Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fight club

This is a bit spooky. I'm planning, as in right now, to co-opt the Spanish civil war in a story and the UK's National Archives put online lots of records about volunteers that went to fight. There are lots of pointers to extra sources too.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Taking the lumps

"If your story is flat, your story is flat now" is a very telling observation made by Sam DelanyFigure 15 from Charles Darwin's The Expression...Image via Wikipedia and it's one that regularly hits me between the keys. It's the curse of every writer, bar Ted Chiang perhaps, to realise that what they are producing does not match the purity of the original idea. Many, many times every word that is put down only seems to slubber that gloss.

Some of that is inevitable and perhaps desirable because the working out of a story always means getting the parts to fit. Simply putting together all the parts supplied by the muse would produce a work that would be pretty much unreadable.

One aspect of story writing that is particularly difficult for me is adding emotional weight to a character's journey. Especially as the aphorism to "show, don't tell" is always on my mind. I could just write about someone's state of mind but feel that I should do more. Hence my being haunted by Delany's quote about the flatness. I've often asked myself how I add that weight but now realise that is the wrong question. That weight should arise from the events of the story. There should be emotion built in. That's easy to say but hard to do.

So this quote from Donald Maass was a real "Oh, right" moment.

"Describing grief is fine but not as effective as your protagonist saying goodbye to her dying mother - and even that is not as good as saying goodbye after a rich experience of mother-daughter love - and even that is not as good as if that love was hard won."

So, it's the cumulative effect that is important, the stakes have to be high and the story has to show that building up. That is a relief to read because it means that when I get that feeling of a story lacking emotion it is usually in the first draft. That's not to say that it would be easy to fix in the edit but it gives me a framework on which to hang my revisions. Good.

That advice feels particularly relevant for my current work in progress. It has a main character who is emotionally stunted because to make any connection with anyone where he was raised was potentially fatal. It was a very treacherous place.

The idea for the story was that the culture that has kidnapped/freed him did so because it needs his skills as cold, merciless killer. It still does but maybe it can be more complicated than that. Maybe it can also civilise, thaw, him a bit. He will not go unchanged by immersion in another place. The emotional punch could be him unbending but it will have to be preceded by lots of heartlessness and failed attempts at making a connection. Plus he'll have the prejudice about where he comes from to contend with to frustrate his emotional growth.
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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Looking back

This is a great background for the period - the interwar years - that'll be the backdrop for the next story I'm going to write. Thank you internet, it's good to know you are on my side.

This is also useful as I need good sources to guide my thinking about how the story should play out. I'm reading a couple of books written by Bertrand Russell from this period and now I can see why they make so much mention of war and conflict. The whole period is a testing ground for the right way to live a life.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

High guard

The problem with writing science fiction is the details. I've chosen an orbital as the setting for a story and as soon as I did that I hit problems. I've dodged one bullet by putting the main character in a curated section, its essentially a military sanitorium, so there's no great need to invent a novel biology to populate the place or become happy with how it was built.

I did wonder about night and day cycles, though. How would that be accomplished on suA 3D model of a Culture's orbitalImage via Wikipediach a vast structure? There are a couple of ways. Larry Niven's ringworld uses "shadow squares" set close to the structure's star that block the sunlight at regular intervals. What is most interesting about doing it this way is that the sun is always directly overhead. To someone raised on a planet that would be deeply unsettling, I'd guess. It would really underscore their sense of dislocation.

There are other ways to do it. Iain Banks' conception of an orbital generates a night and day cycle by tilting the vast structure on its orbital axis. That'll also help give the structure seasons.

One other big difference to living on an orbital/ring world would be the lack of a horizon. Again, that would be odd for a planet dweller. Instead, the vast structure would divide the sky in day and night and its great curve would lead the eye off and away until it merged with the sky.

The final question I've got to come to terms with is how many such giant structures there are. The story demands that there be enough for there to be a question over which one the main character finds himself on. So, more than four and less than 30, I'd say.

The implication of having loads of them is that the societies inhabiting these galaxies are far more advanced than I'd like. What makes the setting interesting for me is its limitations. I don't want to write a nanotech = magic = anything is possible SF story. That's just fantasy in a vacuum suit. I'm not kidding myself that what I'm depicting is plausible or likely but I want it to be true to itself. If anything is possible then actions have no consequence. You're dead? Don't worry, we can fix it. I'm more interested in worlds and cultures that are striving, are looking for that next great leap forward and can stumble along the way.

This stems from my niggling doubt about the Minds depicted in the Culture books. For me, they are too smart. That over-arching intelligence can see a hundred thousand ways to solve a problem that puny human or alien brains could simply not come up with. So, why don't they solve all problems, for everyone? I'd also guess that any significantly smart entity would also be happy with expediency - ask them about greater good and they will give you actual numbers. They also be intimately acquainted with the danger of error. They could be very, very wrong. The ultimate encapsulation of that old saw - experts are not necessarily right more often, they are just wrong for more complicated reasons.
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Monday, June 13, 2011

Dodge this

This post got me thinking, largely because I do tend to equate words with progress. This year I've organised my time to try to make myself more productive. I work to a four-week cycle. Three weeks are spent on the work in progress and I've worked out that I need to do about 400 words a day to get a story done. For some reason I find it hard to write a story that is under 5,500 words long. The other week is spent putting the story on OWW and doing reviews for others so I can get some feedback.2112wcImage by midwinter via Flickr
It's a regime that has worked well, so far, this year. I'm on track to produce more stories this year than ever before. If I keep it up all year I'll have to keep some stories back so I don't have too many in circulation. The admin side of this hobby can be very time-consuming.

What is also good about it is the effect it has had on my creativity. The first few stories I wrote this year were hard to get done. At times it felt like I was bodily dragging each word to its place on the page. For the last couple I've struggled to get everything down on the page and tend to accumulate thousands of words of notes, snippets of dialog and scenes before I start to put the story together. It's had an effect on how I use language and the way I think about the world.

Despite these good things I feel like I'm not being as productive as I could be. Especially given that some folks are writing a story a week. There's no way I can do that but I want to be sure to get my story done in the time I've allotted to it. The days I don't get those 400 words done are lost days. Or so it seems.

There are many reasons why I don't get those words done. Sometimes I don't make the total because life gets in the way, sometimes because I'm tired and sometimes it is because of my inexperience and worry that I won't be able to do a particular scene justice. But even on those days I'm turning the story over in my head, reasoning why some scenes won't work and what route to take with the work in progress.

I also keep up the journal notes about my thoughts and what should be happening in the story. Where next to go, what details to include and how to present it. That's work, there's no doubt about it. So that blog post did make me feel better because that counts too. And it does. But, but, but. But there's no dodging the fact that a story is words on the page. I can't send off those notes and ask an editor to do the work themselves. In the end only the word count, counts.
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Friday, June 10, 2011

Insane maths

A great explanation of multi-dimensional universes that uses Lovecraft's many creations, including Yog Sothoth, as examples. Ooh, and it's not the first to do it.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Calling cards

Names are important. At least I think so and I fret over them a lot, for both main characters and minor ones. I like a name to be more than just a place-holder. Ideally they should say something about the character they have been bestowed upon. Though there are some names (Adam) that I'll use rarely because they are so burdened with history. And, it has to be said, because they have been so abused in the past.

For some stories, based in particular ages, it's just a matter of consulting census records for the relevant time period and picking a few that seem right. Getting them wrong can wreck a story. I once called a character in a fantasy story Hermes Trismegistus to point up his connection to ancient magics until a reviewer, very kindly, pointed out that it as so outlandish that it over-shadowed the rest of the tale. Everyone else in that story had very down to earth names so it did mark him out too much. Suffice it to say I changed it.

There are many reasons why I can be dissatisfied with the way a story turns out but the most common one is that I didn't quite get the names right. That seems an odd thing to write, but part of what matters about a story is its consistency - in both the philosophical and cookery meanings of that word. Philosophical consistency means all the elements work together to draw a bigger picture. In formal logic, a consistent argument is one in which truth is preserved throughout ie there is no internal contradiction to undermine it.

Cookery consistency means there should be no lumps, the story should flow like a good cake batter with all its ingredients well mixed but still present to the palate when it is served up. Lordy, that was a tortured metaphor.

When I've been stumped in the past, I've tended to go classical and consult Greek and Latin dictionaries for the names of things or traits that I feel a character embodies. Moira means fate! Cool. It's worked pretty well and the intellectual in me likes the etymological playfulness of doing that.

The current work in progress was really stumping me as it is space opera, something I've not written much. With far future SF I was looking for names that are not obviously rooted in the present day but do have a useful meaning. Though I'm aware that's an impossible task. I went classical but nothing I could find really hit the spot. So I tried a different language - Hungarian. Bingo. Almost too many to use. You've got to love a language that has words for black vomit and gelding knife. To my Western ears it sounds sufficiently detached from the present day to be useful yet it has the rigor and rules of a real language. There's consistency in a philosophical sense and it feels good in the mouth. What's not to like.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Famous executioners

A list largely culled from here
Albert Pierrepoint
Richard Brandon
William Marwood
Fernandez Alvarez de Toledo
Giovanni Battiste Bugatti
Charles Henri-Sanson

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Money fight

The opening scene in the story I'm currently working on is an interplanetary invasion. Writing this scene has troubled me not because it is a sweeping vista of giant ships, a city under attack and troop movements but because of economics.

The Stainless Steel Rat stories by Harry Harrison formed a large part of my early SF education. I can still remember the thrill of reading the first page of the original book and I steadily worked my way through them all. The Deathword series were faves too. Jim De Griz! Jason Dinalt!

Woah, just found out Slippery Jim originated in a short story in August 1957 in Astounding.

One section in The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge really stuck with me. It was a passage about the economics of interstellar war. It's ruinously expensive so pretty much no-one will bother in the far future, suggested Mr Harrison. That bugged me then and it bugs me now. I remember wondering if that would be the case. That, when war is too expensive, nations will not bother. Really? Really?

Lots has been written about the economics of post-scarcity societies. Some of it by economists and some by science fiction writers. Astonishingly, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman became an economist because it was the closest thing he could find to being a psychohistorian.

Anyhoo, having read a few of the pieces gathered here, here and here none have put a price on whether it is economically feasible. It's true at the moment that war is costly but we are in a scarcity society and are subject to the laws of supply and demand.

Post-scarcity opens up lots more options i.e. hand waving. Given fewer restrictions on materials and far lower costs of production then it may be more feasible. It's never going to be free and it does assume a vigorous and sustained military organisation to provide the bodies and fight the battles. Maybe that's the bigger problem. That its plausibility assumes a society happy to have a lot of its productive people locked away and prepared to fight. If the AIs are in charge would they be happy to do that. What if they are forced to? Hmmm. Maybe it will work, if only because the backdrop informs the story.

Elder and outer

An artist is spending a year to draw every creature and monster mentioned in Lovecraft's works. A great source for future works. To my mental eye, the Deep One is a bit too froggy but the Colour Out of Space is ace. I've looked at his Dunwich Horror and its as accurate as the text suggests. I've read and re-read Lovecraft's description of it but just can't picture it. I'm not sure if that means Lovecraft succeeded - because the thing was unthinkable for a puny human brain - or failed because I couldn't form a mental image of it.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Moving money

More useful source material for when I write about a bank job. Epic tales of bank jobs.