Archive for the ‘Internet’ category

Recently Found Tools For Writing Novels

July 14, 2022

I’ve just finished writing a second novel. I wanted to share a few of the tools I’ve found that helped me get it done, and will aid me in the future as I start on the third one.

By ‘tools’ I mean books on the craft of writing, and software.

There is a large industry devoted to selling advice on how to write novels to would-be authors. Not just books of course, but websites and software of all description. It’s hard to lift out the nutritious kernels from the dirt and leaves.

As time goes on, and I slowly become more experienced, I’m much less enamoured of those books which pretend to offer a surefire scheme based on arbitrary models of how novels should be structured. I’m thinking particularly of those books and authors who insist you must figure out three acts with certain obligatory ‘beats’. It all comes to seem so artificial and destined to bleed the life out of one’s writing. (And editors supposedly can spot the artificiality right away.)

Monetization and writing advice

I’ve understood that this is a means to sell how-to books and for monetization in general. If you’ve got yourself set up as a writing authority online, such as for just one example, the writer K.M. Weiland, then promoting a lot of bogus technique becomes necessary. It’s about the continual need for something to sell. (I don’t mean to pick on Weiland too much, it’s just I find her attitude about these matters annoying. She does have good instructive information on some topics.)

So I find myself better informed by books like Steven James’ Story Trumps Structure or John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story or Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Ensouling Language. But I’ve written about those books here before. I will come back with some new (to me) titles that I found helpful recently.

Obsidian

But first to the software end of things. I am becoming a fan of the free note-taking and personal information management (PIM) program called Obsidian. I’ve just discovered it in the last few months and it is becoming an important part of my note-taking and thinking about the novels I’m writing.

I’ve always been on the look-out for note-taking applications that can accept my helter-skelter thoughts and intuitions, and later help me use them in the writing. Previously I found NoteStormTW which I still think useful, but Obsidian seems more comprehensive.

Obsidian is a Markdown file reader. It sits on top of any relevant files in a designated folder or vault and enables users to write, edit and interlink their notes. I don’t know much about Markdown or PIM but apparently, these features make it an object of near cult-like reverence in some quarters. (You can find in-depth discussions for instance of Obsidian’s relevance for Zettelkästen and other esoteric matters.)

I like it because it’s not online, you don’t have to sign up for an account, and it seems incredibly flexible. You download it, install, review a YouTube video or two, maybe a written tutorial, and you’re away.

It’s even promoted as a ‘second brain.’ You build systems of bi-directional links between your notes, and there are even graphical plug-ins that enable you to better visualize what you’ve got. The exciting part is to perhaps discover links you haven’t noticed before. (An excellent overview of the application is at Sitepoint.)

The writer Vanessa Glau gives a good description of how she applies Obsidian in her fiction writing. She’s much more organized than I am, but she outlines an interesting process.

Freewriting

I’ve decided to come back to more freewriting as a method to incubate or brainstorm ideas for the next science fiction novel I plan to write. (I’ve previously written about freewriting in About Freewriting: Notes of a Pencil Sharpener, Part II.)

Freewriting, to return to originator Peter Elbow’s insightful thoughts on the practice is about “… a transaction with words whereby you free yourself from what you presently think, feel and perceive.”

The process can be something like this: Set aside 10 minutes. Start writing. Don’t stop for anything. Don’t rush but don’t stop. Never look back, do not cross out, do not muse about word choice, just go. If you get stuck, it’s fine to write things like, “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write,” or repeat the last word over and over until something catches. The only requirement is that you do not stop until time is up.

A useful application which allows you to work with this is the simple writing program Q10 . It provides a distraction free writing environment with a timer. It only produces .txt files though, so you may have to open and save in some other program to get a format you want.

Now on to several books. After I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on, I ran into my usual issue of not quite having a handle on how to revise.

Story Grid… Eh

Initially I found Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne to be a reasonable guide for my revision. There are a lot of useful insights into the state of the publishing business. But he starts to spend too much time on this for my taste before he gets to his method.

The heart of it are six questions one needs to keep asking about the novel. These include what are the protagonist’s objects of desire and what are the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and Ending Payoff? Worthwhile questions for a draft. But then he goes on to elaborate the beginning simplicity into increasingly complex and prescriptive spreadsheets and templates. If you go online, you see the method turned into another one of these writing craft merchandising schemes. Here’s the secret sauce you need!

Book Architecture

Then I found the book Blueprint Your Bestseller by Stuart Horwitz which became my guide this time for the overall revision of my manuscript. For the first novel, I’d done an Excel spreadsheet of all my scenes, with columns trying to incorporate the best advice about important points and characters.

Horwitz’s book laid out a similar method, which he calls Book Architecture, without the spreadsheet. As he puts it: “The basic premise of the Book Architecture Method is this: Your book has ninety-nine scenes. If you find your scenes and put them in the right order, you will be all set.” Well, it could be seventy-nine or a hundred-and-nine, but you get the idea. Finding and ordering scenes, and connecting them to the tentative theme you find in the work is the gist of it.

Once found each scene is named in a brief informative way and then listed without looking at the manuscript(!). This helps to understand what stands out for you about what you’ve written. (Presumably by this time you will have read your draft a few times.)

I won’t go on with all the details, but one concept he introduces I found unusual and interesting is that of series. A series can be seen as integrating a narrative element across a number of scenes.

Using the fable of The Ugly Duckling to show what he means, he picks out a series of scenes about “ugliness” and outlines their variations and how their sequence builds.

Another book I’ve been reading is Nancy Kress’s Dynamic Characters. She’s a science-fiction author who writes very well about the craft of writing, especially characterization and plotting. For instance: “Leaving out description results in characters subtly unconnected to their surroundings.” Of course, it is easy to put in too much. A fine line.

And finally, I’ve been reading an old book on writing by Dean R. Koontz, How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, which dates back to those prehistoric times before the internet. He’s a good, even great, fiction writer, although sometimes for me his writing is too over-wrought and jam-packed with dramatic crises and emotions.

A universal plot?

But I was struck by this description (mostly in his words) of what might be described as the ‘universal plot.’

1) A hero (or heroine) is introduced who has just been or is about to be plunged into terrible trouble.

2) The hero attempts to solve his problem but only slips into deeper trouble.

3) As the hero works to climb out of the hole he’s in, complications arise, each more terrible than the one before. It seems as if his situation could not possibly be blacker or more hopeless than it is — and then one final, unthinkable complication makes matters even worse. In most cases, these complications arise from mistakes or misjudgments the hero makes while struggling to solve his problems, which result from the interaction of the faults and virtues that make him a unique character.

4) At last, deeply affected and changed by his awful experiences and by his intolerable circumstances, the hero learns something about himself or about the human condition in general, a Truth of which he was previously ignorant. Having learned this lesson, he understands what he must do to get out of the dangerous situation in which he has wound up.

Perhaps a little simplistic for all circumstances, but this is a pattern which many great writers have used.

And, finally, one bit of I writing advice which I actually did this time: reading out loud the entire novel. This was a later stage effort after already doing a lot of line to line revision.

Reading the words out loud lets you find awkward rhythms and phrasing, or sentences that go on way too long for one breath. Although a really long sentence might be alright once in awhile, I tend to write sentences that should often be broken up. And reading out loud informs you of other subtleties that make a difference.

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Distraction – Science Fiction For Our Times

August 22, 2020

Distraction, by Bruce Sterling, 1998, Bantam Books
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Science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells is often given as an example of a writer who predicted the future. For example, almost 100 years ago he foretold wireless communication systems, and before that he wrote about devastating atomic weapons and the doomsday scenarios they might cause.

Given that the pace of technological and social change has accelerated so much from Wells’ time, Bruce Sterling’s feat of prognosis in his sci-fi novel Distraction, from 1998, is equally impressive in its way.

For me, it is not so much the specifics of the world in 2044 that Sterling imagines, it’s that he’s captured much of the weird atmosphere that we’re living through today.

Although published in 1998, Sterling must have been writing it for at least a couple of years before that. This is before Google, and Y2K; before Napster and massive downloading of music files; just after the first online purchase (of pizza) in 1994; and before social media platforms, and corporate and political interests, have turned the internet into a surveillance system mixed with genuine information and outlandish conspiracy theories.

In brief, the story’s protagonist, Oscar Valparaiso, is a political operative who has just got a senator elected, and is casting about for work for himself and his “krewe” (anyone who can afford them has such an entourage). Oscar has the advantage of not having to sleep very much, and the social disadvantage of having been birthed as a clone from a test tube, with a few genetic tweaks. He is quite philosophical about this.

Oscar comes across as a well-meaning guy who wants to see the world progress, while all around him the political and social system is coming apart at the seams.

Extortion by bake sale

An Air Force base nearby in Louisiana, mistakenly left out of the budget by the dysfunctional national government, has soldiers blockading roads with the pretense of a bake sale to extort money from the citizenry.

The renegade governor of Louisiana is running his own nomadic militia and using outlaw biotech to further his presidential ambitions.

Rabid internet disputes become street fights between ideological militias. Half the population is unemployed and the United States has a 20-year-old State-of-Emergency. Covert wiretapping is a national pastime. Whites are considered a violent, unpredictable, suspect minority. Squatters take over federal buildings as needed. Climate change has made genetically modified crops necessary for people to survive.

“There were sixteen major political parties now, divided into warring blocs…. There were privately owned cities with millions of ‘clients’…. There were price-fixing mafias, money laundries, outlaw stock markets. There were black, gray, and green superbarter nets. There were health maintenance organizations staffed by crazed organ-sharing cliques, where advanced medical techniques were in the grip of any quack able to download a surgery program.”

Plausible deniability

There is one particular situation that Sterling imagines that really knocked me out with its futuristic insight and potential for harm that to a certain extent has already happened in our world.

He imagines political bosses throwing out ridiculous, extreme conspiracy theories about an opponent which no sane person would believe. They’ve compiled large lists of dangerous lunatics, though, and feed them all the inflammatory rubbish.

“Finding the crazies with net analysis, that’s the easy part. Convincing them to take action, that part is a little harder. But if you’ve got ten or twelve thousand of them, you’ve got a lotta fish, and somebody’s bound to bite. …That [opponent] guy might very well come to harm….

“Somebody, somewhere, built some software years ago that automatically puts [the politican’s] enemies onto [such] hit lists.”

Talk about plausible deniability.

In the midst of all this, Oscar soldiers on as a new member of a national science committee, appointed there by his senator, who by the way has become bi-polar. Oscar is good at manipulating people, mostly for their own good, but is not averse to dirty tricks either if he deems them necessary. He sees the only possible path out of the nation’s quagmire as starting with a new mission for science, where the practice of science becomes the actual primary function, rather than striving for the blessing of committees and making desperate appeals for funding.

In the end, Oscar creates a coalition between one of the large, disenfranchised nomadic militia groups and a bunch of renegade scientists.

Writer Michael Burnam-Fink, who is a major fan of Distraction, summarizes the outcome well: “While the nomads provide muscle and logistics, the scientists provide a sense of idealism and purpose for the nomads, who don’t recognize their own political power. The alliance threatens everything about the status quo.”

I’ve only provided a glimpse of the many imaginative wonders of this work, not all of them depressing. There are many parallels with our times. And often the book made me laugh out loud.

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Radicalized — A Book Review

June 16, 2020

Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow, Tor Books, 2019
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“The future’s a weirder place than we thought it would be when we were little kids.” — Cory Doctorow

Although that quote is not from Doctorow’s novellas — longer than short stories but not nearly novel length — in his recent book Radicalized, it captures a lot about them.

41tOeBojICL._SY346_Doctorow is a blogger and science fiction author much concerned about personal freedom in the midst of media and technological juggernauts.  His fiction tends to be of the very near future variety, taking on the coercive forces of government and corporations.

It falls into a genre I call “subversive fiction” for suggesting that freedom is more than a privilege bestowed by others.  Perhaps Doctorow’s most famous book may be Little Brother, nominated for a science-fiction Hugo award in 2009, which includes information on counteracting surveillance by authorities.

Unauthorized Bread

In the first story, “Unauthorized Bread,”  Salima, a recent immigrant, finally gets fed up with being forced to toast only authorized bread in her toaster. She hacks the toaster so that other bread can provide her morning toast.  Of course, such hacking is against copyright and other laws and carries severe penalties, even though the toaster corporation has gone bankrupt.

(If you think this is an exaggerated premise, then you should read about the John Deere corporation’s efforts to keep farmers from repairing their own machines.  John Deere claims farmers have no right to access the copyrighted software that controls every facet of today’s equipment, even to repair their own machines. Only an “authorized dealership” can do that.)

The story also explores the pressure of housing developers gaining concessions beyond usual zoning requirements by making some lower rent units available, and then screwing those in the low-rent units as diligently as possible.  If the renters complain or circumvent the humiliating measures, they will be evicted.

In the end, against all odds, the renters free their kitchen appliances and circumvent the landlords’ technological controls with a few tricks of their own.

Model Minority

The American Eagle is from another planet, in this second story.  He fights for truth, justice and the American way.  Unfortunately, and quite topically, he feels he must intervene in a racist police beating of a black man.

American Eagle fights against this injustice and is done in by the system, despite being a superhero.

As famous as he is, he offers to testify on behalf of the beating victim.  His efforts to see the right thing done end up making the situation worse.  Conspiracy theories mount about how foreign American Eagle is, and his supposed ties to the Chinese or Russians or other unAmerican entities.

A corporate billionaire vigilante named “Bruce” confronts American Eagle. Eventually our superhero, after other adventures, realizes America is only willing to tolerate certain things.

Radicalized

In “Radicalized,” the third story, the country is aflame and in chaos after people are fed up seeing their loved ones die unnecessarily in the medical system.  They begin to riot, build bombs and conduct mass executions in medical insurance offices.

The hero of the story is Joe, a white 36-year-old who works in a well-paid but pointless corporate job.  He has seen many of his colleagues leave:

“…to work for experimental divisions with self-driving forklift companies, or diving into cloud-based self-serve platforms for ecommerce dropshippers, or all that other stuff that helped people get their Squatty Pottys and strobing LED USB chargers delivered to their doors with five nines of reliability.”

Even with his top-of-line medical insurance through his company, when Joe’s wife develops cancer, the insurance company refuses to cover her treatment.

A frustrated Joe, seeking some way forward, starts cruising the dark web, and gets slowly involved with the violent element at large in the country taking revenge on the pharmaceutical, insurance and medical establishment.

Joe is arrested.  He is asked to give up the names of those he communicated with.  He refuses just as his wife’s cancer goes into remission.  She visits him in jail and lets him know that a comprehensive medical care act has been passed.  She tells Joe, “Who says violence doesn’t solve anything?”

The Masque of the Red Death

Along with its reference to the Edgar Allan Poe story, this is an ironic tale of survivalists and the apocalypse.

The main character, Martin, intends to ride out the coming apocalypse in his Arizona stronghold he calls The Fort, along with 30 well-chosen and privileged others.

And when The Event arrives, Martin congratulates himself for having thought of every contingency.  He welcomes disaster’s arrival which will prove his astuteness.

After some time, a gun store raid goes badly wrong when the gang there tears Martin’s people to pieces.  A plague of some kind kills more.  Martin gets very sick and can’t recover. In the end, Martin gets real tired of the apocalypse.

What to think?

Overall, I enjoy and admire the subversive quality of Doctorow’s stories.

My favorite of the four is the first, “Unauthorized Bread.”  To me it’s the most human and amusingly accurate of the stories about the kinds of things many people have to deal with right now.

It took me a little while to get what was going on in the story about the American Eagle.  I left comics and superheroes behind in my pre-teen years (although I enjoyed them a lot then), and the current obsession with superheroes in the movies leaves me cold.  So probably for a younger, more with-it reader, this might have more resonance.  Its point seems accurate, but the story itself is so-so.

The third story about health care and violence is thought provoking.  I’m not at ease with violence as a strategy about anything, except in unavoidable self-defence.  But unfortunately it does seem to get attention and perhaps action, although I would argue the more likely outcome is just more violence.  But there are situations when it may seem the only course to take.

The last story about the survivalist mentality and its likely consequences rings true.

I’ll leave this with a quote by Doctorow from an interview in the LA Times:

“I think that fiction is a superb way to put flesh on the dry, abstract bones of technical and policy debate — a fly-through of an architect’s rendering of the emotional lived-experience of the consequences of our policy choices.”

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Presentation of Self Using Text Generated by “The Generator Blog”

May 1, 2019

I went back to The Generator Blog linked to in one of my posts, Hunting for A Science Fiction Story, to see if it was still there.  It is, but last updated in 2013.  Which is a shame, but the site still has links to many working and amusing textual and imagistic “generators”.

I thought it would be fun and absurdist to make a post out of the site’s output.  I won’t always put the name of each generator, but you’d be able to figure it out if you took a look at the website.

Let us begin:

Artist’s Statement:  My work explores the relationship between multiculturalism and life as performance. With influences as diverse as Derrida and John Cage, new synergies are manufactured from both mundane and transcendant narratives.

Ever since I was a pre-adolescent I have been fascinated by the unrelenting divergence of the zeitgeist. What starts out as vision soon becomes finessed into a carnival of temptation, leaving only a sense of failing and the dawn of a new reality.

As shimmering derivatives become clarified through frantic and diverse practice, the viewer is left with an insight into the outposts of our existence.

*          *          *
A song dedicated to the song writer in all of us:

Soul Wolves

Verse 1:

Game is in your hands.
He led my mother
The ceiling is invisible
Yeah, I’m gonna take you for a feel good meal

Chorus:

Have you got a fine place to slip to
Let’s go moon some cars
Looking through a broken diamond
Never pawned my watch and chain

Verse 2:

Acid casualty with a repossessed car
Hairy fairies spinning the golden looms
Reap the reward
Who’s gonna answer

Chorus:

Have you got a fine place to slip to
Let’s go moon some cars
Looking through a broken diamond
Never pawned my watch and chain

Bridge:

And I am not a bone
Like a voodoo curse in an old lady’s purse
One by one
The demons just came through the window

Verse 3:

[repeated]
A thousand miles away from home
Dead right
Make notes, burn like broken equipment

Chorus:

Have you got a fine place to slip to
Let’s go moon some cars
Looking through a broken diamond
Never pawned my watch and chain

Have you got a fine place to slip to
Let’s go moon some cars
Looking through a broken diamond
Never pawned my watch and chain

Please, let us go moon some cars.  I like that line.

*          *          *

Anthropomorphic Personification Plot Generator

Truth finds himself stranded in a bird sanctuary in the form of a man. The experience is changing him.

Can he escape before the transformation is irreversible, and will he even want to?

*          *          *

Kung Fu Movie Script – Scene One

SCENE ONE – STUDENT MEETS MASTER

INSIDE MASTER PONG’S ONE-ROOM COTTAGE – EARLY MORNING

Master Pong stands in the center of the room, facing Student. Student stands shyly in the corner near the door.

MASTER
You are the new student. Come closer.

Student walks to master, does a double-take as he notices that master has no elbow.

STUDENT
You cannot see!

MASTER
You think I cannot see.

STUDENT
I cannot imagine living in such darkness.

MASTER
Ah, but fear is the only darkness. Also, you forget, I live in North Vancouver. Now… take your octopus and strike me with it.
Student hesitates.

MASTER
Do as I tell you – strike!
Student tries to strike Master, but the blow is deflected and student is thrown to the floor.

MASTER
Never assume because a man has no elbow that he cannot see. Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Student closes his eyes, pauses with concentration before answering.

STUDENT
I hear English Bay, I hear firecrackers.

MASTER
Do you hear your own nose?

STUDENT
No.

MASTER
Do you hear the balloon which is at your feet?
Student opens his eyes and sees the balloon on the floor.

STUDENT
Old man, how is it that you hear these things?

MASTER
Young man, how is it that you do not?
Student looks pensive.

MASTER
Now, we will commence your battle training. Go to the weapons closet and choose an item.
Student walks to the closet, grabs the cutting board and rejoins master. Master holds a kitchen whisk.

MASTER
Ah ha… you’ve chosen the cutting board. Excellent choice.

They bow and begin to fight. Master easily defeats student several times. Student is thrown to the floor and injures his chin. He rubs it to ease the pain. Master laughs while student has a look of hope.

MASTER
Arise slightly, young frog, and brush the indignity off of your vest.
Student does so.

MASTER
You fought blindly, frog. A geezer nerd could’ve beaten you.

STUDENT
Yes, Master Pong, forgive me.

MASTER
Forgive yourself, you have suffered for it. What is the cause of your anger?

STUDENT
It is anger at Stephen Colbert.

MASTER
Yes, but what is the reason?

STUDENT
For being nasty.

MASTER
Ah. And when did you discover this?

STUDENT
About 1 hour ago when Stephen Colbert and I were attacked by 11 big bullies at Walmart. I was struck first. And Stephen Colbert, out of fear, did nothing to help me.

MASTER
You were only two against 11 larger than yourself. What do you think Stephen Colbert should’ve done?

STUDENT
Fought back and tried to help me.

MASTER
Yes, frog, that would’ve been heroic.

STUDENT
You agree, then, that Stephen Colbert was nasty.

MASTER
The body is nasty when it understands its weakness. The body is remarkable when it understands its strength. The cheetah and the squirrel march together within every man. So to call one man nasty and another remarkable merely serves to indicate the possibilities of their achieving the opposite.

Student looks confused as scene fades to black.

You may now imagine the rest of the movie.

*          *          *

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Making Some Music With Guitar

March 28, 2019

This follows on the same path of trying to learn electric guitar as chronicled in previous posts like The Aging Learning Guitarist Keeps On, The Impatience of Learning Guitar, and On the Need to Make Music.

I can now link to a YouTube playlist of guitar music I’ve recorded.  (All due to the guy who I take lessons from and who puts the tracks together – Eddy Bugnut, music producer extraordinaire, at Bugnut Records: Mixing – Production – Songwriting.)

There are eight music videos there now.  I’m not quite sure what to make of them.  A great opportunity to show off to friends and relatives, I guess, as well as to hapless blog readers.  I like them, which is better than the opposite.

The one I’m happiest about right now is Take the High Road.  I’m flabbergasted that it rocks. It actually rocks. That I played it is totally amazing to me.  (Well, with the aid of some skillful editing here and there.)

I’m really interested in hearing how one of the next — Watching the Watchtower — turns out.  (It was finished, and I think it’s good, for somebody of my musical immaturity.)  That’s the title we’ve put on a shortened version of Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower.  Sacrilege, I know.  It’s shortened because I couldn’t quite manage some of the more difficult speedy finger-twisting lead parts.  It’s different enough from the original to have a related name.  Anyway, it still is powerful to me what we’ve done, how Eddy’s put it together.  He’s making the rhythm guitar sound so good, along with the sound in general.

Besides that, another video is an actual original tune, if you can imagine, and a couple more videos of cover tunes too.  It’s fun to participate in helping them come together.

OK, enough fun.  Time to get back to work on the writing….

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