Today started off as one of those days where for a couple of hours I couldn’t get my brain out of second gear. First gear is barely enough to get out of bed and accomplish Activities of Daily Living (a phrase I learned from my psychiatrist recently talking about my need to drop one of my antidepressants). I had enough brainpower to safely drive to my morning errands, but not enough to write.

When I got home I sat in front of my “happy light” (a lamp to help combat Seasonal Affective Disorder, S.A.D.) I got out my journal and started writing “Morning Pages” by hand. My writer friends recommended this as a way of connecting one’s subconscious to one’s fingers, and make concrete whatever potentially interesting ideas might be floating around hidden below conscious perception. Mine usually start off as diary entries, and in the past I viewed that as gunk that wasn’t contributing to the “real purpose” of getting subconscious thoughts out in plain view. But this morning I realized that I could look at this as getting that “gunk” out of the way to allow the more interesting stuff out.

After that, I still wasn’t getting any story-related ideas onto the page. All I could think about is how, at the moment, I’m facing about a half-dozen story questions I have to answer before I can summarize the ending of my WIP as part of a synopsis that in theory I’m supposed to submit to my critique group next Tuesday. I have a list of story questions to answer (about 100 in all, for the full novel) and a few alternatives to each, but some alternatives for one don’t fit with some alternatives for others. I decided that what I need to do is look at the story questions and their alternatives in a different way: outline a few different endings, each listing which alternatives lead to that ending. It’s as though story questions and their multiple possible answers are two columns in a table; in essence, I had been focusing on story questions separately, when I should have been focusing on answers to those questions.

That lead to a realization that I was doing meta-meta-storywriting. “Meta” is a prefix that comes from a Greek word for “beyond” but which in Computing has come to mean “a ‘higher’ level that comments on or analyzes a ‘lower’ level of the same kind of thing.” So for data, like an image, there is meta-data, information about that image, like geotags and date it was created. Storywriting is the thing that matters most in the long run. Various kinds of writing preparation, like outlines, worldbuilding, and character sketches are meta-storywriting: writing about the storywriting. Planning how to do the meta-storywriting is meta-meta-storywriting.

So this morning I was two levels removed from what most people think of as writing, but it’s all part of the process a writer has to follow.

Mental Health and NaNoWriMo

Back to 2006…

I suffer from chronic depression, and spent 15 years on disability leave (1999-2014) because of it. In 2006 we finally found a drug that stabilized my moods, but I still couldn’t concentrate well enough for long enough to do what a professor needs to do. I was stable enough to look for something else that used whatever brainpower I did have, and remembered that when I was in grade school I had written stories. My psychiatrist said this would use different parts of the brain from the analytical thinking I’d been robbed of, so some amount of creative writing might be possible. That November I participated in National Novel Writing Month for the first time, with the goal of writing a 50,000-word partial first draft of a novel in 30 days. This kind of creative writing, in “discovery writer” (“pantser”) mode, basically consists of connecting your subconscious to your fingers and applying at least enough brainpower to make coherent sentences and paragraphs. It’s a very different kind of brain work from creating lectures and reading or writing technical papers, and it was quite an emotional uplift to be able to succeed at it (51,970 words, according to the NaNoWriMo website).

It wasn’t until 2012 that we found an augmenter that aided concentration, and over the next couple of years I slowly worked up the number of hours in which I could do my job, until in 2014 I got to 60% of a normal workload, the minimum for going back to work. Unfortunately, that drug recently starting causing unacceptable side effects, and at the beginning of March I started a trial of going without it. The bad effects nearly disappeared, but my concentration collapsed back to 2006 levels. I still have an hour or so on a fair number of days, but that’s far too little to do my job. So I had to go on medical leave.
Now we’re in April 2023, which features Camp NaNoWriMo, a variant of the November event where you can set your own word count goal. I picked 24,000 words (800 per day); at my historical 10-12 words per minute, that’s an hour to an hour and a half per day. I usually can’t concentrate on technical things for that long, but I thoughy maybe I could do some creative word generation.

Eleven days in, I’ve managed to get ahead of my goal and it seems likely I can succeed, which to some extent mitigates the angst over not being able to do some academic things that were important to me. I’ve missed the “achieve par every day” badge, but I have managed to do at least a little writing every day. Perhaps I can keep it up after the extra motivation of NaNoWriMo fades.

Wish me luck.

Review of National Treasure: Edge of History

My household just finished watching the finale of National Treasure: Edge of History, the Disney+ spinoff from the Nicholas Cage National Treasure movie and its sequel, and for some bizarre reason I went to look at its Rotten Tomatoes score: tomatometer 38%, audience 49% as of February 17. I guess my tastes don’t match those of critics or internet audiences, because I liked it a lot. It occurred to me that maybe too many people watched it who aren’t in its target audience.

So I decided to write a review based on Spider Robinson’s principle when reviewing for Galaxy in the 1970’s: the purpose of a review is to help you decide whether to read the story (or, watch the show). Here are some thoughts on who might like the show and who might not. Some (in my opinion very minor) spoilage, but just enough to help you decide.

The first issue is genre (and sub-genre), the kind of story it is. Edge of History is a treasure hunt, a subset of action-adventure involving solving puzzles and following alternate-history clues to track down a MacGuffin (a thing whose pursuit motivates the characters, in this case a treasure hidden by indigenous people at the time of the Spanish conquest), pursued by a Bad Guy who is after the same thing for nefarious purposes. Taking liberties with history (and deviation from facts in general) bothers some people more than the usual liberties fiction takes. The exceptional cleverness needed to solve the clues strikes some people as unrealistic. If you hated the original National Treasure movie, you’re not likely to appreciate the series.

The second issue is the characters. Jess Valenzuela and her buddies are an ensemble case (with Jess as the protagonist), and some people don’t like ensembles (preferring fewer people to keep track of and get to know). They are in their mid twenties; some people in a social media thread I read objected to young people being knowledgeable enough to solve the clues, comparing them unfavourably to Nicholas Cage’s middle-aged expert who had been hunting treasure all his life. I didn’t have any trouble with this; Jess’ abilities and knowledge are lampshaded as unusually good, and I find hacker Tasha’s information-gathering skills quite believable. The others each make their own lesser contributions to the search, and their interactions seemed in-character and believable, with just the right (moderate) amount of drama and disagreement.

The third issue is casting. For some people the absence of Nicholas Cage was a deal-breaker; maybe they don’t like spinoffs? A distressing number of comments I saw complained about “wokeness;” movies led by female or nonwhite characters often attract review-bombing. I found the cast to be delightfully diverse: The protagonist and primary antagonist are both female; Jess is Mexican, legally in the USA via DACA; Tasha is black; Ethan is nonwhite, played by an actor with Malaysian parents. Their different backgrounds contributed to their ability to solve the mystery.

A couple of minor issues relate to format (mini-series instead of movie). Investing 485 minutes instead of 131 (the original movie) makes some people more demanding. Movies generally have faster pacing and higher budgets than mini-series, so for some people a TV series is inherently less fun than a movie. There are also things people lump under “quality.” I found the pacing, cinematography, and production values all quite reasonable for a TV show, but clearly some people’s mileage varies.

So if genre, characters, casting, and format fit your tastes, you’ll probably enjoy the show.

Beta Reading Revisited: the ABCDEF approach

Back in April 2019 I summarized the ABCD approach to beta reading that Mary Robinette Kowal taught me (probably in her Patreon livestream writing class), wherein readers limit themselves to describing their reactions, not diagnosing problems or prescribing solutions. The reader categorizes their comments as

  • A(wesome): Examples: a great turn of phrase; a wonderful reveal; definitely keep this bit.
  • B(ored): Examples: infodump or description went on too long; I’ve lost interest in the character; the plot isn’t advancing.
  • C(onfused): Examples: I don’t understand what is going on here; this passage contradicts that one; who is talking here?
  • D(isbelief): Examples: The character wouldn’t do that based on what we’ve seen so far; nobody sane would bring a slug-thrower on a spaceship.

One of my fellow Writing Excuses Retreat alumni added an “E(xpectaton)” for things like: at this point I expect that thus-and-so will eventually happen; I take this as a promise to readers that such-and-such.

I’ve been applying this method for a while, and think I need one more: “F(lung) out of the narrative.” It’s kind of a catch-all for anything that didn’t fit under one of the other categories: a micro- or macro-aggression; a squicky piece of prose; a sudden unforeshadowed change in tone.

Avoiding prescription turns out to be harder for a lot of people than I originally expected. For example, “I don’t know who is talking here” is an unarguable Confused reaction; “add a dialogue tag” (e.g. “[name] said”) is a debatable prescription (one could make the speaking style more distinctive, or one could add an action that used the speaker’s name instead of just a tag, e.g. “[name] shifted uneasily in his chair”).

To get us both “on the same page”, when I ask somebody to beta read for me, or when they ask me to read for them, I plan to send them a link to this post. I hope this proves useful to others. I also recommend viewing MRK’s video from several years ago that started me off in this direction; it includes guidance on receiving feedback as well as giving it. There’s also her more recent infographic (originally found on the possibly dying birdsite).

What I’ve Learned About Mastodon This Month

I am writing this in November 2022, during the great Flight From the Birdsite; I haven’t fled (yet) but decided it was wise to claim my own handle somewhere on Mastodon, one of the proposed alternatives (find me at My nature as a scholar led me to collect and organize a lot of links I found this month concerning my potential new social media home.

One of the first thing to understand about Mastodon before you even begin to start trying to use it is that it is “federated,” meaning there are a lot of different ‘instances’ (that is, what most people call ‘servers’) instead of one massive central one. This has a lot of implications for your experience. Content moderation practice, and kicking out problematic users, is entirely up to the local system administrators and their content moderation team (if they have one). So when someone talks about their experiences with the service, bear in mind that your mileage may vary depending on the instance you chose. For example:

  • You can follow people on other instances, but your choice does matter because of the Local timeline, which is just the people on your own instance. Some smaller instances cater to particular communities, so Local might be worth following in its entirety. For example, aims at the speculative fiction community (and hosts several writers I follow); wants to attract people ‘who view the universe through wonder.’
  • Your choice of instance needn’t be permanent; you can migrate. There are a lot of small instances in the fediverse.
  • Many instances purge media attachments after some time, which could be as short as a week. So don’t look at Mastodon as an archive. Archive.Org may be trying to set up something for this purpose, but that isn’t clear as of this writing. Your local instance may preserve local media longer than it preserves that from other instances.
  • Your instance could choose to block everything from some other instance it considers problematic – such as being a source of too many abusive posts. Or vice versa. This means you could lose access to people you’ve been following, through no fault of either of you (other than a forced “guilt by association” ruling for picking your particular instance).

Before you start, you should consider what Twitter user @rahaeli, one of the founding members of the LiveJournal Trust and Safety team (who knows more about the Internet than all but a small fraction of us) considers a bare minimum for signing up for a new service. She doesn’t currently think Mastodon meets these minimum standards, though that could depend on the instance you’re considering.

The first things to look at are a FAQ and five guides on joining and using Mastodon. There are also several things I discovered by reading other posts, which might be worth pointing out even if you’ve read the guides:

  • Mastodon is designed to resist posts going viral.
  • You can use debirdify to transport your follow and block lists from the birdsite via a CSV file.
  • Since you’re not flooded with ads, you can afford to follow more people and more hashtags than on some other social networks.
  • There are several mechanisms for dealing with unwanted content. Some things work differently from what you might be used to. For example, you can mute someone for minutes, hours, or days, instead of permanently (at least, from the web browser interface).
  • For accessibility reasons, to be kind to people who use screenreaders:
    • Put hashtags at the ends of posts instead of in the middle, so the reader doesn’t pronounce “hashtag” every time. I violated this rule on my introductory post, because I wanted to fit a lot into the 500 character limit, but I am trying to do better now.
    • Use ALT text for all your images. There is a bot that will remind you if you follow it:
    • Use CamelCase for hashtags (that is, capitalize each word in a multi-word tag).
  • Sometimes people use the Content Warning (CW) mechanism as a Content Wrapper, to hide looong posts or those the writer expects have a limited audience.
  • Direct Messages on Mastodon aren’t private, and mentioning someone adds them to the conversation.

There is controversy about Content Warnings, in that some people from marginalized communities want to be able to express their experiences without having to hide them behind a CW, and others from the same communities want people to use CWs so they can choose when to deal with what is a constant issue in their lives. I have no insight into how to resolve this. Complicating this issue is that some un-marginalized people police CWs to protect their own fragility, which seems to me constitutes harassment. If somebody posts to a hashtag you follow with content you don’t like, you can mute or block them.

Running Your Own Instance

If you’re a techie, it might appear to be relatively easy to set up and run an instance. It may or may not be easy to set up (my tech skills have declined over the years, so it’s harder for me to judge), but it’s not easy to run, for socio-legal reasons rather than technical ones.

Most of the issues boil down to one thing: Content moderation, which is a lot more fraught than Some People think. You absolutely need to read Twitter user @rahaeli’s journal entry about legal liability for social media sites. A Mastodon mod with 5 years’ experience posted a guide to running a Mastodon instance that talks about some of the same issues. It’s not at all clear what fraction of instance admins are aware of all of this, but for several years Mastodon has had proposed workflow for DMCA takedowns, which is only one of many issues you need to be aware of.


So far I’m happy with Mastodon. The total lack of ‘promoted tweets’ and ads is refreshing, and the lack of Quote Tweet means I see a lot less expression of outrage over stuff I’d rather not see. Like most Twitter migrants, my collection of followers has collapsed, but I have plenty of friends to follow; my tolerance for volume is relatively low because I really, really want to read (or at least skim) every post. For example, I am currently following #WritingCommununity, which I couldn’t cope with on Twitter.