Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How much?

When I were a lad, between the ages of six and nine, it was an article of faith that the biggest number was not just infinity but triple infinity. It was one of those facts passed a

Views of spacetime along the world line of a r...Image via Wikipedia

round the playground regularly by anyone keen to put one over their playmates. There was no better way than asserting your maturity over the little 'uns than by dropping such a deathless fact into a conversation. If nothing else it would stun them into submission - knowing the biggest number you can is pretty much magic as far as an infant is concerned.

My kids are about the age now I was when I was bandying around such facts with abandon. Their world too is filled with similarly accepted items of knowledge. For instance, one of my boys told me today that if you die you become a ghost. When I said that would be bad as there would be no more computer games, he corrected me and said a ghost could get into the computer and play all day. It was kind of hard, not to say cruel, to argue with such conviction.

When I was a nipper I was as ignorant, perhaps more so, than the average kid and had no idea who was the first to assert that "triple infinity" was the biggest number there is. I've a feeling that Peter Reilly told me - he was my best mate and it was the kind of secret knowledge that we were likely to share. We also decided that when we were older we'd share a house and drive Range Rovers.

Now, 35 or so years later, it's finally occurred to me to see if triple infinity is actually a thing and work out how such an idea came to be on the lips of kids in the early 70s. It turns out that triple infinity is a thing but nothing, as far as I can work out, to do with counting. That being one of the main preoccupations of schoolkids of that age.

Hyperbolic Order-3 heptakis heptagonal tilingImage via Wikipedia

Triple infinity looks like it is a concept that can be of use in a wide variety of subjects - geometry, particle phyics, in discussions of the special theory of relativity and others. And that's about as far as my understanding goes.

There are other triple infinities - but I don't think Peter meant any of those.

The unanswered question will be how it got from those abstruse theories into a first school in Yorkshire. Was there something on TV or an older brother or sister studying such things? God only knows.
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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Another one bites the dust

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I'm going to abandon the story I've been writing for the last couple of weeks. The decision will dent my chances of hitting my target for the number of stories I want to write this year. But I can live with that.

I learned to my cost with a previous story that it is not a good idea to take a break while in the middle of writing. This time that derailed me again but, looking to the positive, it stopped me persevering with a tale that now looks unworkable.

It's all part of learning how I go about writing which, if I'm honest, it is a pretty chaotic process.

That may not be a bad thing. I've read a lot of books about how to do the writing thing and the advice they offer is very different. It has struck me that what all those authors of those books are laying out is how they go about writing.

There's no single process that everyone should follow to success - though there are tricks of the trade that are worth knowing.

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it is important to discover how you work rather than do what works for others. Though it might be worth trying what they say if only to eliminate what doesn't work and get a sense of all the ways it can be done.

However, it might be just success that convinces me I've found my way to work. The last two stories I've written have felt a lot better than almost anything I've done and I wrote both of them in a pretty chaotic way. Instead of working it all out and sticking to that plan I'm setting off and adjusting as I go along.

Other writers have said that you never get the trick of writing a novel. While writing one you only discover how to write that novel. There might be something of that for the different way people approach short stories. As always though I'm wary of routine. Feeling like I'm on top of a subject is usually the moment when I faceplant and show the world what an arse I am. And as I am often heard to declare: I'm not disorganised, I'm spontaneous.

By contrast, many of the other stories have been pretty mechanical and I was getting a bit tired of going through those motions just to turn out a story that wasn't great. And didn't enthuse me. I needed a change because I could see that writing was going to be a grind if I kept up with that method. And this is supposed to be fun, right?

Which brings me to the story I've abandoned. One of the many tricks that is supposed to turn those ideas into workable stories is find out who has most to lose in the cast of characters you have assembled and then make all the action revolve around them.

I did that and the story sucked. All the life in it, and my enthusiasm for it,

Illustration of a scribe writingImage via Wikipedia

died on its arse. In working out what should happen the original impetus drained away. I ended up with a story that had no tension or conflict in it and was for far away from my original conceit that it felt like someone else's work. So, I gave up on it. Which is a pity because I've spent a long time trying to put it together. Like, months.

The story I have picked to get working on has instantly enthused me and got me thinking about how it can all work out. During my commute this morning I got it into a pretty good shape and know what is going to happen. All I need to do now is pick the main character and get on with it.
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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Slartibartfarst, I feel your pain

I'm sure I've written before that you only find out what you need to know when you are writing a story. I often find that progress on a story screeches to a halt when I hit a deep pothole in the form of a missing detail that, it turns out, is crucial to the world I'm imagining. Perhaps I should not celebrate that lack of foresight too much but it's surprising what trips me up.

Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Ci...Image via Wikipedia

Take as a for instance a story I have just finished. I worked out a way to crowbar in a key part of the plot only to bump up against the realisation that, to do that, I needed to know the names of the months in this imaginary world.

That's not something I've thought about before. I did commit a few cycles to this problem because I like the world I've invented and I wanted it to have that Colgate ring of authenticity. Plus, with an eye on the very long term future, I wanted it worked out if it ever became a novel. Yeah, right.

So, I looked into why Earth months are called that. This is what I found.

January - after the Latin for door ianua (Janus/Ianuarius).
February - Latin - Februum - purification. The ceremony was all about washing and cleaning. Februatio (Lupercalia) was the full name.
March – Latin - Mars - God of War - not for the God but for the fact that it marked the start of the military campaigning season.
April - This one is a bit of a mystery. Thought to be from Aperire, Latin for "to open" but meaning buds and flowers rather than doors. April was sacred to Venus/Aphrodite and might be related to her Etruscan name Apru.
May – Greek goddess Maia.
June – Roman goddess Juno – goddess of marriage.
July – for Julius Caesar.
August – for Augustus – lots of the events that led to his rise to power happened during this month.
September – Septem – seventh - because it used to be the seventh month.
October – Octo – eighth - because it used to be the eighth month.
November – novem – nine - because it used to be the ninth month.
December – Decem – ten - because it used to be the tenth month.

To be honest, it all gets a bit dull once September heaves into view but the general feel is gods, goddesses, numbers and an Emperor or two. Interesting but no cigar. There are lots of other ways though that the Wikipedia has detailed for those that are interested. I am so I had a look and a lot of it is about gods and goddesses but there are other things there too - Sikhs have a day celebrating when a god leaves its Earthly existence. That could be useful.

Minor factoid. Almost all the domains for the months are owned by do

The DiggerImage by macrorain via Flickr

main management companies.

All this is just part of the bigger problem of world building and how to make it cohere or sound convincing enough for the length of the novel or short story. There are some times I really like doing it, sometimes when it is much easier to do than at others. Oddly, I find it easier to do for fantasy rather than SF settings. I'm currently wrestling with a problem for a stranded group of colonists. What do they use instead of matches? Answers on a postcard, please.
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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Lonely as the grave

You can do all the planning you want but you only find out what you forgot wh

A closeup of astronaut Alan Shepard in his spa...Image via Wikipedia

en you get on with the job. And so it has proved with the story I've decided to write this month. I've got it plotted, the list of scenes written and the main characters sketched out. The POV shifts are going to be a bit of a bugger but I'll confront that during the writing of the thing.

But I was getting on with it and realised that I'd neglected one key part of it - the psychological effect of isolation. In particular, how astronauts and other colonists would get on when suffering under extreme duress for a long time. How that is handled is a key part of the story and I need to understand it better for the story to work - or at least be plausible.

One of the key elements seems to be displacement - so those who are isolated tend to blame those who sent them there for anything that goes wrong. And, importantly, it does not solve the problem. I guess its related to attribution error that humans are prone to making. So if I trip it's because of a bump in the pavement but if you do it then it's because you are a clumsy idiot. That kind of thing.

There's also the stress of living with the same people for a long time. Their habits become annoying, you feel simultaneously crowded and lonely. No way to get away but no novelty either. There'd be a need for this stress to be released, perhaps regular sessions with a psychologist or counsellor who could help to defuse them.

That last is important. Variety - essential to stopping people going nuts with bo

Atmosphere of Mars taken from low orbitImage via Wikipedia

redom. They need plenty to do. I guess this comes back to super-ordinate goals. Give people an over-arching threat and they'll pull together and ignore their differences. There was the famous Robber's Cave experiment by Muzafer Sherif in 1954 at a boys camp which divided then into two factions - the Rattlers and the Eagles. The experiment emphasises their differences and provoked outbursts of violence that then evaporated when a larger problem (a super-ordinate goal), namely the breakdown of the water and food supply, presented itself.

There is also a need for a different kind of leader at different times. Early on the group would need a charismatic leader who could show the way and lead. They'd have to be confident, outgoing and arrogant to get things done. Later on though the colony would need someone much better at looking after people's feelings. Someone much more concerned with morale than action.
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