Saturday, October 20, 2012

Megalo and Maniacal

Remember those old comic books that featured some megalomaniacal, god-wannabe, mad scientist creating his own kingdom of new life-forms? It was like a world in a bottle, except that the bottle was the size of a city. Invariably this guy, whose name was always something equally delusional, like “Giganto the Awesome”, would locate his creation in some godforsaken outpost like Antarctica or the Sahara desert. He would do that because, you know, there’s SO much infrastructure already there to support his massive project, not to mention lots of flights coming into the local airport to bring him all those high-tech components.
You remember those guys, right? My favorite was the dipshit who built his kingdom on the side of a mountain cliff. It was a wicked visual, to be sure. So wicked, in fact, that it wasn’t until many years later that the light bulb went on. A mountain cliff? Really?
Readers of my blog remember I was complaining last week about my problems with plot generation. If you consider that a plot is just a linear slice of the larger world in which it takes place, you may think that I’m also in the business of world generation. In that case, I would invite you to bow down and address me as Giganto. Then again, maybe not. I’m not going to create a whole new world for two reasons: one, I’m not George R.R. Martin, and two, see above.
Instead, I thought that I would turn the linear-slice concept on its head. Rather than string together a sequence of events, I would generate the plot with random access. In other words, I would go back to the index card method. It worked for Machines of Kali, and it’ll work for Currencies of Loki. After all, making each scene the atomic unit of the story (versus characters or events) is not that far-fetched.
Some of my favorite writer/bloggers will post pictures of their offices, in which an entire wall will be covered with pinned-up cards and post-it notes. I’m not into the whole bulletin board thing myself, but I am a big believer in the sort of flexible development that allows you to drill down to a single space. When you’ve crafted a scene that exists on its own, you can focus on just that space. There’s something oddly exhilarating about the prospect of sitting down to spew out the most extreme, lurid, and potentially devastating piece of narrative possible. A scene-centric focus liberates you to do that.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Problem with Plots

Like everyone else, I had no clue what I was doing the first time I wrote a book. I’m a fast learner, though, so I thought that I could learn from the experience. What I primarily learned is this: I write too much.
Machines of Kali finally clocked in at 139K words, but I’m positive I wrote at least twice that. Sadly, it was mostly drivel. I had to go back and hack-and-slash it mercilessly, torturing it into submission before I could take it even halfway seriously. I combined characters, deleted subplots, and eliminated backstories. Some characters’ histories I distilled into a sentence or two - in one case, just a toss-off phrase. Much later, I realized that all this preliminary copy was not only vestigial, but unnecessary. If I had just written draft seven way back instead of draft one, I could have saved myself a year or two.
Jeez, I thought, there has to be a better way. 
I know lots of writers do the chew-and-spew or, as teachers like to call it, “freestyle” writing. It’s got its place, sure, but IMHO, a novel is a tightly wound device. How can precision be served by waste? And length is not a factor; a long book can be extremely tight. No one ever said Mario Puzo’s Godfather meandered, and that covered three generations of family. I loved The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, because it was long, but never loose.
So, for the dual purposes of efficiency and efficacy, I swore that the next book I wrote would be much tighter. I would vividly compose every character, precisely isolate every telling detail, and thoroughly outline every plot point in advance. No detail would be too small to be mapped out beforehand. I wanted there to be no weak spots, no meandering mess, and no missing details.
In the process of subjugating every writing impulse to this greater purpose, I discovered something else: it’s really, really hard. I had to tweak out new characters to carry the story, research new background to fill out the world, and contort the sequencing every which way. In other words, it was a lot like the first book, except that this time, all the preliminary junk was a thought experiment.
I also discovered something else while I was creating what amounted to one big plot. There’s a problem with plots. Eventually, they end. The movie director Christopher Nolan said that when he composes a story, he often begins with the final scene and writes backwards. If I could do that, I’d be much happier, not to mention Mr. Nolan. Of course, who doesn’t want to be Mr. Nolan?
Right now, I’m stuck with a deep beginning and a thrilling middle, but a confused end. How does the hero figure out the villain’s trap? What is the villain’s fate? Who is the romantic focus? Questions like these hardly instill confidence in the rest of the outline, and are hardly the definition of a tight story.
The suffering continues.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mark Coker’s Visage

Last week, I had never heard of Mark Coker. This week, I think he’s a god.
I’ve been on the Amazon Kindle market for several months now. In that time, I’ve been uprunning all the other operations of my little indie authorship (professional cover art, internet presence, tangential projects, etc.), Finally, I decided to expand my distribution. I’d heard of Smashwords all along, of course: in the world of e-readers, as the saying goes, there’s Amazon and, for everything else, there’s Smashwords.
But after finding the Smashwords website and printing out their how-to booklets, I had a strange epiphany. At the end of every doc, there was the same smiling face, lit from beneath by an oddly encroaching light source which gave the curve of the mouth a strange smirk it could not otherwise possess. It was a startling effect, given that it was such a tiny image at the end of an otherwise overloaded instruction booklet. How often do you plow through a formatting manual just to arrive at some guy’s smiling face?
That’s how I knew that Smashwords was completely different from Amazon. Don’t get me wrong. The Kindle opened my eyes to a brand new world, and Amazon is still my favorite tech company. But discovering Mr. Coker’s creation Smashwords has been like discovering a new friend.
These documents that I printed were clearly a labor of love, showing an artist playing to an audience of one. Mr. Coker’s instructional copy came off the page like he was talking to me directly, like we were all in on the same joke. Since he was in our position not so long ago, he’s got the exact same mindset. But the difference with this guy is that he did something about it. And he knows it.
Something else I found really impressive was the originality of his business model. Another author once said: there is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Mr. Coker clearly anticipated the e-reader tide, observed the fragmentation of formatting, and concocted a simple solution: one formatter, multiple outputs. Most importantly, he saw the headaches he could avoid by NOT being a publisher. Smashwords is a distributor, plain and simple, and their throughput is driven by their formatter. 
The marketing genius behind this simple idea is so zen, so meta, that it’s hard to imagine a world where it had never existed at all. For me, that world was last week. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Components of Essay

I’ve been writing a lot of essay-length stuff recently. By “essay-length” I mean around 500 words. The funny thing is that, just like quantum physics, at that scale a certain distinct rule emerges. No matter the content – explication, review, entertainment – I’ve found that the length itself defines the requirements. 
Oddly enough, though, the method itself comes in different flavors. In fact, there are three different processes, each with three different phases, that I can delineate off the top of my head.
The first process is 1) ideas, 2) outline, and 3) write. This is the most academic of the different flavors. The first phase, ideas, is the most important. Here I would work out the general concepts, with lots of research and reflection, all the while getting them straight in my head. Eventually, this generation of ideas would inform their presentation. This is where the outline would come in. By this time, the organization should be obvious, and so this phase would be quick (it’s only 500 words, after all). Finally, I would write. If I’ve done the first two phases correctly, writing should be a stark exercise of only manifesting the ideas, and nothing more. 
The second process is 1) write, 2) organize, and 3) glue. In this flavor, I would spew out as many ideas as I could. Some may call it “freestyle” writing, but it’s not really stream-of-consciousness per se, because I have specific topics I want to discuss. Once I reached a critical mass of copy (which is easy to spot when you’re restricted to 500 words), I would go back and move it around to the point where I felt it created a coherent narrative. Since it’s a little disjointed, I would have to go back and glue it all together; that way, it reads like a full-on narrative and not a patched-up mess.
The third process is 1) spew, 2) buff, 3) and promote. This is a catch-all flavor. As a discrete course of action, it probably belongs somewhere else since it’s not an organizing sequence. However, there is a place in the creative process for embellishment as its own element. The most important part, by far, would be the buffing. In fact, only when the buffing is satisfactorily complete would I then promote this to a public venue. If it’s never complete, so be it. This process, since it is dedicated to turning internal thoughts into public discourse, is probably closest to the pure technical definition of communication.
So, those are my three different courses of action when it comes to essay-writing.
Next question is: what did I use for this essay?  Well, that’s a good question.
I’m not answering.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Here’s The Deal

In my day job, I work with financial computer programs. Usually, I’m the last guy in line to answer the question, “Where did this number come from?” Being the guy who explains such hidden behavior is kind of like being the Man Behind the Curtain. You have to come out and explain, “Here’s the Deal.”
What does this have to do with fiction? Simple. Just as an artist should be equally proficient in drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and digital, just as the lead guitarist should be able to play bass, piano, drums, and sing, and just as the black belt karate master should know about boxing, muy thai, judo, akido, wrestling and so on, the proficient writer should be able to handle all sorts of disciplines.
It takes a special discipline to decipher the invisible. Think of all the components of fiction: plot, character, verisimilitude, point of view, sequencing, and the rest. All these are meant to tell a story where there is nothing. A straight-up exposition of logic is much the same thing, except that nothing has been replaced by confusion. In a way, that is harder to do, because there is a pre-existing misconception of which one must dispose before even starting the explanation.
One of my favorite proverbs is the Three Blind Men and the Elephant. It goes like this:
Three blind men approach an elephant. The first grabs its trunk and says, “Ah ha! This creature is like a snake.” The second wraps his arms around a leg and says, “No, this beast is a tree.” The third feels its great flapping ears and pronounces, “You’re both wrong! It is a bird.”
All three are right. Yet, all are completely wrong. The elephant beyond their localized perceptions is something else entirely. When you attempt to explain what The Deal is, you have to address those perceptual shortcomings. It’s a skill. Being able to say “Here’s the Deal” requires you back it up, no matter how confusing.
          Here’s the Deal. You have to assume that your reader is not just totally ignorant of your back story, but that she believes something wholly antithetical to your message. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. 
And, as we know, truth rarely wins the beauty contest. That’s the Deal.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Skull Scoring System

What’s a book review without a final score? It’s easy to understand, pleasantly digestible, and forces the reviewer to put up or shut up. By those standards, the ultimate scoring system was Siskel & Ebert’s “thumbs up, thumbs down”. With a flick of their digits, they rendered a binary judgment requiring no conscious effort by their audience. 
My scoring system, however, is more nuanced. By aping the standard 5-Star system found in fine websites everywhere, I'm able to provide shades of meaning. Unlike the “star” rating system, though, (“I give Basket Case five stars!”), I like to use skulls as my cardinal symbols:

5 Skulls:  
 Awesome on top of awesome. Absolutely no qualifiers to the breathless adoration heaped upon such a masterpiece. To not shout its praises from the rooftop would be a crime against humanity; to not read it, a betrayal of one’s soul.

4 Skulls:
Really good. This is a story you must read, and soon. It will possess at least one aspect of sublime execution, if not more. Almost certainly guaranteed to inform you and stay with you.

3 Skulls:
Good enough to read, but not so good you would stay home and pass up a good party.

2 Skulls:
Mostly drivel. You won’t go on a rampage, but you will find it difficult to finish. And if you do, you’ll always wonder about what you might have been doing with all that time.  

1 Skull:
Putrid toxic waste. If you’re going to read a 1-Skuller all the way through, you might as well be sitting on a pineapple while you do.

0 Skulls:
Completely without any redeeming value whatsoever. This will scar you permanently, and, depending on your situation in life, probably scar your offspring, as well.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

An Open Letter to the Editors

Dear Editors of [your favorite writers’ magazine],

I would submit to you that there is a place in your writers’ magazine for a technology column. Moore’s law, after consuming so many other industries, is finally asserting itself in writing. From simple spell-checkers to A.I. influenced narrative generators, this trend will only accelerate in the next decade. Therefore, a technology column would serve your readership well.

For instance, this column could review the current product offerings. Already we are being pitched software like Final Draft 8 and Master Writer. These are many others have been advertising in your pages for months, if not years. Why not provide an unbiased commentary?

          This column could also monitor the current state of writing technology. For instance, there is Narrative Science, a company that generates prose from its computers, providing millions of words of sports news and financial reports from nothing more than data and algorithms. Its C.T.O. has stated that his machines will win a Pulitzer Prize within five years. An in-depth analysis of his claim would make for a compelling story.

          Already, there are automated essay-scoring engines being pushed by commercial vendors. By all accounts, these machine algorithms are more than adequate to the task. How do they work? What do they contribute to standardized testing? Most importantly, since tomorrow’s writers are today’s students, what will be their impact on the fiction of the future? These are not pie-in-the-sky questions. These are real, and they are immediate.

I once wrote software reviews for Futures Magazine. At that time, it was obvious how technology and software was to be applied to the financial markets, particularly to the individual trader. Ten years later, we’re seeing the same transformation with the individual writer. I submit that this is fallow ground for journalism. We should see more of it.