Thursday, August 30, 2012

Han Solo Did Not Shoot First

You may have heard about a certain controversy about the movie Star Wars. In this movie, there is a confrontation between Han Solo and a bounty-hunter named Greedo. The confrontation ends with gunplay and Greedo is shot.

In the original theatrical release one guy shot first, and in subsequent releases on VHS, DVD and Blue Ray the other guy did.

You may think that Han Solo shot first, but he didn't. The theatrical release of Star Wars was in 1977. 11 years before that Sergio Leone directed, "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly." The movie begins with three vignettes wherein Clint Eastwood--the good, Lee Van Cleef--the bad, and Eli Wallach--the ugly in turn introduce themselves to the audience.

Lee Van Cleef, playing the character Angel Eyes, makes an unwelcome visit to someone with information and he sits down at the man's table. While he interrogates the man, who is in fear of his life, he eats the man's supper. Eventually, the man goes for his gun, and Angel Eyes shoots through the table killing the man in cold blood. Moments later, he guns down the man's oldest son. The scene makes it clear that this character is one stone-cold murderer. He's Bad.

Fast forward 11 years and George Lucas is making his own film. He's introducing a character and he wants to demonstrate that this character is not a nice guy. Lucas grabs the shoot-through-the-table without warning gag that he and most of his audience has already seen. In moments, Han Solo is seen through the lens of Lee Van Cleef's portrayal of Angel Eyes.

That was then. The kids nowadays haven't seen any Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns before they see Star Wars. Unlike a generation ago, things are reversed, kids interpret Angel Eyes' gunplay through the lens of Han Solo and Greedo instead.

Lucas now wants a softer, kinder and gentler Han Solo who's more fitting with a lovable rogue, not a stone-cold killer.
And that's why I think Lucas felt he had to change a scene that worked better the first time.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hoist that Petard! or I am Wile E Coyote

So, no sooner had the pixels cooled on my last post--The one where I beat up Victoria Foyt for writing something easily construed as racist--that a friend reported something about something I'd said. And moments later I was hoist on my own petard!

One of the corollaries to Murphy's Law is that if you ever write something bad about someone else, you'll misspell a word. Or in some other way get a cosmic payback. Here's how Murphy got me.

Every August one of my favorite activities is BarCampGR. It's an un-conference where a bunch of like minded geekishly-inclined people get together. The program is simple. Every attender is a presenter. You just have to think about something others may find interesting, and give a half-hour talk on that topic. Just sign up for a time slot and an room.

Two years ago, a friend, Matt Heusser and I gave a team-talk on the topic of Technical Debt.

This year, I gave a talk on "How to Publish an E-Book." Matt was in attendance and took notes. He then reported on my talk here. Now, keep in mind that I spent less than an hour preparing for the talk and I just made a simple text-file check-list. My notes were written in a fast-and-loose fashion off the cuff intended to entertain more than seriously inform.

I wrote this in my notes: Create a snazzy cover with a pretty girl.

When I got to this point in my talk, I took pains to emphasize that a handsome guy would work very well, too. (Not for me, because I like girls more than I like guys.)

Sex sells and sexy guys are appealing to more book buyers than sexy girls, because more book buyers are girls than guys.

However, my friend Matt omitted the handsome guy remarks from his report. So, this morning I catch flack from some guy on Twitter for being sexist.

There's a lesson in this. Life isn't fair and sometimes you'll catch flack despite the best of intentions.

Am I a sexist? I say I'm not, but you might find evidence to the contrary in that book with the pretty girl on the cover. You should buy it and find out for yourself.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I'd Like to Thank Hitler

NO! I don't thank Hitler! Because everything Hitler stood for, I stand against. The title of this post refers to a skit by The Kids in the Hall, summarized here that depicts a career-destroying utterance of an idiot.

A literary analogue was recently perpetrated by Ms. Victoria Foyt who claims not to be a racist. Yet, she has written a series of books "Save The Pearls" that refers to blacks as "coals" and whites as "pearls." This is not prima facie evidence of racism. But close.

I detest those who find racism where it is not. For example, Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain has been called racist.

Look at the illustration, the black guy is kneeling! It's racist because Huck uses the n-word! 

But Huck is saves the life of his friend Jim who happens to be black and learns to recognize an escaped slave is a far better man than the white scalawags called the duke and the king.

Is it worse to use the n-word or to make a codeword of "coal?" I don't know. I will not judge Ms. Foyt innocent or guilty of racism, because nobody will pay me to gather the evidence to render an informed judgment. Instead, I'm interested in the controversy.

Sometimes, the way you make a point makes it impossible for anyone to hear that point. A good example an idea that Ann Coulter advanced a few years ago. One must separate sympathetic feelings for a person from the merits of what that person is advocating. If Hitler advocates that two plus two is four, then we cannot let our distaste for Hitler make us innumerate.

Instead of saying something like that, Ms. Coulter referred to 9-11 widows as crying, hysterical women. Passions have cooled a little in the intervening years, but the colossal insensitivity of saying "crying, hysterical women" drowned out anything else she had to say. Yes, she gained a lot of notoriety from the remarks, and she was invited to all the chat shows, but nobody cared a fig about the essence of her argument, just the outrageous clothing it wore.

When you sit down to write, have in mind what you want to say. There are live, high-voltage lines that if you brush up against them, the sparks and fire will blind your readers to it. (If you think some politician is a poopy-head, half the people in the country voted for that poopy-head and the other half voted against him. Do you want your reader response to depend upon party affiliation? I don't, because I'm a Whig.) You need to be sensitive to where the high-voltage lines are and stay clear of them.

Our words are not judged by what we intend, but by how they are received.

If you have a character say, "that's mighty white of you," your readers might not appreciate the fact that you intended it as a gentle dig against white people. My sainted mother never held any ill will against followers of Judaism, yet she used the idiom "Jewing him down" when she meant nothing besides negotiating a better price. You can use idiomatic language like that, but when you do, sparks can fly. Those sparks may not be what you want.

Just ask Ms. Foyt.

Monday, August 27, 2012

HItting The Wall At 10,000 Feet

If you hit the wall at 10,000 feet, you're dead. When I did it at 6 inches, I was OK.

When you're at 10,000 feet, you're generally in an airplane going over 100 miles per hour. But when I hit the wall at 6 inches, I was a kid on a tricycle going a lot slower.

What has this to do with writing?

When you think about what you are writing, abstraction matters. If you think at a very abstract level, you can see entire planets at a glance, whereas at the least abstract level, you are amidst a forest of atoms. My point is more obvious in writing software than in writing novels: When you're debugging lines of code you need the atomic details. When you're laying out a system architecture, you need to be able to see the whole thing. You need to think more abstractly.

But I'm a writer, not a programmer!

Fair enough, but you cannot write without thinking. And this is about thinking about your writing.

But I'm a pantser, not an outliner!

Fair enough, but I'm pushing thinking, not outlining.

If you're writing by the seat of your pants, you are thinking about the sentence you are writing, and the next paragraph, and rest of the scene. This thinking is important for things like getting the grammar and spelling right. Or making a clear and interesting paragraph or scene. Maybe even setting up for the next scene. This kind of thinking is very similar to what a programmer does when he's in the code. It's vital, but this thinking is subject to tunnel vision. It's subject to missing the forest for the trees.

At some point you have to think about your work as a whole. A haiku or a vignette can generally be seen as a whole while you're writing. But longer works like novels cannot be seen as a whole without a higher level of abstraction.

You have to think about your work as a whole, because if you don't you won't know what to do if you hit the wall. Gentle reader, you may have never hit the wall. Good for you. I distinctly recall the time when I was about 60% done with my first novel. And I got stuck. I'd written myself into a corner and I could see no way out.

When that happened to me I consulted the notes that I had taken when I had thought through the novel as a whole before I ever started writing. These written notes showed me where I'd deviated from my originally intended story arc. They showed me where the story was going. Seeing this, and thinking at this higher level of abstraction, I could see how to modify my notes to get from where I had written to where I had to go.

In software development they talk about pseudocode, where you describe things at a higher level of abstraction so you can clarify your intent. In movies, they have storyboards, where the script is abstracted to a comic book representation. In your writing project, you need to think at a sufficiently high level of abstraction to take in the work as a whole. When you think at this level you'll see problems that you can solve at this level.

Those "notes" you mentioned; they were an outline weren't they!

Yes, they were. And if you're insistent upon not outlining, then don't. Make your notes in the way that's most effective for you.

Perhaps as a synopsis. You'll need a synopsis sooner or later, why not sooner? Or better, why not write a Product Description. Look at any book you might buy on Amazon. What you will see in every one of the 101,501 works available for purchase is a Product Description. That Product Description is what will move me to buy the work or move on. I don't think I'm alone in this.

Finding TimeThe Amazon Product Description should be an accurate seen-as-a-whole representation of your writing project. You can examine it to decide whether it works or not. If you write it before you start your novel, you can show your friends or folks from your target market and ask whether they would buy it or not. As you write and you discover the work needs to go somewhere else, you can revise the Product Description. Later, when your work is finished and you shop around your work to some agent or editor, Or Better when you put it up on Amazon, it will be a polished gem.

If you have a Product Description that works, when you hit the wall, it won't be at 10,000 feet, because you've already thought things through at that level. If you've thought the work through in a more detailed, thorough manner, you will have solved more problems up front. If you're lucky, you'll find you hit the wall at 6 inches and you haven't even dented your trike.

Oh, and if you'd like to see a larger version of the penultimate image, you can find it here.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Are you trying to get Fresh with me?

Writer's Mantra #21:
There are no new plots, but there are plenty of fresh characters

Let's talk about Romantic Comedies for a moment. I'm not your expert in Romance, but I have a soft spot in my head for movies of the Romantic Comedy persuasion. Generally, I have to watch them in Hindi, because Bollywood does them best.

There is invariably an airport in the 3rd act where he's leaving town, or she's leaving town, or they both leave town. Or something like that. And rain. And there's a dark moment. The audience is lead to think that they're not going to get together (but we know they will) and then one or the other lovers Does Something Unique to overcome that final obstacle preventing them from falling into each other's arms.

Note in that formula the underlined part. The key is that the character does something unique. Maybe he's a dashing young lawyer/doctor who mastered the slingshot as a child. You can count on him using the slingshot to knock out the air-traffic control radar to delay the flight just long enough for him to say, "I love you" to the girl before they haul him off. The doctor/lawyer part is pretty standard stuff, but the slingshot--not everyone does them.

Aristotle cataloged plots in Poetics thousands of years ago. Shakespeare and others have devised categorizations of all dramatic situations, such as this one by Georges Polti. I started with the Romantic Comedy because it is so narrowly constrained plot-wise.

The way you prevent your story from being like all the other stories is your characters. When you populate your story with characters, you must be aware of archetypes. Because there are a finite set of archetypes. Dashing officers. Brooding lairds of the manor. Doctor/Lawyers.

Cheap escapes from archetypes are obvious variations, like making the girl the Dashing officer and the guy the impoverished Governess. Obvious substitutions are less creative than subtle variations or characters who completely avoid the archetype, like a dashing Accountant with a penchant for Guns.

People can be stereotyped. And you shouldn't do that. People are as complicated as the truth. You make one blanket statement about some part of a person, e.g. good or evil, and then you can find bits about the person that falsifies that statement. Oh, the person is good, s/he's just not perfect. Or the person is evil, but his mother loves him. And after you go about finding those exceptions you find exceptions to exceptions. The person is good, except for his alcoholism, but he doesn't drink on Sunday. And the exceptions upon exceptions get smaller and smaller. The distinctions get finer until the portrait emerges.

I was taught and I believe that mankind bears the image of deity. This is not a religion blog, but this is a religious premise for something you may agree with even if your faith totally contradicts mine: People are all different. In a world of 10 billion people, there will be 10 billion distinct individuals. I come to this conclusion based on the notion that an infinite deity will be projected onto humanity in as many different ways as there are perspectives of that infinite deity. You may toss out the why, but I hope you'll grant me the what.

As people are all different, your characters can be all different, too. Not just different from all your other characters, but different from every other writer's characters.

Even if all you do is write a roman à clef whose characters are all your friends and enemies, your characters should be distinct from every other character devised by the mind of mankind.  You just have to give the characters more depth than cardboard.

Suppose you've got a dashing doctor, but that dashing doctor did some things other dashing doctors didn't do. Like clean up after his dad who used to come home drunk. Or become an expert in the slingshot. Think through your character's backstory and imagine the events that distinguish him from all the other doctors. Such thinking is scaffolding and you will do well to do a thorough job of setting up scaffolding and take notes.

Just as you want to avoid stereotypes, you'll also want to avoid Mary Sues.

Finally, you need to make your characters deep enough to be clearly identifiable as distinct individuals. After that, plug in your favorite plot and go to town.

Let's look at an example of this in action. I got an idea from Brenda Clough after I read her story May Be Some Time--that she expanded it into a novel here. (You should buy it.) The premise of her story is that polar explorer Titus Oates of the doomed Scott Expedition to the South Pole is rescued by time travelers. He is brought to the near future and adventure ensues.

I love that story. I loved it so much that I latched onto a historical tidbit: The Nazis set up clandestine radio broadcasting stations to spoof the radio navigation systems of aircraft being ferried across the Atlantic. This resulted in at least one lost squadron. I told her about it, but she didn't want to write it.

So I imagined a lost squadron misled by the Nazis and forced to ditch in Greenland's Icy Mountains. And I imagined someone with a time machine to rescue them. Why would someone go to the bother of rescuing the pilots? I wondered. He's got something the future boys need. What? The only thing I could imagine of sufficient value was theoretical math smarts, because math tends to lead the rest of society by a couple centuries. Thus I invented the character named Carl Galt, a mathematician of Gaussian proportions.

Once I him in hand, he had to have an American boss and a couple Brits to round out a squadron of four P-38s. Then I needed someone to do the rescuing. Let's have a stuffy engineer, science type and someone his opposite: a smoking-hot, historian, Indiana Jones babe. With Sid Feynman and Nell Playfair we had our cast.

So, I plugged in my favorite plot and went to town. The result is the short story "From Greenland's Icy Mountains." After that, Sid & Nell took on lives of their own and demanded that I write more stories with them that I have collected in my anthology of time travel stories, Finding Time.

Gentle reader, I hope you'll read Brenda's fine story, and then mine. Please tell me how well I did at coming up with a fresh story.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Raven's Children


When I was a child there were these things people read called newspapers. And I saw headlines that said the Vietnam war was escalating. Escalation can be a terrifying prospect in the context of a conflict between nuclear-armed antagonists. This is a Bad Thing.

But escalation is exactly what you want when you have a novel or a trilogy to write.

I first saw this in a long-running series of Science Fiction novels from Germany -- Perry Rhodan. You also see escalation when reading the Lensmen series. This brings us to Raven's Children wherein Sabrina Chase uses escalation to good effect.

Raven's Children (5 stars) is a rollicking yarn that takes up where The Long Way Home left off.

The protagonist, Moire Cameron is now a Captain in her own right with a loyal crew and the same pack of evil corporate types is out to get her.

The Long Way Home introduced a mystery of where and how Moire's son came to be. This mystery provides the axis about which this novel and it's title turns.

In Raven's Children Moire manages to make some more friends and some questionable allies as well.

When I reviewed The Long Way Home I noted how she provides answers to prior story questions and uses the answers to raise more questions. She manages to satisfactorily resolve story questions along the way.

In Raven's Children there is still a war going on with the aliens and the evil corporation's insidious plan appears to be advancing rapidly.

In contrast to The Long Way Home, Raven's Children shows Moire doing more than just running from Toren (the evil corporation), but she is hitting back. This is good, because we've already seen a lot of Moira fleeing the bad guys. In fact, the stuff Toren is throwing at Moire is now serving to make her stronger.

It is helpful to see that story questions that have not yet been raised are being foreshadowed. I can see the outlines of a very satisfactory solution in some of the little details that have been left for the reader to notice if she has eyes to see. As a writer I think I like anticipating how the conflicts will be resolved as much as the story itself. 

Let's look at a larger context than fiction writing momentarily. You may someday be given an impossible job to do. If you are smart, creative, brave and/or persistent you can fine a way or make one to do that impossible job. After that it gets interesting.

There's a limited amount of competence in this world. 

The boss who gave you the impossible job last time will think of you when the next, harder, more impossible job comes up. And if you manage to do that impossible job, you'll get another impossible job. And after that another.  

It is easy to get discouraged by this pattern, but that's the wrong way to look at it. Each impossible job is a reward for being a problem solver. And each time you do the impossible you become more capable.

This is the truth that a lot of fiction depicts. Or the fiction that I like to read depicts.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Celebrate Diversity

I remember seeing someone jot in the margin of one of my  manuscripts: SVO.

I thought, "SVO?"

And it took a bit to figure out SVO stood for subject-verb-object. The problem with that prose was that every sentence was like every other sentence. This brings us to the next two writers mantras:

19    Vary your sentence structure.
20    If all your sentences start with the same first word, see the previous mantra.

Consider this example of bad writing:

Sally looked around. Sally saw the body. The body lay in a pool of blood. Sally grabbed her cell phone. A big man grabbed the cell phone from her.


Sure, some of you are mildly interested, but that last paragraph has all the piquancy of wallpaper paste. I'm old enough to remember using flour and water paste in first grade. Let's try again:

Looking around, Sally saw the body lying in a pool of blood. She grabbed her cell phone, but before she could dial emergency a big man grabbed it.

For one thing, I used fewer words, but conveyed the exact same content. Did the paragraph do a better job of catching your interest? I'm not claiming that was Hemingway, just that it was better.

If you're old enough to have used flour and water paste in first grade, you may have been forced to diagram sentences. It was the part of English class that sucked least for me, but I never got good enough to diagram the gnarliest of sentences. You won't have to diagram any sentences, you just have to make the poor schoolchild sweat who might get tasked with diagramming them.

The simplest way to vary your sentence structure is to combine two trite sentences into one. You'll see that I managed to combine three. Think of it like the game Boggle where you get more points for longer words: You get more points for combining more trite sentences. It may be a cheat, but I find gerund phrases useful.  Just don't be stupid about it.

How will you know if you've got a problem with boring sentence structure?

The best telltale is Sally in the paragraph above. She started most of the sentences. If you find yourself saying she, she, she, instead of Sally, Sally, Sally, it's just as bad. Likewise saying Sally, she, she is a tip-off that you've got to diversify your grammatical structure.

You want to aim for clarity of expression and clear, concise sentences. But you can't be unbalanced either way. You can't go all Falkner on your reader and present her with a 2 page sentence to open your book. Unless you WANT your book to be tossed across the room like I did to Absolom, Absolom.

As with everything, don't overdo it. Moderation in all things. A sentence like, "Sally looked around," can be likened to the fellow in the back of the orchestra who stands there all evening with a hammer that he uses once to hit the triangle--ting. Conversely, some sentences can be like the one-man-band with a drum, banjo, accordion and who knows what all else lashed together.
Your prose should be somewhere in the middle.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

He Said, She Said, Who Said?



"Who's speaking?"

"I don't know."

"How can we find out?"

"Oh, there are ways."

The dialog tag exists to solve a problem posed above. In any exchange between two characters, the reader needs to know who's speaking.

If you read old books you may have seen this:

CHR. What is the meaning of your laughter?
ATHEIST. I laugh to see what ignorant persons you are...
CHR. Why, man, do you think we shall not be received?
ATHEIST. Received!  There is no such place as you dream of in all this world.
CHR. But there is in the world to come.

In the 1600s, John Bunyan could get away without quotation marks. He got the job done, but nowadays we have these new fangled things that the writer is responsible for. Artfully solving the problem of telling the reader who's speaking took up a lot of discussion. I learned a great deal from my writers groups at this point and found myself repeating these mantras:

14    Minimize use of dialog tags.
15    A bit of body language can cue who’s speaking.
16    As well as the intent of the speaker: interrogator vs interrogate-e.
17    “Proper names can cue who’s speaking, Mulder.” “Is that so, Scully?”
18    But if you must use a dialog tag, use “said.”

The advantage of John Bunyan's approach was that you always knew exactly who was speaking because his/her name was immediately before the utterance. However, you can occasionally unambiguously identify the speaker without the use of a dialog tag.

14    Minimize use of dialog tags. 

Very early in going to writers groups I had a friend tell me my prose sounded wooden. I revised my text by merely removing dialog tag and suddenly the text flowed much more naturally. In a ping-pong conversation between two characters, say Mulder and Scully, you can assign utterances to the first and second person in the scene by counting odd and even: utterances 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 belong to Mulder and utteranes 2, 4, 6, 8 belong to Scully. In such a conversation, you can skip the dialog tags.
Trouble is that in a long exchange the reader may lose count. You probably want to put back a dialog tag every so often to keep everyone in sync.

Another trouble is that a character may speak twice and throw off the even/odd count.

15    A bit of body language can cue who’s speaking.

"Why, man?" Christian lifted an eyebrow. "Do you think we shall not be received?"

The action of lifting an eyebrow by Christian reflects a quizzical mental attitude and putting that description here makes it clear that he's the speaker.

This does two things for your prose. It makes the exchange seem less wooden, and it also adds description to the scene.

A well written scene has two or three things going simultaneously. I love the scene in the movie Fletch where Fletch is getting an infodump from a beautiful woman while an angry man is pounding on the door demanding entrance.

16    As well as the intent of the speaker: interrogator vs interrogate-e.

Go back to the conversation between Christian and Atheist shown above. Every question is asked by Christian and every declaration is made by Atheist. You really don't need dialog tags when you have one guy asking all the questions and the other guy answering them.

This extends to roles as well. Suppose you have a master and slave in a scene. Utterances that are clearly dominant, or subordinate can be inferred by the reader to belong to the right character.

How about a scene with an amorous young man pursuing a girl who's playing hard to get? No need to waste any words on he said/she said.

17    “Proper names can cue who’s speaking, Mulder.” “Is that so, Scully?”

When you've got an extended exchange between two people and you don't want to break up the rhythm with dialog tags, you can just slip in the other person's name. You can't do it every time, but you can get away with it here and there.

18    But if you must use a dialog tag, use “said.”

There's a lot of words you can use for dialog tags: shouted, exclaimed, asked, questioned, demanded, etc. And other mantras would suggest you use them instead of said because these words bring a lot more drama than plain vanilla said.

This is because dialog tags tend to become invisible to reader. You want them to do their job of telling the reader who's speaking and get out of the way without drawing attention to themselves.

Is this a hard and fast rule?

No, none of the mantras are hard and fast rules.

I went through my anthology Finding Time to see how well, or poorly, I'd followed these mantras then dissected the exchange in light of these mantras. Could I apply the mantras better? Probably.

Count the number of dialog tags. And count the times I use "said."

“Can you tell me anything—rumors, innuendo, gossip—about Jack that isn’t recorded anywhere?”
Nell couldn’t think of anything at first. Then she remembered and involuntarily swallowed.
Schlomo noticed. “What is it?”
“It’s nothing.”
“I can tell from your physiology that it is not nothing.”
“It’s something King Solomon’s man, Benaiah, said in Jerusalem.”
“Benaiah Ben Jehoiada?”
She nodded. “He said that Jack is demon possessed.”
Schlomo scratched his head and thought for a moment before speaking. “Did he say that Jack has an evil spirit?”
“I suppose. I dismissed it as religious mumbo-jumbo. He said it was going to get Jack and everyone around him killed. He said to either arrange his death or for him to get laid.”
“Nell, Benaiah was giving you a psychological evaluation. He couldn’t very well express it in Freudian categories.”
“That makes more sense than demon possession. So, when he said to get him a woman, he was recommending counseling?”
Schlomo nodded. “It is absolutely criminal that nobody did a psych eval on him. He’s a walking time bomb.”

Friday, August 10, 2012

You've Never Done This. Have You?

Every writer has stuff s/he doesn't know.

Don't wing it. Or don't get caught winging it.

My wife started watching The Glades on Instant Netflix after a few episodes I joined her. The first season was pretty good. And then in the second season they did "the postpartum episode." It was like an after-school special where they had to raise awareness about something. The postpartum business was written fairly well, because the writers knew what they were talking about. It was OK for plot-filler.

But then the wheels fell off. Soon, we were openly ridiculing the stupid things coming out of one character's mouth because the writer had completely lost credibility. For one thing, real bosses do not tell a subordinate to keep away from a beautiful woman and turn around in the very next episode to assign them to work together. But cheesy writers will put ridiculous things in a character's mouth when s/he's winging it. The same idiot boss later said that a walkie-talkie couldn't be triangulated. Oh, really. Was this a spread-spectrum frequency hopping radio? Is there a real problem of multipath radio propagation in this swamp? I hate stupidity in writing.

What's infuriating when you see that the writer just made something up about something s/he knows nothing about. Neal Stephenson is generally pretty good. But I figured he probably saw Tora Tora Tora and the scene with the marching band, and that's what he used in Cryptonomicon.

Consider the geeks on Big Bang Theory. They're pretty funny. But I went to grad school and the guys I ran with were Math majors. They were nothing like Sheldon and the boys. Not being scary-smart grad students, or knowing any scary-smart grad students, the writers pull from the stereotypes rattling around in their heads.

Same for The It Crowd. I have spent a career with geeks and have the Star Trek Technical Guide to prove it. Geeks can be distracted, absent-minded, and manifest low social skills (great opportunities for comedy here), but we are not stupid. The It Crowd got the pilot right, but in the second episode they depicted the geeks as stupid. Not being geeks, or knowing any geeks, the writers pull from the stereotypes rattling around in their heads.

Or how about when a story depicts a religion-user. If the writers just pull from the stereotypes rattling around in their heads, the depiction will be tone-deaf.

Any sub-culture maintains trust cues that are used to recognize fellow members of the sub-culture. If you get them wrong, the members of said sub-culture recognize an imposter and respond negatively. (Get it right and you've got friends for life.)

Likewise, every profession has its own rituals and habits of thinking passed along to its members. These are mine-fields for the writer to cross.

In Finding Time, I put a Russian submarine in the wake of the Titanic. Happily, one of my beta readers once worked on subs and he told me I got the Sonar wrong. In another story I made the stupid mistake of putting Romans in Alexandria in the wrong century. But one of the guys in my writers group caught it. Then I had a girl in Roanoke colony quoting Pilgrim's Progress. Thankfully, I learned Roanoke colony was 50 years earlier than I had thought.

In each of these cases, I was winging it, BUT I had friends looking at my stuff who knew what I did not and they were backstopping the gaps in my knowledge.

The writer can't know everything. That's what research is for. The writer can't research everything, and that's what friends are for. If you've got a police procedural, then by gum you'd better run your prose past some cops. If you've got a faith healing service, then by gum you'd better run it past a Bible thumper. Don't get a Baptist. Or a Presbyterian. You need a Pentecostal. Or maybe a Charismatic in a pinch. If you're desperate you might find someone from a Vineyard church.

Oh, you don't know the difference? Then you're pulling from the stereotypes rattling around in your head. Maybe a faith healing service isn't a good an idea until you can get someone who actually believes that stuff to vet your scene.

Remember that 2nd paragraph above. I lied. You DO want to get caught winging it, but you want to get caught by one of your friends BEFORE you send out your writing. And after your friend, the expert in Russian subs, says you've got the scene right, THEN you can send it out. If you get caught winging it after it's published, you're screwed.

I get by with a little help from my friends.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Does Good Writing Exist?

A while back I asked, "Does Bad Writing Exist?"

I hope you're wondering if good writing exists. The word "exist" is the axis around which these remarks will turn.

A friend recently told me quality is "goodness of fit to requirements." Writing happens to be one of those enterprises where the requirements are not necessarily apparent.

Mere conformance to the rules of grammar is a readily apparent requirement. (You can get all Chomsky on me and say the rules of grammar are mere social convention. Then the arbiters of taste--the gatekeepers--can say that they define social convention... This way lies madness.)

There are well defined formulae for story telling going back to Aristotle. Conformance to one of these formula is another readily apparent requirement.

The virtues are well known. So whether a narrative upholds humanistic values or not is a readily apparent requirement.

You may want to cut the Gordian knot and say, "the requirement is what sells." This muddies as much as it clarifies, because bad books which are pushed real hard can sell better than good books that are not pushed as forcefully. Complaining about a bestseller like The Davinci Code that gets a huge publicity campaign is complaining about the choice to push it.

Some books stink so bad that an infinite amount of push won't make them sell. And other books are so good that merely making the public aware of them suffices to make them sell like hotcakes. There's something that inheres within a work that engages with push that helps or hurts sales. I think that something is beauty.

What is the ontological status of beauty? Is it a mere social convention or is it a thing that exists in a thing-in-itself aside from any observer to behold it? 

I am claiming something controversial: Beauty inheres within the thing itself. Not the eye of the beholder or social conventions. Beauty exists in good writing.

Social conventions are bound by pragmatic considerations to the criteria of beauty. The buying public recognizes beauty and chooses to buy accordingly. Those who sell books push their titles without much thought of beauty and thus the publishing business suffers from slack sales.

Disagreements about Objective quality stems from the fact that reality does not come labeled with this thing here as good and that thing there as crud. We subjectively estimate beauty in the thing before we think about it and before we talk about it. This creates the appearance that all quality is Subjective. Yet some books don't sell despite infinite push.

This is why Human Wave SF is such a big deal. Human Wave SF posits in old-fashioned Humanism a set of requirements. I’m eager to take the rules of English Grammar and Spelling, combine them with the values of Human Wave SF, and declare this combination to be the Requirements of Writing.
Then I’ll use this to define Quality. A couple days ago I asked Sarah Hoyt (with tongue in cheek) where I could find a certifying authority to gauge whether Finding Time was Human Wave or not.

A test for conformance to the Requirements of Writing could be largely objective. Therefore, I claim that Good Writing does indeed exist, and it is recognized as such when it conforms to beauty in the world.

It's my hope that my writing will rise to the level of being good. I've certainly made every effort to do so.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Rise, Take Up Thy Bed, And Walk

(This is not a post about healing or miracles. I hope to keep a semi-permeable barrier between this blog and religion & politics. Unless the religion is Puritan or the politics is Whig I don't want to hear about it and will try not to bring it up)

This is about Writers Mantras #11, 12 and 13.
  • Put not your hope in adjectives nor prepositional phrases, either.
  • Modifiers in general should be replaced with stronger nouns and verbs.
  • Use a thesaurus as often as you drink Tabasco.
 Some people say that religion is a crutch. I won't say (remember that semi-permeable barrier). But I will say that a modifier is a writer's crutch.

Expression can be a difficult thing. The thought in your heart may be hard to put into words. So, you pick a word and you think, "that's not quite right" and you modify it. The car is not just a car, it's a fast car. No, that's not right. It's a fast, orange-red car. No, there's more. It's a fast, orange-red, brand-new car. No. It's a fast, orange-red, brand-new, pimped-out car.

Or maybe not. "Nick had the roadster up to 150 mph before Nora could blink." Yeah, roadster works better than fast car, doesn't it? It evokes thoughts of the top down and wind in your hair much more than fast, orange-red, brand-new car. Sure, the roadster is evocative of a more vintage auto, but you needn't burden all the details of the roadster's description in one sentence.

The role of the prepositional phrase is similar to that of the adjective (not your friend, remember) or the adjective. It serves as a flying buttress steadying the noun or verb that it is modifying and adding something lacking from it.

Expression can be a difficult thing. The thought in your heart may be muddled--too muddled to put into words. So, your hero Nick Charles will have a car and it's gotta be awesome because Nick is awesome. Uh. It'll be fast. Yeah. And it'll be--uh--orange-red. Yeah. And uh, brand-new. No, pimped-out. Enjoying my stream of consciousness? More like a stream of unconsciousness.

Fix in your mind your hero. And the car he's driving and how fast he goes. Get it clear in your head. Then choose the words that say the most with the least. Like roadster says more than car alone.
  • Use a thesaurus as often as you drink Tabasco.
Use the words that already live in your head. Don't talk to strangers. Those big fancy words that smart folk use can easily make a Dogberry out of you. Dogberry? Yeah, Dogberry. Remember him? Don't be that guy.

You should feel a tension here, because I've suggested eschewing thesaurus words just after I exhorted you to use evocative words that may only live in a thesaurus. I believe a writer ought to have a tumescent vocabulary, but not a turgid one.
(If you are wondering about the earlier Writers Mantras, you can start here.)

Finding Time Is Human Wave

When I was a tender lad, there was a hue and cry in some circles about this thing called "Secular Humanism." Humanism goes back to the ancient Greeks and it had had a Christian expression with intellectuals like Erasmus of Rotterdam. So, this isn't a Christian versus Pagan thing. In the intervening decades, Secular Humanism has been replaced by something much less Humanistic.

As a tender lad, there were not a lot of dystopian novels out there. The few that were were political tracts, like 1984 (life in totalitarianism sucks), Atlas Shrugged (life in socialism sucks), or On The Beach (life after nuclear weapons sucks--then everyone dies).

But now, they're mainstream like Hunger Games. (Here's a review.)

I didn't like dystopian then, and I don't like dystopian now. Recently, someone asked me if I thought dystopian novels are a sign of the times. I think they are not. My flip answer was that they betoken cruddy editorial policies. A less flip answer is that Secular Humanism has been replaced by something much less Humanistic. (I expand on this here.)

To which I say, "screw that. Let's have some more Humanism."

"What would something like that look?" you may ask. This is answered in part here and here.

You might also ask, "Is Finding Time part of this New Human Wave in Science Fiction?"

I believe the answer is either, "Yes," or "Hell, Yes!"

I expressed Human Wave (perhaps too) succinctly as: life doesn't suck, humans win, we're not all doomed. I promise that in each of Finding Time's stories:
  • Someone wins
  • Nobody's a villain simply by virtue of belonging to some collective
  • Nobody's a hero simply by virtue of belonging to some collective
  • When I want to send a message, I call Western Union
  • None of my stories are metaphorical political or religious polemics
  • All the stories are intended to appeal to the buying public
  • You paid good money for these stories and I aim to deliver value
  • I never tell you what you should like for your own good
It's up to you. I'm not going to tell you how to spend your time & money. If you prefer More Dystopian Blah stories, stay away from Finding Time.

But if those promises sound good to you, I do my damnedest to keep them, and I hope you'll consider Finding Time.

Those more worthy than I: