Monday, October 31, 2011

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Men-ups

Gender points made elegantly and adorably by one-to-one substitution. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ten Flavors of Writer's Block

Nice post from io9. It's actually from a while back, but I build up a buffer of automatically updated posts, and it'll still be good in two weeks. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

National Novel Writing Month Pre-Briefing

I guess it's possible that's just a briefing.

Okay, so, National Novel Writing Month (I refuse to use acronyms where avoidable, and I particularly refuse to use the method of shortening that involves just taking the first syllable of each because, damnit, that produces infantile gibberish I won't be any part of. Unfortunately, as you can see to the right, it's on everything.)

This is my third year doing the national novel writing month thing. Before I started this, I was terrified of novels. I thought, Jesus, it's hard enough to make a character consistently interesting for 5,000 words, how on earth am I going to keep them for 100,000 words? I knew it was a different type of story, of course, but I still fretted, especially given that I'm prone to writing quite short, even within the short story format.

So for my first shot I leaned heavily on the snowflake method and I shot for a Young Adult Fantasy with a blind protagonist point of view (which was something I had tackled fine in a short story, but was more of a challenge for a novel). I learned a lot. It got away from me a bit at times, and frankly I introduced one of the main characters way too late in the story, and he ended up becoming one of many minor helper characters. While I did hit the word goal, I did not finish the book. It's not terrible, certainly, all things considered, and there are bits of it I still think are quite good writing, but I don't anticipate going back to it soon.

My second year I thought, hell, I've grown and matured. I don't need a scaffolding. That was not entirely correct. I also shot for a genre blend where I'm not very intimately familiar with the other genre format: mystery. In the end, the book had kind of a big identity crisis over whether the murder discovered in the first chapter was a mystery or a macguffin, and really it's the latter. There was also an issue because the two viewpoint characters would not have had access to a lot of the upper echelon locales, and trying to narratively ram them into every place I wanted to show in order to have them overhear every plot point I needed strained credulity. I eventually quit doing it and broadened the cast of viewpoint characters to get a broader, less forced view of things. I also needed them to be missing information in key scenes. I actually ended up backwriting an entire character in order to have someone familiar with the world on a scientific level give information my characters could not have obtained by themselves. I actually got to the end of this one, with a handful of notes of scenes I needed to go back and write from different points of view. I still think it's basically good, though I acknowledge it needs a lot of work.

This year I'm back on the outlines. I'm going through the snowflake method again and it's been really helpful, especially when I get to a point where I have to go "wait, how and why could that possibly ever work?". So far I've pre-solved several plot holes. I'm really liking how it's going. I feel like the main character is more in the thick of events, so that makes the perspective easier to handle. I'm actually quite excited about this one, and I feel like the preparation has been good. I also feel like I'm bringing a lot of lessons from the first two books with me.

I know six other real life friends who will also be doing the national novel writing month, plus the regular crowd online. It should be a bang up month.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Friday, October 21, 2011

Super Tool

Okay, check this out: Pro Writing Aid. If you put text into this algorithm it will scan for be verbs, passive voice, repeated phrases, ridiculous dialogue tags, overused turns of phrase, variable sentence length, and homonyms that may be the wrong word for what you're trying to say.

How gee whiz cool is that?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Anecdote II

Barbara A Barnett's post about desperately trying to increase the audience for the opera company she works with, along with her link to Random Acts of Culture made me think of this story.

I used to work for [a large credit reporting agency], in their small business department, which they have since eliminated (I left some time earlier in a fit of moral pique over having my incentives tied to upselling and actively discouraging refunds in the "help" and cancellations department, as well as having to clean up some persistent dishonesty from the sales team, and frankly, walking away from that job was one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life). One of the extra responsibilities I took on in order to have more things to do so I wasn't sitting around when no calls were coming in was a weekly mass-emailing of sales figures to everyone on my team.

Because I was bored, and because I thought to myself "well why the hell not?" at the end of the e-mail I attached a little poem. Ozymandias by Shelley. At the time, I thought nobody would even notice. The poem was bellow all the required information on the report, even under my signature. And even if they did notice it there, it was out of the way and it wouldn't be a bother.

To my surprise, I very quickly got back an e-mail thanking me for the poem, and letting me know it was also one of the recipient's favorites.

Every week I would put a new poem at the bottom of the e-mail. I know I put in Invictus, Still I Rise, Because I Could Not Stop For Death, Annabel Lee and a little bit of Fungi from Yuggoth for Halloween, To His Coy Mistress, a bit of Neruda, Frost, Coleridge, Lorca, Kipling, Hughes, and honestly I don't remember what all else. It came to be something I would really look forward to, and spend time researching to prepare for, and after I had sent my little poems off into the ether, I would get back e-mails or quick pats at the copy machine. Such and such poet was their favorite. Hey, that last poem was really cool. Thank you, I'd never heard that one before. One of my coworkers in particular got into long conversations with me about poems and books. Another found out I liked Spanish surrealism and produced and lent me a copy of Un Chien Andalou, which I had never seen before. I think I read more poetry at that job than I have at any time before or after, and looking back, even years later, the whole thing makes me smile.

One of my personal failings is that I tend to assume nobody else is interested in the things that I love, and I don't offer things up as often as I should, whether they're poems or stories or comic books or bits of trivia or anecdotes. So sometimes it's nice to think back on times when I've done it, and it's worked out beautifully. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Detroit Digital Grassroots

I think this is just a really fabulous project to try and get people who might not otherwise have it a voice in their culture and a chance to build their business. The internet can be a really fabulous tool, but only if you can get onto it and get around, and for a lot of us that's meant having a computer in our home to learn on and internet whenever we wanted it. For a lot of people, that's not the case. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Tom O'Bedlam


The following is a folk song/poem of unknown authorship, suspected to have been written around 1600, and definitively attested by at least 1634. 

Tom O'Bedlam

From the hagg and hungrie goblin
That into raggs would rend ye,
And the spirit that stands by the naked man
In the Book of Moones - defend ye!

That of your five sound senses
You never be forsaken,
Nor wander from your selves with Tom
Abroad to beg your bacon.

(Chorus; sung after every verse)

While I doe sing "any foode, any feeding,
Feedinge, drinke or clothing,"
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.

Of thirty bare years have I
Twice twenty been enraged,
And of forty been three times fifteen
In durance soundly caged.

On the lordly lofts of Bedlam,
With stubble soft and dainty,
Brave bracelets strong, sweet whips ding-dong,
With wholesome hunger plenty.

With a thought I took for Maudlin
And a cruse of cockle pottage,
With a thing thus tall, skie blesse you all,
I befell into this dotage.

I slept not since the Conquest,
Till then I never waked,
Till the roguish boy of love where I lay
Me found and stript me naked.

When I short have shorne my sowre face
And swigged my horny barrel,
In an oaken inn I pound my skin
As a suit of gilt apparel.

The moon's my constant Mistrisse,
And the lowly owl my morrowe,
The flaming Drake and the Nightcrow make
Me music to my sorrow.

The palsie plagues my pulses
When I prigg your pigs or pullen,
Your culvers take, or matchless make
Your Chanticleers, or sullen.

When I want provant, with Humfrie
I sup, and when benighted,
I repose in Powles with waking souls
Yet never am affrighted.

I know more than Apollo,
For oft, when he lies sleeping
I see the stars at bloody wars
In the wounded welkin weeping,

The moone embrace her shepherd
And the queen of Love her warrior,
While the first doth horne the star of morne,
And the next the heavenly Farrier.

The Gipsie Snap and Pedro
Are none of Tom's companions.
The punk I skorne and the cut purse sworne
And the roaring boyes bravadoe.

The meek, the white, the gentle,
Me handle touch and spare not
But those that crosse Tom Rynosseros
Do what the panther dare not.

With a host of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander.

By a knight of ghostes and shadowes
I summon'd am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wild world's end.
Methinks it is no journey.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Oh, HELL Yes!

My friend Sylvia Hiven talks sometimes about dream markets: the places you hope your fiction ends up because of the prestige (even if it's just among a subgroup) or how much you think it would be a perfect fit. One of those markets for me is The Drabblecast, which just bought my story "Wendigo Bakesale". Which, just... I really don't have a lot of words I'm comfortable putting on a searchable blog that adequately convey my elation. This is the Drabblecast! The house that Norm built. In large part the reason I did not go onto a psychotic shooting spree when I had a job where I had to drive five hours a day. The same guys who ran "Rangifer Volans" and "Mongoose" and have bbardles and a sound effect for a rapidly liquifying cat.

When you love somebody this much, there's just nothing more gratifying than knowing they like you back.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"Tatooine"

The Kepler program has officially found a planet that orbits a binary star system, which for a long time was something laughed off as irresponsible science fiction aesthetics. Go science!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Did I Write That?

So a critique site that I participate in recently had a bit of a hiccup, and a number of story files may or may not be lost forever. The site featured a weekly prompt and I wasn't always as diligent as I should have been about saving the things I put up for it, so I've been going back through what I have saved on my computer trying to find what I do and don't have a copy of. So far the only casualty I can find is a story about a witch and an enlightenment philosopher having a discussion about the nature of reality over several courses of an elaborate magical meal. So, I'm hoping the archive isn't lost, because I rather liked that story.

But the other thing that's coming of this inventory taking is that I'm running across things I don't remember writing. Some of which I really rather like. My rationale for writing these things is opaque to me. Sometimes I remember doing it, sometimes I don't. They were mostly done for exercises, whose usefulness in creating a story I'd never know until the hour was up, so I guess I wasn't terribly invested up front, but still.

One of the other things I ended up doing in dry times was to go back and do prompts a second time, sometimes more than a year after the first time. What I got from the prompt was always different. In part that's likely because I had already done the other story, but I think there's something more than that.

I think the ideas that come to us ("inspiration" if I'm being arty) has a lot to do with the mood one is in, what one's consumed recently, the problems of the day that are bouncing around in your mind. I've outlined stories with a very clear idea of the conflict and emotional resolution, only to be unable to pin it down when I come back to it a day or two later. One can be disciplined about it, to a point, but I think mood and environment really do have a lot to do with the part of your work that's you, as you are putting it down.

Maybe the benefit of editing is smoothing out some of the hiccups with that, or maybe that's why some edited stories come out for me feeling a bit muddled and unfocussed. Do I work at cross purposes with myself?

I don't know. More research is needed. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

On Being What You Eat

Not a writing article, but a neat one anyway. It turns out RNA from plant matter can survive digestion and alter the expression of human genes. How cool is that?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Cash, Orgies, and Ethnography

A fun article, which is technically a rebuttal, concerning the historical emergence of the concept of currency. If you're interested in writing stone or bronze age societies, or modern hunter gatherers, definitely worth a read. Or if you're just interested in the pre-history of money.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

On Imagery

I've actually been asked for an imagery post, so here it goes. My thoughts. As always your mileage may vary, but this is what I think and what tends to work for me.

The most important thing, I think, to remember about imagery is that no word you ever use is a discreet entity whole and perfect unto itself. Let's take the word "cat". Because we're fluent speakers, we understand this particular aggregation of sounds (or in the written form letters) to mean a small furry domesticated predator, with sharp claws and whiskers and a reputation for gracefulness and good landings, sleeping 14 hours of every day, playing sadistically with its food, self-cleaning, arching its back defensively, purring when contented, maintaining an independent ambivalence it its owners if it has any, among other things. We also understand the word to refer to the groups of characteristics the house cats above share with the rest of the felis genus. We also, more distantly, understand it as slang for carousing (catting around) or a sort of beatnik cool gentleman or related to slang for female genitalia (also related to this relation: the phrase "cat house"). We know it can be subdivided into toms and strays and tabbies and calicoes and Siamese and kittens among others. We know its synonyms and related words include feline, pussy, kitten, etc; and even if we don't specifically know it's a term that came to us through germanic roots, but we know it's not a fancy french/latin term like feline. We may think of witches and cat ladies. Visions of yarn and litter boxes and mice dance in our heads. If we've had our own cats, we may think of them, or we may be thinking of some platonic ideal of a cat, or we may be thinking of the horrible smell of cat spray, the feel of shed hair on carpets and furniture. The grand American cultural lexicon gives us Garfield and Lolcats and the eponymous musical.

All of this and more is attached to the word "cat" to varying degrees, and each word used above has its own web of associations that include but are not limited to "cat". When you say "like a cat" you have the freedom to mean any of these things, and the hazard of all the things you're not trying to say. I think being really good at imagery is being able to draw out the threads of connotation around an individual word or concept and tie the ones you want to your subject.

(If you're interested in it academically, there's a whole psycho-cultural-linguistic school of thought called structuralism which examines our cultural foundations and our ability to perceive the world through the lens of our language and where we draw both connections and distinctions between the words that form the building materials of our thoughts. There's also a post-structuralist/deconstructionist vein of thought that is principally about examining how the intrinsic biases of culturally shaped language constrain and warp our ability to perceive. For the later you'll probably want to start the term semiotics and branch out from there)


se·mi·ot·ics

  [see-mee-ot-iks, sem-ee-, see-mahy-] Show IPA
noun used with a singular verb )
1.
the study of signs and symbols as elements ofcommunicative behavior; the analysis of systems ofcommunication, as languagegestures, or clothing.
2.
a general theory of signs and symbolism, usually divided intothe branches of pragmatics, semantics, and syntactics.)


Anyway, that got a little more lecture-y than I meant it to, but basically the point I want to get across is that imagery is artfully bringing to bear some or all of the connotations of an unrelated concept in order to describe a thing or create a mood or motif that influences the tone of the larger piece.

I admit, personally, a lot of the time I use imagery just because it's fun and that's the style of writing I enjoy both producing and consuming (I go for baroque). There is definitely something to be said for crisp, uncluttered, Hemingway-esque prose. It's absolutely beautiful for understating action and making it stand out more because it's casually presented. It's clean, it reads fast, it conveys information, and done well it evokes just as much reader involvement because it doesn't overburden the reader with the author's opinions or observations. Imagery-heavy prose, by contrast, can at its best make sure the reader is bringing a life full of memory, culture, and sensation to bear on what might be an otherwise plain scene. It's good for developing the internality of a character- how they see the world and what associations they make. It can paint a neutral scene dark or bright, forlorn or tense, by the way you chose to describe things.

So. One of the points I would like to make is that imagery is certainly not just going "her X was like Y". Sometimes it's just a pretty image and you do it because it's a darling little phrase you want to birth into the world, but every time you tie one thing to another it stays with us. You can't describe the armchair in which your father sits in terms of an electric chair for one line and expect that not to leave smears of doom and criminality (or unjust punishment) all over the father character, and a lingering sense of fear attached to that chair for the rest of your story (assuming it reappears, you may just be trying to describe the father obliquely). If you read a lot of horror stories, you'll notice a pattern especially that things are not white like clouds and daisies, they're white like bones and maggots, because the horror writer is trying to subtly unsettle you the whole way through, to recreate that feeling of being alone in a too-big house, jumping at shadows and seeing murderous intruders when all that's there is your grandfather clock. Likewise, you're probably not going to see maggot white in a love story, because the author is trying to craft a gestalt of want, of desire, of appreciating beauty, sometimes of feeling safe, sometimes of feeling dangerously excited (to the latter end they might describe something like the rush of standing at the edge of a tall cliff and feeling the wind whip against them). Images are great for giving cues, for provoking emotional reaction, or even just for conveying something that language does not have a single adequate word for. (Seriously, just as an exercise, try to describe the feeling of being smiled at by someone you love in a way that lets you know they love you too, and tell me if "good", "relieved", or "happy" really sum it up.)

Any word choice has the potential to nurture a little imagery (I was going to use a different example, but see "nurture" in that sentence? It's not strictly an accurate word. Neither word has volition or needs, but I can animate the sentence by the analogy of word choice gently feeding and caring for imagery so that imagery can grow up big and strong). One good not-strictly-accurate verb is a beautiful microcosm for a larger analogy, and sometimes that's all you really need. You don't have to tell me the salesman was reptilian and predatory toward his customers, if you can just tell me he slithered. Sometimes the lightest touch is absolutely best.

As for giving imagery punch, the biggest thing is just not to use common analogies unless you're really going to push them through to the other side of boring. It's really unimpressive to hear your heroine's eyes shine like diamonds or are as blue as the deep blue sea- unless you're going to carry that analogy further, from blandly pretty (or blandly horrible) into something novel and interesting. "Her eyes were like the deep blue sea; he knew below the surface they were full of sharks". Reversals on standard analogies are actually one of my favorite things to do. We have a lot of stock images that are associated with being wholly good or evil, positive or negative, masculine or feminine, active or passive. How many times have you heard golden used to describe something ugly? How often have you seen snakes used to describe something good? When you use an analogy we expect to conform to one category to describe something pertaining to another, there's an inherent tension that makes the sentence memorable. "His movements were clean, alive, and graceful as a snake new-burst from its skin." This works especially well when the analogy is something that's got a lot whole lot of force and expectation behind it (eg. mother, priest, sex, criminal, money, heroin, infant, lynch mob)

I guess the only other big theory I've got about it is that the analogies you make, whether explicit or implied are kind of a bridge between two things, and the farther those things are apart, the more tense and interesting that comparison is (though the farther apart they are, the more you have to shore them up to keep them from falling apart.) "The strawberries were like raspberries" is not a terribly interesting statement (in fact it's kind of a confusing thing to say because it's close enough it hardly seems like imagery at all), especially not next to "the strawberries were like red dirigibles" or "the strawberries were like can-can dancers" (the latter example is one that needs shoring. Left at that, I'm really not sure what you mean, but if you give me a bit about them being, teasing and succulent, or lined up on top of the white platform of a cake, the bridge is strong enough to carry a reader across, if a little self-indulgent (honestly, possibly enough so to put a number of readers off, but that's a matter of taste.))

Imagery's like spice in your cooking. It's entirely possible to overdo it and spoil the whole thing, but it's worth bearing in mind that some people love plain potatoes and grilled chicken breast, and some of us really dig a steaming bowl of super-hot curry. My advice is play, do what you love, figure out the mechanisms, and understand that there's no absolute way to do it right (though there are numerous ways to do it very wrong). 

Saturday, October 1, 2011