Helen Michaud

Helen spent ten years in the trenches of book publishing, where she wrote things longhand, wrestled with fax machines, and learned the true meaning of "cut and paste." As a writer, editor, and all-around person-who-builds-things-with-words, she now works at a small software company in Cambridge, Mass. with one foot in the future and the other stuck in a peat bog of legacy content, technology, and methodology. Which is not to say anything against peat bogs.

Let’s Go Steal Us the Internet

I’m not someone who’s ever been accused of being an activist. I mean, I’ve written a manifesto or two, I suppose — who hasn’t? But I wanted to say something about the pair of bills currently on everyone’s mind, because they’re kind of insane. Here’s a good analogy to show just how insane:

SOPA and PIPA are the effective equivalent of blowing up every road, bridge, and tunnel in New York to keep people from getting to one bootleg stand in Union Square — but leaving the stand itself alone. [source]

But what can I say about these bills that smarter, more articulate people haven’t already said? I was going to try to speak from the perspective of a publisher who’s more interested in supporting talented writers and who would rather have more people read the awesome stuff those writers have written than use the vise-grip of copyright to squeeze every last penny from it, but you know what? You shouldn’t listen to me, you should listen to Tim O’Reilly.

I was going to talk about how the benefits of copyright law today skew toward the various content industries rather than individual creators, and I was going to try to do this from the point of view of a writer with a nonzero amount of tech savvy, but Cory Doctorow has way more cred than I do and has totally got this covered.

I certainly can’t do a better or more informative historical overview to these bills explaining just why they’re harmful than Wetmachine’s own Harold Feld.
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Uncharted, Recharted, Charts Lost

I’m a big fan of the writer Robin Sloan, not only for the output of his writing, but for his process, and the way in which he offers his readers access to (and participation in) that process. If you go over to his website, there’s an invitation to enter your email address “for secrets, etc.” I dropped my email in the box some time ago, and it’s a low-traffic, high-delight kind of subscription that reminds me a lot of the experience of backing Robin’s Kickstarter project and following along with him as he made a book.

A recent missive of his opened thus:

Ahoy-hoy!

(That’s what Alexander Graham Bell wanted people to say when they picked up the telephone. I love stuff like that; it reminds us that every medium was wacky and uncharted once.)

It’s stuck in my mind since reading it, but perhaps not exactly in the way Robin meant it. Because what it reminds me of is the way that every medium, however familiar, becomes uncharted. That’s why I’m fascinated by things like telegraph code — we think omitting vowels, substituting homophonic numbers, and using acronyms to shave character count is zomg-clever, though I guess characters are comparatively cheap these days. And what about calling cards (not the plastic pre-paid kind) — how cool were they? But would you know how to interpret the turned-down corner of a calling card now? That reminds us that all communication is predicated on convention, on a shared set of assumptions about what we want to say to each other. People who came from Twitter to Facebook sound different from those who migrated in the other direction. Read More »

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Writing Patterns

The corners of the Internet that I frequent are thick with writing advice, and I recently came across a few really good “what not to do” posts. It sent me trolling through my old bookmarks for posts in a similar vein, and when I started thinking about putting a set of links together for a post on Wetmachine, it occurred to me that (keeping in mind one of the purported themes of this blog, the intersection between writing prose and developing software) one of the reasons they are so appealing is that they are in a sense, a set of anti-patterns for fiction.

Design Patterns is of course the seminal work by the so-called “Gang of Four” that described a small set of elegant solutions to common software problems. It’s somewhere between a box of assorted legos and one of those kits that comes with exact instructions for how to make some complicated model — or perhaps more accurately, it’s a set of base folds for software origami. Anyway, it created a vocabulary for certain useful software designs and has not only provided fodder for more than a decade of entry-level interviews but also spawned the idea of the anti-pattern — the designs that are just as commonly used in the wild, but shouldn’t be.
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Persistence is Futile

We have some new developers at the day job learning a new-to-them Rich Internet Application platform (which shall remain nameless on this blog). Our resident RIAPWSRNOTB guru on the team suggested that they write a Tic-Tac-Toe game as practice.

“I think you should do Global Thermonuclear War instead,” I suggested.
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Brevity is the soul

[The most sure-fire way not to get a blog post written is to mention that you are writing it. So this is not the post I talked about last time, either.]

The theme of this post is: one word, one story.

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Revision Control

I’ve had a blog post percolating in my head for a while. It hasn’t quite taken form yet, but meanwhile it’s been gathering related ideas like iron filings to a magnet. So here’s a companion piece to the post I haven’t written.

Agent Nathan Bransford wrote a humorous take this week on the maxim that “writing is rewriting,” which reminded me of a story that anyone who reads my writing should hear at least once:

In math class, my sophomore year of high school, we sometimes did proofs. Putting axioms in the hands of adolescents can be a dangerous thing. Give them a few equations and the transitive property, and there’s no telling where they’ll end up. Whenever a student was called to the board to share his solution to a problem, and reached Q.E.D. but kept going anyway, our teacher would interrupt and say, “Stop right there. You’re fingerpainting.”

He wasn’t ridiculing anyone but himself.

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Proficiently Enhanced

When John asked me to write here, I was tempted mainly for two reasons. The first was that I had a lot of ideas tumbling around my head about the publishing industry, the software industry, and the ways in which they are both alike and different. When I have something in my head, my natural impulse is to write it down. I was contemplating hanging out my own shingle on the World Wide Web. But while I was planning my own perfect site, John offered a spot at Wetmachine, and it struck me that this was a place that was already well suited for sharing these writings.

We are certainly living in interesting times, when publishers are grappling with tectonic shifts in technology and culture, while creators are exploring new ways of reaching audiences. “They” have been saying that media is dying for longer than I can remember, but to me that sounds like a meaningless statement. I think media is about to get bigger than ever, in almost every way imaginable, and some ways we can’t even conceive of yet. When it comes to the media of tomorrow, I believe there are going to be even more ways to discover words, images, sounds, and ideas than there are today, more ways to soak them in and have them become a part of you.

You can get a taste of this every day just by dipping your cup into the ever-churning sea of the Internet, which is the other reason I wanted to write here. There are people everywhere doing fascinating things that stretch our ideas of what art is, or what a story looks like. There are tons of smart people writing about some of the same topics that I’m preoccupied with. I wanted a place to share these discoveries as well.

Now, my goal here is not to be another conduit for memes flowing from screen to glowing screen, but writing on the Web is inherently about creating links, making connections, and spreading ideas. So sometimes I’ll use this space just to offer you a sip from my cup when I’ve found something brilliant and to say “try this — it’s awesome” but most of the time I hope to build upon what already exists out there and contribute something that is worth folding back into the mix.

I didn’t exactly plan for my first link here to be to one of my own projects. I believe it’s both interesting and germane, but I’ll let you be the judge. It’s a new science fiction magazine that I’m starting with some friends. My role is editorial director, and I wanted to give a little insight into what that means to me.

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Sufficiently Advanced

Well, now, how do I follow that introduction from John, here in his arena with the spotlight on? Best stick with the original plan.

Ahem.

What do I mean by “Incantations”?

Well, it’s about this: I believe in magic. I believe magic is happening right now, and that you are a part of it. See, I’m typing these words and, at some future point in time from where I’m sitting now, you are reading them. And two amazing things are happening. I am sending the thoughts that are currently passing through my brain into the future and, even more miraculously, into your brain.

We do this every day, but it doesn’t make it any less fantastic. Sure, it’s not always perfect. In fact, it hardly ever is. We misspeak. We misunderstand. Information and nuance gets lost or mangled in the transmission, and the worst part of the whole transaction is that it’s so hard to tell the ways in which we’ve fallen short. We may never really know the full extent of our failure, or how to repair it. I’ve spent most of my conscious life fascinated by how we use language and most of my working life in search of ways to wield that tool to best effect.

I started the quest in trade publishing — an industry that takes the words of millions of hopeful scribes, winnows them down, polishes them up, and in the end, produces these magnificent artifacts called books. Whether you think publishers are any good at any part of this process of selecting, editing, designing, printing, and distributing books; whether you think they have their priorities straight; whether you think they are likely to survive the next decade, year, or season — and I have my own opinions — I still believe the overall endeavor is a worthy one. I learned so very much in that milieu, including the fact that, in the end, Big Trade Publishing isn’t my game.

Instead my journey has taken me into the field of technical documentation for computer software (with a push in that direction from one John Sundman, we should note). Sure, it’s a different world. We have source code repositories instead of bookshelves. Web sites backed by hard drives instead of shopfronts supplied by warehouses. But all this — intelligently arranging ones and zeros to a particular purpose — is its own realm of magic, just like artfully arranging words in sequence. And at the core, my part in this new world is the same as it always was. I may be documenting APIs, but really I’m working on brain-to-brain interfaces, implanting information into people’s heads in the most effective way possible.

So what I plan to write about here is technology and publishing, language and code. I want to practice a little magic and telepathy. I aim to put thoughts into your head for your consideration. Whether you’re ultimately convinced by them or not, I hope to at least reshape or augment existing thoughts that you’re already carrying around with you. I also hope you’ll do the same, and use this complex system that enables communication between you and me to put thoughts in my head that weren’t there before, or to turn the kaleidoscope in my brain a notch. Truthfully … I want this all to be a little mystical.

My posts probably won’t be terribly timely. They may not always be deep. But I hope that, from time to time, you will find them interesting. I have so much in my head that I want to pour through the ether into yours. And so:

Hello, Wetmachine world. How do you do?

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