A draft of a chapter of some thoughts on things.

The following is a very early draft of a chapter from a book I’m writing with Tom Abba. Think of it as a couple of academics/creators trying to help other creators avoid all of the dumb mistakes they’ve made. It’s very early stages still but all feedback welcome (send them to baldur.bjarnason@gmail.com or to Tom, if you can dig up his contact details somewhere. Probably on his twitter. Or his home page. Maybe just shout it in our general direction).

Choose your structural grammar

My dad has regularly been going to the theatre for decades. He and a few of his friends have a subscription at Þjóðleikhúsið and, come rain, come shine, every few weeks they go to see whatever it is that they're staging. It doesn't matter if it's getting awful review, whether it's a farce or a tragedy, they go, watch, and then talk about it over wine. This tradition has survived two divorces and several major career changes.

Theatre has that effect on people (especially if you fancy yourself as a cultured middle-class citizen of the world). People get hooked on watching it. People get hooked on working in it. Theatre isn't a mainstream hobby activity but it's here to stay.

It is, arguably, the oldest form of storytelling that we still practice. (The other contender being music, although given how intertwined drama and music have been, the distinction is moot.)

Speak to any historian of cinema (especially the amateur ones) and you'll get a yarn about how early cinema consisted just of a camera pointing at a stage: recorded plays that didn't use the medium to any sensible degree and that film didn’t begin to advance until filmmakers began to break away from the conventions of the stage.

This narrative—even though it's demonstrably, completely, and utterly untrue1—has become a standard trope in media commentary.

Even though this story is a complete fiction, its message is a useful one: different media have varying qualities which means that each medium lends itself more to doing some things over others. It’s a McLuhanite parable—his pithy ‘the medium is the message’ aphorism writ large.

Which is all good. My only problem is that there’s a better yarn we can use for this: the story of an earlier media evolution that has much stronger parallels to our current new media predicament.

The novel has a longer history than people expect. How long, exactly, is a bit more complicated to answer because then you have to start defining exactly what a novel is in terms of length, style, and structure.

We’ve clearly been telling stories in prose for millennia but even if we restrict ourselves to something more specifically novelistic in terms of structure and style then we’re still talking about more than a thousand years2.

This is something we’ve clearly been doing for a while.

Despite this extended history, prose never really took off as a method for telling long stories. It dominated non-fiction, philosophy, and theological studies, sure, and it was the primary form of telling really short stories like fairy tales, fables, and ghost stories.

But when it came to telling longer interconnected stories poetry was what most storytellers reached for: Gilgamesh; Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Virgil’s Aeneid; Beowulf; Poetic Edda; Dante’s Divine Comedy; Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso; Milton’s Paradise Lost; Byron’s Don Juan; Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Prose stories and novels existed but they have been in the storytelling minority for most of their history—even many of the exceptions relied heavily on poetry. Most of The Canterbury Tales are in verse. Even the Prose Edda was written and presented as a textbook for poets—it isn’t strictly speaking intended to be a prose retelling of the Norse myths. It was a Christian-era explanation of norse myths so that contemporary poets could read and use the metaphors, idioms, and similes that were based on those old myths. Drama and poetry ruled the storytelling roost.

(On a tangental note: what the Prose Edda omits, elides, and adds is just as interesting as the retelling itself. If you compare the Poetic to the Prose Edda, it seems clear that Snorri Sturluson adjusted the myths a bit to suit the more Christian culture of his day. For example, you can read the Poetic Edda as saying that Freyja ruled over the armies of Valhalla with Odin—that she, as the viking feminine ideal, was a lot more warlike than the Christian retellings made her out to be. Make love AND war, instead of make love, not war. The idea that the viking goddess of love would be a passionate general appeals to me.)

It wasn’t until moveable type became the norm that the novel began to make headway and even then poets like Byron and Pushkin dominated the scene with what were essentially novels in verse.

It isn’t that printed poetry doesn’t work. It does. It’s that poetry isn’t reliant on print, as a form it works just as well orally3 as it does printed.

Novels needed print to thrive as a medium.

Print distribution put novel distribution and dissemination on an even level with poetry. But even with a more even playing field it took the novel many years to reach parity and then surpass poetry as the western world’s primary form of written storytelling.

Back when I was a kid in gagnfræðaskóli (the Icelandic equivalent of high school, literally ‘school for useful studies’) a friend of mine, pressed for time, wrote a book review essay for school pretending that a AD&D roleplaying session of his was a fantasy novel.

His teacher had given the class the assignment to review a book of their own choice. He’d been too lazy to read something so he just gave the session a title and wrote a literary ‘review’ of it for the class. The teacher couldn’t tell the difference and none of the kids blabbed.

Much ink (and pixels) has been spilled on the issue of the role of storytelling in games. There’s always been a narrative element to games but the use and importance of stories in games exploded in the late 20th century. Even without computer games, roleplaying games, board games with an explicit and important setting and back story, and choose-your-own-adventure books make the issue complicated enough on their own.

That a medium like games can accommodate and use narrative elements but not be dependent on them seems to break the brains of a lot of academics, despite the fact that this is the role that stories tend to play in at least two other historically important art forms:

  • Poetry? Can use stories and story-like elements but doesn’t need them as a form.
  • Music? Ditto.

Of course, this complicates all attempts to define a theory of games. Is it a good game when you’re just using the mechanics of the form to deliver a story? Is it a good game if the story is rubbish but does an excellent job of serving the gameplay? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Asking if something is a good game or novel is only a useful question if you’re an academic or an annoying snob. You can take that question and its siblings (such as did this conform to the rules of its form as academics define them?), put them in a box, and throw them in a particularly indigestive volcano. They don’t help you create. They don’t help you create.

The questions to ask are more along these lines:

  • How did this affect me?
  • Was the experience consistent?
  • Did it play with or too my expectations in an interesting way?
  • Would I do this again?

Anybody who has spent any time researching readers and players knows that these four qualities—effect, consistency, expectations, and repeatability—are what is important to them about works of art.

When it comes to deciding on a medium or genre as a creator, how those four qualities play out and support or don’t support our goals and intentions is the single most important factor to consider.

My great grandfather was a journalist, translator, politician, academic, poet, playwright, and a priest.

Not all at the same time but he multitasked more than you’d expect.

He was an interesting fellow—founding member of staff of the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service and in charge of their newsroom during the start of World War Two—but what’s relevant to us today is that the list of the media he worked in roughly corresponds to the list of subjects and fields he worked in.

He didn’t do journalism or news reportage as poetry or drama. He didn’t deliver academic essays on Byron’s work from the pulpit.

He did mix up some things. His poems were very political. His drama had religious overtones. But for the most part the various media were treating like sorting boxes: something from this field went into that box, a different field went into another.

He realised what a lot of creators today don’t: some things only fit in some boxes.

Most of what’s in people’s head about writing and creating is romantic nonsense dominated by psychobabble (‘the creative personality’, ’artists have an irresistible urge to create’) or mysticism (‘the creative spirit’). Most of those bullshit notions about art and creativity aren’t compatible with thoughtful consideration of your actions. Beginning writers don’t choose novel writing because it’s the right choice for what they have to say. They don’t even think about what it is they have to say in the first place.

I know because I’ve made all of those mistakes myself.

Despite the label, creative acts—storytelling in particular—tend begin with the creator just going with the defaults.

If you can write, the default is to write a novel. If you can draw, the default is to draw a comic book. If you have money and gullible friends, you make video.

Major upheavals in media, such as the shift from poetry to prose, or the current introduction of digital media, only happen because somebody began to choose something other than the default. It happened because, at some point, an storyteller looked at the stories they had to tell, then at the qualities of the various media at hand, and decided on using something less tried, less developed, and unexplored.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman includes a story called A Game of You. It's usually remarked as one of the least popular of the series. It's difficult, awkward where its predecessors (especially the piece that comes before; Season of Mists) are sly and clever. At its heart is a narrative about dreams, and the power of an internal fantasy life that might tell us things about the external world. It is also an echo of a Jonathan Carroll novel; Bones of the Moon. Gaiman initially abandoned the story after reading Carroll's novel, finding the similarities too close to ignore. Carroll told him:

Go to it, man. Ezra Pound said that every story has already been written. The purpose of a good writer is to write it new.

A Game of You is a cousin to Bones of the Moon. They share genetic material, a DNA of story, but each tells its tale in ways that only their chosen form can deal in. The grammar of a 24 page comic book, with monthly instalments, words and pictures in concert on a page, re-reading and visual connections, is markedly different to that of a novel. The two works are, as Gaiman suggests, born from 'two radio sets tuned to the same goofy channel', but what arises from that transmission is native to their form, each using the grammar of their medium with subtlety and grace.

This place. This point where you are looking around and poking your way through digital media. You don’t get here without an essential curiosity—a compulsion to chip away at the unexplored and to wander into the dimly lit unknown.

And the first step in that wandering is a decision to choose. Once you’ve made that decision, whether you end up going with the default or not doesn’t matter, because you will have considered and weighed your options, instead of just being pulled along with the crowd.

One of the biggest mistakes you can do is simply lump all digital media into one and pretend that it’s all the same thing. That’s like pretending that all print books are alike and that the distinction between novels, short stories, journalism, poetry, and comics isn’t meaningful.

Digital storytelling, once you’ve let it settle after shaking it up like a snow globe, tends to settle into two broad piles, each which can be subdivided into countless mini-piles.

The first pile, on your imaginary left, is games.

The second pile, on your imaginary right, is hypermedia.

There’s a bit of indistinct sludge in between the two where you can’t quite tell which pile it’s in. That’s okay. Crisp, paper-like boundaries are for print anyway.

Games are the more easily recognisable of the two. Not because there’s more of them (in fact, there’s less) but because they have a much clearer boundary. When you can’t figure out whether a piece of storytelling is a game or hypermedia, that’s because it isn’t fitting the definitions coming out of the games field. Hypermedia doesn’t care. Hypermedia loves everything and everybody. Possibly a little bit too much.

Games design is much too big a concept to be covered here. Like poetry and mechanised print, games predate digital by several millennia. Their principles, while benefiting enormously from digital, aren’t dependent on it.

The ‘hypermedia’ that predates computers, on the other hand, works in ways that are fundamentally different from actual hypermedia. To pull that off in print, you’d need to be able to perform instantaneous transformation of matter.

Because it isn’t the link, per se, that puts the ‘hyper’ in hypertext. It’s the instantaneous and dynamic transformation of one text into another when you press the link that gives hypertext the oomph we associate with hyper media.

Think ‘hyperspace’ and you’re on the right track.

The hypertext that you read and enjoy vastly outnumbers the games you play because hypertext is how the web and apps tell stories.

And almost everything we do on the web and in apps is storytelling.

Facebook’s a story. Twitter’s a story. Blogs are stories. Every website, every app, every chat platform, they’re all hypertext and they are all stories.

That most of these are also conversations doesn’t make them any less hypertextual because hypertext is fundamentally conversational. That’s what linking and dynamically including texts in a variety of context does. It makes conversations. That’s hypertext.

Even in a plain old web page, links are conversational. Unlike references, which are formal even at best of times, links can be witty, tragic, satirical, tongue-in-cheek, and laugh out loud funny, even when neither the linking or the linked text are any of these things. Simple things like linking from a person’s name to the page in a medical dictionary for restless leg syndrome can be hilarious in the right context, even when the tone of both texts is serious and deadpan. That’s hypertext.

Hilarious juxtapositions of tweets or Tumblr posts are a common enough phenomenon for it to become a regular trope on Twitter and Tumblr. That’s hypertext.

Even ebooks are hypertext, if only by virtue of their reading context. Some of them are only accidental hypertexts, sticking to print conventions and ideas even as they have lost all meaning and sense in digital. Others, like this book, are written as hypertexts first, where links are used as one of the primary punctuation marks—more common than the m-dash, less pretentious than the semicolon.

This isn’t a book; this is hypertext.

Because this text was written with digital first in mind—unlike those print books which have been skinned and then re-coated with a digital gloss—this is a loose, conversational, and sprawling hypertext that might well eventually be bundled up and stuffed into print form like a set of clothes stomped into a suitcase while the taxi to the airport is waiting outside.

Which is fine. If I don’t want you to criticise my preference for reading print books lifeless, skinned, and flattened into ebook form, I don’t get to criticise you for preferring to read the ebook as a bleeding, severed appendage cut off from its network.

Games design is huge. Lucky for us, there are a lot of books and websites covering the subject so we really don’t have to do the form an injustice by covering it badly.

My personal favourites are:

  • A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster.
  • Lost Garden by Daniel Cook. A website that is a treasure trove of notes, ideas, theories, experiments, and examples on games design theory and practice.

There are more and I’ll add them as I think of them.

Digital media of all kinds is built on a series of action feedback loops. You do something and the device gives you feedback on that action. It’s the foundation of User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) design and the basis of everything we do in the field.

The core difference between the structural grammars of games and hypermedia is that in games the centre of meaning is in the action feedback loop but in hypermedia it is in the feedback loop’s context.

This difference in grammars expresses itself as different kinds of structures. Games are a tightly interwoven structure of feedback loops: one loop leads directly into another and they build on each other like Lego™ blocks. Sometimes that structure is hierarchical, i.e. levels of increasing difficulty and requiring increasingly complex actions: finish one to get to the next). Sometimes it is networked: e.g. a large space that you can explore where difficulty and complexity is distributed spatially.

In hypermedia, no matter whether it’s Michael Joyce’s Afternoon, A Story, Kottke’s weblog, or Twitter in its entirety the centre of meaning is in the context: where you get to after you take the action. The action only has meaning insofar that it affects the context. The page or tweet you see is what says something, the link and following it only modifies it.

The popularity of game mechanics in user interface design complicates things but mostly because they are usually badly thought out and not that unique to games.

Some of the things labelled as game mechanics are merely good UX design practices, like having clear, dynamic, and immediate feedback loops throughout your app. Others, like using leaderboards and the like to foster competition and manipulate your users into dehumanising their fellow people and thinking of them as things to be beaten is a tactic long used by the managers of sales teams. It, and a lot of other ‘game mechanics’ are only really competition mechanics and aren’t specific to games.

In the end, the ‘is it a game or not?’ question doesn’t matter to us. While the distinction between the two is important when it comes to understanding the strengths of each, it’s important also to understand that digital media (as well as a lot of non-digital media) can be more than one thing at the same time.

You can make a game that works just as well as just a story with all of the game’s feedback loops dialled down to ‘So Easy a Drooling Infant Could Do it’. You can make hypermedia, apps, and websites that can be played like games.

Absolutism doesn’t work for digital. Often the answer to the questions you ask yourself as a creator will be ‘both’.

I don’t remember the first time I told a story. None of us do. It doesn’t matter whether its genetic or learned, nature or nurture, storytelling is a basic human activity.

We only have two ways of teaching:

  • A show-do loop. The teacher demonstrates. The student tries to do. Gets feedback from the teacher who my or may not show again. The student tries again. Repeat as necessary.
  • Storytelling. The teacher encapsulates the showing, the doing, and the information needed to do, in a story.

Every teaching method or form is just a variation of one of those two, usually replacing the teacher or the storyteller with a technological proxy.

Games are strong on the former method: a feedback loop between showing and doing. Hypermedia is strong on the latter: even incomprehensible non-sequiturs are filled with narrative logic once you post them online, on the web, on Twitter, or on Facebook. The very context coopts everything that appears into telling a story.

In real life, how you teach isn’t limited to just one method but usually a mix of the two depending on the subject, strengths of the teacher, and the abilities of the student. The blurry line in digital media between games and hypertext is just a reflection of common practice.

What you teach isn’t limited to skills or knowledge, although that’s what we usually associate with teaching.

Sometimes what you teach is emotion. Feel the sting of murderous jealousy. Experience humbling shame. Understand the fear of death. Fall in, feel, and lose love.

This is what it feels like.

As teachers storytellers cannot just pour information into the heads of the listeners. They have to lead them to an understanding. It doesn’t have to be exactly the way you understand it—we all start in different places—but it needs to be of a kind with your understanding. Emotions need the same build-up, practice, demonstration, and experience as any other thing you teach.

And to be able to do that you need to understand your medium. You need to have at least made a conscious note about what you’re doing. Choose your medium. You need to know how that medium is and has been used. It doesn’t matter if your colleagues in that form aren’t doing what you’re doing, their techniques are relevant. Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Will Eisner’s Contract With God are, respectively, journalism, autobiography, and fiction but they share a form of storytelling. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a comic on cute cats, their methods are relevant to your work. Copy the way they do things. Try them for yourself. See what works for you and what doesn’t.

The same applies to games designers and hypermedia authors. Don’t limit yourself to the games or hypertext that are covering exactly the same subject as you are. The form is where the methods and the structure comes from. Copy ideas from apps, websites, and games.

Choose your structural grammar. Study it. Practice it. Repeat as necessary.

  1. Right out of the gate, early cinema focused on spectacle, fantasy, and documentary works. Most of the stage adaptations come after the special effects and documentary films. The crude and stage-bound nature of early film has more to do with the limitations and immobility of the cameras than an over-bearing influence of drama on the filmmakers.
  2. Who’s with me on holding a party in 2021 celebrating the thousand year old birthday of the published novel?
  3. Oral transmission coupled with the mnemonic aids of verse makes poetry less dependent on print for distribution and authorship.

Sex, violence, and stílbrot

(This is the fifth Stumbling into Publishing post.)

One flaw (out of many) that’s endemic in my writing is that I tend to introduce detail that’s either irrelevant, too early, or too late. Like describing the cut and pattern of somebody’s clothes before the cultural origin of said design becomes important or adding superfluous technical detail to a post when you only need the general idea. A lot of the time adding detail detracted and obfuscated the effect I was driving for.

This tendency of mine was exacerbated in the stories by my decision to have an objective third person narrator and not quite doing it properly.

The perspective I used in the stories was modelled after the Icelandic Sagas. All of the sagas have in common a narrator who can see almost everything that happens but cannot read minds. Or, more specifically, what is described is whatever could plausibly have been relayed by a third party witness because the sagas were pretending to be historical documents of actual events—stories about real people relayed down a couple of generations. E.g. if a murder happens in the story where there aren’t any witnesses likely to blab about it (like in Gíslasaga Súrssonar) you can’t describe the murder, nor can you say for sure who did it. When somebody dies alone you can’t describe their final moments. And clearly, you shouldn’t be able to have any scenes at all featuring a character alone unless you can be sure they told somebody about it afterwards. So, anything that can be witnessed is fair game but you can’t dip into character’s minds or be sure of their motivations.

So, it’s a saga-specific twist on the common objective third person narrator pattern.

I bent and broke this rule several times in the stories in minor ways, but in each case I figured that the character’s motives or actions would be so obvious that stylistic consistency would take care of itself. Of course, that meant the end result was closer to a quirky style of my own than intended, which was probably for the best.

A corollary of this stylistic approach is that you don’t shy away from describing what happens. If, as happens in Gíslasaga (my favourite saga), a character has to tighten his belt to keep his innards from flopping out of a belly wound, you describe that. If another character gets his head and torso split in two down to the navel, you describe that.

And that’s where my self-censorship kicked in again.

Which is a statement I know surprises a lot of those who provided feedback on the stories while I was writing them. It’s plain that if I hadn’t dialled back the violence in places some of the stories would have been intolerable to read to those who were kind enough to be beta readers.

But to assume that the problem lay in the detail of the descriptions is to mistake a symptom for the actual problem. The real issue with these stories is simply that they were much too oriented on, well, fights, which was a consequence of too faithfully following the tropes of the sword and sorcery genre. Fighting people, monsters, undead, whatever, it was all too much. Violence should be disquieting and discomfiting. Reading about violence should make you feel bad—at the very least unnerve you. And if violence takes over the story that’s because there’s too little story, not because the action is described in too much detail.

(At least, in this specific case. Different things apply to different stories and styles, I’m sure.)

I can forgive myself for that. I chose to fall into the generic sword and sorcery crap trap. Beating things into oblivion is part and parcel of that particular snake pit. It wasn’t what we call in Icelandic Stílbrot or a break in style. (Breaking style is one of bigger writing sins a writer can commit according to Icelandic literary tradition.)

Shying away from depicting sex, however, definitely was a break in style. Which embarrasses me as an Icelander because, as I said above, not committing stílbrot is one of the Icelandic literary commandments.

Thou shalt not break style.

Instead of plainly and pragmatically describing what was going on, almost every time something sex-related happened I chose to, in filmic terms, fade to black or pan away as if I were a 1950s prude trying to adhere to the Hays Code. Or, which is worse, when the story would have benefited from it, I often avoided it completely.

The stories definitely suffered because of this omission. A sex scene between Cadence and her husband in the first story would have told the reader so much about how they managed to navigate their admittedly now loveless relationship with at least some care and emotional investment. It would have given their relationship an added dimension, made them less like caricatures, and transformed their fate into a proper tragedy. They had been in love once.

A sex scene between Cutter and Parell in the fourth story would have provided a much needed contrast to the violence and highlighted how unfair Cera’s situation was.

The sex doesn’t have to be pornographic for it to work. The love life is an important dimension to a love affair or a relationship and omitting it completely flattens the relationship’s depiction.

Say you have two characters whose marriage is one of convenience. You present them as almost strangers, a certain distance in their every conversation—their coexistence nothing more than a necessary formality. But if you manage to add a sex scene between them where they engage with each other as peers—a scene that is full of compassion, tenderness, and negotiation—that changes how people see their relationship. They are clearly not in love. They may not even be friends. That still doesn’t mean they don’t share something flavoured with arousal and tender feelings.

Or, to be even more crass, you can have a couple who are loving and affectionate in all other scenes but where the sex scene is one-sided and almost brutal where one partner dominates the other, that changes how readers see their relationship in ways that you can’t with any other kind of scene.

A sex scene lets you add a series of sensations and an emotional dimension to the relationship that you couldn’t have otherwise depicted.

I gained nothing by omitting sex—prudes are never going to be reading sword and sorcery stories nor are they likely to enjoy anything I write, not even the blog posts—but by avoiding sex I diminished the stories’ capacity for emotion and sensation.

Which were two things the stories could have done with a lot more of.

Blogging has trained me to assume you’re stupid

(This is the fourth Stumbling into Publishing post.)

One of my biggest regrets with the Knights & Necromancers series is how generic it sounds.

Not just the title—if it were just the title I could have fixed that by changing it.

No, the problem is that the stories seem impossible to summarise without sounding like generic cookie-cutter sword and sorcery fiction because that was the foundation I built on. I’d like to think I made something more of it but that ‘something’ is a thing too vague to boil down and market.

After trying, again and again to summarise the series, I’m forced to come to the conclusion that the premise probably is, a little bit at the very least, a little bit uninspired.

While I can pick out individual elements that definitely aren’t generic, the whole they compose looks and feels rather generic.

Which makes sense, since I felt rather uninspired writing them. My internal censor was in full force throughout. Whenever my mind got sucked towards something weird, I dialled back towards the more normal. Whenever I got fascinated by something I found interesting but was definitely off-beat for a fantasy story, I either skipped writing it or edited it out after the fact.

Most of what I normally write I write for myself. Both fiction and non-fiction, most of it simply goes into a folder in my Dropbox, only revisited if I need to reconnect with the ideas, emotions, or reasoning I was trying to preserve. A lot of it is perpetually half-finished. Which is okay. A lot of it gets deleted once I begin to find it stupid. Which is also okay.

It’s just that one thing I learned while blogging is that you people hate the non-fiction pieces I enjoyed writing and love the ones I hated. (‘You’ in this context being the generic aggregate bio-matter of the people who visit this site.) So, paradoxically enough, if I really like something I write, chances are I will never blog it.

Seriously, the difference in the traffic the two get is usually just about an order of magnitude. (I.e. over 10x, a real order of magnitude.)

The most popular posts in my blog ‘career’? Either posts that are magnets for email-happy lunatics (i.e. facile posts that nonetheless manage to be ‘controversial’ in some way), boring pieces that outline the blatantly obvious in as simple terms as possible, or lightweight pre-digested fair (like listicles or ‘this versus that’ fight posts).

What blogging has trained me to do for public writing is to remove all subtlety, abandon any structure that requires people to read from start to end (seriously, if you lay out a problem at the start of a post and follow it with suggestions for fixing, people will call you an arsehole because they only read the start and not the suggestions), tone it down (morons will ignore logic if you call an idiot an idiot), explain everything (even the stupid super-obvious stuff that shouldn’t need explanation), and generally assume that the readers are more boring and less imaginative than a senile middle manager three days from retirement in a large bureaucratic organisation that would make the offices from Gilliam’s Brazil look like Brazil’s Semco.

Because if you—my generic aggregate blog reader bio-matter—aren’t a fucking idiot then as a collective you do a bloody fucking good impression of one.

(And a lot of you are nutters too, judging by some of the emails and comments I’ve gotten in the past. Long emails. Long long crazy crazy emails.)

Once you get sucked into the trap of thinking that your writing can be of use, the temptation to adjust the writing to be more ‘effective’ gets pretty strong. The problem is that ‘effective’ blog writing—the writing that blog readers actually read and act upon—tends to be drivel because those same readers ignore most things more substantial.

Without blogging, I would probably be unemployed today. Which is a fact that weighs heavily on my mind whenever I consider giving it up completely to preserve my sanity.

The trouble with fiction is that, in storytelling, the writer’s emotions are at least partially infectious. If I am not fully emotionally invested in the story, that comes across. It might not be something you can pinpoint and it might not even be readily apparent, but that lack—that hollowness—is there no matter how well you write.

But, you, my reader, have trained me well. My experience with blogging has trained me to tone everything down, because the web is full of touchy fucks. It has trained me to simplify everything, because otherwise you’ll misunderstand it. It has trained me to chunk everything, because otherwise you’ll ignore it. It has trained me to make everything facile, because anything with nuance will be grossly misrepresented by you. All of these lessons work well to drive up blog traffic and kill productive discussion in favour of meaningless yay or nay prattle, but they absolutely destroy fiction. All you get is faceless people tackling vague problems in a generic place.

Moreover, blogging has trained me not to publish because I am not a robot and I have to write about what I have to write. I write what I like in the ways I like and then I close the file unpublished. Because publishing it would be pointless at best and a magnet for trouble at worst.

Blog readers are the worst kind of reader in the world. They arrive eager to misunderstand and ready to be angry with you.

Fiction readers arrive generous with their time but expect a world rich and complex enough to inhabit and a cast of characters who seem real and recognisable without being too familiar.

They are two audiences in diametric opposition. Any lesson learned for dealing with one, must be unlearned for the other. Not realising this sooner was, obviously, a major mistake on my part.

(Not saying fiction readers are saints. A lot of them are dumb fucks with an axe to grind. But, compared to your average blog reader, they might as well be old J.C. himself returned to save us all from our sins.)

Afterwards, before I actually published them, I tried to reconnect with the stories, trying to find facets in them that I could emotionally invest in but without ‘weirding’ them up too much. I hoped to make the characters feel as real to you as they do to me. I don’t know if it worked.

What I do know is that if I had just followed my writing interests, followed the lines and threads that captured my attention, I would have enjoyed the writing process much more.

It probably wouldn’t have sold any better but I doubt anybody would have felt that it was generic.

What I thought I wanted versus what I really wanted

(This is the third Stumbling into Publishing post.)

The project idea was simple: write and publish a series of novella-length ebooks.

The reason was even simpler: to learn about ebooks and publishing.

I had a few requirements at the start.

  • I was only going to put together four to six stories. Not just for my sake, but also for the reader. I wanted to make sure that the reader had an end in sight.
  • I needed to pick a genre.
  • Ebook only. I have nothing against print, I’m just not curious about the ins and outs of print publishing like I am about digital.
  • My sister would be doing the covers. We had been looking for projects to work on together for a long long time. This publishing project then led to Studio Tendra and the Oz Reading Club, and will lead to more.
  • I wanted to do the whole shebang: ISBNs, formats, design, website, etc. Because that sounded like fun. (Which it was, for the most part.)

I didn’t do this to get published. I don’t have any particular desire to be published or have my writing widely distributed, but I do find the idea of an ongoing readership interesting, especially if it can pay for the work in some way.

The covers turned out great. My sister is a fantastic illustrator. The ebook files were easy but a tad overworked (e.g. there was no point in them being epub3 at the time, way ahead on the curve on that one). The website was easy (websites is what I was doing for a living at the time.) There was more paperwork, bureaucracy, and admin than I expected but nothing overwhelming.

The problems I encountered were both obvious and subtle.

One obvious problem is that I’m crap at marketing. That’s fine. I knew that going in.

The subtle side of that problem is that while I’m pretty sure most of my regular blog readers know about my fiction, they just aren’t interested in it. If I had a penny for every time somebody told me they really liked my blog but didn’t have time to read my fiction, it’d be a bigger pile of money than what I earned from selling ebooks.

Which meant that I was starting from scratch when it came to marketing these stories, I just didn’t know it at the time.

Another obvious problem was with my choice of genre and style. I picked fantasy but didn’t really bring in any of the tropes or traditions people expect from fantasy. Which made it even harder to market. Then again, marketing the stories wasn’t the real problem.

I had four choices for genre. The first was literary fiction. Which, frankly, I’m pretty sure I can’t pull off. Mostly because literary fiction is just a genre fiction with really boring rules and tropes dominated by a big pile of snotty authors. The second was crime fiction. But every other Icelander on the planet is writing crime fiction, so that ruled that out, even though I’m a fan of the genre.

Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery was the genre I chose, mostly because it was safe. It’s a big genre with a big following and plenty of room for variety. Or, so I thought. A big potential audience ought to be easy to market and sell to, right?

I think, in the end, that was a mistake. The mistake wasn’t in choosing fantasy but in choosing it as a safe option. That cut down my emotional investment in the stories right at the start. This in turn compromised my motivation and led me to vacillate during the publishing process as I tried to rediscover the emotional core of the stories and reconnect to them, which then caused the delays. If other people aren’t connecting with the stories, it’s probably because I was finding it difficult to connect with them while writing.

The genre I really wanted to do was oddball unclassifiable weird stuff that would probably qualify as SFF—as in, not scifi, not fantasy, but in the wishy-washy, hand-wavey area that both of those belong to.

At the face of it, that sounds like an even less practical choice than literary fiction. Prose scifi is a tiny niche these days (TV and cinema scifi being less tiny) and, if anything, looks like an even less inviting clique than the fantasy crowd. It’s a community full of old and middle-aged male authors saying awful and horrible things and self-important fans who castigate new writers for not fitting in with their favourite flavour of scifi (hard, space opera, near future, post-human, mundane, whatever). Most of them sound like exactly the sort of people you try to avoid when you go to the comics store.

“Oh, no. It’s a Scott Lobdell fan. Don’t make eye contact!”

(Some writers simply have very creepy fans.)

Wanting to do weird-ass stupid stories that are so hard to categorise that you’d have to just stick with SFF over either scifi or fantasy seemed like a crazy stupid idea. So, I didn’t.

There’s a lot of nice and incredibly clever people in scifi, doing incredible work. Athena Andreatis, Ann Leckie, Debora J. Ross, and Tobias Buckell being a few examples of the many good, smart, and eminently sane members of the SF community (all with good blogs as well), but as a whole the culture surrounding the genre looks worse than inhospitable. It looks outright hostile.

It was a mistake to think I would have to engage in the culture and community around the genre in any way. Fuck community. I’m crap at it, so I’m not going to do it. And, as it happens, these genres—both of them—are crap at it as well, so it all works out.

Anything oddball might well be harder to market and sell. It might not be. Anything that is different should, in theory, be easier to sell because it is easily differentiated. Different makes it identifiable. Different does limit the upside: the maximum number of sales you can make. (Too different: too small an upside.) But, remember, you start with zero sales. Alienating a bunch of non-customers doesn’t matter if it brings you your first real customer.

But, honestly, I don’t care anymore. Fuck sales. My interest is what counts. If I want to be clever, I’ll be clever and play with the thing until it won’t fit anywhere in any genre. If I want to be stupid I’ll be stupid and make something that gives me joy and visceral thrills even if other people groan at the idiocy of it. If I want to be anonymous and alone, I’ll bloody well be anonymous and alone and write in the dark.

Fuck sales.

Which brings me to…

My biggest mistake was not choosing to write the stories that fascinate me the most either emotionally or intellectually. That’s the one that came back to bite me again and again. That choice meant that the stories never quite clicked, never quite worked, never had that spark you drive for. That choice meant that the whole process was a lot less fun.

You have to care about the end result—personally, intellectually, and emotionally.

Otherwise what’s the point?

Stumbling into publishing

(This is the second Stumbling into Publishing post.)

If it looks like I have focus, that’s just because every hour, every minute, every second of every day, I feel lost.

I eye the world seeking sense and finding patterns in the same way a man on a sinking ship eyes the horizon desperately for sight of land.

I’d like to call it curiosity but it really is more than that; deeper and more obsessive. As I’ve grown older I’ve learned how to direct my fixations a little bit better, but I still sometimes fixate on a trivial subject and end up spending a weekend researching what is known about the Antarctic climate during the Paleocene for absolutely no reason whatsoever instead of doing whatever it is normal people do on weekends. (I wouldn’t know. Haven’t met a normal person in years except in passing. No idea what they actually do on weekends. Wouldn’t know where to start. I’m assuming there are social rituals involved as well as misdirected sexual anxiety. There always are.)

Still, I’m not as bad as I was ten years ago; one time I lost a couple of weeks fixating on the subject of dyspraxia for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

One tactic that has always worked well for me, to direct my focus and to work my way through by obsessions, is to write about them. It’s a way of processing. Sometimes that writing is non-fiction. Sometimes it isn’t. (The other thing, doncha know?) Sometimes that writing goes onto a blog somewhere. Mostly, over the past year, that writing hasn’t gone anywhere, just stayed in my Dropbox drafts folder.

I hope to make the reasons for that clear over the course of this series of blog posts and, by writing about it, process them, and learn.

The beginning is never where it starts. It’s in the instincts of most writers to begin where the story starts. Because you have a clear picture of the course of events—the progression of fact A to fact B all the way to fact Z—your instinct is to present everything to the reader so that they can see the beauty of the whole like you do.

But they won’t. They never will. They never see the beauty because they don’t care like you do. You see how glorious it is, the intricacies, and you feel in your bones how much it matters, because you care. You have to make them care. And that’s why you never begin where it starts. You begin where it gets interesting, where the emotions of the story are clear. You begin at the point when everything that is at stake can be taken in at a glance. They might not understand it all yet, but they can see it, like a grand emotional snapshot of the story’s landscape.

Only then, after you’ve drawn them in, after they have bought into the stakes—been touched by the emotions—only then can you show them how it all started.

And with that, everything unfolds in their mind. They see it like you do. They feel it like you do. They care like you do. The story has become a part of their world and they can’t breath without finding out, like you do, why it matters.

Back in 2009 before I had published my first blog post on baldurbjarnason.com—a year earlier—I began work on a plan to self-publish a series of novellas. I hadn’t decided what to publish; I just knew I would never publish any of the fiction I’d written before 2009. I decided I’d have to start from scratch with new stories and a new world. I’d have to figure out all of the details about how everything works in ebook publishing and production. I needed a lens, an angle that would let me approach, understand, and process what was going on in digital publishing. The project did that.

A project’s failure is found in its genesis. If it can’t be traced to a fundamental part of the project’s initial design then you can still find hints of it mixed in with the scattered and random jottings and outline that served as the first vestiges of a plan—like a haunting vision serving to onlookers and in your hindsight as foreshadowing.

All of my projects fail. Not necessarily because they are bad. Nor do they always fail to meet what I and others expect of them. Actually, they usually meet expectations.

(Have I told you that I have a reputation for pessimism?)

They fail because at the end of it, I know better. I can see all the incorrect turns, all the mistakes, all of the things that were simply wrong, even though I can’t articulate exactly why. They just are. I’ve found the patterns I’m looking for and they are irregular, broken, uneven, and so utterly human. All I can do after that is accept failure and aim to do better.

Hence this series of blog posts. They’ll be sporadic—mixed in with posts on other subjects—and it’ll probably be a long while before I feel done with the issue. I plan to go over what I learned over the last four years writing and preparing a series of novellas, self-publishing them, the mistakes I made, the emotional roadblocks I hit, the wrong turns that caused me to burn out on posting things on the web, the gaps that put me in a holding pattern, and the realisations that finally brought the sight of land on the horizon into focus.

Publishing has catered to dumb for a long while

The following is from The Technique of the Novel – A Handbook on the Craft of the Long Narrative, originally written in 1947:

Why aren’t novels better? It is surprising that they are not worse. Real profits are made in the publishing business by employing highly talented individuals who understand, intuitively in most cases, I believe, the dumb yearnings of dumb people and devise products to please them and keep them dumb and happy. Most books of fiction are written solely to entertain. Where one novel educates or enlarges the mental horizon of the reader, a hundred confirm his prejudices and exploit his ignorance. If novelists as a whole made even a beginning at telling what they know to be true, the book publishing business would collapse. (Thomas H. Uzzell – The Technique of the Novel – A Handbook on the Craft of the Long Narrative)

The more things change, etc., etc.

Make ebooks worth it

Turns out this post is a part of an impromptu series of blog posts. Didn’t plan it this way:

  1. Ebook silos and missed opportunities
  2. Ebook silos, update
  3. Ebooks and cognitive mapping

There’s a theme been running through all my blog posts this week. In fact, a single theme runs through all of my writing on ebooks; the driving idea behind all of my thoughts on the subject.

And, no, it isn’t ‘behave like an arsehole to people and criticise everything.’

The idea is very very simple:

We have to make ebooks worth it.

Print has massive benefits that shouldn’t be discounted. Ebooks have massive downsides that shouldn’t be discounted. The web provides a lot of what ebooks purport to provide.

We are facing the very real risk of limiting ebooks to the role, market position, and capabilities of mass market paperbacks. Remove paperbacks. Add ebooks. Keep the overall system the same with few changes, maybe a bit of consolidation.

This is what a lot of people and companies in publishing want and it would be a tragedy of massive proportions; the biggest lost opportunity in the history of digital media.

Fortunately there’s still time, still a chance, or otherwise I would just shut up.

What would make ebooks worth it?

  • A diversity of new modes of reading.
  • A wealth of new tools for reading and writing that are impossible in print.
  • The ability to enable new modes of learning and skills development (just adding interactive quizzes is a massive bankruptcy of imagination).
  • Democratised tools of publishing. It’s still too difficult to create good looking ebooks and distribute them widely.
  • A more peer-like, less hierarchical, relationship between the reader and writer.
  • A more symmetrical relationship between reading and writing. Reading, annotations, quotes and more should feed directly into writing systems.
  • A greater variety of models for how we extract value from writing, from gift-giving (pay-what-you-want) to subscription to dynamic pricing (like automatically increasing or decreasing prices the more people buy to create either scarcity or abundance, depending on what you want).

It won’t be worth it if all ebooks end up capable of doing is replicate print books with a bit of added javascript and video bling.

It won’t be worth it if all of the platforms keep offering only one business model for ebooks.

It won’t be worth it if the platforms keep every reader’s contributions, notes, and highlights under lock and key.

It won’t be worth it if ebooks become a inferior, partially incompatible, fork of web standards chosen only by the publishing industry.

It won’t be worth it if people keep having to go back to print because ebooks don’t have the capabilities or affordances necessary.

It won’t be worth it if we all switch away from ebooks to the web in a couple of years time because they just don’t do what we need.

Ebooks are only worth the effort if they are equally capable to the web in a unique and complementary way.

Ebooks are only worth the effort if they become something more than what they replace.

Edited to add:

Of course ebooks as they currently exist are fine for many people. But those who assume that this is acceptable are also assuming a stable media industry. In entering the digital arena books (e- or not) are brought into direct competition with not only other time wasters (games, video, etc.) but other forms of reading, namely the web and apps.

If the ebook ecosystem cannot support a diversity of content and interfaces, the web and apps will step in to fill the gaps.

They have already begun to take over areas of specialised analysis. You currently can find wine-tasters, lens reviewers, and economists running subscription websites with writing, analysis, charts, and data that is usually unavailable in either print or ebook form.

It’s unrealistic to expect profitable niches to remain uncontested. During the print era, most of the world’s expertise on how to target print media was consolidated among the world’s publishers. But these same entities are, if anything, among the more clueless companies around when it comes to digital, the web, and apps.

So, in the long term I don’t think it’s a question of publishers holding us back but of them slowly being encircled and swamped by outside competitors, leaving only the subsidised and unprofitable uncontested.


Many non-fiction titles that are written to help the reader solve a problem could be replaced with a well-designed tool (or an extension to an existing tool) that enables the reader to easily solve the problem directly. And if the tools developer does their job properly, the tool can be designed specifically to make skills development natural and easy. Imagine a book on photoshop replaced by a series of interactive tutorials built as a photoshop extension: learning takes place within the context where the skills are to be applied.

What you people read (on my websites)

One of the basic problems with website ‘analytics’ is that a lot of the data is just noise. We have no real insight into cause and effect—that traffic sources section is insidious because it often amounts to little more than misdirection, knowing where people come from almost never tells you why they came.

The scary and frightening fact is that the effectiveness of our online marketing and traffic generation tactics is probably due to random chance—spending time on a particular source of traffic is no different from just buying more lottery tickets. Sure, you’ve increased your chances, but its success is still just down to random chance.

Or, even when something you do does have a significant effect, it might just be the novelty effect. It’s not what you did that mattered, just that it was new.

That said, when you have a statistically significant difference over a lengthy period of time, you probably have a piece of data there you can count on.

For example, it’s pretty certain that most of you lot only read my ebook publishing, production, and analysis posts. If we discount the statistical anomalies (like my posts debunking a few myths on the Icelandic political situation which are the most popular pieces I’ve ever written, unfortunately) an ebook post tends to get more than ten times more traffic than a post on any other subject published at a roughly similar time of day and day of week.

Now, drawing any conclusions from this is risky. Ebooks are the subject that I’ve covered rather consistently throughout my career and they are my subject of expertise, so it makes sense that other subjects haven’t attracted a regular audience.

Still, I always find it a little bit disappointing that the popularity of my blog posts is inversely proportional to how much fun I had writing them.

Good books don’t win

The editorial fallacy is the belief that all of a publisher’s strategic problems can be solved by pursuing and publishing the finest books and articles. (From The Editorial Fallacy)

This is a belief that seems to be pervasive among large sections of the publishing industry. It’s also a very mistaken belief. The problem isn’t just with the idea that the only thing a publisher needs to do to succeed is publish good books (which is patently untrue) but also with the basic premise.

Namely, what is a good book?

Continue reading

33 observations on the year 2012

The year in retrospect.
  1. Doing good work is its own reward, while sharing it leads to suffering. Most of the time nobody will notice, so it’s hard to see why anybody should bother.
  2. My ideas got a lot more attention than I expected, which has been very cool.
  3. Best case scenario for doing stuff online is that people will start knocking on your door, asking you to work for free, never offering to give anything in return. Which is fine when those people are making art, doing research, or generally working to the benefit of humankind in a self-effacing manner, but less fine when the request comes from people whose annual salaries are in the multiples of your own, or if they’re working on a startup, trying to edge their way into a multi-million dollar, early retirement payout.
  4. The cranks came out in force. Odd emails from odd people with odd opinions who think they are preaching God’s honest truth.
  5. The vast majority of those I encountered were incredibly nice and friendly, even when we disagreed.
  6. I have almost no readers but some of my work is read a lot. The number of people that will read every post of mine is miniscule. Most of the traffic comes from retweets or links. I have more than a thousand followers on twitter, but of those only about ten will click on a link to a post of mine to read it. I suspect that there is a substantial crossover between this group of readers and the group of people I like to call friends. (Although not nearly as big a crossover as you’d think.) No matter how hard I work, the best I can hope for is to catch the attention of somebody more influential who will momentarily lend me some of their traffic.
  7. A few of my blog posts did catch people’s attention, which was interesting and gratifying.
  8. There is little to no discourse online. What you get are dug in factions and people’s opinion on you are based solely on whether your argument supports what they have chosen to be ‘their team’. If you try and stick to facts and logic, most factions will reject you. It’s ideological trench warfare and the best you can hope for is that the machine-gun nests don’t notice you.
  9. Large organisations are even more dysfunctional than I expected.
  10. Writing isn’t highly regarded by anybody, even in publishing. There’s a lot of romanticism and inane adolescent fantasy about being a writer, but little to no follow-through by anybody, especially not those who call themselves writers. It seems like very few people actually enjoy writing, they just want to enjoy the fruits of popular writing (not necessarily good writing). I’ve even heard people suggest, on more than one occasion, that those who manage to get attention for their work through good writing are basically cheating. This was from people whose careers hinge on being published.
  11. The world is on the verge of another, major, economic meltdown. Happy happy, joy joy.
  12. People love to send you argumentative, angry, or otherwise negative emails. That is, if they aren’t asking you to work for free.
  13. I often don’t mind doing stuff for free, as long as I get to do and say things my way in return. Those who agreed to that have been a lot of fun to work with.
  14. Praise is generally only handed out on disposable media, like Twitter, and rarely anywhere where it counts (like blogs, reviews, or other writing), unless you pay for it. (See the repeated review-scam scandals in publishing this year.) A remarkable number of people will only say nice things to your face, in private, and never in public (related to point 3 above). The end result is that positive feedback is ephemeral while negative feedback gets preserved forever on angry blogs, comments and forums.
  15. People will always prefer you to state the obvious and spout common sense. If you say anything that requires a bit of thinking, or that would require them to learn new skills or ideas, your audience will evaporate into nothing, no matter how important those new things are. (Also see point 8 above.) You can trust that ideas that are new and unfamiliar to an audience will be either ignored or met with anger.
  16. Nobody cares when you’re right but a lot of people really enjoy it when you’re wrong. They will rub it in your face.
  17. There’s no way to tell beforehand which bits you make will take off and which won’t. That nicely written, funny, and informative post will go down like a feminist speech at a men’s rights convention while the quick info-dump written and posted in less than an hour takes off and gets stratospheric traffic.
  18. There is absolutely no correlation between how much work you put into a post or a piece of writing and how much attention it gets.
  19. Nasty people are incredibly persistent while nice people go off having lives of their own (they have lives because they are not nasty).
  20. The only thing people like more than a post that states the obvious is an angry post that states the obvious. Angry and unreasonable will easily get ten times the attention of even-handed and rational. It doesn’t matter if they agree with you or not, they will still flock to your cuss-filled rant.
  21. Communities get the discourse they deserve. When either the inane and obvious, or frothing lunacy are all that get attention, then that’s all you end up getting. Moreover, it’s your own damn fault. People may well instapaper the good stuff fully intending to read it at some point in the future (hah!), but bile is the stuff they actually read and it certainly is the only thing they respond to.
  22. The ones who do read and respond to the more thoughtful stuff are glorious angels to be treasured forever and ever. 🙂
  23. I learned that praise goes a long way. Try and make sure to mention to people the parts you like about their work, even if it’s only a tiny part, even if you don’t like the rest. People don’t improve without work and they don’t work without motivation. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and not mention the crap parts. People tend to be really appreciative if you convey the praise in a non-disposable medium (which, with the data retention we’re living with these days, is anything but Twitter and Facebook).
  24. Being honest with writers is a surefire way of becoming incredibly unpopular incredibly quickly. More than a few of them are neurotic and none of them realise that critique is the only way to fix flaws. You can read as many books and blog posts on writing and language as you like, if you don’t see the flaws in your own writing you will never improve.
  25. Trying to figure out when you’re supposed to be honest to people and when you’re supposed to be diplomatic requires a higher level of telepathy than I was born with. People expect you to read their minds and are utterly unforgiving when you can’t. (I’ve known this since childhood, but it was a point hammered home several times this year.)
  26. Most people don’t know how to critique, they tend to resort to personal attacks, jabs at your family, and instantly switch to critiquing the subject instead of the writing (i.e. they focus on what you’re writing about, not on the writing). I’m actually okay with that last part.
  27. Designers, illustrators, animators, and the like, OTOH, often thrive on brutal critiques where the blood and meat on the floor reaches abattoir levels. Of course, this varies depending on where the person went to school, but a lot of art and design schools don’t believe in protecting their students’ fragile egos.
  28. Working with a good visual artist who can take and dish out harsh criticisms, and understands the problem domain the two of you are working in, is a glorious joy that isn’t often repeated.
  29. Feeling incredibly poorly, to the level of being debilitated, is a frightening experience that hammers the fear of $deity into your soul.
  30. There is also serenity in suffering when you know it isn’t a death sentence.
  31. And there is immense joy and appreciation when you’re well again (or thereabouts) and don’t have to worry about having the energy to walk to the corner shop to buy essentials such as food. There is a glee in being able to buy your bread without counting spoons.
  32. Github is amphetamine for improving your programming. Not because it’s full of code you can reuse. Not because it has enabled a new generation of development tools. (Although both of those things are important.) The magic of Github is that it makes it really really easy to find and read good code. Find a reputable project in the language you’re working in and read through the codebase, figuring out how it works as you go. Keep the language’s documentation on hand and look up anything you aren’t familiar with. Do this for long enough and you’ll begin to recognise beautiful code, clever code that’ll be difficult to maintain, and ugly code that works, just by looking at it.
  33. On the whole, it was a very good year, filled with good people.