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The Most Common Bias

Cognitive bias is amazingly common, and keeping us from really changing our lives.

One of the things I’ve noticed this year, as I have found myself arguing with people about politics and economics, is how much we are all effected by cognitive bias.  It’s that “gut feeling” that things are, or should be, a certain way, even when actual evidence to the contrary is presented.  I fall for it, too.  The thing that gets me more often than not is the “sunk cost fallacy”, which isn’t a cognitive bias, per se, but still a flaw in my thinking that tells me to keep throwing more effort, or resources, behind what should be an obviously lost cause.  It’s what convinces me that the worthless gear I tend to collect has value even when it’s hopelessly out of date.  It’s a hard one to overcome.

IO9.com has the 12 Cognitive Biases That Keep You From Being Rational, all in a handy, easy-to-read article.
Personally, I fall for the Gambler’s Fallacy all the time, thinking that I can predict outcomes based on past experience.  Really, though, all I’m demonstrating is that I didn’t pay close enough attention in statistics class.  Math wasn’t my best subject in school.  But, because I think a lot, I often fall for the Projection Bias, too.  My wife helps me to remember that not everyone thinks like me, however, which ought to be a relief to regular readers of my blogs!  The one I run into at work more often than not is the Observational Selection Bias, which end users seem to fall prey to any time someone in IT touches their computer and new icons seem to appear from thin air, even though those programs were installed months before.

In any case, it’s definitely worth a look to see where you might try to think outside your usual box in the coming year.  Maybe it will help all of us to think a little differently than we have been!

Polite Conversation

Let’s talk about polite conversation for moment, shall we?

After surviving a difficult holiday, where, no doubt, you had at least some friction with someone about a closely held political belief of some kind that the other fat-head didn’t, I think manners and conversation might be an appropriate topic.  It’s bee a tense year and a difficult election season and, let’s face it, a lot of us are pretty unhappy, even if your chosen candidate won.  (Mine didn’t, by the way.  I just want to make it clear that I didn’t vote for what’s about to happen to us for four years, in case anyone was wondering.)  But, it’s the holidays, which means parties.  Often, it means parties with someone who might drink too much and lose those inhibitions that actually kind of keep the fabric of society from unraveling.  Also, it may mean office parties where the wrong kind of verbal slip might cost you a job, or even a career.  It happens.
Here are some suggestions that might save you from making a complete ass of yourself, whatever the festive occasion:

“1. Even if convinced that your opponent is utterly wrong, yield gracefully, decline further discussion, or dexterously turn the conversation, but do not obstinately defend your own opinion until you become angry…Many there are who, giving their opinion, not as an opinion but as a law, will defend their position by such phrases, as: “Well, if were president, or governor, I would,” — and while by the warmth of their argument they prove that they are utterly unable to govern their own temper, they will endeavor to persuade you that they are perfectly competent to take charge of the government of the nation.”

“9. A man of real intelligence and cultivated mind is generally modest. He may feel when in everyday society, that in intellectual acquirements he is above those around him; but he will not seek to make his companions feel their inferiority, nor try to display this advantage over them. He will discuss with frank simplicity the topics started by others, and endeavor to avoid starting such as they will not feel inclined to discuss. All that he says will be marked by politeness and deference to the feelings and opinions of others.”

“17. The wittiest man becomes tedious and ill-bred when he endeavors to engross entirely the attention of the company in which he should take a more modest part.”

“30. If you find you are becoming angry in a conversation, either turn to another subject or keep silence. You may utter, in the heat of passion, words which you would never use in a calmer moment, and which you would bitterly repent when they were once said.”

To read the rest of the helpful, and time-tested, suggestions, follow the link to 38 Vintage Conversation Rules at The Art of Manliness.  And, ladies, don’t be shy!  I believe in equal opportunity, so those suggestions might help you, too.  We live in a liberated age when women can be just as terrible and boorish as men!
Read, enjoy, and, hopefully, learn, regardless of your gender.

It’s Not Magic

It’s an illusion!

At least, that’s what Doug Henning would say.
Hey, look, it’s been a rough month.  What with the elections, the holiday and NaNoWriMo, you’ve had a lot going on.  I mean, a lot.
No matter who you wanted to win the Presidential Elections this year, the campaign has been brutal.  And, frankly, I think the next four years are going to be chaotic, challenging and a little frightening for a lot of us.  Then, there’s the stress of the Thanksgiving holiday.  I mean, c’mon, dinner with the family is never easy, is it?  And, finally, if you’re participating in National Novel Writing Month, you’ve been churning out words as fast as you can, racing to that deadline.
And, by the way, if you are doing NaNoWriMo then you should be getting near the end of your novel.  I don’t mean to panic you, but there’s really only a couple of days left.  Less than a week, actually.

So, no matter what’s been going on, you deserve a little break.  A chance to just veg out a little and sit like a stupid lump and stare at something cool.  Good news!  I’ve got just the thing!  Ten optical illusions that will blow your mind over at the Huffington Post.  Seriously, these are pretty cool and a great way to let your brain slip into neutral for a little bit so you can recharge before getting back to that big project of yours, NaNoWriMo manuscript or whatever you might be working on.

Go ahead and take a break.  It’s a holiday and you deserve it!

The Inevitable Writer’s Block

If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this month, you should be about two thirds done with your novel.

If you’re not, don’t worry about it! And, either way, it seems like a good week to talk about writer’s block.
Now, assuming that you’ve been writing this whole time, the most common forms of writer’s block, namely not having an idea and not using the habit of writing to actually put words on the page, are not your problem. Maybe, you’ve gotten somewhere in the middle and your genius story seems to have stalled. Or, maybe you got to a blind alley and realized that your story took a wrong turn 1,500 words ago. It happens.
Either way, try to remember this is all about getting the words out and on paper. And, if that’s not enough to get you going again, head over to Gizmodo and check out their advice on The 10 Types of Writer’s Block and How To Overcome Them. Not all of it will apply, obviously, but I’d lay odds that at least one of those ten types of writer’s block will at least come close to applying to you. Naturally, I think the advice will help, too. And, in fact, I encourage you to read all the advice, because something that doesn’t seem like it applies to your frustration may end up being what knocks you loose and starts you writing again.

Another helpful resource that can help you get through a block is your fellow NaNoWriMo writers. You can connect with hundreds of people who are also participating in NaNoWriMo in the NaNoWriMo Forums. The people there can be incredibly supportive and helpful and they may need a break from their writing at this point, too.

Again, the most important thing is to get your rough draft out this month. After you get the thing written, you can take a break and come back to edit it into shape. Don’t worry about that now. Just worry about getting your first draft written.
So, go, read as much as you need to to get past your block, then get back to writing!

Writers, Talking

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this month, you should be roughly a third of the way through and might need a bit of a break.

If you aren’t participating in National Novel Writing Month, that’s okay.  It’s still Friday and maybe you just need a break.  Either way, I think I’ve got you covered this week.  At least, I’ve got you covered if you like science-fiction, famous authors, and cranky discussions about literature and marketing.  It also helps if you like Studs Terkel or Gene Wolfe or Issac Asimov or Harlan Ellison.  Why?  Because the link I have for you has all those things in it, all those writers talking about literature, science-fiction, and the state of the world.  In 1982.  More than 30 years ago, but it’s all still quite relevant.
So, for whatever your reason, take a break and head over to the Observation Deck at Kinja and watch/listen to these brilliant men talk about some of the most interesting things in the universe.

Enjoy!
Then get back to writing and I’ll see you next week!

This post originally appeared on Diary of a Network Geek!

Writing Advice

And encouragement!

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this month, you should be four days into your book today. But, maybe you’re cocky and are really just going to get started tonight after work. Either way, you can still do it! Fantastically prolific authors, especially some of the more well-known pulp writers, churned out books in very short amounts of time. For instance, Michael Moorcock, creator of the infamous Elric series of books, is rather infamous for regularly cranking out books in as little as three days. Yes, he had to do it by a formula, but, honestly, considering what he created, is that so bad? And, more importantly, do you want to know how he did it? Then hop over and read How To Write A Book In Three Days: Lessons from Michael Moorcock over at Wet Asphalt.
Basically, he uses the same formula that Lester Dent used to great effect writing, among others, the Doc Savage series. Basically, he breaks up the work into four parts and then breaks that down into smaller parts, each designed to ratchet up the tension at every step of the way. Moorcock takes Dent’s formula and stretches it a bit, taking it from a story formula to a book formula. Either way, it sure worked for them. Between the two of them, those guys cranked out a hundreds of books, so, say what you will about the formula, but it seems to be effective.
Also, if you decide to use one of the tools I shared last week, Scrivener, you can download a Scrivener template specifically designed around the Lester Dent Master Formula. It’s worth a look for Scrivener users!

And, if you’re already writing and just need some encouragement to keep going, or get some momentum built up, you can check out some slightly harsh, but funny advice from Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds.

This post originally appeared on Diary of a Network Geek.

Actual Writing Tools

Now, you’ve got your setting, characters and story, so all you have to do is write it. Easy, right?

Okay, maybe not so much, but still totally doable, so don’t despair.
This week I’m going to talk exclusively about tools to do the actual writing with.  There are a lot of fancy software packages for this out there and what you choose to use is a personal choice based on who you are and how you write.  That said, let me share some of the more popular programs and tools to go with them.  First off, I would imagine a majority of people use Microsoft Word, because they have it available to them.  It’s not a bad way to go, actually, because you’re probably already familiar with it via school or work, so it won’t get in the way.  If you go with Word, William Shunn has some free, downloadable templates that will let you get started with a pretty standard manuscript format.  If you like Word, but don’t want to pay Microsoft for it, check out Libre Office instead.  It’s a free, open source alternative to Microsoft Office and it includes a very good replacement for Word called Writer.  And, I even have a basic manuscript template you can download and use for Libre Office Writer, also free.
If you want to get fancier, there are a lot of alternatives, but Scrivener is specifically written for fiction writers and is often offered at a discount to people attempting NaNoWriMo.  And, while I have absolutely nothing against the creator of Scrivener, there is a free, open source alternative called Plume Creator.  I don’t have any real experience with either of these, but I always favor the free, open source alternatives whenever possible.

For myself, while I used to mostly work in whatever word processing package I was currently using, I’ve gone to pretty much only using straight text.  I made that change for a number of reasons, but I was heavily influenced by an email exchange I had with Steven Brust about his writing tools.  I was surprised to find out that he wrote exclusively in emacs.  I found out after a bit of digging around that he’s not the only one.  Vernor Vinge, a brilliant science fiction author, also uses emacs to write his fiction, though it’s less surprising to me since he also teaches computer science at the collegiate level.  So, now, while I’m still working on the actual text, I just use my favorite text editor, which in my case is the same tool I use to write Perl code and edit server scripts and web pages, UEStudio, which is an extension of UltraEdit, a tool familiar to serious programmers.  Incidentally, keeping everything in straight text with out any formatting not only limits distractions, but makes for the most compatibility between systems, which, ultimately, is why I decided to make that change.

So, now, finally, you should have all the characters, setting, plot ideas and writing tools you need to get started with National Novel Writing Month.

This post originally appeared on The Fantasist’s Scroll.

Build Your World

Now you have a story and the characters in it, but what about the rest of your world?

Most people think that only fantasy or science-fiction writers have to create a world for their writing, but even writers who create contemporary stories create their worlds. They just create a fictional world based more closely to our real world, which is pretty subjective in any case.  I’ve been assuming that you are following these posts in order this month, but there’s certainly no reason that you should start with a story and not your world.  I know that I often start with a setting when I’m thinking of stories and, especially when I’m thinking of fantasy stories, a map is often a great place to start.  In fact, in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card writes about starting a novel by essentially doodling a map.  And, thanks to the internet, there are an almost endless number of pages about making maps.  Let’s start with A Guide to RPG Mapmaking.  It’s focused on fantasy role-playing games, but everything in the guides and tutorials are applicable to other kinds of fantasy maps.  And, if you like that, check out Observations of the Fox: Map Tutorials for even more details on creating detailed maps.  Most of the techniques there are pretty applicable to any tools you might use, and there are many to choose from, but if you’re serious about making maps and aren’t a professional artist, I highly recommend ProFantasy’s Campaign Cartographer.  It’s not incredibly expensive, and there is a bit of a learning curve, but I think it’s worth the investment in time and money for some of the results.  To see what some of those results can be, with practice, as well as Campaign Cartographer specific tutorials, be sure to visit Ralf Schemmann’s site Maps and More.
And, if you just want some inspiration, check out Fantastic Maps or Fantasy Cartography by Sean Macdonald.

Of course, you may not need a map at all, but want to create some other details about your fictional world to make it seem more real.  For that, I humbly submit Fantasist.net’s own World Building resources for your use, which includes, among other things, an on-line Timeline Generator to create a little history that your characters can refer to in conversation.  It also has a link to the incredibly complete Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions by Patricia C. Wrede, who covers pretty much every detail you could ever ask yourself about a fictional world.

As much as I love worldbuilding, in recent years I’ve realized that I can easily get so lost in world and setting creation that I never get around to actually writing fiction!  Don’t fall into that trap!  Make enough world to get your story going and then let the world create itself as you go.  For some more helpful worldbuilding ideas along those lines, take a look at Chuck Wendig’s 25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding.  It’s a very up-to-date approach and I found it quite helpful!

So, now you should have characters, setting and plot nailed down and you can start letting that marinate before actually starting National Novel Writing Month in November.  But, come back next week to see what final tools I have for you before you launch your NaNoWriMo project!

This post originally appeared on the Fantasist’s Scroll.

Create Your Characters

Now that you’ve got a story idea, who are the people in it?

Often, a story is centered around a single, strong character, and you’ve already answered that question. But, what if you haven’t? Well, then, maybe I can help.
First, if you need to flesh out an entire character, including a bit of family tree and a biography, I’ll send you back to a site I referenced last week, albeit at a different page. They call it the Name Generator, but, really, if you choose the right options, it will make a pretty complete character sketch.
But, maybe you just need some specific details to fill in parts of your character sketch that seem light or are missing entirely. Again, I’ll send you to a site I’ve referenced before, Seventh Sanctum, where you can find an entire page of character-related random generators. They have everything from complete, generic character generators to genre specific character generators to name and naming specific generators. In fact, they have a full page of random naming related generators, if you’re having trouble in that regard. But, if you want to pick something more specific, you can check the Most Common Given Names, according to Wikipedia. Or, for last names, the Most Common Surnames. Surely, something there will suit.
And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t include our very own Funny Name Generator!

Also, if you want to fill your character’s pockets with some random things, Fantasist.net has the Daily Carry Generator, for modern settings, and the Fantasy “Pocket Litter” Generator, for, well, more magical settings. And, contrary to my normal habit of hiding my source code, mostly because I’m a very, very amateur programmer and my code is generally junky, I’m giving you all a download link to grab the PHP files for those last two generators, which is available at the original post on Fantasist.net only. No warranty is expressed or implied by offering that code! Use at your own risk! (But, it’s pretty simple and shouldn’t cause you any grief.)

Come back next week for more world building tools!

This post originally appeared on The Fantasist’s Scroll.

Story Ideas

Need a NaNoWriMo story idea?

Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’ve been thinking about this for a long time and you’re ready to start writing. If so, you’re golden and this is post is all academic for you. If not, this post is all about helping get you started.
First of all, you have time before everything kicks off, so if you haven’t read it, get No Plot, No Problem, which was written by the creator of NaNoWriMo and serves as a guide for a month-long novel writing experiment. Getting through this book will help you get focused on what kind of fiction you want to write and what you feel makes that genre great.
Secondly, I completely sympathize with you if you’re having a problem nailing down a story idea. When I was in school, my favorite exercises were the creative writing exercises. Why? Because when the teacher gave me a title or a theme for the story, those constraints automatically gave me a direction, a framework on which to build my story. Now, when the story ideas are totally open-ended, I find myself floundering lost in the vast ocean of possibilities. One way to help reduce those endless possibilities is to go back to some external constraints. And, that’s where the internet’s vast collection of random generators comes in handy. Some of those are what I’m actually sharing with you this week, to help you get started.

The first place to check out is the mother-lode of all random generators, Seventh Sanctum. They have a whole section especially devoted to writing. It’s pretty awesome. They have everything from simple story ideas to whole writing exercise challenges to plot twists and a whole lot more besides. They’ve really got your bases covered and I’ll most likely mention them again in this month-long series of posts.
If you’re writing science fiction, you definitely want to check out SciFi Ideas – Ideas and inspiration for science fiction writers. They seriously have the most amazing collection of random generators with a science fiction theme to them.
And, if you want to generate both a book title and section titles to help inspire your science fiction novel and keep you writing, hop over to the Space Adventure Title Generator and you can almost outline your entire book, albiet pretty randomly. Still, having those constraints and guides to keep you moving forward might be just what you need to keep going when the writing gets tough.
Finally, if those aren’t enough, you can check out Fantastist.net’s very own Story Starter random generator, which is based, in part on an exercise from the great book The 29 Most Common Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) by Judy Delton. If it makes any difference to you, that generator was at one time heavily featured in several grade-school creative writing curriculms. It’s pretty simple, but effective.

I know those links were a little heavy on the science fiction, but that’s just where I am with writing right now. And, the other stuff I’m going to share this month will, I hope, make up for that geeky focus.
Stay tuned!

This post originally appeared at The Fantasist’s Scroll.


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