Blogging and Social Media

I haven’t been blogging too much recently. I got busy for a while and had to skip a few weeks, and then general laziness prevented me from resuming a regular posting schedule. (Hopefully that ends now.) Most of the time my ranting was on social media, which got me thinking: Is writing on your own blog still useful in this day and age of social media?

I’ve been blogging for a long time – my archives say 2002 – waaay before Facebook or even Twitter came around. If for some reason you felt like digging through my older posts you’d find that I kind of used the blog like Twitter or FB: I’d have some short posts, updates about what’s going on, share some links, and so on. These days we have social media for that, so why blog at all?

Well, social media is a perfectly valid channel to post your thoughts obviously. But I feel like blogging serves a different purpose. And when I say blogging, I mean on a platform dedicated to blogging, preferably on your own server.

Here are the obvious differences/advantages of blogging:

  1. Blogs are publicly accessible commentary. Contrast this with Facebook, which I use mostly for interacting only with family and friends. I sometimes make some FB posts public, but mostly on request because people want to share it. It would make more sense for me to have such content on the blog so that people can share it directly without me having to fiddle with post privacy settings on FB.
  2. Blogs are long-form. Contrast this with Twitter’s post-length limitation and even Facebook where I also tend to spout out one-liners or short paragraphs. I like a blog post for longer, more detailed content. Twitter users use workarounds like the “1/N” format to post longer text content, but I’m not really a big fan of that.
  3. A blog should contain your own content. Contrast this with almost all social media where your own content is interspersed with retweets, shares, reblogs, and so on.
  4. Blogs are searchable, either using your internal search form (I have one on the sidebar!) or via Google search. It’s a bit annoying sometimes trying to scroll through your FB or Twitter timeline trying to find something.
  5. The above point means social media posts feel a lot more… ephemeral, maybe? I consider blog posts a lot more “permanent”, while social media are more of “at this point in time.”
  6. Blogs are under your control. You’re not subject to someone else’s moderation. Of course that also means you’re on your own if you get DDOS’ed or such hehe. Well, there’s pros and cons of course.
  7. You can still push your blog content to your other social media channels. I have systems set up to push my blog posts to Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.

That being said, the various social media channels have their pros too, so I still use them for various purposes. (I thought about splitting this blog post into two, but I literally just wrote about long-form content, so let’s try to justify that a bit!)

  1. Facebook – I use this mainly to interact with friends and family and for sharing family pictures. There was a thread on reddit a while back about how a lot of people recommend quitting FB (or even social media altogether) since it’s not good for your self-esteem to be always checking how other people are doing. I find that this is really only an issue for people who already have low self-esteem and feel a need to compare themselves to other people (I guess teenagers mostly?). I don’t have any such issues. I like seeing how my friends are doing even if they’re people I don’t see often anymore and it gives you good convo material when you randomly run into them. I also tend to share on FB things I know will interest my friends and family, or at least some subgroup of them: family pictures, tech stuff, hobby stuff (gaming/MTG/comics), cat pictures, puns, memes, etc. I try not to dive into public groups too much, since FB has a low barrier of entry, the content/discussion is not that good IMO. My public Facebook profile is here.
  2. Twitter – my twitter stream is public. I use it for interacting with strangers. (Sophie Turner never replied to me that one time!). Twitter has a higher barrier of entry compared to FB, so the discussion is a bit higher quality. When posting to Twitter, it’s typically a stream of consciousness thing for me – I just randomly decide to post things. On FB I tend to filter myself a bit as I don’t want to be too spammy, but on Twitter, I spam away about what I’m doing. If I’m playing in a big Magic tournament I’ll probably be tweeting every round about my horrible misplays. I will oft tweet about games I’m playing, books I’m reading, and so on. Same philosophy applies to sharing/retweeting: it’s a lot more impulsive, I’ll just share anything that looks interesting. My twitter feed is basically my FB feed except with less pics of people I know and more random thoughts throughout the day. If that sounds like your kind of thing, my twitter profile is here.
  3. Instagram – quick story about how I got an instagram account. I tried to create one but found out that someone had already registered an account using my email. Of course I went ahead and used password recovery to take control of the account. It wasn’t very active so he probably didn’t mind, although I think some of his followers still follow me lol. I mostly post pics of food, board games, sketches, or random things I buy. You can view my instagram here.
  4. Reddit – I use reddit more for content consumption. It can be shallow sometimes, but you can also find some good/witty/insightful convos. If I want to find some discussion about recent events or tv shows or movies, reddit is always a good place to look. The barrier to entry here is very high, so discussion tends to be higher quality than either FB or Twitter. (Still lots of shitposting though, that’s the internet for you.) I don’t publicly acknowledge my reddit profile, but it’s very easy to find haha.
  5. Tumblr – just random odds and ends. It’s not very important, but I do have it. I used to use it only to reshare tumblr content I found amusing, but these days I also push sketches and blog posts to my tumblr.
  6. LinkedIn – terrible! I’m not a fan of LinkedIn, as it seems to be mainly a way to get harassed by recruiters who didn’t even bother reading my profile. Still, it occasionally has a use so I keep it around and update my profile sometimes.
  7. Quora – I’ve been reading Quora for a while now but recently also started answering questions every so often as a bit of writing practice.

Takeaways: Blogging is great, even if you’re already using social media. Try it out! Social media has its place too, but don’t let it control your life!

Write Smarter, Not Harder

There’s this well-known idea that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert in something. But of course, it has to be ten thousand meaningful hours of practice. Meaningful here means that you are actually learning something from your practice. If you are repeating the same hour ten thousand times, that’s not worth very much.

Instead, we should be actively learning while we practice. This means identifying our weak points and learning how we can improve. It requires that we have a feedback loop that tells us whether we are doing well or not. It also means taking on bigger and more challenging tasks. Only then can we walk the path to expertise.

As an example, I’ve been posting on this blog on a regular basis since 2016. Aside from that, I’ve also been trying to write fiction in my spare time. So I figure I’m getting a lot of writing practice and I’m doing well, right?

I recently took an online exam about how well I would do in editing work. Now, I’m pretty confident in my grammar and spelling, so it was no surprise that I got perfect scores in those categories. Yet I got poor scores in diction and sentence parallelism and style and such things. My overall score was still above average, but the test highlighted some weaknesses that I can work on.

To help with those, I’ve started going through the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s a bit boring, especially near the start, but I’m learning a lot. I also found out about this webapp Hemingway which scores your writing for readability issues. I’ve found it pretty useful – already I can see that my blog posts use way too many adverbs and have a lot of hard-to-read sentences.  My 2016 Nanowrimo manuscript got a higher score on this app compared to my posts though. (But I’m not proud of that work for nontechnical reasons haha). I’m also looking into a few other tools that can give me some feedback on how good my writing is.

The best feedback of course, would be from those of you who for some reason deign to read my posts. I already corrected my tendency to not end paragraphs with punctuation since someone called me out on it. So I would appreciate any further feedback about how I write and where I can improve.

Nine Ways to Work Around Mental Blocks

Often I have these days where I’m supposed to be writing something or drawing something or coding something and I just can’t get to it. Some kind of mental block makes it difficult. And you try to focus your mind and clear your thoughts, but it just doesn’t help. Here are some ideas for how to get past mental blocks.

  1. Toss out ideas that weren’t working and start over. One example is today’s blog post. I promised myself I would be posting regularly, so I had to have one today. But after a couple of failed attempts that just couldn’t come together, I had to stop and ask myself what was wrong. I just wasn’t in the mood for any of the other serious topics I wanted to write about so I said screw it, I’ll just write about mental blocks!
  2. Phone it in. If you’re unfamiliar, the expression means “just do the bare minimum you’re allowed to do.” Just power through the work with as little effort as possible. You can always go back and edit it later if you want! I often do this with the daily sketches – I try to stay on theme and at the same time find something interesting or clever to draw. But I’m not always successful, and I sometimes don’t have enough time. So I’ll just draw whatever that barely makes the theme and send it in.
  3. If you have some time, step away from the work for a bit. Take a shower. Poop. Argue with people over the internet. Watch some Brooklyn Nine Nine. Play some Skyrim. Just get your mind off the work. It gives your subconscious mind a chance to work on the problems in the background and later you can come back to the work with fresh eyes and hopefully better ideas.
  4. Cheat. Find someone who’s done something similar before and copy, er I mean, draw inspiration from her work!
  5. Make a long list of ideas. Just random, stupid, ideas, as many as you can think of, as soon as they pop into your head. You’re throwing spaghetti at the wall and trying to see what sticks!
  6. Do the easy stuff first, then get back to the hard stuff later. I did this during my Nanowrimo this year! Whenever I had too much difficulty writing a scene, I would set it aside for a while and choose some other scene that I had already mostly plotted out in my head. You might think “Doesn’t that just mean I’ll have more hard stuff to do later?” Yes, yes it does, but also means that hard stuff will have a whole lot of easy stuff already written to support it, which can make things easier.
  7. Use random content generators. There’s a bunch of them on the internet! For writing, I sometimes use random name generators to help me out. There’s also random plot generators and random dialogue generators and so on. Most of the time you’ll get nonsense, but just clicking through those nonsense options can give you an inspiration for your own creative needs.
  8. Change it up. If you’re drawing, try drawing in a different style than you usually do. If you’re writing a story, try to throw in a random scene that’s a completely different style and makes no sense. If you’re blogging, write a post about something you’ve never written about before, or in a style you’ve never used. Like a listicle!
  9. Ask for help. In software development, there’s a concept called “Rubber Duck Debugging”, or sometimes simply “Rubber Ducking”. The idea is that by asking other people for help, even if the other person is completely useless, the mere act of describing your problem helps you think through it and unlocks new ideas. As a bonus, sometimes the other person can actually be helpful!

 

 

Nanowrimo 2016 Post-Mortem

As I recall, today was at least my fifth Nanowrimo attempt; the first one was sometime before 2003 (I would guess it was in 2000 or 2001 before I graduated from college), the second one was in 2003, then 2006, then 2011, then finally the fifth one this year. My best prior attempt was back in 2011, when I made it up to 22,000+ words.

At just around 1am on the early morning of November 30th this year, I beat that record and have won Nanowrimo for the first time. I wrote more than 3,000 words from the last hours of the 29th up to the early hour of the 30th to push across the target count. According to the official word count tool on the site, I am at 50,135 words. The novel is terrible and it will never see the light of day as it is, but it has a start, it has a plot that it follows to the end, and it has an ending which while I’m not totally happy with, is good enough for a first draft.

Getting the obvious question out of the way first: no, I’m not going to release or publish the draft as it is. Way too many problems (more on that below), even though I tried to resolve things and tie them together best as I can. The nature of nanowrimo itself means that novels written for this purpose tend to be all kinds of messy, since you are not encouraged to rewrite previously written parts. At some point I will revisit this story and attempt to rework it into something better, but for now, I’m just happy to be done and will set it aside for now.

I think there are two reasons that this attempt succeeded where previous attempts had failed: First is that I came in significantly more prepared this time than my last attempts since I actually had a story idea and an outline for what I had in my head. Granted, I had to expand and add upon that outline multiple times, but at least I had something decent to start with. Second reason is that I believe I have significantly more self-discipline this time around, as a result of all of the daily habits I’ve taken up this year. I’m less likely to skip writing for a day due to laziness or being sad about world events or whatever, and more likely to drag myself out of bed to force myself to write some number of words for the day.

What struck me about the process is the number of parallels I could draw to software development:

  • In software development, you need some sort of specifications or requirements to get going, and work proceeds smoothly the more detailed those specs are. When writing, having your outline and a vision of what happens in the story makes writing go by faster and more smoothly; when I get to parts that I have not planned out in detail I tend to flounder about until I can figure it out.
  • Scope creep happens in writing too! My initial story idea was about a wandering sell-sword who passes by a small rural village and gets caught up in trying to resolve a “curse” that the villagers believe they are under. But at the outline stage I already knew it was too short (I couldn’t list enough scenes), so I expanded it a bit with a backstory that the protagonist was actually a fugitive and although he stops to help the villagers with good intentions, he draws them into his troubles when his pursuers chance upon him. As I wrote, I realized I needed even more details so I found myself weaving a more detailed plot about how he became a fugitive because he had unwittingly uncovered a political plot and had to escape with a certain artifact, which led to me detailing the back story of that artifact that turned into a mythos and history for the world the story was set in. Yup, it escalated pretty quickly.
  • There’s a famous quote in software development that mentions one of the difficult problems as naming, and in writing, the same applies! I made liberal use of online random name generators for characters, cities, continents, etc. Midway through, I had to rename a couple of the main characters (lots of find and replace) and three timesI even renamed the main continent on which the story takes place, and I’m still not happy with what I have now.
  • When writing large programs, I have a tendency to code the interesting bits first, then I’m left with a whole lot of drudgery such as boilerplate code or CRUD screens to do. Writing turns out to be the same, I wrote a lot of the interesting scenes first then deferred those I had trouble with or hadn’t figured out too well. It led to some problems; if you saw my draft you would notice some points where the story jumps forward abruptly leaving the reader to infer what had happened in between. Those were points where I had difficulty deciding how to get from point A to point B and just decided to write the other end first and try to work backwards, but never did figure it out completely.
  • When programming, you can get too engrossed in a particular part of the program such that you put too much work into it which turns out to be unnecessary. In this draft, I enjoyed writing the world’s mythos and back story a bit too much, I kind of set the framework for a series of stories in the same world, and some of the back story parts are better off told in succeeding books since they are not especially relevant to the plot of this one.

Some other non-programming related notes:

  • Towards the start, I felt like I was writing too much dialogue (might have been a result of reading too many Brian Michael Bendis comics) and later on I adjusted by writing more prose. This also helped for some difficult moments, for example I had two characters where I wanted to get them into a shouting match but had trouble writing the dialogue to develop it, so instead I just used prose to describe the increasing tension of their discussion.
  • I made a silly decision early on to give the main character a speech affectation – he spoke in an archaic formal speech that was unusual for people in that region. It wasn’t a big deal and there was a story reason for it and it made him feel more distinctive, but it also meant I had to be more careful later on when writing dialogue for the character.
  • Making up some elements on the fly kind of got in my way; about 70% through I suddenly had the bright idea that a “good” character I had alluded to in an earlier flashback would actually be the “big bad” who was behind the conspiracy all along. This was fine, but it led to some plot acrobatics where I had to engineer some complicated scenarios to justify my decision, and it meant my ending had to be a bit different from what I had previously wanted.

Having the daily quota was a strange experience. I was over quota most days, but also had some days where I was under quota. I found myself preferring to write in scenes, such that I won’t switch scenes within the same day, so some scenes felt like they were a bit too long because I was stretching them to fit in the writing quota for that day. And the quota also meant that whenever I was already over quota for a certain day but still had a clear idea of what to write, I had the option to stop and just “bank” those thoughts and continue the scene the next day. I never tried to pull too far ahead (except for the last two days); I figured I needed to get used to the rhythm of writing a set amount per day, instead of in bursts as I might have done in previous attempts.

I tracked my daily progress via a spreadsheet (word counts are using Google Docs’ built-in word count tool. The nano site’s word count tool had a different final count for some reason.)

Nanowrimo 2016 Daily Log
Nanowrimo 2016 Daily Log

All in all, I’m happy with the experience, despite not being entirely happy with my own output. I learned a lot and now have a better sense of how long fifty thousand words actually is and what size a novel-size story really should be. I now have some idea of how quickly I can write, and how much “writing energy” I can spare for a day (I was actually in danger of falling behind on regular blogging at one point because I spent all my “writing energy” on nanowrimo.) I say “writing energy” because I find that I draw from a different pool of energy as compared to say, when I’m sketching. It’s probably not super indicative – I could probably have been writing more each day if I spend more time in preparation and outlining.

will attempt to write more in 2017, but maybe not yet on revising this particular work. I have some other ideas I’m thinking of visiting, not necessarily for nanowrimo. I don’t know if this will lead anywhere – I still have no idea if I could really write fiction for a living for example – but I think at least trying to write more will be a worthy endeavor to explore.

On writing regularly and reading comic books

Writing regularly is something I’ve always wanted to be able to do but like most things I have trouble with, it’s the lack of discipline that gets me.

Take this blog for instance. I randomly think of things to write about while I’m idling or commuting or waiting in line or any of the dozen or so other opportunities during the day when my mind wanders, but because of laziness and/or lack of discipline, these ideas never get very far. I think one of the problems is that because this is a personal blog, I don’t have any focus. That is, in this space I can literally write about anything I want so I end up not writing anything. Does that make sense?

Anyway what I decided was: I’ll just start a new blog. What the hell right? But this time, I’ll focus on a topic for the blog. Restrictions breed creativity, or something. I needed to choose a topic that (a) I was fairly knowledgeable and passionate about; and (b) I would have something regarding that topic to write about on a regular basis. I’ve actually tried this before for Magic the Gathering, since I pretty much enjoy that game a lot, but the problem with MTG was that I was an irregular player and rarely had something new to write about. So I’m going to choose something else right now.

The easiest area that covers the above requirements for me right now is easily reading comic books. I read a ton of them and I enjoy them and I follow the regular weekly releases and am usually excited for the next week of releases. So it seems like something I would be able to write regularly about. So, here we go: I Read Comic Books (originally I was just going to go with a wordpress.com site, but I was like aw what the hell, domains are cheap)

Hopefully it helps me get into the groove of regular writing, and somehow that groove propagates back to this blog.

Coming Back to Writing

So the other day I was watching a video of Scott Berkun‘s talk about the future of WordPress:

(Go ahead, watch it first if you like, this blog post will still be here when you get back)

I loved how he delved into the history of writing itself, not just of WordPress – harking back to the days of the printing press, etc. We live in such a world of privilege where anyone with an internet connection can easily publish his thoughts and words unto a worldwide audience, and yet for many people writing is a lost art that they don’t partake in on a regular basis.

For the past few months, I’ve been one of those people, as I’ve neglected to update this blog (aside from a short spurt during the elections). I’m still actively posting bite-sized snippets of my brain on twitter and I even added a new outlet for random internet nonsense on my tumblr account Easily Distracted but I’ve been lazily avoiding the elaborate writing of long prose.

It’s easy to find excuses not to write; for the longest time I was considering switching this blog back to WordPress (I’m currently running a custom Django-based blog engine of my own creation) and changing the theme, et cetera – the sort of busy work one gets into when avoiding something else.

Have I been avoiding writing? Maybe I’d fallen into the trap a lot of people fall into – thinking that I have nothing useful to say, so I better not just say anything. There’s something about staring at a blank text box that you need to fill up that triggers a primitive part of our brains that thinks we should avoid pushing out our thoughts or opinions into the world for fear of being questioned or ridiculed. Maybe it’s a holdover from the days that elementary school English teachers would force us to write reaction papers and essays with a required number of words or pages. (Few teachers ask for an N-page paper, they know students will just cheat by using double-space or large fonts.)

I’ve also been worried about the sort of things that I write; like a lot of bloggers I somehow fell into the mindset that I should limit myself to a specific set of topics such as software development or Philippine politics or whatever. It’s a bit ridiculous, this isn’t a topical blog, it’s a personal website and I can (and should) write about whatever I damn well please.

Sidebar: If you’re wondering “Why write a blog at all?”, try reading “You should write blogs” by Steve Yegge.. Looking over his reasons why not to blog, I don’t even have the luxury of claiming I don’t have enough time, not since I quit my job. (Hmm, I should probably write about that in a future post…)

So anyway, let’s put this ramble to an end. I’ll be writing regularly again for now, probably five times a week. Wish me luck!

On Journalling, or How Hard It Is to Keep Up a Blog

In my line of work, which is to say “large-scale database systems”, there’s always the idea of “journalling” or the “audit trail.” Basically, it means that for every transaction of significance, a record is kept of that transaction, stored in a log somewhere, so that should something malefic happen, the logs can be parsed and the trail can be followed, blame can be assigned and countermeasures can be taken.

Okay, that’s not really limited to large-scale database systems. Any nontrivial software system should have some sort of journalling scheme involved, as printlogging is usually part and parcel of the development process.

Ideally, I would wish that life too had a journalling system, one more reliable and less arcane than that gift humans call memory. I sometimes have trouble remembering what I had for breakfast this morning. Okay, that’s a lie, I seldom forget about meals less than a week old.

But I do have a tendency to forget other things. Tasks to do, people I’ve met, appointments I’ve set. A Saturday or so (I forget when), I had set a training meeting at 10am. Of course, my job does not require me to be in the office before noon on Saturdays, so I conveniently forgot about the meeting while playing World of Warcraft, recalling such appointment only while taking a bath at 10:30am. (Luckily they didn’t mide me re-scheding to 11:30)

So, frail as our memories are, we resort to other things to keep us on track. Paper, notebooks, to-do-lists, organizers, calendars, cellphones, PDAs, sticky notes and every so often, the proverbial rubber-band-around-the-finger. (Yes, I have done that, and yes I did forget what the rubber band stood for.)

Blogging, is of course, one of those outlets, one of those forms of introspection so commonplace on the web nowadays. I started quite some time ago, on another server, and have kept up, a bit sporadically if I might add. I’ve never been entirely too sure of my own reasons for blogging. Some parts ego, some parts experimentation, some parts therapy, perhaps some part exhibitionism? In any case, though I have considered several times to abandon this practice, especially when I have been too lazy to pursue it for months on end, I find myself giving it another go eventually. Because life should have an audit trail.

Shall I offer some excuse of why I have been so long without an entry? Some vague representations of WoW addiction, business at work or general laziness? I just did.

In any case, our story continues…