Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hey Millennials? Its Been Done Before.

Try this on your brain and see if it sounds familiar:

Above all, these newcomers had an intuitive understanding of the [redacted] and the [redacted] system, its need for copy, the appetite of its changing members for headline-making novelties. Their [redacted] broke gracefully away from the prose of the old-pol handout – they were readable. And the newcomers were on to a good thing: the party pros needed a candidate to match [insert name here] in the peace appeal, and their candidate [insert name here] would have to be supported by [redacted].

How would you fill in the blanks?

Generally, I’ve left enough there for you to know this is about a political process. I had to excise names and a few other tells. But tell me, dear reader, how would you fill this in?

Maybe like this:

Above all, these newcomers had an intuitive understanding of the internet and the social media system, its need for copy, the appetite of its changing members for headline-making novelties. Their posts broke gracefully away from the prose of the old-pol handout – they were readable. And the newcomers were on to a good thing: the party pros needed a candidate to match [insert name here] in the peace appeal, and their candidate [insert name here] would have to be supported by [redacted].

I didn’t fill in all the blanks, but admit it: This paragraph makes perfect sense with the internet put in as the medium.

But since I’ve got that smug look on my face, you know this ain’t the internet.

Here’s the paragraph, as it appears in real life:

Above all, these newcomers had an intuitive understanding of the press and the news system, its need for copy, the appetite of its changing members for headline-making novelties. Their press releases broke gracefully away from the prose of the old-pol handout – they were readable. And the newcomers were on to a good thing: the party pros needed a candidate to match Eisenhower in the peace appeal, and their candidate Stevenson, Governor of Illinois, would have to be supported by Dick Daley, boss of the Cook County Machine. (Taken from “Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon,” by Theodore White.)

The “press” and “news system” spoken of here is television, and here author Ted White is talking about its disruptive influence at the 1952 conventions of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Back in 1951, television began its disruptive run, as White describes:

One year before the convention opened, an event had exploded in American life comparable in impact to the driving of the Golden Spike which, in 1869, tied America by one railway net from coast to coast. In September of 1951, engineers and succeeded in splicing together by microwave relay and coaxial cable a national television network; and two months later, late on a Sunday afternoon, November 18th, 1951, Edward R. Murrow, sitting in a swivel chair in CBS Studio 41, had swung about, back to audience, and invited his handful of viewers (3,000,000 of them) to look. There before him were two television monitors, one showing the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the other showing the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. The cameras flickered again – there was the Statue of Liberty in New York and Telegraph Hill ion San Francisco. Both at the same time. Live. The nation was collected as one, seeing itself in a new mirror, on a twelve-inch television tube. Murrow then swiveled back to the audience and lifted his dark eyebrows in amusement, as if he were a magician performing a trick.

Yes, the internet is peachy keen.

But its disruptive influence has been seen before.

The 21,000,000-strong audience that watched the conventions in 1952 saw the death of machine politics – though party politics still tries to play on behind closed doors today, viz the Democratic National Committee’s shyness of debates as they attempt to crown Hillary Clinton as their candidate over the insurgent Bernie Sanders. But then, unlike now, the politicians weren’t used to public scrutiny. They could get away with their machinations because few knew about them. Today, they get away with them because few care and most assume the system is rigged.

The internet is wonderfully disruptive. But, just like television, wonderfully distractive. Newton Minow saw it best.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Maybe it’s the Writing Courses that Need Revision . . .

I used to be an advocate of students writing a lot. And I mean a lot. A paper a week, at least a thousand words per paper.

But three years of teaching basic writing at Brigham Young University-Idaho – and this article from on a bit of software that reads student essays and offers them suggestions for improvement – are convincing me I’ve got it all upside down, at least in one respect.

Students should write a lot. But a lot of that writing should be revision.

Here’s what popped out at me from the Slate article:

[R]evision only seems like a modest goal if you ignore how rare it is in student writing, where the typical pattern is: Procrastinate, panic, write all night, turn it in, and forget it. A week or two later, when teachers finally pass back the work, any feedback they offer is more or less ignored.

“I mean, once you get a graded essay back, where do you put it? You don’t keep it!” said Dean Ramser, who teaches first-year composition at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

All that careful reading and feedback offered by teachers? Mostly tossed out the window. I can confirm this anecdotally because I’ve always been stymied by students who make the same mistakes over and over, or who fail to connect the dots from one assignment to the next (we take our students through a series of assignments meant to make their writing more lively, and then throw a research paper at them with causes them to display imprinting from the more primitive, high-school-oriented part of their brains where they first learned the Formula for Research Writing ®, meaning boring, boring, boring.

I would love to teach a semester course on revision, where students start with one paper or topic – even something they’ve already written – and keep on re-working it and revising it throughout the semester. And I wouldn’t necessarily bill it as an advanced writing class – I’d aim it at beginners, or at least intermediates (though it would be valuable for beginners). Because the more advanced writers already know the value of revision and feedback, and the fact that you have to go through more than several iterations before good writing becomes great writing.

The challenge in such a course would be to fight the boredom. Students might not like the idea of revising the same old paper over and over. So maybe the course involves three papers, but with multiple submissions of each paper so drafts and revisions and final drafts are all graded and such. That might be worth something.

Pairing students up for one-on-one beta reads might also be useful – through peer review tends, for the most part, to be superficial. Having a computer do some of the peer review, as outlined by Slate, might bring in enough of an interest factor to help improve peer review’s overall usefulness.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Trying Really, REALLY hard to Enjoy David Bowie

Right there is one of two reasons I know who David Bowie is. And that’s mainly for the refrain “Ground Control to Major Tom.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard the song in full until I watched the video today. Yes, planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do. Maybe I don’t get David Bowie?

And that’s fine. Others do and enjoy him and I’m good with that. I’m just not. Maybe I’ll turn that around by listening to a bunch of David Bowie. And I might have to because Space Oddity kinda ties in with The Hermit of Iapetus in ways I might not have considered had I never listened to the song in full. Though who can pay the royalties?

And there it is, the second reason I know David Bowie. It says nothing to me. Probably I just don’t get it. Jim Henson/The Muppets run hot and cold with me. This is a movie from the cold side. They’ve done far better than this. Then there’s David Bowie in it. He looks enough like a Muppet to fit in. Rest in Peace, Mr. Bowie. May your fans mourn you, even if all I can do is kinda scratch my head.

Hermit of Iapetus -- Synopsis Exercise

The Hermit of Iapetus

He talks with Richard Nixon, wandering the beach with a spaniel and getting his wing-tips wet. He hides from a gang of renegade squirrels that ride miniature cows whose poop gets everywhere. Probably, after a lot of thought and squirming, he will not remember his name. And those are the least of his problems.

He lives on Iapetus, third-largest satellite of the planet Saturn. He doesn’t remember how he got there. He doesn’t remember why he left a family on Earth. He’s pestered by Greenpeace for leaving footrpints and trash on an otherwise virgin world. And the International Astronomical Union isn’t all that pleased with the names he’s suggesting for the moon’s prominent features – least of all Hoagland’s Ridge, a mountain chain named for a crackpot who believes the moon is a dust-covered alien space station.

When the hallucinations fade, the Hermit of Iapetus wanders the surface of his little world, trying to remember why he might have come in the first place and imagining what his little boy might think of a father who left him for reasons no one can fathom – or remember – to wander the surface of a moon where cyanide rains out of the sky.

Just when he thinks he might have an answer to the meaning of life – or recalling his name – Richard Nixon or the squirrels, or both, snatch him back to fantasy and keep him guessing to his sanity, his motivations, and whether or not he’s really on Iapetus or in a room in a quiet wing of a hospital somewhere on Earth where his son comes to visit him regularly, only to find him wandering the dusty plains of a moon millions of miles away.

Then there are the times he talks to his wife, who is either a pleasant, confused woman who brings him clean underwear at the hospital or the ghost inhabiting an abandoned spacesuit where he stores the little bits of flotsam that remind him of home and might eventually get him back there, or at least help him remember who he is.

And then his son, grown from a toddler into a teenager, shows up on Iapetus. Memories of life on Earth both fade and flood back as the Hermit grapples with a past that has caught up with his present and a present that can no longer hide from the past. Only Richard Nixon knows how his story ends.

Wow. As much as I struggled with the synopsis to Doleful Creatures, this one was a lot harder to finish. And it’s not even half as long. What does that mean for the story the Hermit of Iapetus tells? I know it’s a less than traditional narrative, but this might also show that my story is as incoherent as the synopsis. This book is going to be a lot harder to revise and edit as well – which is the initial goal of writing this synopsis. Maybe it’ll tell me where the story is right now and give me hints as to where it wants to go in the future.

Another editing sticking-point: I have various little files, bits and bobs on my blog, etc., that may or may not fit into this incoherent story. Part of the revising process is going to involve not only making a visual representation of the story arc, but also collecting all these little orbiting satellites and figuring out where they do (or don’t) fit into the story. Lucky me.  And I thought revising The Hermit of Iapetus was going to be easy.

Another scary thought: Ideas for a companion novel to Doleful Creatures keep sneaking in. I’m going to have to start collecting them as well. I’m reluctant to do so, however, as that story could easily take over the time I’m slotting out for the Hermit. We’ll see what happens.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Avoiding Jargon

If this isn't a strong argument for avoiding jargon (or at least making jargon work for you) then I don't know what is.

2016: Goals

If you suspect Doleful Creatures is going to appear somewhere on my list of goals for 2016, you’re right. And a regular reader of this blog.

  1. Publish Doleful Creatures one way or another. Trying the traditional route first. How long will I try? Most of the year. Self-publishing is a possibility, albeit one I think I can accomplish in the last quarter of the year. Maybe I’ll be wrong on that. But it’s still high on my list of things to do.
  2. Edit the Hermit of Iapetus. I have a lot of material and thought about this book I’ve been percolating on for at least two years. It’s time to get it pulled together. Hoping to make 2016 the year of Editing the Hermit, as 2015 was the year of Editing Jarrod.
  3. Prep for NaNoWriMo. I’ve skipped the event for the past two years, putting more time into editing current works rather than producing new ones. Now that Doleful Creatures is close, it’s time to get back on the big-time new writing track (not that 2015 was a waste for new writing, as Doleful Creatures really took several evolutions from start to finish. It’s not the same NaNoWriMo book it was when I started).
And other things . . .

What other things?

Some are personal and private. Others too mundane to mention here. I would like to take my family to Alaska this year (or to New York/New England, that would be fun) but Alaska is what’s looming large. Michelle getting a teaching job at BYU-Idaho (similar to mine) could help us in that direction as that means more money coming into the coffers.

So I’ll focus on the writing goals.

Here are a few more:
  1. Write a poem or short story a week.
  2. Put together a collection of files to use with by BYU-Idaho classes.
Okay, two more. And that first one will be quite a challenge. I might bend the rules on this by allowing work on novel excerpts, for little ideas I’ve had brewing in my head. I don’t want this goal to conflict with my other writing/editing goals – but rather act as an aid or supplement, to keep the ideas flowing. Here’s where I should keep my list of goals short and attainable (2015 took me leaps and bounds into what is attainable as far as writing goes).

The second should be a bit easier: I've got a good collection of things I use occasionally in my classes. My goal is to get them filed and organized by week so when I go to look for them, there they are. And as I find new things, I know exactly where to put them.