Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Jumping The Shark

Decades ago, Henry Winkler strapped on Fonzy's leather jacket and water skis. The Fonzy character then did a water ski jump over a shark. The television series was called Happy Days and it had had a very long and successful run. Happy Days had nothing to do with water skiing or sharks. Fonzy was a cool motorcycle-riding tough guy, not a stunt man. The episode was untrue to what the show was about or what its characters were about.

It told all of America that the folks writing the scripts for Happy Days were out of ideas. At this point a mercy killing of the show was appropriate. And that's what happened shortly thereafter.

A story or series of stories has to be true to itself. Long running series, like Perry Rhodan managed by constantly escalating the stakes. But despite how large the galactic empire, Perry Rhodan and the characters around him were consistent with the space opera that starts with an astronaut finding a marooned extraterrestrial space ship.

Doctor Who has gone through nearly a dozen actors portraying a thousand-year-old alien who travels about in a blue police call box that's bigger on the inside than on the outside. Nevertheless, it has maintained a more or less internal consistency.

Different writers have been at the helm and they've pushed the story in their own directions. None appear to have tried to put him on water skis so far. I've thought the writing to be paper thin in places, but that's consistent with the cotton-candy nature of the show.

Then there's Castle. This show has been maddening because its writing is so inconsistent. I like the premise of a cop show with lots of eye-candy and Nathan Fillian living every scribbler's fantasy of making tons of money as a writer. It works well with a light-hearted comedy romance between the two main characters. It works less well when it forgets this and turns into a heavy drama. No, I don't believe these two are credible Jason Bourne material. Nor do I believe they're going to save the world from some international conspiracy. These episodes are painful to watch because the tension is so fake and the outcomes so predictable.

The audience has to believe in the characters. As the characters act untrue to their essential natures, the audience starts to doubt. When the doubt grows to a critical point, they're just a shark and a water-ski-ramp away from irrelevance.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

And Now A Word From Big Brother

I've noticed a lemming-like behavior on network television. This isn't a conspiracy theory. I'm a conspiracy experimentalist, not a conspiracy theorist. Instead, it's a groupthink.

This groupthink appears to be going on among script writers. It's not new. I recall in the 1960s, one show would do a "speed up time" episode, and before you know it three other shows would do the same thing. I distinctly recall the "guy in a gorilla suit" episodes of shows as disparate as Perry Mason and Gilligan's Island.

What I've noticed in this decade is a tendency for the groupthink to have a distinctly political spin. For example, a particular political viewpoint does not like guns in the hands of lawful citizens. It seems that a handgun can only be handled by a sit-com character if he is about to shoot himself with it. The message from Big Brother is, "Sure, you may have the right to carry that gun, but you're going to be the laughing-stock at the office when you wound yourself in a comedic fashion."

The irony here is that those involved in these shows have no idea how to safely handle a gun. If all you know about guns comes from television, there's no such thing as muzzle discipline. If you ever handle a gun, you need to control where it's pointed at all times. Unless you're starring on a television show.

Here's a little quiz for you. If you can't answer correctly, you probably should not be passing gun laws.

"It is bad idea to lay Russian roulette. Why is it a particularly bad idea to play Russian roulette with a Colt 45 (M1911) pistol?"

And this groupthink extends beyond subverting the Bill of Rights.

The blessing of Instant Netflix is that you can easily do a marathon of a particular show. (Or maybe it is a curse.) I don't pay close attention to the initial hype for a new series. If two weeks go by and all my friends are raving about the show, I'll regret my decision to ignore it. When that show comes out on Instant Netflix, I'll start watching back episodes back-to-back.

Such was the case with a television series that shall remain nameless. I'm in the middle of such a marathon when an episode comes on that propagandized a particular political viewpoint. The writers pretended to poke fun at both sides, but they end up creating a strawman of the "wrong" view and proceeded to delegitimize it. If I were in a theater I wouldn't have walked out immediately--just gnashed my teeth in silence. I was in the privacy of my own living room and I had no need to mind appearances. I fast-forwarded through the rest of the political tract sailing under the false-flag of comedy, I finished that episode and removed the series from my Instant Queue. I won't be back.

It's easy to respond to such artistic expression with, "this was written by my enemy for my enemies," and then dismiss it.

The Communists failed to create the New Soviet Man, because human nature is not as plastic as the central planners hoped. This is the lesson of collectivist failures going back at least to the city-state of Sparta.

I recall a few years back when all the newspaper comics got together to do anti-world-hunger strips. I'm not coming out in favor of starving kids in China (and I encourage you to finish your supper for that reason.) I am against cheapening one's art and risking alienating audience by writing agenda-driven stories.  At least the Red Chinese produced propaganda you can laugh at.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

It Works Like This

I touched upon this obliquely when I claimed one ought never put two Sherlocks in the same room wherein I deprecated the practice of baffling the reader with a bunch of inside-baseball expert blather. And I've touched upon this obliquely when I noted that Science Fiction has a distinct expression that favors invention and science over sociology and culture. I'm more a fan of the Jules Verne expression over the H. G. Wells expression.

The writer may know things other than writing. For instance, Erle Stanley Gardner was a practicing lawyer before Perry Mason argued his first murder case. Police procedural stories are often written by former cops or forensic pathologists. Military Science Fiction stories are often penned by former military people. In each of these cases, the writer can truly say to the reader, "I know something you don't."

This enables the writer to do two things: 1) He can lend details from his experience. Mr. Gardner was able to use his own courtroom experience to insert small details that lend verisimilitude to his narrative. 2) He can explain how something works. If you want to see world-class explaining, pick up a Neal Stephenson book. You won't need a forklift. You just think you will. I'm interested in the explaining thing today.

Experts love to be true to their craft, and this makes them think, "I cannot dumb this down." They say this to justify writing that proves opaque to the ordinary reader. If you refuse to dumb something down, you're the dummy.

I was in the middle of my Masters' degree studies in Mathematics at Michigan State University when a visiting scholar came by to give a colloquium. He gave a talk on a topic of mathematics that was very difficult for me, and I knew I did not understand it going in. So, I was a little scared at the beginning of the talk. I needn't have been. The guy made the topic seem a lot easier than it really was. He knew multiple motivating examples for the key ideas and he knew which ideas were the more important ones.

I realized that this was the smartest guy I'd run into at MSU. It takes genius to make some things look easy.

C. S. Lewis famously said that if you cannot explain something to the woman who does your washing, you really don't understand it.

Understanding is like cutting a path through the tangled undergrowth of your ignorance. When I first learn something, I blaze one trail through this jungle and it twists about a lot. But when I learn a thing better, I have more than one way to get to the same point. All knowledge is interconnected somehow and the more you know, the more interconnects you possess.

Also, when I barely understand a thing, I don't know what's important and what's insignificant. Pretty much everything has to be held onto for dear life lest it be needed later. It's a lot less work when you know what the essential issues are and can dispense with the rest.

Suppose you're writing an explanation for something--like how a radio antenna works. You have to decide which parts of the explanation are pertinent or not. And then you can devise analogies that motivate the key ideas. An antenna element is not exactly like a tuning fork. It uses vibrating electrons to induce electromagnetic radiation whereas a tuning fork uses vibrating tines to induce sound. However, the process is essentially the same even if the details vary.

Cool facts about the partial differential equations governing the behavior of the radio waves can be left out of some explanation, because they are not pertinent to the story. Sure, you'll need to know them if you ever build an antenna, but not when you write for a popular audience. The expert is an expert because s/he knows what can be safely left out.

The expert is also an expert because s/he knows the connections between this thing and other things. Your audience may not know anything about short wave radio, but they do know something about other things, like snakes. Those other things they know about should be what you use to approach the subject.

I spoke of this obliquely before, but I'll say it directly here. The writer should make the reader feel empowered and good, not intimidated and bad. Maybe the reader lacks the time and the inclination to take a degree in radio engineering and/or pursue FCC licensing. But s/he can get a taste of the coolness of the work. The writer must be sensitive of and compassionate toward the reader to make the prose understandable and enjoyable.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Aiming The Subconscious

Ever get a killer idea in the shower? And wonder where it came from and how you came to think it?

My physics prof told me this story and it may not be exactly true. I believe the truth is pretty close.

Once upon a time there were these missionaries in South America. They'd left the temperate North America to work in equatorial Ecuador. But instead of wearing pith helmets and tramping around the rain forests and doing whatever missionaries do, they went to a mountain top and built a radio station--a honking huge radio station.

The radio station was intended to broadcast world-wide via short-wave radio. There was something special about this spot on the globe that helps radio propagation. The important detail is that this radio station had significant effective radiated power.

All the equipment has been set up and tested successfully. They built the tower, installed the antennas, hooked everything up, and started broadcasting.

This station used what's called a "dipole antenna." You can make one by just cutting two straight rods of metal to the same length, lining them up sticking straight out in opposite directions, and hooking them up to your radio transmitter. These rods are called antenna elements. Each element is like a tuning fork in that it has a natural resonant frequency, but for electricity, not sound. If you change the rod's length, the resonant frequency changes. In a broadcast radio station, you match the antenna's resonant frequency to the transmitter's broadcast frequency.

It seems that the humidity in Ecuador interacted with the antenna elements when they were pumping a lot of power through them. It caused the ends of the antenna elements to erode in a process not unlike Saint Elmo's Fire. This shortened the length of the elements and causing antennas to become de-tuned. The radio station quit broadcasting.

The radio engineer struggled to solve this problem without success. It looked like the project would fail.

Defeated, he went to bed, and he had a dream of two snakes made of fire who were fighting. The snakes coiled around themselves and then bit each other in the mouth. This formed a loop made of two fire-snakes.

The radio engineer woke up with the idea for a "folded dipole element." By folding the ends of the two elements back toward themselves and joining them into a single piece of metal, there were no end-point to erode in the humid air and electricity. Without the metal eroding, the length remained the same and the antenna remained in tune. Huzzah, the folded dipole antenna proved an elegant solution.

(Dr. Google tells me the antenna is actually the "quad loop" whose driven element is indeed a loop, and that the dreamer's name was Clarence Moore.)

This story illustrates my recipe for aiming my subconscious to solve problems. Think through the problem from every conceivable angle. Work like a dog fully engaging the conscious mind. (You can call this phase programming the mental computer.) Consciously fill your noggin with everything that's known about the problem and everything you've tried that does not work. Engage your emotions and become passionate about solving the problem and how much you want the solution.

Then let go of the problem. Consciously set it aside. Go Running. Take a shower. Paint an apartment. Plant a garden. Do something unrelated to the problem at hand. When you've tired yourself out go to bed and sleep in--with a notepad beside the bed. Or by the shower.

While you're doing these Other Things, your subconscious should be beavering away at the facts you loaded it up with during phase one. How hard your subconscious works for you will be a function of your passion for solving the problem. With your conscious mind loosened up your subconscious will have a clear channel to send the solution to you.

This is similar to the process I described that A. E. Van Vogt followed. If you're stuck on a plot-problem, you should try both approaches and see what works best for you.

P.S. If you'd like a chuckle at the expense of HCJB and Radio Catolica Nacional, check out this story of how some risque QSL cards got sent out.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Using Dreams

I have noticed that some of the best stories come from dreams while some of my most boring conversations are listening to other people recount their dreams.

I hope that if I ever tell you one of my dreams, it'll be a one-liner and relevant to you: "I dreamed you were a CIA agent and your mission was to seduce Rani Mukerji." To the contrary, I've found that I'm seldom any more bored than when someone tells me something they dreamed that might be quite significant to them, but it is significant only to them. By keeping things short, I hope that if you are bored by my fevered ravings, you won't be bored for long.

The fact that I dreamed about you can be majorly creepy because it means you have invaded my subconscious and you might not appreciate the unwanted (subconscious) attention. Thus, if you were Rani Mukerji and if I had dreamed about you (I haven't.), I probably shouldn't say anything to you.

If you can relate to what I just said about dreams, what makes you think anybody wants to hear about your writing project?

Particularly, that hot chick or dude you made into the hero's love-interest who bears a creepy resemblance to the hot chick/dude you're talking to. I know a guy who who wrote all the attractive females in his writing group into his stories. Repressed sexual fantasies aside, most people need a more compelling reason to hear about your work-in-progress than the mere fact that you are writing it. World-building is a most enjoyable past-time, but sharing the details of your future-history with someone at a dinner party is a great way to not get invited back.

Talk about works in progress should be confined to strategy sessions with other authors wherein you trade hints and tips about how to get over tough plot points or other mechanical details of bringing a work to completion. If you're in the midst of such a session with another author and think, "what's WITH this guy?" you should do everything in your power to make sure he doesn't think the same about your work. I find it delightful to read conversations between authors advising each other on howto make the magic happen.

Of course, those conversations are more interesting when they are between writers you admire. You might be less enthralled by exchanges between unknowns.

There is a time and a season for you to shout from the rooftops, "Sir, or Madam, will you read my book. It took me years to write, will you take a look," but that comes after your work is at a mature state, or you have a reputation and a following. Until then, I suggest you only tease out the choicest details.

But I said that sometimes the best stories come from dreams. The modern mind doesn't quite know what to do with dreams. I am not one to interpret them, but I will try to mine them for story ideas. I don't try to write up my unconscious mind's jumbled narratives unrefined.

Instead I've had story elements occur in dreams that I adapt into stories. For interest, a dream of my High School (that you'd find boring) was distinguished by the appearance of a certain trouble shooter. He wasn't quite human, and he wasn't quite divine. I didn't understand this character, his motives, or his means of solving problems, but I thought this general impression would make a useful depiction of a "trans-human" character. Such would be dispatched by Serious Adults to Fix Something. That turned into my first novel, which is safely ensconced within a desk drawer.

I think that dreams are a treasure-trove of story-ideas and solutions to story-problems, but they are unruly beasts who need to be pointed in the right direction, and their content never taken at face-value.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

I Can Explain This Officer

I'm told that government will be monitoring more of the Internet so that no company will be able to guarantee any privacy. When I heard this I started thinking that everyone should start plotting mayhem so that if the Feebs were going to be reading my private communications, they should read something more interesting than my humdrum life.

However, just because MY life is humdrum, that doesn't mean my writing is humdrum.

Some writing includes depictions of criminality. Oh. That reminds me.

Some years back I was hanging out with a friend who's another writer. I told him a story about a friend who had used a mannikin to scare lovers at the local make-out spot. They'd drive to the make-out spot, pull out the "body" and toss it down the almost precipice--it was a very steep hill.

While I was relating this story, the thought occurred, this could be an interesting premise for a thriller. Some youngsters could toss a mannikin off a cliff to freak out the bystanders. And when their compatriots waiting below retrieve the mannikin they discover a real body. Panicked, they put the body in the trunk of their car.

At this point my friend and I spun a number of things that could be done from this premise. Things like how we'd dispose of the body. Or the DNA evidence left in the trunk of the car and how they'd dispose of the car.

That's the trajectory of all the best Hitchcock films. Someone does one small bad thing, and then numerous bigger and bigger bad things escalate and this makes the heroes lives hellish.

After a few minutes of this discussion, several patrons of the Cottage Bar got up and sought tables more distant from our conversation.

This gave me a big laugh.

Circling back to the Feebs, I'm confident that while they are breaking down the doors of aspiring crime writers, the real terrorists will be exchanging bomb recipes using steganographically encoded messages hidden in cat videos.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

We Don't Put Up With No Intolerance

This started a while back on Facebook. Someone posted picture of a sheet of notebook paper on which was scrawled, "Judging a person does not define who they are, it defines who you are."

My first thought was, the spirit is right, but its too simplistic.

My second thought was the grammar is wrong. The singular "person" is being referenced with a plural "they."

My third thought was, I have just outed myself as a Grammar Nazi.

I don't think you can go through life without judging others. You ought not get in the windowless van with the creepy stranger promising free candy. The same goes for decisions about where you'll invest your money or who you'll hire to remodel your house. You judge others when you accept a dinner date or consider a marriage proposal. This is simply exercising good judgment.

The black economist Walter Williams make a case for discrimination. He says he won't sleep with a woman if she's not Mrs. Williams. He's being a bit silly to make a not-silly point. Keeping one's wedding vows  is a legitimate basis for discriminating against potential sex partners. Since Dr. Williams is black it is obvious that he's making a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate bases for discrimination.

The basis of judgment may be legitimate or not. If I am selling you something, the only color I care about is the green of your money. If I'm lending you money, I'll extend my consideration to your credit history. It's illegitimate to consider your race, creed, sexual preference, or political affiliations. I think it's wrong to even record such criteria for the purposes of affirmative action.

The legitimacy of judgment is also contextual. If I'm renting a house or an apartment to you, your housekeeping becomes a consideration. I don't want to wash nicotine off my walls, so I feel  smoking habits are a legitimate basis of judging of potential tenants.

Suppose I'm considering a job candidate. It is wrong to consider sex, creed and sexual preference in employment decisions. How about when a female, Buddhist, lesbian applies for the job of Pastor of a Baptist church?

I've stated before one's conscience is not subject to political suasion. Freedom of religion is more than just disestablishmentarianism (prohibiting funding of an established church with tax dollars). It's giving people the space to be true to their conscience.

Religious intolerance cuts both ways. If someone's conscience demands something you don't like, you are the intolerant one when you damn that person on that basis. Which brings us back to where we started. This goes around and around.

And around. Sometimes being intolerant is OK. If your religion tells you to fly an airplane into a building or another murderous act, I won't tolerate your religion.

It's a judgment call.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Planner Manifesto

There was an ancient despot named Procrustes who had a bed. All of his guests were compelled to lie in this bed. If they were too tall, he'd cut off their feet. If they were too short to fit on the bed, he'd put them on the rack and stretch them until they did.

In writing there are two warring camps, the "pantsers" and the "plotter." The former believe that writing is best done by the seat of the pants. You sit down, the story comes to you and you write it. Conversely, the latter school says you must create an outline of your work before you can begin to write.

When I call this a "Planner Manifesto" I'm not mandating a procrustrean formula for writing. In fact, I think I would not do very well if I were forced to exclusively lie in either a "pantser" or a "planner" bed.

My primary concern is pragmatics. You can be a pantser and certain benefits will attend your approach and your writing will face some risks you must overcome. You can be a planner and different benefits and different risks will accompany that approach. There is only one "wrong way" and that's the way that does not yield a completed manuscript.

When I began my first novel I did not know any better. So, I wrote up a complete outline--a fairly detailed one in fact. And I supplemented it with a fair amount of scaffolding. Subsequent writing projects have been done either by the seat of my pants or carefully planned with mixed results.

Without any regard to what approach you take, you'll have times when writing is just a matter of moving your fingers across the keys fast enough to get the words out. And there'll be times when you stare at the blank page and blinking cursor. I had both experiences with my first novel.

After I finished my outline, I started writing and my fingers flew like I just described. I wrote without any concerns whatsoever. In particular, I wrote without taking any heed of my complete outline. It was glorious and I thought that perhaps that outline business wasn't necessary.

The only trouble is that after writing about one third of my novel I finished a chapter and thought, "now what?" My mind was completely blank. I had no idea what to write next. And I panicked. But because it was my first writing project, I did not abandon the work. Instead, I read the now dusty outline. "Oh, it doesn't go like that at all," I thought to myself as I read the first third of the outline.

But the overall story arc in the outline still made sense and the end was solid. Just the middle had this jump discontinuity between what I'd planned to write and what I'd actually written. What do do? I started revising the outline, I took the first third and changed it to make it look like the work as written.

And then I looked at the middle and figured out how to revise the middle to link up between the first third and the last third. After I was satisfied with the revised outline, I noticed that I knew for certain "now what?"

I backed up a scene, rewrote that, and set about to writing the middle third based on that clear mental image of where I was going. Did I look at the outline? No. I just wrote until I got to "now what?" again. And I repeated the steps above.

About 75% into the work, I caught fire and started writing thousands of words per night. It was glorious and I was done a short while later.

For my next three writing projects I thought I didn't need no steenking outline, so I just wrote as the spirit moved. And the spirit moved me into three cul-de-sacs. I had three failed, abandoned projects. It was like hitting the wall at 10,000 feet and I had no where to go and no vision how far to backtrack to get to a satisfactory story arc.

That taught me that an outline isn't as much an engineering blueprint for a story, but an insurance policy against getting lost and wandering in the wilderness for forty years. The outline does tend to keep your mind on what the story is about and that can be helpful when you're called upon to make a synopsis.

In the world of business startups there's the notion of an "elevator talk" which is a brief description you can give of your business idea in the time it takes to share an elevator ride with a potential investor.

You need an "elevator talk" for your work in process. It needn't be a synopsis, but it has to convey your  vision for the work and why you are the person to tell this story. Can a pantser come up with an "elevator talk" for his or her work in progress? Probably. It's less straightforward than if you're a planner. If you are a pantser-fundamentalist, set me right on this point in the comments.

The reason why you need an elevator talk is that while you're working on your project you'll still have a life where you meet and talk to people and build your author's platform. And when you are meeting and talking, you should try to learn two things: how can I reach my book's audience? and how can I win this person over to the idea of reading my work? Bonus points: how can I get this person's help to spread the word about my work? The best way you'll learn this from the people you talk to is when you've got a clear vision of what your project is about.

I'm told that 90% of the work happens AFTER you finish your project. Why not get started on that at the very beginning? In fact, if you listen to the Lean Startup guys, you shouldn't even start on a project until you know you've got an audience you know you can reach who wants to read your project. I'm not sure how you can do that if you're a pantser, but if you're a planner, all you need are the rudiments of an outline.

But the main thing you have to remember is whether you believe in being a pantser or a planner, or something in between, remember Robert Heinlein's advice and be a finisher.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Make Your Hero Suffer

I forgot who said it and who s/he was quoting when s/he did so, but the quote goes like this:

"Every story should be set in Hell and end in Paradise."

The key notion is that Hell is more interesting than Paradise and the difficulties you subject your hero to in the course of the story should seem hellish to the reader.

However, after subjecting your protagonist to trials and tribulations like unto Job, you should show him or her overcoming hardship to win the day in some sense.

This means that the writer needs to set aside his/her humanity and become something demonic when s/he's writing. Writing is the opposite of life. The attitudes that make you a sane and well-adjusted person are not those of a writer. It's not that I hate the characters to whom I am inflicting pain and hardship. I put myself in the character's shoes and I try to think what's the worst thing that could happen to him or her. Then I see if I can make that happen.

Every character may or may not be happy in each scene, but the character should be experiencing negative circumstances. I wonder if you could believably show a character going through tough times and enjoying each movement.

When I visit evil upon my characters, I intend to make it up to them.

Of course, sometimes one must kill off a character. Not much chance to make it up to him or her. I like to hope the character in question is ready to explore the undiscovered country from whose borne no traveler returns. A few years ago I experimented with killing off the story's POV character then using his ghost to finish the narration. (I ended the story before I had to get into anything theological.)

I suppose you should make sure that either you give that character a good life insurance policy to take care of his family, OR have some specific plans to use the family's hardship in a later story. Or you could remember these are just fictional characters.

The last chapter is the one in which you sell your next novel. If your market likes sad or bleak endings, then by all means end on a downer. Since I prefer to leave all my heroes in a better place than at the beginning of the story, I hope that more people want things to work out happily ever after.

Or happily-until-sequel.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Happy Birthday To Me

I'm not writing.

Oh, I want to write. I want to write very much, but all my extra brain cycles are consumed with solving a problem. It started in 1940 or thereabouts. My grandfather settled in West Michigan. He bought some land and found that it was not very good for farming--despite the fact that his neighbors said his garden was the best they'd seen. His house has two bedrooms and somehow he fit eight kids in it. My dad ended up in possession of it when Grandma died.

I administer my dad's estate and that means managing Grandma's house as a rental. I rented to an induhvidual who smoked legal and illegal substances incessantly. He moved out last fall and I foolishly consented to rent to his son. Mostly, because I didn't want to go through the hassle of cleaning nicotine off the walls. (White woodwork has been stained to a goldenrod hue thereby.)

His son liked to party and I got calls from the neighbors. I saw for myself how he was living and how he was treating the property. To fix my horrible mistake I served him with a Notice To Quit. A fortnight ago he moved out. The place is a disaster and I'm putting things back together as best I can. This means spending my every free hour twenty miles north of here working on the place.

And I'm not writing.

One thing about managing rental property is the symbiosis between the tenant and the space. A space can be ramshackle and tenants can be found to live there. But they are ramshackle tenants you don't want. Instead, one spruces up the space and makes it a nice. Whereupon nice people want to live there. The art of landlording is to most effectively use limited funds to make a space nice. And when funds are most limited, the solutions tend to be more labor-intensive.

Sure, I can carpet that bedroom, but it is cheaper to paint hardwood floor it was covering up. A painted floor looks so much nicer to hipsters, and it's cheaper, but it's more labor-intensive.

Today is Sunday, the Christian day of rest. I'm resting up from yesterday, nursing some aches and pains from work I seldom do. I have scheduled vacation time for tomorrow, so I'll be up at Grandma's place seeing what I can get done. Woo hoo, vacation. In the meantime, it's my birthday. Happy birthday to me.

And I'm not writing.

Because if I were writing, I'd be concocting a sure and deadly vengeance to fictionally visit upon the low-life's who had no respect for my grandmother's house that they contracted to live in. If I were writing, I'd make them fictionally pay for disrupting the flow of my life.

In fiction, it is a good thing to make your heroes suffer, but there is no way I could regard these induhviduals as heroes. So, they are spared my fictional wrath.

Instead, of getting some psychic recompense fictionally, I'll do something boring in real life.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tension and Boredom

I'm not going to talk about Theology or Sunday School today.

When I was an undergrad a book came out by J. I. Packer entitled "Knowing God." I liked that book (but you won't have to to enjoy this post). Over the course of the years I've used that book to teach Sunday School classes on two occasions. Then I learned that someone at the new church I was going to was teaching a Sunday School class using this book. I was eager to see this work from another perspective. I was excited and enthused at the prospect of hearing something I knew that I liked.

Then I went to the first lesson. And the book was the same as it always had been. So was the subject material. So was me. When the hour of the first lesson was done, I walked out saying to my wife, "that was a singular achievement." I didn't think anyone could make that material boring to me. But he did. The teacher's delivery was a little bit like Ben Stein's lecture in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But the man's delivery was not what made this lesson boring.

WHY it was boring is something I want to share with you. Hopefully, you'll be able to avoid a few simple mistakes and save yourself from writing boring stuff, or giving boring speeches.

I've said before that truth is complicated. And what makes truth complicated are the exceptions, complications, and contradictions. I've likened it to Fractals where within the details of one structure are finer and finer details unimagined when you started out. This is OK, because details can be interesting.

It is also personally threatening, because getting details wrong is a no-no. Also OK, because now that you've got skin in the game you'll be more engaged. Because the truth is complicated, you can't hope to know everything and you can't hope to completely overcome every aspect of your own ignorance. This means that there are always dark corners where surprises might be lurking.

What made the lesson so boring was that the teacher stuck with the safe and well-established. He taught what he knew very well and avoided what he did not. When he engaged his class it was at this same level. This took all the tension out of the presentation. With all the tension out, all of my interest in what's going on went, to.

We naturally try to avoid discomfort and it is natural to try to cast our wish for peace and harmony onto our storytelling. It is natural when teaching to responsibly stick with what's known and non-controversial. Do this and you'll be boring. I've mentioned elsewhere about the 3rd act fail that resulted from prematurely eliminating the tension in the movie Fitzwilly. Ergo, you'll want to look for the points of tension in the material, and by all means maintain that tension at an appropriate level: not too much, not too little.

But there's a tension here, too. I've deprecated the news media and trolls for needlessly introducing ad hominem conflict into political debate. If tension is good, and harmony is boring, then aren't the trolls doing a valuable public service by keeping things interesting? I say no. There are a lot of interesting things in the substance of debate. If you're smart enough to understand them.

Just whipping one side or the other into red-faced, spitting rate may provide a low form of entertainment, like bear-baiting or cat-burning in another age. However, it is as morally repugnant and it's bad karma tends to stifle all polite conversation that might stray into such precincts.

How does one distinguish between good tension and bad tension? Where does being a troll start and stimulating thought end? The question answers itself. When I'm trolling you, I'm suppressing thought by stimulating negative emotions. When I'm engaging complicated truth, I'm making you think about the issues.

This applies to storytelling. I've got to keep some tension in my stories at all times, and I've got to manage the nature of that tension. Is it incidental to the larger story arc, or does it contribute toward it? Your writing needs an engine to move it forward and the tension you put into each scene needs to be tied into it like the Power-Take-Off on the back of a tractor.
(This isn't my dad's tractor, or his buzz saw, but it's close.)

Those more worthy than I: