On the Feast of Stephen

Today is Saint Stephen's day. As a teaser and a technology test for the readings and tellings I will be doing next year, I have recorded a little Stephen's day treat: my short story, Good King Wenceslas.

I have a slight head cold, so my accent is a little posher than usual, but don't let that bother you. I'm also trying out different editing software and some fancy camera features. Try to ignore the artefacts that arise from this. If necessary, shut your eyes.


Planning is a waste of time

:: Edit 2012-09-07 ::

I would love to know why this essay gets so many hits still. Any visitors care to comment?

:: end of edit ::

I have been asked to justify a remark I tweeted recently, and farbeit from me to refuse an excuse to blog, here goes:

I stated that "Planning is the worst waste of time ever invented". Some people think that this is a little unfair, but it may be worth stating that this comes from the mouth of a trained and experienced project-manager, who has worked in the highly regulated and highly documented world of clinical trials, who today works in the entirely unregulated though equally documented world of literary fiction.

In project management, Project Plans exist for one reason and one reason only: to convince those with the money to part with it, and fund the project.

In warfare, battle plans exist for one reason and one reason only: to dispose your troops on the field in such a way that they will cause as much difficulty to the enemy as possible. In modern warfare, there are no battle plans, since modern warfare has a much more civilized aim, namely to bring every confrontation to as swift a conclusion as possible.

Planning whose purpose is to decide what to do, and in what order, is strictly for novices - and a necessary part of the learning process.

(Even the logistics of the quantity surveyor are concerned with satisfying a consensus as to requirements, such that all parties submitting a tender will base their prices on the same set of materials; however when it comes to undertaking construction, the actual materials purchased and consumed will not be identical to the quantities specified by the QS.)

"Whenever a truly complex and difficult situation presents itself, the people with the money will always want quantification of the cost and the time needed to deal with it."

This is axiomatic in so many fields of endeavour today that a whole consultancy industry has grown up around the practice and principles of quantification before the fact. The promise of such quantification is to tell you exactly what is needed in terms of time and materials, and hence in terms of money, before you commit to beginning activity.

But any project is (as the etymology implies) an act of anticipation - of throwing yourself into the future. And it is akin to packing for a family holiday. Often akin to packing for a family holiday in the north of England.

You have a fixed, limited amount of space in the car, and you can be certain of some of your needs (like a change of underwear), but much, much less certain of your other needs, especially in terms of outer clothing. If every seat is occupied, is it even possible for everyone to bring everything he needs, let alone everything he might need.

Now most people, very sensibly, don't sit around a whiteboard brainstorming, before producing a twenty-page risk analysis, and a detailed list of items that each person is bringing ranked in order of priority-by-volume.

There are a number of reasons why they don't do this, but the primary reason is that it is not necessary. The fundamental reason for why it is not necessary is the same in every situation where risk is quantified and qualified, whether formally or otherwise:

The only future events likely to cause real difficulties are those that are impossible to anticipate.

By definition, you haven't thought of them in advance, and have done nothing to mitigate them. Any risks that you are capable of anticipating, you will already have acted to reduce. In real world project management, an "emergency fund" is set aside and ringfenced 'for the unexpected only'. These are the future events that test the success of any undertaking, and on which hang the success.

That is why a successful project depends much more on the experience of the people involved than on the thoroughness of the planning.

This doesn't - or shouldn't - turn preparation for future events into a dark art. If anything, it should turn it into an educational experience. Wherever possible, when mounting a project, the person with the main responsibility should look to involve people of varying levels of experience, so that all can learn both from eachother, and from any novel or unanticipated incidents or accidents that occur. As such, you continuously create people with the skills and experience necessary for future undertakings.

Well all have an extraordinary ability to create stories about future events, telling them to ourselves, in order to better prepare both for the expected and the unexpected. The storytelling urge that drives so many people to write fiction is a natural extension, sandbox and playground for this, our most important survival tool.

This is why when I do project mentoring (which I still do from time to time), I encourage all members of the project team to sit down somewhere comfortable, and tell eachother the story of the project as if they were telling a bedtime fairytale.


I really can turn almost anything into a discussion of storytelling.


The Poet Trap

When an author says to me:

"The main character in my next book is a Physicist at CERN; the problem is: I don't know anything about the physics that is done at CERN,"

You can imagine the alarm bells ring. A persistent member of the "Writing Advice Top 10" is Write about what you know. It is, this good advice notwithstanding, my observation that a writer with sufficient skill can convince his readers that a character is a genuine nuclear physicist even though the writer has even less knowledge than, for example, a press officer for British Nuclear Power.

How do you convince the reader? You only need go so far as to say that your character is a physicist and holds a senior position at CERN and other characters treat him as if this is so. The writer can spoof all kinds of skills and expertise in this way, because the reader is never going to challenge him on it, for purely practical reasons.

A writer can go so far as to invent a character who is himself a far more talented and celebrated author than his creator. How? By just saying so. No reader is going to ask to read the character's books. In the same way, the writer can invent a demon violinist or the greatest composer the world has ever seen. To convince the reader all he has to do is convey the experience of listening to the music to the reader, or (more detached still), describe the consequences of listening to it; crowds of adoring fans, squaddies and schoolteachers in tears, and whatnot.

I admit that the last couple of examples require a certain skill. But this is a skill in writing, a skill that I tend to assume any writer is pursuing.

The poet, however, is a trap.

It is the very nature of poetry that the experience of poetry can only be communicated by the poetry itself. Go on, find someone who has never heard the 18th Sonnet, and try to convey the feelings it evokes without using either any words or any images from it.

I think there are very few fictional poets for exactly this reason. You have to be an outstanding poet to write a poet character because there is neither any excuse for giving no examples, nor any way to convince the reader that the character is a poet other than by showing his work. Racine managed it. Hugo managed it*. It took giants of technique and inspiration to convince readers that their characters were passable poets. Perhaps the most internationally famous example is the character of Cyrano de Bergerac in the play by Rostand. Not that Rostand's work is extraordinary - but since it is written entirely in rhyming couplets, we can easily accept that both writer and character are competent at poetry.

It even takes a certain skill to write bad, mediocre or otherwise indifferent poetry. It did occur to me that you might have some other character remark:

"The say the fellow is the greatest poet of his generation but if he is he's damn discreet about it. I've yet to hear so much as a troche."

However I fear all this will do is whet the reader's appetite all the more. Even if the damn poet is the victim (i.e. already dead at the start), his Eratian credentials still have to be established somehow.

I suppose the canniest author might make a selection of contemporary anonymous poetry and claim it as the work of his fictional character. That's the kind of devious thinking that you need from an editor, in any case.

* At least, I'm pretty sure he did. But I can't find the reference and it's making me crazy. Please let me know if you know which character I'm thinking of. Please.


"What King?" — "Any king!"

In typical self-deprecating style, Damon Courtney writes to ask me about my sloppy editing of his capitalizations, as follows:

What are the rules on capitalization when someone refers to someone else not by their name but by some other name? Such as:

"Yes, Master."


"Yes, My Dear."

Somewhere in my mind I want to capitalize those cases, but I'm not sure if that's right. You didn't note them in your copyedit, but there are some places I didn't do that, and you didn't note those either. So, either it doesn't matter, or I'm doing it wrong one way or the other.

Notice that it doesn't occur to Damon that I might have missed an error or (even worse) an inconsistency. Leaving aside the matter of undue deference to the editor, my reply is below. Check out my awesome UK punctuation mojo in the quotations. If there is clamour, I might blog about that later.

It doesn't really matter all that much, because it's almost impossible to infer a consistent set of rules for capitalization in English. If you go back to the 1930s, you'll find that anything that can defensibly be called a proper noun gets capitalized, and anything else isn't. The classic example is:

"Did you hear that? He called her 'darling'."


"Since it's what they call one-another, we all call them Darling and Dearest."

The idea is that in the first, we are just referring to a term of endearment, whereas in the second, we are declaring common assent to naming. Today, capitalization of titles, especially "honorifics" (commonly assented but not always formal or legal titles) is very varied. I'm reminded of the Buddhist schoolteacher who remarked "Many call me master but none call me Master.".

In your second example, you should capitalize in either of two cases: "My Dear" is the only form of address used by the speaker to his interlocutor, OR "My Dear" is being used in a special way in this single instance, for instance as sarcasm.

Bear in mind that the strict 1930's rule takes no account of the relationship between the people, only of the logic, hence:

"Yes Master."


"Yes, O my master."

The former is a direct address, hence Master is proper. The latter is a description of the relationship hence master is just an adjective. Here's another case that is at once revealing and confusing:

"We must tell the King at once!"

"What King?" / "Which king?"

"Any king."

This is logical, but looks daft on the page. Sometimes how it looks on the page is the only solution.

This conclusion is an example of The New Model in action. Clarity in transmission from writer to reader is paramount, and visual confusion caused by an impression of inconsistency becomes noise, and distracts the reader from the effect that the writer intended.


Roleplaying and Storytelling

Roleplaying and storytelling are not the same, and should not be confused.

I have been playing a lot of Skyrim. Skyrim is one of those cultural phenomena that many people will dismiss as "just another computer game" in the same way that some British folks dismiss Dr Who as "just another TV SF series" or War and Peace as "just another lengthy Russian classic".

Skyrim is a big, diverse world, beautiful and curious; an amazing achievement that builds on the lessons of Morrowind and Oblivion (previous titles in the "The Elder Scrolls" (TES) series) by taking a long hard look at the work done by the vast modding community* and a good hard look at the success of the accomplished but troubled Gothic series that has dwelt in the shadow of TES, but held its own through quality and reliability.

Even with the work that was done to make Skyrim such a visually pleasing and amazing place, many of the first mods deal with making it even more visually stunning. The first mod I downloaded was a new, high resolution night sky. OMGIFOS!

Playing Skyrim is a matter of wandering around, talking to folks, creeping into dark caves, investigating mountaintops and getting quested. Players of "tabletop" rpgs like AD&D will know that when you speak to the innkeeper, he'll give you some bit of rumor or gossip, you'll go check it out and end up embroiled in a plot or saving someone's kidnapped spouse/child or trying to get your hands on a big pile of gold (GP) or enough experience (XP) to level your character. This is called getting quested. Getting quested can be a blessing or a curse. In the best cases, it is both. Getting quested is essential for roleplaying because it gives you an objective. Once you have an objective, it is up to you to decide how you intend to fulfil it.

Skyrim's creators went to a great deal of trouble to ensure that there were plenty of opportunities to get quested, and plenty of quests of all different sizes and shapes. And these quests can all be placed on a scale which has at one end "getting railroaded" and at the other "vague curiosity". Thankfully, the "Main Quest" seldom railroads, once you get over the initial irritation of being the unique chosen one with special blood. I happen to hate that kind of thing, but there are opportunities to pick sides and make moral choices in the main quest. That's amazingly impressive, even to the limited extent that it has been done.

One of the worst offenders for railroading is the Thieves Guild main quest. (Some people say the thieves' guild doesn't even exist…) This quest line is daft. A balanced character would find some of the tasks a little tricky, but my character is a stealth sniper. For the first 30 levels I did almost nothing other than sneak and shoot. The tasks were a walk in the park for me, and after completing these "little errands", the thieves promptly insisted that I become guild master. This actively pissed me off. Because I'm roleplaying in a way that only TES makes possible: I decided in advance what sort of person Clothilde would be, and I make decisions based on that. Since you can do that in TES, and more so in Skyrim than any other game I have ever known, it is very disappointing indeed how often you can't refuse an appointment (or even a title), or change your mind once you set off on a mission. I really hope there's a modder out there with plans to change quest options so that you can back out if you decide you don't like the direction a quest is taking.

I suspect that some (definitely not all) of the quest designers genuinely think that the only choice that players will make is between the three standing stones at the start of the game (where you decide initially - the choice can be refined or made again later - on your broad playing style, between fighter, rogue or mage), and once that choice is made you'll follow every quest you get hit with out of curiosity for the unfolding story. Those quest designers (House of Horrors anyone?) need to be hit on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, and then have it pointed out to them that Skyrim is an RPG environment. Compare and contrast with Assassin's Creed.

In AC, you follow a story - it's explicit in the scenario design that there is only one path; all presented objectives have to be met, and your only choices are in the fine details - concealed blade or throw him off the roof? AC is addictive because (like Skyrim) it is beautiful, but also, unlike Skyrim, because it has a single, highly compelling, storyline, and you keep playing because you want to follow the twists and turns of the plot. In AC you are reading a thriller. In Skyrim you are playing AD&D.

The next (techno)logical step is TES played in cooperation. Not massively multiplayer, but 4 to 6 players in a cooperative party, getting quested the way you do in AD&D. And, therefore, being able to build quests. This, we already can, though it is tricky and very time consuming (rather more than when you play tabletop).

My verdict for Skyrim? It started out awesome, and once the modders have had a couple of years with it, it will be the most complete roleplaying environment ever seen outside of the imagination of a party of experienced AD&D players.

Roleplaying is the undervalued branch of creative play. Everyone values as "culture" books, theatre, film; storytelling has been largely lost, and roleplaying is seen as something even less cultural, even more ephemeral. I think, however, that the best culture is ephemeral, because the best culture is created for, and created before, a live audience. Just as the script of a play is not the play, so the book of a story is not the story. It is natural and right and special and both humanly and culturally affirming to get together and roleplay - make up a story, a scenario, together. With Skyrim, computer gaming has taken another big step towards facilitating cultural activity instead of distracting from it.

* modding is creating new content for an existing game. For free.

Online Story Telling

I keep harping on to writers about the importance of live storytelling and how much I love doing it, until one of them challenged me to tell some stories aloud and stick them on Youtube. From January, I'm going to do two, every month. I have enough material of my own for a lifetime or two, but it would be much more fun to tell some of your stories.

Here's the catch: this is telling, not reading. I like to learn a story, so that I can tell it aloud. That isn't learning the words, but learning the story, and letting the words look after themselves.

I'm taking submissions as of now. Bear in mind that your story need not be kept to any strict length, as I will do that when I tell the story - I'll keep most of them to twenty to thirty minutes, but I'm quite happy to do short serials too. I'll also be looking out for guest tellers, every couple of months or so, so let me know if you're interested in telling your (or someone else's) story.