We were eating breakfast this morning when the smoke detector outside our apartment went off.  It was a less-obnoxious beeping than most smoke detectors, so it took a while to figure out what it was.  But, once we opened the door to check, we could smell the smoke.  That eliminated all doubt.

There wasn’t much smoke and no flames, so we decided to take the time to get dressed and bundled up against the weather, and then went outside.  A neighbor had already called the fire department, so we didn’t have to do anything except hang out and wait until they came.  Most of our neighbors waited in the doorway, rather than stand out in the cold and wind, but I figured I didn’t want to breath even that much smoke.

It was only about 15 minutes before they said we could go back in.  But that, together with a dentist appointment this morning, managed to put a big dent in the day.

The smoke alarm is still beeping every minute or so.  I called the apartment office which said that they had thought it had already been reset, but would check and make sure.  (Which I hope means that they’ll send someone over to take care of it, rather than just check and make sure someone said it had already been done.)

(By the way, my teeth are fine.)

Clarion open for applications

Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers WorkshopClarion, the science fiction and fantasy writers workshop, is open for applications for 2010! As usual, it looks like they’ve got a great line-up of instructors.

I attended Clarion in 2001 and found it a positive experience in every way–I had a great time, I improved my writing, and I got to know a bunch of cool people that I’m still in touch with.

I’ve written some about my Clarion experience: I kept a Clarion journal and I wrote a few short essays about what I learned and how I learned it.

If you’ve got any questions about what Clarion was like for me, I’d be glad to answer them in comments here or by email. (I’m also willing to take a stab at answering questions about other stuff, but things like how applications are processed vary from year to year, and I really only know about how they did things back in 2001.)

The downside of reasonable rules

The apartment complex where we live was built over the course of a decade or so, back in the 1960s. I don’t know what the building code and zoning rules said about things like building spacing, but I imagine that they left quite a bit up to the builder.

Without rules that had to be followed, the builders built the complex with an eye toward maximizing their profit. If you put more units on a piece of property, you can bring in rent from more tenants. But at some point adding more units leads to diminishing returns—adding more buildings makes the space feel sufficiently cramped or crowded that potential tenants view the place as a downscale complex and they won’t pay as much. For a while that can still be profitable—you gain more from the extra units than you lose to lower rents. But squeezing yet another building in won’t just cut the rent on those units, it’ll cut the rent on all the other units as well. Eventually you reach the point where you lose more in rent than you gain from having extra units, so you stop and don’t build that building.

Zoning regulations can change the dynamic. Currently, there are rules in Champaign that limit apartment builders from jamming ever more buildings into a complex.

Apartment complex near where we live
Apartment complex near where we live

This picture is from a newer complex just a few blocks from where we live. The buildings are crammed so close together, it seems to me that you might just as well be living in the same building as your neighbors, as far as noise and privacy go. (This picture shows them face-to-face. Side-to-side they’re even closer.)

Again, I don’t know, but I assume that the buildings are built as close together as zoning regulations allow.  That’s the pernicious side-effect of having that sort of rule.

Because, see, there isn’t just one answer to the question of how closely packed buildings can be before they begin to feel downscale.  It depends on other stuff.  It depends on what people are used to. It depends on what alternatives are available.

When you create a rule, some fraction of the builders are going to aim for the bottom—just meet the rule. Those units aren’t going to be upscale, but there’ll be some people who will rent them.

If there were no rules, of course, some builders might build complexes where the buildings were even closer together than that, but those complexes would seem especially downscale. When you set a minimum, though, everybody who was thinking of someplace in that neighborhood will tend to aim for that same point.

Obviously the people who would have aimed more downscale would be prohibited from doing so. But the people who would have aimed for just slightly better will also be drawn downward. If there were a wide range of densities, builders would see advantages to being just slightly more upscale than the next guy. But with rules setting a lower limit, we don’t see the full range. Instead, we tend to see a binary division between the downscale units that are at the maximum density permitted, versus the upscale units that offer a sufficiently lower density to stand out. The legally mandated minimum becomes normalized (because so many complexes build to that standard) and ends up being a standard, rather than a minimum.

Courtyard outside our apartment
Courtyard outside our apartment

The courtyard outside our apartment is a common area that is actually used by us and our neighbors.  There are picnic tables and grills. The space is comfortable. It’s big enough that we don’t feel like we’re sitting right outside our neighbor’s apartments, but not so big that we feel lost in a vast space.

The space outside the nearby complex, though, feels wretched to me. With the buildings so close together, the space between becomes just a dark corridor. It’s not inviting, which is just as well because there’s no room to do anything there anyway.

In one sense, it doesn’t really matter to me. Our complex exists at its present density, and I can’t imagine that it would make any sense to try find find a way to pack in more buildings. But it makes me sad to see all the other, higher-density, complexes going up. It means that we aren’t getting new options.

The rules that set “reasonable minimums” instead are producing a binary distribution, where our only choices are downscale apartments crammed together or high-priced luxury apartments, where tenants get a reasonable density, but are stuck paying for other amenities that we don’t care about.  It’s the downside of reasonable rules.

Copper Slough

Copper Slough, originally uploaded by bradipo.

Most of Central Illinois would be wet prairie if it weren’t for a network of drainage ditches, such as the Copper Slough. It runs past Kaufman Lake and then on south and west. It merges up with similar ditches and, somewhere around Sadorus starts being called the Kaskaskia Ditch, after which it, presumably, flows into the Kaskaskia.

I liked the mirror-flat surface of the water. I also liked all the drain tiles emptying into the ditch.

The picture was taken from the bridge on O’Malley’s Alley, looking north towards Kaufman Lake.

Creative Commons License
Copper Slough by Philip Brewer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Deciding what to skip

One weak point in my writing is that I sometimes forget to write in scenes. I’m prone to write continuous action, which leads to pages of people just going places and arranging things. Very dull. Very easy to avoid, though, as long as I remember to do so. Just add a scene break and begin a new scene with, “When they arrived at…”

The problem is, an excessive amount of that is just as bad. It’s not as often, but I sometimes find myself summarizing—writing the whole story as a series of brief descriptions of what happened.

I think that’s where I went awry most recently. As often happens when I’ve made a mistake, I found it very hard to write the next bit, leading to several zero word count days this week. So, today I backed up and replaced some of that summary with scenes.

I think that was the right choice. After all, this is a place where they’re going to be spending some time. So, some full-blown scenes of arriving and meeting people seem appropriate. Plus, I enjoyed writing them, which is usually a good sign.

So, that’s 800 words today. With three zeros, though, my moving average is just 216 words. Hopefully I’m over this rough patch and can start making headway again.


The local paper ran a story last week that said that Public Health District was opening up its H1N1 immunizations to all adults under 65.  The story said that they’d have finished with kids and teens last week and there there was plenty of vaccine, so no reason to wait further.

So, Jackie and I went to their clinic at Lincoln Square Village.

It was quite a production.  We showed up right at the time it was supposed to begin, and got number 85 of the second cohort, which meant that 184 households had already gotten numbers to go ahead of us.  It was as big a crowd as I’ve been a member of in a long time.  By the time we were done filling out our paperwork they were well into passing out numbers in the third cohort of households.

Still, despite the crowd, they moved people along quite quickly.  (I think they had 25 stations where immunizations were being administered.)  We waited for perhaps 20 minutes, got called, went in, and got our shots. Very efficient. And free, which is cool for someone trying to make a living as a writer.

I turned 50 back in June, so I was given a shot rather than the flu mist.  I had considered trying to convince them to give me the flu mist instead–as far as I’ve been able to figure out, there’s no data that suggests it wouldn’t be just as effective in someone who was five months over the cut-off age–but eventually decide to just go with the program.

My mom tells me that she got me flu shots regularly when I was a small child.  Because of the health problems that led to my being misdiagnosed with celiac, I was considered someone with an underlying health issue.  I have no memory of that, but I do know that I didn’t get flu shots from when I got old enough to quit seeing the pediatrician (age 17 or so) until about 15 years ago, when I started getting them most years.

The first time I got a flu shot as an adult, my arm was sore for days.  Most shots since then have made my arm a little less sore than the previous time.  I’ve noticed a similar trend with other immunizations–an initial shot may have made me feel quite feverish and achy, but booster shots tend to have less of an effect.  My theory is that a strong reaction means that I had a poor initial immune response–my body geared up to fight an unknown infection.  Contrariwise, a small reaction means that I was already adequately protected–my body immediately recognized the virus as a known quantity and didn’t need to mount any special response.

If that’s true, then I already had an immunity to H1N1–my arm didn’t get sore at all.

As I say, it was kind of interesting.  I don’t usually find myself with so many people in an enclosed space.  I remember thinking, while milling about with the crowd waiting for flu shots, that it was probably the best chance to catch the flu all year.

Five hundred words of calling for help

I’ve known right along that I didn’t really know where the novel was going.  On novel-length efforts I haven’t had much success writing to an outline, so I thought I’d try just writing.  (Another thing I’ve been doing differently this time is giving the chapters to Jackie as I go along, figuring that would give me a little extra push to make each one kind of exciting.)

I’ve been putting in little hints of underlying complexity, even if I wasn’t sure exactly what they mean.  I figure some of them will turn into something.  The others I can leave in if they work as texture or remove if they detract.

For some reason, though, the past couple of days it started bugging me that I didn’t know where I was going.  I was at an inflection point in the story and I thought had an idea for what I wanted to do next, but without an idea of where I was going, it just turned into nothing.  The result was two days with zero word counts.

That was bad, but today I figured out I could write another chunk.  I’d made the not-unusual decision to cut the hero off from most sources of help, but I realized today that I could let him call for help without him actually getting help anytime soon.  Plus, this gives me the chance to insert some exposition if necessary–the response to the call for help can fill in whatever background is needed to put his adventures in the context of the greater story.  (I haven’t written it yet, but I’ll write something, and if it isn’t right I can change it later.)

So, even though I still don’t know what the greater story is, I was able to write 500 words today of calling for help.

Although it daunted me for a couple of days, I think I’m past this cycle of worrying about what the greater story is.  The worst that can happen is that I never do, and I’ll have spent a couple of months writing sixty thousand words that never turns into a novel.  But the couple of months would have gone by whether I’d written sixty thousand words or not.

Word churn

My false starts last week left me with a bunch of words that probably belonged in the novel but not where I’d tried to put them.  The past three days I’ve been working on integrating some of them into the next chapter and moving the rest out of the manuscript.  The result is that I’ve made some forward progress, but without much in the way of net new words.  So, with word counts of 200, 300, and 600, my moving average has slipped under 500.  Still, I’m making forward progress.  In fact, I hit 15,000 words, which is one-quarter of my estimated final length, and I hit it with a neat transition in the story–after having been on the move so far, the characters have finally reached a place they’re going to be for a while.

Perfecting Taiji forms

I studied Aikido briefly when I was living in Salt Lake City. My teacher was a gruff Asian man whose English was just adequate and whose teaching style was not unlike what you see in martial arts movies—he would mock or berate students who got things wrong. I don’t know if he thought that was the best way to get people to learn, or if it was just how his teachers had taught him.  Maybe he just didn’t want to waste his time teaching anyone who could be deterred by a little mocking or berating.

At one point, talking about his philosophy of teaching, he made fun of some locally available Taiji classes that focused on “perfecting” your Taiji forms.  With his somewhat limited English he made it perfectly clear that he thought it was stupid not to learn your Taiji correctly in the first place.

It made sense to me at the time.  I mean, if you’re going to practice something hundreds or thousands of times, surely it makes sense to learn how to do it correctly first, right?  Who’d want to practice doing it badly over and over again?

My current teachers, though, have a completely different attitude.  Unlike any martial arts class I’ve been in, they basically never correct anyone.  This may be partially due to the makeup of the class—mostly old people who might have limited range of motion due to arthritis or some other medical problem.  Also, I think it’s because they’re focusing on the deeper fundamentals—things like shifting your weight and turning your body. Exactly when you turn your hand is simply not as important.

Even more fundamentally, though, it’s because you have to do the practice to learn to feel the difference.  I suppose if you had a private tutor telling you that you were turning your hand too early or were forgetting to straighten your foot, you might spend a little less time practicing the form incorrectly, which would mean that you’d start practicing the form correctly a little sooner.  But I think you’d lose the chance to learn how to feel why one way is wrong and the other way is better.

I have no particular natural ability at things like this—things like martial arts or dance or tennis.  I’ve seen dancers who can pick up choreography in a fraction of a second, copying the lead dancer’s moves so quickly that you can scarcely tell that they’re unrehearsed.  I’m the opposite of that.  It takes me tens or hundreds of tries to get even reasonably close.  However, I’ve been surprised to find that I get a little closer each time, even without an instructor telling me what I’m doing wrong.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the way you learn how to do something is by practicing.  I knew that already.  But it’s been very interesting to see how effective this sort of minimalist instruction is.  The teachers demonstrate the forms, and they answer questions.  There’s no pushing people to do the forms more correctly, and there’s certainly no mocking or berating.  And yet, I’m learning at least as fast as I’ve ever learned anything equivalent in the past.

So, I think my old Aikido teacher was wrong.  It makes perfect sense to start learning Taiji at the most basic level (weight shifting, turning your body), and then to move on to foot work and arm movement, and only then to worry about things like how you move your hands.  It makes perfect sense to have an instructor show you what to do, but then let you learn how to do it through practice.  And, since you can do 90% of the practice entirely on your own, it makes perfect sense to have an advanced course in “perfecting” your Taiji forms, to get whichever small bits don’t come naturally out of your practice.