Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ category

What I’ve Learned About the First Draft of a Novel

June 14, 2016

“What if we entertained the possibility that we did not need to even understand where our story was taking us?”
— Alan Watt, The 90-Day Novel

It can be daunting, this writing business.

For years, I procrastinated getting started on the first draft of a science-fiction novel.  Oh, I did my research in a disorganized way, kept copious notes and agonized over how to organize them usefully, and read widely about novel-writing and the nature of story.  It often amounted to not much more than pencil sharpening, without finding the motivation to put that point down on the paper and get going.

But now, I’m happy to say, I’m almost 45,000 words in on the first draft.  I’m told a typical book length manuscript might be 90,000 words, so that makes almost half-way.  My plan is to overwrite by quite a bit, because I’m quite sure I’ll be paring and trimming extensively during revision.  And that makes sense that I will have to in this case, because the story has only barely got up on its feet and begun to stroll forward.

Why did it take me so long to get on with it?  It was sheer procrastination, fear of failure and lack of imagination about the satisfaction of it, really, rather than some deep-seated writer’s block rooted in the psychology of my relationship with my mother. Or father. Or crazy aunt from Argentina.

What Finally Got Me Going

I wanted to share what finally tipped me into the role of novel-writer (even if it never goes anywhere finally).  That tipping is, of course, about actually writing almost every day versus just thinking about it.  But I hope describing some of what helped me it might help others of my procrastinating brethren and sistren.

First of all I have to give a lot of credit to Chuck Wendig.  He’s a novelist, and comic-book writer of all things, who manages to convey with sparkling crudeness the need to stop with the excuses already on his blog Terribleminds.  After I read his post How To Push Past the Bullshit And Write That Goddamn Novel: A Very Simple No-Fuckery Writing Plan To Get Shit Done I had no place to run.  It was either do it or don’t.

The main point of his “simple plan” is to pick a relatively small chunk of words to do every day and commit to writing them on a schedule that you keep.  It will add up, but it has got to be done almost every day.

One of my difficulties in the past was trying to do too much writing in one sit-down, and then getting frustrated and blocked. Now I do a little more than Wendig’s recommended 350 words, but not a lot more.  As he says, you can sneeze that much at one go….

Another very useful thing that I did in preparation was writing a rough 30 page story treatment.  Not really an outline, because strict outlines always seem to shut down my imagination, but a scene sequence that would take me to the major points of my story.  I was guided in this very much by John Truby’s insightful book, The Anatomy of Story.  As a result of that effort I have a web of characters, a “reveals” sequence, and the main points of my plot laid out as a rough road map.  I’ve already gone off the rails with much of the scene sequence but that’s alright.  I don’t feel lost.  I may not be on the exact road I imagined but I can see the high points off in the distance.

On Not Having Any Faith in What You’re Doing

But you may be sitting at your computer, or dipping your quill into the inkwell, and yet even with that sneezable amount of writing to do, you’re still feeling a little stuck or fretful.  You lack faith.  I find that having an inspirational book on writing beside you to browse for a minute or two is good at these times.

For me, it has been Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within.  There’s a few of these kinds of books around: write a novel in a month, or on the weekends, or in this case, in 90 days.  I’m not following Watt’s schedule of writing, or even his thoughts on structure, which go on about the typical three acts.  (There’s nothing about stories or novels that dictates three acts; it seems to be just a way of talking about the beginning, middle and end of a work of fiction.)

But what is so inspiring are his thoughts about discovering the story we’re struggling to get down, the story that’s in us.

“The fear that we are doing this wrong is bound to arise, but it is often tied up with the idea that we are supposed to know how to do it.  Our story is bigger than we are…. Our job is to inquire.  When we put our curiosity before our fears, we will get to the end.”  And:

“You don’t need to force anything.  We allow the truth to be told, even if it seems, at times, temporarily at odds with our idea of the story. Sometimes it may seem that we’re off course, but as we stay with it, we discover a deeper truth.  As our hero moves toward his goal, he encounters obstacles, and we might be surprised that he’s not doing what we thought he would.  This doesn’t mean we’re doing it wrong.”

A Nice Cup of Green Tea

So this is what I do on every day I write:

— Make a cup of green tea.  This signals to me I’m now ready to write.  It serves as a way of declaring, to me and my subconscious, that the surgeon is approaching the patient, for better or worse.  The signal could be anything really: playing a certain piece of music, spraying oil of patchouli around the place, or making a series of elaborate arcane gestures over the computer.

— Open the congenial, straightforward writing application I’m choosing to use.  Once upon a time, I wanted to get too complicated with software that helps you sort out scenes, lists characters, manages structure, etc.  I’ve forgotten all that.  I use RoughDraft, which is an old free word processor that produces files in the common .rtf format. It allows you to attach separate notes to each chapter file, has a word counter and a back-up function built in.  But anything you’re comfortable with will do, I’m sure.

— Use a calculator, virtual or real, to have at the ready a display of my word goal for this session.  I often go past the number of words it sets, but I find it so helpful to have that mark in front of me.  With RoughDraft I have a running tally of how many words I’ve written, so I just add to that figure to get my day’s goal.

— Start to write.  Cause and effect.  Enquire and discover the truth of the characters, the best I can discern at this stage anyway.  See where it goes.  Sometimes I’m rewarded with a byway that is surprisingly appropriate and that I hadn’t planned on.

— Don’t go back and rework what you’ve written (following Alan Watt’s advice).  I don’t know for sure where I’m going yet, so how do I know what to revise?  Just write, trust in the exploratory nature of the process, and the words add up.

— Back up everything.

A couple of useful online resources I’ve found: Power Thesaurus, when you’re looking for a better word that you haven’t used three times already; and another that I will use and adapt from more, The Online Slang Dictionary.

There’s also my copy of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression which is useful for showing not telling the reader something of your character’s state of mind.

There are many more sources of both inspiration and craft that I could mention.  But these are working for me, so far.

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At 65

April 29, 2016

To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am.
–  Bernard Baruch

So, I just recently turned 65.  I’m officially a “senior citizen,” which implies a general condition of being cast off.  I would prefer to be thought of as an aspiring “elder” with the connotations that native people (or First Nations folks, to be politically correct) give it.

I don’t feel “sixty-five,” whatever that is supposed to feel like.  I am most fortunate to be free of ill-health.  My gait so far is unaffected.  I still retain some lightness on my feet, and my range of motion in general is only marginally shrinking.

I still practice aikido and tai chi to a certain extent, although regrettably I haven’t had the opportunity to do much Western fencing in the last several years.  However, my level of interest in physically demanding pursuits has declined, and that, rather than not being able to do them, has become more a sign of aging.

I am also fortunate to have my wife as a companion of over 25 years: to have someone who cares for me, and for whom I can care.

The main thing about these milestones at 65, or 80, or 30 for that matter, is the opportunity for reflection.  They give an excuse to take the time to consider what the years might mean.

I graduated high school in 1969.  That is a whole cultural era away.  Or maybe more than one.  Mostly I think of the music, how important and central to my life and the lives of many of my generation it was:  the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Electric Prunes.  Wait: you don’t know about Paul Revere or the Prunes?  You’ve missed out.  Perhaps you haven’t had “too much to dream last night“?

The power of music in the culture was a convergence of technology, music industry ripeness, the Vietnam war and the resulting counterculture.  In an era without iPhones or multiple other digital distractions, including not even home computers, hard as that is now to imagine, music was central.

Its rebelliousness, youthfulness and exuberance were constantly being challenged and undermined by the status quo, but there was a balance of sorts for a while.  And, as hard as it was to see at the time, there was even a slow alteration of what was understood to be the “status quo.”

The fragmentation and loss of cultural significance for music as a whole is evident to me looking back.  Those of younger years might think that the efforts to stand out by Beyoncé, or Lady Gaga, or Sia amount to something, but not much really.  A meat dress worn by Lady Gaga doesn’t really cut it, although I do like Sia’s songwriting.  The efforts to get noticed in a fragmented musical environment overwhelmed by the powers of the modern corporation take on amusing forms.

I listen to the old music, and some of the new, as I finally get down to the first draft of a novel that I’ve been thinking about for years.  I am 30,000 words plus into a science-fiction thriller coming-of-age save-the-world extravaganza that, fingers crossed, I will actually finish some day before I die.

It is a time to reflect on mortality.  I like the idea of living as if we will live forever, of plans uncompromised by the reality of some future end.  But the eventual end does give poignancy to what we do, and who we do it with, and how we meet it with our hearts.

I have lived longer than either of my parents.  My mother died of multiple sclerosis in her early 60s.  My father died of a stroke in his mid-forties.  I realize now how short, how brief, their time was here.  I’m proud of them for what they were able to accomplish in their fleeting sojourns on this world, and sad that many of their dreams remained unrealized.

I have often been a late bloomer in my life, although others might not recognize the blooming as of much note.  But I have, and it gives me encouragement as I diligently peck away almost every day at the novel, wearing down that huge mountain, like a bird trailing a scarf across its rock periodically — it will shrink, if time is enough.

Speaking of blooming, one of my colleagues at work (I have yet to retire, perhaps in a year or so) was discussing with me about my plans and his.  Our conversation concluded by him saying, “Well, everything is coming up roses then….”

That caused me to think, “Yes, everything will be coming up roses, or if not, at least I may have the privilege of pushing them up myself.”  That’s not a bad fate, to perhaps someday be a ground for roses, or even more happily to think about, for some wildflowers….

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The Migrant Crisis and An Old Apocalyptic Novel

September 19, 2015

“Raspail may have written the most politically incorrect book in France in the second half of the twentieth century.”
Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, The Atlantic, Dec. 1994 in a review of The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail, 1973.
—————-

My wife and I recently visited Greece on vacation for a couple of weeks, part archaeological tour and part chasing photographs on a couple of the tourist islands.

At night, with BBC World Service usually about the only English channel available on TV, we heard and saw all the drama and tragedy of the ongoing migrant crisis, which continues to deepen.  Although we didn’t come into contact with it, Greece on top of its economic troubles is also dealing with an influx of the refugees piling into Europe and headed north.

Camp of the SaintsIt reminded me a lot of an old science-fiction novel, I guess you could call it, I read back in the 1970s.  Returning from our trip, I tried to track down the name and more details of the book.  It turns out to have been the 1973 apocalyptic novel The Camp of the Saints by Frenchman Jean Raspail, which was translated into English in 1975 and I must have read shortly thereafter.

It’s about the starving, the wretched and the disenfranchised pouring out of India in a flotilla a million strong and arriving on the beaches of France.  Although France is the focus, the rest of Europe and the Western world in the novel eventually suffer the same fate as hordes of migrants continue to come ashore.  As Raspail himself put it:

“I literally saw them, saw the major problem they presented, a problem absolutely insoluble by our present moral standards. To let them in would destroy us. To reject them would destroy them.”

On their way to France, the enormous flotilla wants to approach Egypt (to gain access to the Suez Canal) and South Africa, but the military of both countries threaten to sink the boats and drown the occupants if they should approach.  So, in Raspail’s world, the horde of migrants make their way to France.  Raspail is more interested really in the reaction of the French establishment and the rest of Europe in the face of such an onslaught, and depicts it as decadent and weak in the face of this threat to the Western way of life.  He casts the coming migrants in a poor light as mangy and prone to violence and sexual assaults in their long journey to anywhere that will be better than what they left.

A review of the book by T. Williamson describes it in a way that is thought-provoking about current events:

“The actions of the main characters in the book mirror what we see every day in the media and especially on the Internet: There are the government spokesmen telling us not to panic, the media talking heads telling us what our duty is or should be, the leaders of church and society instructing us in what is the “proper” way to feel about everything that’s happening to us. And front and center is the ordinary citizen, caught like a child under a steamroller as events roll over them at their terrible slow speed.”

The Fate of Western Civilization

The point of Raspail’s book seems to be that Western civilization is psychologically incapable of defending itself.  The French in the end order their miltary to shoot or sink the approaching menacing armada, but the soldiers and navy refuse and flee.  Eventually, at the end of the novel, as examples of the overrunning by the third world, the mayor of New York is made to share Gracie Mansion with three families from Harlem, the Queen of England must marry her son to a Pakistani and other huge armadas are ready to head for Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.

Raspail has been accused of writing a racist tract, but that is too simple.  As an example, one main spokesman for European civilization in the novel is non-white but has embraced what he sees as the best of Western civilization.

As another reviewer, Dominique M. Sanchez, puts it:

“I did not see it as a racist book but as a book written by an elitist who is strongly attached to his way of life and fearful of seeing it vanish. All cultures are protective and proud of their own ways and that includes Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Latin populations. The issue here is poverty and exploitation, not necessarily race.”

Over the years, as migrant and refugee crises have cropped up here and there, those from both sides of the political spectrum have referred to this book from the mid-1970s.

The National Review, a prestigious conservative publication, in 2014 had a short essay by Mackubin Thomas Owens about The Camp of the Saints after the sudden influx of migrant children into the United States.  He asserted the deficiencies of multiculturalism and the loss of self-confidence of Western liberal society:

“Instead, multiculturalism has spawned a balkanized society of resentful members of various groups that seek favors for themselves, often at the expense of other groups — identity politics at its worst.”

The Atlantic, a literary and cultural magazine that would likely be considered too liberal by the National Review, examined The Camp of the Saints 20 years prior to that, trying to place the fictional events of Raspail’s novel in the context of exploitation of the third world.

The authors, Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, wrote in 1994 that:

“Perhaps the global problem of the early twenty-first century is basically this: that across our planet a number of what might be termed demographic-technological fault lines are emerging, between fast-growing, adolescent, resource-poor, undercapitalized, and undereducated populations on one side and technologically inventive, demographically moribund, and increasingly nervous rich societies on the other.”

The Fault Line of War

It seems to me that the main fault line is simpler than that, and it’s called war.  The current migrant and refugee numbers are a direct result of civil, guerilla and national wars.  Right now, on the continent of Africa alone, there are something like 20 nations with major conflicts with a half-million or more of their citizens on the move, struggling to survive.  That’s not even on the horizon of most Western minds.  Never mind all the displacement from the Middle East conflicts that is front and centre in the media now.

My modest proposal is that those nations who profit most from the billions of dollars they are making in the arms trade, who export the weapons of war, should import the most refugees.

By that measure, the United States, Russia, Germany, China and France should be taking in the most.  Great Britain (no. 6) and Canada (no. 15) should also be stepping up.  (And remember the hypocrisy when representatives of those nations prattle about the evils of war.)

Connelly and Kennedy put it well at the end of their Atlantic article:

“However the debate unfolds, it is, alas, likely that a large part of it–on issues of population, migration, rich versus poor, race against race–will have advanced little beyond the considerations and themes that are at the heart of one of the most disturbing novels of the late twentieth century, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints. It will take more than talk to prove the prophet wrong.”

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Thoughts On Building A Novel

June 27, 2014

I’ve had ambitions towards writing most of my life.

I wrote science-fiction short stories as a kid from time to time for my own amusement.  I did find them frustrating, unsatisfying.  They never quite turned out as well as I imagined they should.

I liked to write stories with unexpected endings for school.  Typical what-I-did-on-summer-vacation fare, with the last sentence something like, “Then I turned into a wolverine.”  This amused my friends more than the teacher.

But the urge for writing wasn’t so strong that it shaped what I wanted to do with my life.  I haven’t known what I wanted to do, really, for most of my adult years.

I went to university and got a degree in psychology, figuring it was more valuable to understand what makes people tick instead of learning how to be an engineer, to mention one alternative.

I learned more about rats in psychology at that time and school than about people, I’m afraid to say.

The Urge for Writing

Then I thought, what about writing, as a reporter?  I went on to more university to study journalism.  That didn’t work out so well, either, although I did eventually end up working in one ghetto or another of that field.

I still had ideas about stories though.  I should be able to write a novel.  I read them all the time — science-fiction, modern day thrillers, even an historical novel or two.

My big ideas about subjects for novels — almost always science fiction — came to me in the form of settings or milieus.  I would start collecting material and background information, but when it came to actually write anything, the lack of any characters to speak of left me completely bogged down, as one might expect.

One lengthy period when I was out of work, just as I turned thirty, I did force myself to write a first draft of a novel by slogging through three pages a day, every day.  Then the same thing to revise it.  It was a non-science fiction story, this time, kind of an adventure/thriller, about an out-of-work character getting into trouble while on a canoe trip around the Bowron Lakes.  This is a famous location for canoeing here in British Columbia, a journey over a group of lakes, rivers and creeks that form a rough circle that can be travelled during a week or so.

The geography of the location helped give coherence to the structure of the novel’s story, and its grandeur and variety were something to ground and inform the main character.  This journey mechanism is a useful one, I would learn later.  But at the time I just floundered on with it and got to an end.  That effort now sits in a drawer someplace in this house.  Again the result felt very unsatisfying.

There have been many more ideas since then.  Some would take seed and sprout into mind maps of spaghetti notes on a big sheet of paper on the wall.  Others might get elaborated in a notebook in the first flush of enthusiasm, before realizing that what I thought could be a story was going nowhere.

I Don’t Know How to Write a Story

But now, most recently, I have a science-fiction idea that seemed to come this time with characters dimly attached.  It’s become more than just an idea over the last few years, as I collected notes and reference material.   But again, just as I started to get going with scenes and world-building, it all bogged down again.  I really don’t know how to write a story.

The last post or two on this blog have been about my struggle with story, and my efforts to learn more about it.  I have no craft.  I have read many books on writing that sounded good and were full of advice but gave me no tools.  Although probably I wasn’t ready to receive what they did have to offer.

But working through John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story, I’ve found a guide that I’m actually able to bring to bear on what I want to write.

Many years ago, in yet another novel-writing attempt, I tried to follow Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript by Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald.  It actually has most of the structural necessities I’m learning from Truby’s book, but it is presented in a more abstract English Lit kind of manner that I was never able to fully take in.  I thought it was a great book at the time though, and looking at it again now, I still do.  (I still have the same paperback, $2.50 in the US, $2.75 in Canada.)

This Time, It’s Going to Work!

So where am I now?

I’m working through Truby’s 22 steps list — an expanded version of his minimum Seven Story Steps — to build a novel.  It’s not like a three-act or any other imposed structure — besides being much more detailed and contoured to every kind of story, it allows creative flexibility.  It’s not so much an overlaid scheme, as one that grows out of the characters’ “yearning” (to borrow Robert Olen Butler’s term for the desire lines in a story), and associated obstacles.

I’ve got about 25 pages of detailed notes about the wheels and gears of the story itself — what will turn and drive the events of the novel.  A kind of story treatment….  This is all new stuff for me — I never had the advantage of having done that kind of work before.

Besides that, I’ve come to learn, whether or not it is ultimately true or not, that it is most useful to think about a novel as something that I, the writer, discover.  The parts of the world or characters that I don’t know yet, I am beginning to have the confidence that they will reveal themselves, at least partially, as some already have, while I fill in the pieces around them.  At the same time, all is in a partially obscuring fog, subject to change.

I forget which writer said it, but writing a novel is something like driving down a road in the dark with your headlights on.  You can only see a little ways ahead.  You can still get to your destination.

The thought of world-building, especially in a science-fiction story, can be overwhelming.  But I’m coming to realize that only where the world intersects the characters, like a cross-section in an engineering drawing, does it need to be so detailed, and the rest can be alluded to in the background.  Specifics can stand for the whole, and they are much more writerly.

There are aliens, or at least alien artifacts, in this story.  How can one portray the really alien?  I haven’t figured that one out yet — or I should say, I haven’t discovered what it might be.  Giant ants or robots with laser eyes are so… human.

Now, I haven’t actually gotten back to writing the novel yet, after seizing up after getting a few scenes done.  The next major job in my preparation is what Truby calls the scene-weave.  In some ways again it is like the process that Butler describes that I posted about a number of years ago.

It makes me think about learning guitar.  I’ve practiced hard and I think I’ve learned a piece, and then when it falls apart when I try to play along with a backing track or to show somebody, I realize I’ve just started the process of learning it.  There is much, much more practice necessary.

So the novel-writing preparation will go on for a while yet.  It’s just that this time, I have real hope of being able to write with somewhere to go.

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Notes:  There is a whole industry built around selling advice to would-be writers.  This takes the form of an avalanche of books on writing, magazines and also software which promise to make your novel writing a breeze.  I’m tried a couple of the novel-writing programs over the years in my desperate quest.  They don’t work very well, because the story that’s going to live for you can’t come from a ready-made scheme or formula.

Related to that, but also possibly useful in some ways, are various story-planning worksheets, or beat sheets.  These feature various versions of what their authors see as the necessary structure of a story, coded as “beats” or the major plot events that a story must have.  Such a beat sheet might have the “Four Major Beats” and the minor beats to fill them out in a table to allow you to script your story events.

(As with many of these story-planning worksheets, a lot of well-meaning and even useful story advice comes out of the National Novel Writing Month — or NaNoWriMo — endeavour where people make a commitment to write a novel during the month of November.)

I’ve also read that editors can spot any story based on these beat sheets a mile away.  The method tends to give its products a certain artificiality.

The question is, does Truby’s guide lend this artificial aspect?  I don’t think so, although it could degenerate into formula.  In Truby’s words, he wanted to “lay out a practical poetics — the craft of storytelling that exists in all story forms….

“You are the never-ending story.  If you want to tell the great story, the never-ending story, you must, like your hero, face your own seven steps.  And you must do it every time you write a new story.”

An Even Better Book About Story

May 24, 2014

“Human growth is very elusive, but it is real, and it is what you, the writer, must express above everything else (or else show why it doesn’t occur).”
John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, 2007

In my ongoing quest for story, in which I unconsciously emulate the character in a novel seeking essential answers about writing and being thwarted at every turn by external circumstances and the weaknesses of my own character, I’ve encountered John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story.  (Or maybe that’s just barely consciously….)

In any case, Truby’s book is like the main course after the appetizers of the previous post, “The Synergy of Two Books About Story.”

Truby is apparently something called a “story consultant” in Hollywood, and comes more out of the screenwriting milieu than novel writing, but his book on story is universal enough to cover all the varieties.  It is rich with ideas and in depth, even more so than the previous two books I looked at here.

He wants the writer to get away from artificial divisions like “three-act structure” to get to grips with the natural characteristics of compelling stories.  His goal, he says, is this:

“In simplest terms, I’m going to lay out a practical poetics for story-tellers that works whether you’re writing a screenplay, a novel, a play, a teleplay, or a short story.”

truby--anatomy_smallHe has no use for terminology like “rising action,” “climax,” or “progressive complication,” or any other approaches without real practical value for storytellers.

I’m not going to attempt to mention everything he covers in 421 pages, but I will try to hit some of the high points that appealed to me.  Perhaps this can serve as an introduction to what I think is one of the better books on story, and writing, that I’ve read.

The dramatic code is central to his analysis, and the foundation for most of the structural elements he describes in stories.

In the dramatic code, change is fueled by desire.  According to Truby, the dramatic code is at the core of human psychology.  It’s an artistic description of how a person can grow or evolve.

Premise and Designing Principle

The writing process is about decisions, Truby says, and the first important guide to those decisions is the premise of the story.  “Your premise is your inspiration.”  It should contain the ingredients of the first flash of excitement when the idea of the story first arose.  The premise allows the writer to explore the story, and the form it might take, before it’s actually written.

Truby counsels that finding the gold in a premise, takes time, a lot of time.  He recommends taking weeks to sit and sift the premise.  And he provides a suggested methodology to get the most out of it.

I’ll list the steps he discusses without going into them in detail.  I’ve found them fruitful and their names are quite descriptive:

1) Write Something That May Change Your Life
2) Look for What’s Possible
3) Identify the Story Challenges and Problems
4) Find the Designing Principle
5) Determine Your Best Character in the Idea
6) Get a Sense of the Central Conflict
7) Get a Sense of the Single Cause-and-Effect Pathway
8) Determine Your Hero’s Possible Character Change
9) Figure Out the Hero’s Possible Moral Choice
10) Gauge the Audience Appeal

That’s a lot to think about.  In my own case, with the story I’m working on, I’ve already sorted a lot of this out, perhaps more by luck than design.

Finding the designing principle, no. 4 in his list, gave me a lot to chew on.  It has a very specific meaning to Truby — it’s the internal logic of the story, the organizing principle that unifies it.  And he says, the designing principle is difficult to see, and in order to work, it must be original.  He gives the example of the movie Tootsie to illustrate his meaning:

Premise —  When an actor can’t get work, he disguises himself as a woman and gets a role in a TV series, only to fall in love with one of the female members of the cast.

Designing Principle — Force a male chauvinist to live as a woman.

Or taking James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Premise — Track a day in the life of a common man in Dublin.

Designing Principle — In a modern odyssey through the city, over the course of one day, one man finds a father and the other man finds a son.

The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure

According to Truby, a good story has a minimum of seven steps (it may have more) in its progress from beginning to end.  These are not external structural requirements, such as imposing a three-act structure.  He says, “They are the steps that any human being must work through to solve a life problem.”  How these steps are linked will be up to the author, in order to provide the greatest impact.

1) Weakness and Need.  The main character is missing a crucial characteristic, has a profound weakness that is holding him or her back from gaining what the character truly needs.  Our hero, though, should not be aware of his need at the beginning of the story.

2) Desire.  This is different from need, which is the character overcoming a weakness.  Desire is a goal outside the character.   Desire is more obvious and allows the reader to want along with the hero, and provides what the reader or audience thinks the story is about.  Need is more hidden and linked to self-revelation by the end of the story.

3) Opponent.  Truby says seeing the main character’s opponent as purely evil “will prevent you from ever writing a good story.”  The opponent must be seen structurally: the opponent not only wants to prevent the hero from achieving his desire, but is competing with the hero for the same goal.  Truby gives the example of a detective story: “It appears that the hero wants to catch the killer and the opponent wants to get away.  But they are really fighting over which version of reality everyone will believe.”

4) Plan.  The hero’s plan is organically linked to desire and the opponent to be overcome.

5) Battle.  The battle is the final conflict over the goal between the hero and opponent.  This could be an overt event of extreme violence, or a confrontation through dialogue.

6) Self-Revelation.  This most completely can come in both psychological and moral forms.  The hero sees himself or herself honestly for the first time, and takes action to prove that changes have occurred.

7) New Equilibrium.  “The hero has moved to a higher or lower level as a result of going through his crucible.”

The Character Web

Although there’s much more to explore in what Truby presents, the final thing that I want to mention, and that made a great impression on me, is what he calls the web of character.  All the characters must help define the others.

Many of the characters serve as opponents to the main character, although they may be a friend or lover, and may be even better people than the hero.

Truby talks about allies, fake-ally opponents, fake opponent allies, subplot characters and the story functions served by them.  For instance, he thinks of subplot as a very specific device — a way to show how the hero and a second character deal with the same problem in different ways.  “Through comparison, the subplot character highlights traits and dilemmas of the main character.”

He goes on to detail how to create a great hero, how to create character change in the story, and how to build conflict.  For instance he describes how better stories go beyond a simple opposition between the hero and main opponent and often use what he calls a four-corner opposition.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the nature of story as presented by Truby.  But I’ve found the book very useful and even inspirational.  And with my own work, it lets me see the way forward.

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Weird, Wonderful and Watch Your Back

April 4, 2013

How weird is money?

As a gift this year for one of my brother’s birthdays, I gave him $100 trillion dollars.

You might think this was perhaps overly generous, but it only cost me $9 Canadian for that denomination of Zimbabwean currency.

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Zimbabwe in Africa in June, 2008, under the dictatorship of Richard Mugabe enjoyed an annual rate of inflation of 11.2 million percent.  The country abandoned its currency soon after and uses the US dollar and the euro to get by.

How did this come to be?  In the end, it reflects the lack of credibility of the regime.  And there were so many bank notes produced for wars and corruption they lost any common sense of value.

In the 1920s, the Weimar Republic in Germany underwent a similar inflation with its money, although one of the causes there was the insistence by the victorious nations that Germany make economy crippling reparations for WWI (and thereby set the stage for Hitler’s rise to power).

There is said to be hyperinflation currently in Iran due to sanctions, although some economists dispute this.

Geopolitics aside, the tactile reality of the Zimbabwean trillion dollars banknote in my hand and its accompanying lack of substance provides me with a little meditation on the nature of money.

Oh….  Sorry, I like to just sit around and contemplate these things without necessarily reaching any conclusions…. I muse about Money as a modern god with economists as high priests, about what really does carry value, about all the artificialities we as humans rely upon for our sense of worth.

It’s interesting to note that bitcoin, a “decentralized digital currency”  is starting to come into prominence. It’s not your everyday currency: there is no central bank or organization but a distribution network based on the internet.

Some people actually view it as an investment, but the Bitcoin open-source developer defines the system as an “experiment.”  It is quickly becoming influential.

One recent headline reads: “Bitcoin Prices Blasts Through $100, Driving Speculators Wild.”

Artful renditions of childhood’s weird creatures

These are probably more an adult’s darker elaboration of the simple line-drawings that we made as kids, but there’s still a truthful element about that scary monster under the bed.

In an article by Rian van der Merwe, I discovered Dave DeVries’ The Monster Engine project.  It was initiated by an impulse to make his niece’s drawings come to life, as DeVries does for various comic publications.

monsters3.jpg

The whole gallery is on view at The Monster Engine website….

The wonderful Global Village Construction Set

Moving on to the wonderful, we come to the open technological platform of the Global Village Construction Set.

It reminds me, in a way, of my own feeling about the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica as a way to restart Western civilization, if we should ever want to.

But the GVCS as it is known provides a likelier shortcut: plans for  fabrication of the 50 different industrial machines that it would take to create a comfortably modern environment from scratch.

They include such machines as the 3D printer (which might be invaluable in the assembly of some of the other 49), the 50 kW wind turbine, the dairy milker, the hay rake, and the laser cutter.

Lifetrac2The whole enterprise is being developed by a network of farmers, engineers and supporters.  They are working to make the plans for all these machines available to everyone.   (For a short video on what they’re up to, see here.)

If you’re into TED talks, there’s a four minute intro there.  (TED being a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing out ideas on Technology, Entertainment and Design.  It’s kind of a wonderful thing too, actually.)

The wonder of pee power

In line with this same innovative frame of mind, an article caught my attention about four young girls from Nigeria who are working on developing an electrical generator which runs on piss.

Their idea is to use an electrolytic cell to crack the urine into nitrogen, water and hydrogen.  The hydrogen is purified through a water filter and goes into a cylinder which pushes the hydrogen into another cylinder with borax (readily available) to remove moisture.  The hydrogen can be then used to power the generator and provide six hours of electricity for every litre of urine.

This might be a more worthwhile startup idea than Facebook….

Nine-year-old Socrates in a backyard

You really should go look at this post by Robert Krulwich who writes on science on the National Public Radio website: it’s about a conversation a friend of his had with a 9-year-old boy in a Washington backyard patio which the friend felt compelled to put on video.  The boy’s mother nonchalantly mentions that the lad is “interested in cosmology.”

In the video, the young one has a refreshingly large view of things, beyond his years.  Towards the end of his remarks, I am taken by the saving grace of his or any other person’s thought process, a position of freedom and essential equilibrium: “But then again, I might be wrong.”

With this ‘don’t know’ mind he wiggles and fidgets like the fourth grader he is, while he discusses with obvious passion the clear ideas that come to him about life, the universe and destiny.

The first human holy place?

gobekli-full_35417_600x450

I am fascinated by antiquity, and human history (or what we are able to know of it) as it fades into pre-history.  I think such artifacts as the Antikythera Mechanism, and sites such as the first known religious structure at Gobleki Tepe in Turkey, reflect the possibility of complex human civilizations reaching much farther back into those prehistoric mists than current scientific wisdom is willing to allow.

At Gobleki Tepe, with structures dating back to 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid, the site has been described as “massive carved stones about 11,000 years old, crafted and arranged by prehistoric people who had not yet developed metal tools or even pottery.”

The archaeologist who discovered the site, Klaus Schmidt, feels certain that this is the first human holy place.   He has said, “We are 6,000 years before the invention of writing here.”

Schmidt is advocating a different model of civilization based on what he has found at Gobleki Tepe.  Rather than civilizations of sufficient development producing such a remarkable and sophisticated structure, it was the urge to glorify their sense of the sacred which led the ancient hunters and gatherers to create civilization.

To build this site required a great concentration of materials, people and organization.  Sociocultural changes come first, then agriculture in this view.

It’s just that I find a certain arrogance in such statements as: “At the time of Göbekli Tepe’s construction much of the human race lived in small nomadic bands that survived by foraging for plants and hunting wild animals.” [From the article in National Geographic.]

On extremely limited data, inference and supposition, all of pre-history is constructed for us in this way.  Perhaps there’s more and different that hasn’t been discovered yet.

The National Geographic article goes on to say:

“Discovering that hunter-gatherers had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife.”

And from another site:

“The unique method used for the preservation of Gobeklitepe has really been the key to the survival of this amazing site. Whoever built this magnificent monument, made sure of its survival along thousands of years, by simply backfilling the various sites and burying them deep under, by using an incredible amount of material and all these led to an excellent preservation.”

Almost like a time capsule….

The Watch Your Back part

In line with the dangers of the coming surveillance society (as I remarked upon some time back  in Subversive Fiction), I came across a recent news item or two on spyware called FinFisher being marketed by a European software company called Gamma International.

According to Wikipedia, the “surveillance suite is installed after the target accepts installation of a fake update to commonly used software.”

This is software ostensibly being offered to law enforcement agencies and other government organizations.  Unfortunately, Egyptian dissidents who helped overthrow Hosni Mubarak found that Egypt’s savage secret police had a contract with Gamma International.

Activists in the Persian gulf kingdom of Bahrain were targeted by the software and FinFisher servers have also been found in the authoritarian regimes of Turkmenistan and Ethiopia.

“It’s installing a backdoor on your computer to record your Skype conversations and go through your email,” said a recent report based on Canadian research.

Very recently, a French based journalists’ organization called the company one of the “five corporate enemies of the Internet.”

The software is now being used in Canada by someone or something, as servers hosting the software have been found here.  Such servers are also found in the United States among 25 other countries.

If you like science fiction….

In an effort to end in a more imaginative place, and as a reward for any reader who makes it this far (if they like science fiction), here is a link that includes the 6 minute and 26 second short film R’ha.

In that brief time, we are given a fully realized story and quite amazing special effects for such a small scale production.  It’s in high-definition and I recommend sizing it for viewing as large as you can.

It fits in the wonderful category, although it has its share of weird as well.  I like the alien….

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Notes on images, from top down:

1) My photo of the Zimbabwean currency….
2) From The Monster Engine site.
3) The low-cost, multi-purpose, open-sourced LifeTrac tractor.
4) An artist’s re-creation of Gobleki Tepe.

An Experiment With Time — An Appreciation

January 12, 2013

An Experiment With Time — by J.W. Dunne.  A & C Black Ltd., 1929, 2nd Edition.

Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.

                — T.S. Eliot

Eternity in love with the products of time…
               — William Blake

Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.
— Ray Cummings

Many years ago when I was 11, our family moved to a valley in northern British Columbia halfway between the interior town of Prince George and the city of Prince Rupert on the coast.  We moved into a log cabin that we had seen before only in photos, which measured perhaps 30 feet by 24 on the interior, with a rough plank floor.  It had been carefully built in the early 1900s, and still stands today.

Our first winter there in 1962-63 was one of much more snow, and colder below-zero degrees Fahrenheit temperatures, than we were used to in our former home in northwest Washington State.

We installed a big wood-burning cook stove, I remember, before the cold season began in earnest.  All our belongings in their boxes and cases and trunks were piled high in the middle of the cabin, including a very old Victrola wind-up phonograph cabinet.  It could play my dad’s Josh White and old foxtrot dance 78s with dull steel needles carefully inserted into the playing head.  My father, and much less so my mother, had a vision of us making our way as modern pioneers in a place that lacked electricity, telephones and most of the usual amenities.

I think it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  My two younger brothers and I were given the treasures of space, the wild outdoors, productive chores, and real and imagined adventures in a landscape that seemed to receive us willingly.

My parents set up their bedroom at one end of the cabin.  That space also received shelving that extended along the entire end wall, up and down around the window cut-out there with its new double panels of translucent plastic sheeting, and for a short distance along the walls on either side.  It was a little tricky to build shelving on the half-rounds of the interior log shapes, but Dad managed it.

Books and more books

A lot of the pile in the center of cabin were boxes and boxes of books, and as they were placed on their shelving, the pile began to shrink a little and we had more room to move.

The books were mostly hardbacks, and it’s evident to me now that my parents put a lot of thought into what they brought with us.  There was an extensive amount of English literature that boys might like, with works by Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, Stephen Crane and Ernest Thompson Seton.  We brought us with a set of My Book House, an educational series containing fables, fairy tales and adventures graded for different age levels.  My father made sure to bring a complete set of the famed 1911 version of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. There was much more, fiction and non-fiction, including pamphlets and booklets about such contemporary concerns as radiation and nuclear war.

A couple of years after that first winter, and indeed, after my father died of a stroke, I remember pulling down and opening for the first time J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment With Time.  It was obviously an older volume and I was idle and curious.

Before I describe more of its contents, which opened an enquiring 14-year-old’s mind to the possibility of wider vistas, let me give you some details about John William Dunne himself, a quite interesting figure.

JW Dunne and flying machines

Born in Ireland in 1875 of Anglo-Irish aristocrats, at the age of 13 he imagined a flying machine that needed no steering.  According to Wikipedia, he became very interested in the flight of the Zanortia seed which would have a bearing on his future career as an aeronautics designer during the very early days of flying.

But first he joined a volunteer cavalry regiment which fought during the Second Boer War. In poor health, he returned to England, and began to test his tailless airplane designs, encouraged by family friend H.G. Wells.  He invented a stable tailless airfoil with swept-back v-shaped wings, following the design of that seed of his youth.  He produced both monoplane and biplane versions.  The pilot rode at the very front. The whole thing, in one of his later designs, was pushed by two propellors.

Eventually the airplanes became well-known and received a limited extent of commercial interest.  But it turns out that planes of great flying stability are not particularly maneuverable, especially for military purposes.  His designs were bought out and modified slightly.  One such became the first Canadian military aircraft.

Dunne was able to retire and live on the income from his various patents.  As an avid fly fisherman, he wrote a book on that subject.  He also wrote on politics, advocating in 1938 a body similar to NATO to replace the failed League of Nations.

He became interested in dreams and the nature of time after having several dreams about major disasters before they actually occurred.  He began studying his dreams in a systematic way, and began the speculations about the nature of time that comprise his book, first published in 1927, An Experiment With Time.

Science fiction and reality

So this is what I picked up and read from our bookshelves with some amazement as a teenager who constantly devoured science-fiction.  At that time Analog Science Fact & Fiction magazine was a favorite, and for a short period in the 1960s was published as a slick larger magazine size before reverting back to the smaller digest format.  During that time, it published many stories about telepathy, teleportation, precognition and occasionally time travel under the influential, and controversial, editorship of John W. Campbell.

The teenage version of myself was amazed and tickled that this old book sitting in our home for years actually took some aspects of what appealed to my wildest imagination, and considered it seriously.

Although the precognition in dreams idea is interesting and I wouldn’t reject the possibility, given all the anecdotal experiences — it has never happened to me.  (But then I remember dreams only rarely.)  Dunne’s theory of time intrigues me more.

Dreaming becomes an entry point to the study of the human perception of time, as Dunne speculated, because it is then that our usual sense of the unidirectional flow of time is able to loosen and broaden. Past events and future ones may be equally amenable to dream perception.

Basically his idea is that all moments in time are taking place all at once, if you can imagine taking an eternal point of view.

Infinite regression

He uses the idea of infinite regression to illustrate our limited perception of time’s nature. Time is a series that it is necessary to be out of in a second series in order to observe it, and in yet a third series or time in order to perceive that.  According to Dunne this leads to an infinite regression of a series of times that span forever, like looking at a reflection of ourselves holding a mirror infinitely into the distance.

Dunne went on to devise an elaborate mathematical theory to support his ideas, which he called Serialism.  He described his ideas in considerable more detail in another volume, The Serial Universe (1934).

Now I don’t know if all this is close to reality or not, but it at least opens the door to considering that the arrow of time may not be so simple after all.

How were Dunne’s theories received?

In science, the astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington wrote to Dunne agreeing with him about his idea of Serialism.  In 1981, the science journal New Scientist published a positive review of the book. Paul Davies, though, in his book About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution dismisses Dunne’s arguments, Wikipedia says, as “entertaining.”  In a 1998 letter to the New York Times, mathematician Marc Groz noted that physicist Stephen Hawking’s concept of “imaginary time” was predated by Dunne.

In literature and philosophy, Dunne had a greater impact, if anything.  However, both H.G. Wells and Jorge Luis Borges criticised Dunne for turning time into a spatial concept. Borges also said in an article on Dunne in his book Other Inquisitions 1937-1952 that:

“Dunne assures us that in death we shall learn how to handle eternity successfully. We shall recover all the moments of our lives and we shall combine them as we please.  God and our friends and Shakespeare will collaborate with us.

“With such a splendid thesis as that, any fallacy committed by the author becomes insignificant.”

J.B. Priestly and C.S. Lewis, and even Tolkien, used Dunne’s ideas in their work, and Dunne was also said to have influenced T.S. Eliot, as can be seen in Eliot’s quote above.

Time as music

Dunne asks us to think of our experiences as keys sounded upon a piano keyboard, and to consider that we experience time as the sequential playing out of a piece of music.  If we were to somehow loosen that sequential perspective we might find, as Dunne writes in one of his later books, Nothing Dies:

‘”The whole range of musical composition lies before you, and this with an instrument, the keyboard of which is a lifetime of human experience of – every description. Do not fear or shirk the experience. The more varied it is, the finer becomes your instrument, and the richer the possible effects. There are great notes to be produced. – There are sombre tones. And there are other players operating other instruments giving the possibility of orchestral effects – effects which must increase in complexity and magnificence as agreement is reached between more and more performers; until, I am now scientifically certain, the Hand of a Great Conductor will become manifest, and we shall discover we are taking part in a Symphony of All Creation. The magnitude of your own share does not matter; for the smaller it may be, the better you will hear the whole. But, to hear that symphony, while playing your own part therein, is absorption.”

Well, I’m not completely sure on that.

But I do like to think that the cabin of my boyhood, the best of the times around it, and the discovery of Dunne’s book are still out there in the grand symphony of it all.

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Some further notes…..

First, the images from top down:

1) One of Dunne’s airplanes, with its swept back wing design modelled upon a flying seed.

2) A diagram to illustrate Dunne’s idea of regression, although the regression only goes a couple of steps….

I’ve found Dunne’s books, An Experiment With Time and The Serial Universe available online for view in pdf form.  Others of his later works, variations of the same subject, long out of print are being sold as ebooks for minimal price.

There are a couple of fascinating articles about early flight and Dunne’s role in it.  One is on a site dedicated to Lawrence Hargrave as the father of Australian aviation, called Flying Wings.  Another article also covers the History of the Flying Wing at the Century of Flight website.

There are a number of interesting sites on the nature of time in general. One I found, by the research physicist Manoj Thulasidas, is an excerpt about the perception of time from his self-published book The Unreal Universe.  Another is at the Stanford University page on The Experience and Perception of Time.

And finally, I want to leave you with an intriguing mystery (or a shared hallucination) that I came across looking up a few things on the web.

It’s called the Moberly-Jourdain Incident in France in 1901.  Two female academics described what they experienced as a “time slip” and later wrote a book anonymously about what they say happened, which according to Wikipedia, was subject to much ridicule.

You can read what our Mr. Dunne says on the subject since he wrote a note included in their book.

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