Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Word is evil

That is, Microsoft Word.

This is a post about tools of the trade rather than craft. But does a sharper chisel make for finer carving? Does a softer brush make a more supple line?

As a Microsoft Word trainer, among other things, which is to say an advanced Word trainer, who has tried and tested virtually every feature of the tool, I often have to tell users that 'Word is evil.' Not evil in the moral sense, but so badly designed and incoherently implemented that it will inevitably frustrate your intentions and prolong the document development task.

Just explaining why would be the start of a hundred posts or more, but consider the almost universally misunderstood implementation of document styles (and themes, and all that), or the frustrating complexity of page breaks, section breaks, and running headers and footers, not to mention the punishing task of inserting simple images.

And yet, as a writer I've used Word for every short story and every novel I have ever published. Why? Because Word and Microsoft Office are ubiquitous, and all our old files are in the same format. Publishers prefer Word files (or sometimes RTF), and now we use the track changes feature to work through editorial issues, so swapping between applications becomes challenging.

And curiously, about the only kind of document Word is any good for, the long document with minimal formatting, is suitable for manuscripts.

Are there alternatives? Apple's Pages is an excellent word processor with a clean interface and less feature clutter, but its export to .doc format is not seamless. Google Docs is clear and functional, and brilliant for outlines, notes and even drafting short inserts from any location, but I like my core writing to be stored somewhere other than the cloud. On the iPad, I admire the simplicity of IAWriter, but although a distraction-free writing window is wonderful, I also want to be able to choose my favourite fonts (Cochin for drafting, Times New for fair copy).

Tools and processes have a subtle relationship. Because I keep my notes and outlines in notebooks and on paper with pencil, I don't need an outlining and note-taking tool added to my word processor. I do long for a simpler, less complex writing environment (there's a reason why George R. R. Martin clings to an obsolete word processor), but I look forward to the day when my writing can follow me everywhere, from the iPad to the study to work. Let's just not pretend that Word is the solution to this problem.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Slow reading The Lord of the Rings: The End (and Back)

Well, I finished slow reading The Lord of the Rings, which means that part of me, like Samwise, goes home, and part of me also continues, sailing out of exile and loss to the Everlasting West. For Tolkien did not mean our visit to faerie to be settling and cosy; it was also meant to be a glimpse of something wild and fair and far, that would change us and remain out of our reach.

But for this last post, I want to talk about the whole work and the structure of reading and writing the extended process of its creation reveals. The impression of depth The Lord of the Rings creates is not located simply in the expanse of Tolkien's world-making and languages, or in the quest narrative, but also in the process of writing and reading itself. By this I mean that The Lord of the Rings changed as it was made.

The Lord of the Rings begins as a sequel to The Hobbit, in tone and content, close to the fairy-tale and the children's book, in the pastoral, pre-industrial Shire. It rapidly becomes something graver and more compelling, as glimpses of the past appear, but one of the passages that always captures my attention is the strange fox in the woods that notices the hobbits, early in the first book. The curious, anthropomorphic fox is to my mind an artefact, almost an archeological fragment, of the earlier children's book narrative.

The passage through Moria changes the book again: here there are depths beneath the earth, shadows and terrors shrouded in ages and darkness. History begins to loom more heavily over the timeless world of the fairy-tale, and the language of action as well as introspection begins to dominate.

By the time of The Return of the King, we have encountered realms and cultures far older than those of the Shire, and the archaic language and rolling, epic diction of the battle scenes pull us even further back in time. We are, in effect, reprising the narrative forms of epic and chronicle, the language of Anglo-saxon battle, as we travel into the deep time of Middle-earth.

Finally, the return to the Shire is a return to modernity, as Saruman's brutal totalitarianism (is there any other kind?) is a reflection of Sauron's absolutist spiritual tyranny. The scouring of the Shire is a necessary return but also a sort of resetting of the clock. The problem is that immersed now in a greater world, the Shire cannot remain an unchanging childhood idyll. Through Sam and Frodo, we can both come home and move on.

And so The Lord of The Rings expands and draws us through its narrative not only in terms of imagined geography or imagined history, but in the very ways of telling that it employs. To read slowly is to see these modes and how wonderfully and deftly they are woven together book by book.

You can read all the Slow Reading The Lord of the Rings posts here.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Digital humanities and programming's first rule

There is an interesting and critical piece here on the role and hype of digital humanities in the humanities.

While I've said elsewhere that interactive fiction and the digital publishing hold great promise for writers as well as scholars, I think overblown representations of the inevitability and scope of new technologies should be considered with the utmost caution.

I recall the simple proposition I learned from programming BASIC in high school: Garbage In, Garbage Out (or ask a silly question, get a silly answer). The digital archive and the digital medium can't substitute for clear, informed thinking and the accumulation of humanist scholarship. Machine logic can only show you the same data in different forms. Literature is a matter for memory, imagination and the human experience; the understanding is in the particulars that data-analysis can only abstract.