionality. A small project, but big enough that it would have to be juggled with other priorities. And the requirements would need to be discussed with other members of the team, which might mean a quick death at the hands of committee-led design.

Encouraged by Willie over that weekend, we said let’s just do it and see what happens. Monday morning I asked myself: could I implement most of the application… before lunch? Because if I couldn’t, the project would still probably be sitting at zero lines of code. Luckily the app was a simple discussion system, and Rails was a particularly good fit for it.

In the latest The Writing Show podcast, J Wynia talks about why NaNoWriMo works. He said the biggest problem writers are faced with is the blank page. NaNoWriMo forces you to start writing immediately, because otherwise you won’t have a chance of finishing 50,000 words in a month. And something magic happens when you’ve written the first sentence: before you know it stories and characters are flowing and you’ve got a half dozen pages or more. If you waited until the first page of the novel had been fully thought out in your mind, you’d still be looking at a blank page.

Kathy Sierra wrote about creativity on speed, but I take issue with part of her post. I see speed in development work (C++, Ruby, whatever) as a good thing when it forces you to do something you would not otherwise be able to do because the task was too daunting. But speed in art is something else entirely. The latter is the whole subject of Betty Edwards’ classic book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The idea is that by working quickly (gesture drawing, for example), you draw on instinct and what you are seeing, and less on what you think you know about how something looks.

I was first introduced to this concept in animation through the books of Shamus Culhane. It resonated with me immediately not just because I knew it was true — it matched my own experience with life drawing — but because he first discovered this while working on an old 1930s Mickey and Pluto short (Hawaiian Holiday) that I remember fondly as a kid (I still have the VHS copy). In some ways the high-speed drawing technique works even better in animation because you are already talking about time. The faster you work the closer the process itself resembles the final product on screen.

While building software is definitely an art — especially the process of crafting the user interface, or just bootstrapping an idea from nothing through brainstorming — I don’t think programming benefits from speed in the same way that art does. With software development the main benefit you get from working fast is breaking through roadblocks, simplifying, and getting things done. The creativity is a result of forcing yourself to think of things in a new way.

50,136 words

Winner As I posted about a few weeks ago, I decided to write a novel this month (National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo). I posted some of my progress on 43 Things, and I’m going to repost those entries here.

Actually using 43 Things more fully, I am even more impressed. They have done an amazing job of allowing communities to form around goals. The site looks simple on the surface but there is depth to it. There is something about random encouragement from total strangers that works.

Another useful resource was the NaNoWriMo forums. I never posted there but people were always quick to help others and offer advice. They also organized many local gatherings at coffee shops or bookstores, so I went one night and met a couple other Austin writers. NaNoWriMo works not just because of the intense deadline, but because of the shared goal as thousands of people are doing the same thing. That’s why 43 Things was such a good fit.

Here are the entries.

12,002 words (Nov 9th):

I’m still behind, but I feel good about my progress because I started a few days late. The last chapter I just finished was one of the first to really work, which seems to be a good sign that I’ve found some kind of rhythm to get through the next few weeks. Either that or the plot is building up to something too soon and I’m about to run out of ideas. :-)

25,043 words (Nov 20th):

I only just now crossed the halfway point. I thought I was on my way to catching up, but there were several days last week where I didn’t write at all.

I’m still determined to finish, but it’s going to take some serious writing over the Thanksgiving weekend.

34,797 words (Nov 28th):

I didn’t write enough over Thanksgiving. I left the PowerBook at home and filled up spiral notebooks instead. Even without an accurate word count I knew I had fallen short of my goal. Last night I typed it all up until my wrists burned.

I will finish but it is going to take a lot: 5000 words a day for the next three days. Until now my top daily word count has been about 3000, and the average somewhat less than that.

Congratulations to everyone else who passed 50,000 over the weekend!

44,054 words (Nov 29th):

Looks like I will finish. I made a big push last night and wrote about 6000 words. Less tonight, but I still think I am on track to finish tomorrow. The story should wrap up right at 50,000.

50,136 words (Nov 30th):

Yay! I finished.

I spontaneously started this endeavor a few days into the month and I’m still a little amazed that I stuck with it. It’s a great feeling though, especially as I was nearing the end and the plot was wrapping up. Sure, the story has some problems, and it could have benefited from some research. But actually I’m quite happy with the overall flow of the story and some of the characters. There are some good scenes in there that I’m proud of.