the creative process, writing

Best of the Blog: My Top 10 Most-Viewed Posts of 2020

Insert “hindsight is 2020” pun here to launch this list of the top-viewed posts on this blog in 2020.

As it turned out, some of my most popular posts in 2020 weren’t actually written during the past year. For the sake of completeness, I’ve included these in the list – they were quite popular this year – but I’ve also marked them with an asterisk (*) to indicate they were written at some time prior to 2020.

I’ve also left off pages, like the “About” page, because they are…not blog posts.

Enjoy!

*10: If You Like It Then You Shoulda Put a Paycheck On It: My Real Problem With The Mighty

Written for the #CrippingTheMighty hashtag campaign in the mid-2010s, this post hits right at the intersection of two topics that are near to my heart (and life): Paying creatives, and recognizing disabled people’s work has value.

I don’t mean some intangible “all human lives have value” value. I mean recognizing disabled people’s lives have value in the only real language of value the capitalist world has: Cold hard cash.

You can read about my issues with the fact that “disabled voices” website The Mighty decided to invite disabled people to contribute to its site but not to pay them here.

*#9: Top Five Books for Figure Skaters

This post will be ten years old in June 2021, which means it’s due for an update. And by “update,” I mean I’ll be adding more books to it, because I still believe that the five listed here stand the test of time.

This post gets pushed into the top-searched posts by the advent of the winter gifting holiday season every year. I guess there just aren’t that many gift guides for figure skaters who also read.

Check out my top five recommendations for figure skaters here.

*#8: “Happy Birthday” Is the Worst Song Ever Written

I wrote this in 2019 because I hate the song “Happy Birthday.” You know the one. The one we all sing off-key at people when it is their birthday, not because we are all horrible singers (I am, but not everyone is), but because a song specifically written to be sung by anyone, anywhere, several times a year, is such a hot mess that it is practically unsingable.

I hate it. I hate it with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. Here’s why.

#7: The “Tea Party” Is Back, But It’s Not on the Side You Think

During the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020, I got so heck-dang-frack annoyed with people comparing the protests unfavorably to the Boston Tea Party that I did a little research on the Tea Party.

Turns out that if you’re rooting for the Sons of Liberty on that one, you’re…er…on the wrong side of history.

Angryclick my controversial opinions on the topic here.

*#6: How Much Is My Girl Scout Handbook Worth, Part One

I wrote this post about a decade ago, when collecting Girl Scout handbooks was my Thing.

And, in true ADHD fashion, I then promptly forgot about the entire series. I didn’t write Part Two until 2018.

The Internet has not, however, forgotten that at one time I tried to help folks navigate the collecting of Girl Scout handbooks. This post and a couple other posts in the Girl Scout handbooks series regularly show up in my “most-viewed” stats, and there’s always at least one search term related to Girl Scout handbooks in the mix every month.

You can read Part One here and Part Two here. Check out the posts on 1912 to 1947 and 1950 to 1977 too, if you’re into that sort of thing.

*#5: Using Brodart Book Covers: Or, How to Protect Your Investment in 6 Easy Steps

Another post from the early days, in which this blog spent far more time thinking about book collecting and less time on freelance writing, fiction, writer lifestyles and silly AI antics.

This one is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: I walk you through how to put Brodart dust jacket covers on your dust jackets. Check it out here.

*#4: Keeping the Pace: Legal Writing Versus Academic Writing

I wrote this post during graduate school, exploring the differences between the legal writing I had been doing as an insurance defense lawyer and the academic writing I was being asked to do as an English literature MA candidate.

It’s also one of the most consistently-viewed posts on this blog. It’s also one of the posts that most often leads people here via search engine: “differences between legal and academic writing” and variations thereon appear in my top search terms nearly every month.

You can read what I was thinking about legal versus academic writing half a decade ago here.

*#3: Five Reasons I Hate Les Miserables (The Show, Not the Book)

I wrote this piece in a fit of pique nearly ten years ago, and it’s been one of the most enduring pieces on this blog. For some reason, hatred of Les Mis strikes a chord with viewers across time and space.

You can check out the five reasons I hate Les Mis (the show, not the book) here.

#2: How to Practice Social Distancing Without Losing Your Mind

I’m something of an old hand at social distancing, having grown up on a farm with parents even more introverted than I was and gone on to have a loner’s dream job of working from home on my laptop and (almost) never speaking to other humans.

When the pandemic began, I shared my tips on how to live this life. They’re still being passed around various social media sites, and you can read them here.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Before we get to the top blog post of the year, here are a few that didn’t make the top ten but that I’m particularly proud of or otherwise love:

  • How to Ruin Perfectly Good Books: If you don’t want to ruin them, do the opposite of this.
  • So You Want to Write a Book About Autism: I co-founded Autonomous Press, which handles books about neurodivergence, including autism. Here’s my advice from the perspective of someone who used to approve (or, often, reject) manuscripts about autism.
  • Notes From My Upcoming AWP Recording Session: This post hasn’t had a chance to make it into the top most-viewed posts, since it’s only been up for about two weeks. I recently recorded a panel discussion on “Neurodivergence in Literature” with several colleagues. Here’s what else I would have said if we’d had several more hours.

And, finally, the most-viewed post on this blog in 2020:

#1: What It’s Like to Have Auditory Processing Disorder, as Demonstrated By Auto-Generated YouTube Captions

This post was my most-viewed of the year not only here, but also on Medium, where it was shared in at least one publication.

I wrote it after trying to watch old reruns of BraveStarr (I wanted to see whether it was a real cartoon, or just a fever dream I had during the chicken pox) with YouTube’s auto-generated captions running. I needed the captions because, having central auditory processing disorder, I struggled to understand what several of the characters were saying.

YouTube, as it turned out, struggled as well.

The result was a sample of what listening is like for me on a daily basis. You can read this blog’s top post of the year here.


Help me bring you even better content in 2021! Leave a comment, share this post, or buy me a coffee.

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the creative process, writing

You’ve Been Using the Thesaurus All Wrong

Can I rant about the thesaurus? I’m ranting about the thesaurus.

I was taught, way back in elementary school, the same thing millions of other kids were taught: The thesaurus is a big book of synonyms and antonyms. If you want a word that’s like (or opposite) a word you know, you go look up the word you know and use one of the big, fancy words in the thesaurus instead.

Everyone who ever told you this probably had your best interests as a young writer at heart. They were probably doing their best to encourage your love of learning and language.

They were also completely, utterly, absolutely, altogether, entirely, wholly, quite, fully, perfectly wrong.

The Origins of the Thesaurus

To understand the thesaurus, you first have to understand the Enlightenment. Beginning in 1715 or thereabouts, the Enlightenment was in some ways a natural outgrowth of the Renaissance. Having gotten really into new ideas and new ways of looking at the world, Europe got really into nature and science (such as it was in the 1700s).

Included in this new vogue for Knowing Stuff was a new interest in Classifying Stuff. The Enlightenment gave us Carl Linnaeus, for example, who in turn gave us taxonomy – the means by which we classify living things.

Round about the end of the Enlightenment era, a Scottish kid named Peter Mark Roget was earning his MD at the University of Edinburgh. Medicine was fun and all, but what Roget found he really liked to do was to Classify Things. Linnaeus’s new taxonomy system did some cool stuff for the natural world, but what about the English language?

Peter Mark Roget developed a new passion: Collecting English words and attempting to classify them according to their relationships with one another. It was a passion that would consume most of his life.

Roget published his first thesaurus in 1852, not as a “big book of words that mean the same as other words,” but as a first attempt to classify every word in the English language in a way that mapped its relationship to every other word in the English language.

Thesaurus: You’re Doing It Wrong

Most schoolkids today are introduced to the thesaurus as a book of synonyms (and occasionally antonyms). Many classroom thesauruses today are even presented in alphabetical order, to make it easier for students to look up fancier words they can use to replace perfectly serviceable everyday words so that maybe Teacher won’t notice they didn’t actually read the homework.

Roget is crying in his grave. For shame.

Roget did not give a crap about the pursuit of nickel-word synonyms. His was a much larger vision: A single volume that organized the entire language. Looking at individual words was like examining individual blades of grass when Roget had invited you on a round of golf.

No one has managed a feat like Roget’s before or since. The ThinkMap Visual Thesaurus comes close, but even it is clunky to use compared to Roget’s original, non-alphabetized thesaurus. Most online and built-in thesauruses are unusable for Roget’s purposes.

So How Am I Supposed to Use The Thesaurus, Anyway?

First, stop thinking of your thesaurus as a plug-and-play module. The words in any given entry are not, in fact, fully interchangeable with all the other words in any given entry.

Rather, think of a thesaurus entry as a collection of related ideas. When you look up a word in Roget’s Thesaurus, what you’re seeing are the other most closely-related ideas to that word that exist in the English language. The entries just above and below the entry you’re reading are also closely related, albeit less so. The further away you get from your entry of choice, the less related the ideas are, although every idea in a particular class is related in some way (hint: it’s in the name of the class).

The thesaurus thus offers an extraordinary way to expand one’s thinking on any given topic. For this reason, I argue they’re actually more valuable in creative writing than they are in academic or technical writing.

For example, here’s the entry in the 7th edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus for “keep the peace” (“peace” as a verb):

remain at peace, wage peace; refuse to shed blood, keep one’s sword in its sheath; forswear violence, beat one’s swords into plowshares; pursue the arts of peace, pour oil on troubled waters; make love not war; defuse

These are all related ideas, but they aren’t all equivalent ideas. For instance, to “refuse to shed blood,” “keep one’s sword in its sheath,” or “forswear violence” are largely passive: They involve not actively waging war, but not much beyond that. To “beat one’s swords into plowshares” or “pour oil on troubled waters,” by contrast, are active: They involve actually doing something to end current strife or prevent future strife.

What’s the difference? Ask Donald Trump, who tried very hard to justify his own deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize by arguing that he hadn’t started any wars, even though he could have. The Nobel committee rejected this argument, and rightly so: “I didn’t start a fight” is not an active contribution to peace the way “I mediated a dispute” or “I helped give people food so they didn’t have to fight each other for it” are.

For novelists, storytellers, playwrights and poets, too, all of these closely-related ideas are nonetheless different. To “remain at peace” indicates an ongoing state of peace, whereas to “wage peace” or “defuse” indicates the need to transition out of a warlike state. One might “pursue the arts of peace” in either situation (and one might be good or bad at them, or anything in between). “Make love not war” might not be a peaceful endeavor at all, as anyone who has in fact tried to make love well knows.

The great power of the thesaurus is to open up our understanding of a word like “peace” or a cliche like “make love not war” by allowing us to see it in the context of the English language as a whole, surrounded by terms that mean almost but not quite the same thing. The plug-and-play approach to the thesaurus as book of synonyms does the opposite – it short-circuits this kind of exploration and play by (wrongly) reassuring us that any of these words will do just as well as any of the others.

But are “cessation of combat” and “public tranquillity” really the same thing? What about “peace and quiet” and “law and order”? Or “noncombatant” and “citizen”?

I suspect that for most of us, the answer is “no.” Those words and phrases may have related meanings, but they don’t have the same meanings. And exploring the differences within those relations can teach us a great deal about how we think, as well as how we communicate with others.


For more hot takes on 270 year old books, buy me a coffee.

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non-compliant space, the creative process, writing

Non-Compliant Space Character Descriptions: A Resource for Fanart

This tweet floated across my feed yesterday:

screenshot_20200723-123303_twitter1475189129748477459.jpg

Tweet by @VickyCBooks. It reads, “proposal: authors keeping character descriptions on their website so fanartists can have a reference even if they don’t have a copy immediately on hand. pls i beg u”

I immediately retweeted it with the promise that I would do this for you, my beloved fans. I will describe characters for you.

This list is alphabetical. It’s ongoing, but also probably always incomplete. If you need a character description that’s not here, drop me a line in the comments!

ncschardesc

Aqharan Bereth

Voldemort, if Voldemort were creepily handsome instead of just creepy. Bereth is tall (about 6’5″/196 cm) and fairly thin; his shoulders are a little too broad for the rest of his frame. Despite this, he doesn’t move as if he’s top-heavy, but rather like he’s been a professional dancer his whole life.

He has a long face, black hair that reaches to mid-back, ears that are pinned back slightly, and his eyes are a little too far apart. They’re blue. Blue blue. The kind of blue eyes that appear too often in bad fanfiction. Mid-May Mediterranean “nothing that blue actually exists in the real world, I must be hallucinating” blue.  “I will stab your soul” blue. However blue you’re planning to make them, make them bluer.

You know how Angelica can’t stop singing about Alexander’s eyes in Hamilton? Like that. Your impression of this man should be “he can and will kill me with his gaze, and I will let him. I will die happy contemplating these eyes that should not exist. Stare at me, senpai.”

His entire family, and all Rehhn, have skin that ranges from Cardassian gray to paper/snow/icing-sugar white. It’s also pearlescent. Yes, they literally glow.

He tends to wear monochromatic, minimalist suits that are of course made for him. He favors grey tones or muted blues. No embellishments – no buttons, rickrack, etc. People should wonder if he’s sewn into his clothes every morning or what.

Aqharan Mazereth

Mazereth is shorter than her father Bereth, but not much – about 6’2″. She has his too-broad shoulders, but on her they make it look like she’s basically a rectangle and her “curves in all the right places” (and she has curves in all the right places) were pastede on yey.

Her face is more square than round, and her eyes, rather than being “this blue is clearly fake” blue, are “I think they call this color ‘gunmetal'” grey/blue/purple. Her hair is also black, but a slightly warmer/more brown-toned black than her father’s, and it reaches nearly to the small of her back when it’s loose, which it never is.

She favors severe updos and painfully of-the-moment dresses, with heels, in an attempt to make herself look older than she is (she’s about 27 in Earth years). Most of her wardrobe is black, white, red, forest green, or royal blue.

Cordry

Senior Engineer Cordry is 24 years old with an incredibly lanky build – all limbs, no curves. Cordry has hair the color and texture of cornsilk, in an inch-long cut that’s never quite even all the way around, being self-administered. Eyes are hazel-ish. Ears are a little too big for the face. Cordry’s skin tone is very pink even for a white person.

Entire wardrobe is “cargo” – cargo pants, cargo jacket, and so on, along with basic t-shirts in various colors, and always looking like Cordry got dressed in the dark. Everything’s a little too big, which obscures any curves Cordry may or may not have.

Special Agent Quincey Dillon

Medium. Medium everything. Whatever the median human [attribute] is, that’s Dillon. Dillon strikes the viewer as someone who is so utterly the median human that he should not exist. In fact you’re not even sure “he” is the right pronoun.

Favors three-piece suits in shades as medium as his skin tone, with flamboyant ties or those floppy bow-style ties that you see in pictures of Oscar Wilde.

Ideally, all images of Dillon will be generated by feeding billions of photos of human faces to an AI and asking it to generate the median human face. Every result will be equally accurate.

Hayek

Hayek is about 6’5″, big-boned and strongly built but going slightly to seed. The kind of guy you would ask, “Dude, did you play football?”, except the perpetual scowl on his face kind of makes you not want to talk to him at all, in case he answers by punching you in the face.

Hayek’s ancestry is Latino/Hopi; in him they read as “generic Brown dude.” Lips are thin, nose/ears are a little too big and eyes (brown) are a little too small for his face; his nose has definitely been broken and not properly set at least once. His hair is black, but in that phase where it’s interspersed with gray so that it looks either black, charcoal, or salt and pepper depending on the lighting. It’s in a “high and tight” military cut, which doesn’t suit him. He’s not a handsome dude, but there’s something appealing about him when he smiles, which isn’t often.

Always wears combat boots, cargo pants, a basic t-shirt (black or white) sometimes with the sleeves cut off, and a large olive-colored Kevlar-plated jacket. Also always has at least one gun.

Lang

Erin Lang is 19 and is built almost exactly like Cordry, except her hair reaches past her waist (she can almost but not quite sit on it), her eyes are blue (regular blue), made larger by her choice of makeup, and her skin isn’t quite as pink as it is generic white girl. Her ears are quite small and she has a button nose. She has visible curves, unlike Cordry, though this is probably due more to how she dresses.

Lang prefers jeans and t-shirts or sweatshirts, most of which are random graphic tees, often relating to places she has never been or schools she has never attended. She has an oversized olive-colored field jacket of the type commonly found in Army surplus stores, with lots of pockets. Her whole wardrobe looks like she’s assembled it on the run from random thrift stores. Her hair is always worn straight down her back, without bangs.

Lang and Cordry are not actually related, but they look like they could be.

Makkarah Alatwi (Twi)

Twi is a young adult (around 25-30 in human ages), about 6’6″ tall and 300 pounds. There’s not a straight line anywhere in her build except the slope of her nose, which is basically a right triangle. Her eyes are gold; her skin is bright blue – not as bright as Aqharan Bereth’s eyes, but much that same Mediterranean sky color. (Devori skin tones range from royal blue to faded blue-grey, so she’s right in the middle.)

Her hair is the same color as her skin, but streaked with red and gold. The red is natural, the gold is not. She has a sprinkling of bright red freckles across her nose and cheeks.

She wears nondescript slacks or scrubs without embellishment, long-sleeved scoop-neck shirts, and a white lab coat that pulls downward at the shoulders because the pockets are so overstuffed.

Molloy

About 5’4″ and 160ish pounds. I imagine her looking like Mae Jemison, only stockier. Molloy is built like a rectangle and gives the impression that she doesn’t use doors – she just walks straight through the wall. (In fact she has a giant soft spot for little kids and surly a-holes down on their luck, like Hayek.)

She’s 45 at the time of the first book. She dresses like Hayek, only with fewer weapons and a non-armored jacket.

(A note for fan creators: Molloy is a straight-up lesbian. She has never had Those Feelings for a dude in her entire life and she never will.)

Niralans (like, all of them)

The first thing to understand about Niralans is that every single one of them has the same basic face. The Niralan face is round, trending toward oval but not quite, with high cheekbones, a small nose and ears, medium-full lips, and eyes that are slightly larger than expected (with a third eyelid that fully retracts when they’re awake, unless they’re ill, similar to a cat’s), and way too many eyelashes. Skin tone is flat white, like standard flat latex wall paint.

What differ are hair tones, eye colors, the pattern of the kiiste (the black lines that cover the right side of the face and body), and heights/weights, which are influenced by their upbringing to a much larger degree than humans’ heights/weights are.

Nantais: Hair is true black and so are her eyes, with no clear difference between the iris and the pupil. Kiiste consist of four lines that converge and diverge in a twisting pattern across the right side of the forehead, merge completely at the outermost edge of the right eye, and diverge again across the right cheek and jaw and down the neck.

  • Dar Nantais is about 5’3″ and 120 pounds, mostly muscle. She has little in the way of curves; she’s built like she was born to spend her life crammed into small spaces. She’s most noticeable among Niralans by the way her face always looks tense. She wears utility coveralls or jeans and tank tops (usually black).
  • Koa Nantais is taller, about 5’6″, and 130-140 pounds, with considerably more curve (and less relative strength) than her cousin Dar. She moves like she’s not only completely comfortable in her body but enjoys causing pantsfeelings in others. Unlike most Niralans, she loves color and wears a lot of it; she’s very comfortable in full-length dresses. Koa smiles a lot. It’s not always friendly.

Nahara: Hair is blue-black; eyes are navy blue. Kiiste consist of three lines that otherwise look very similar to Nantais’s.

  • Piya Nahara is about 5’6″, barely 110 pounds; she looks bony and underfed, and her cheekbones and eyes are especially prominent. Until the end of Nahara, she never wears anything but a sleeveless black dress with two large pockets that looks like a potato sack.

Niralans get more white hair as they age. Until middle age (about 100 in Earth years), their hair is entirely black; as they get older, more white strands begin to appear, until the hair is completely white around age 175 or so.


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