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The Lair Of Gary James

Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

For the Benefit of Future Historians

Posted by BigWords on April 29, 2019

The Prelude

Because dates matter so much, and often the specifics are lost to time, it is important to make note of when certain ideas, decisions, actions were originated. This isn’t going to be a horrifically in-depth look at what I am doing – mainly because I am not quite at the point where I can happily lead you to the Brand New Thing with confidence (there is still a painful amount of Javascript and PHP to fix), but I can enlighten anyone who is wondering where certain things have gone.

Students of psychology, interested in how a person gets from point A to point B will likely be parsing this post with interest, as it goes some way to explaining why I’ve done certain things in the order in which I have. There are also going to be some (fairly common among creative people) incidents which I am going to be naming and using herein, so be prepared.

Don’t Press the Big Red Button

Lets start with the night of the 23rd of April. Nothing about that Tuesday is really important in and of itself, and it is only the chain of circumstances which exist outside of the day that makes it of note, but because so much focus is placed on when things happen we have to accept this as The Last Day for On This Day posts over on the Database. The date of note should properly be Wednesday the 24th of April, given when I made the decision to halt all pending posts on the Database blog, but I dislike stating the event took place on Wednesday when all the consideration and planning took place the day before.

It’s only slightly sad to see it go, but being buried among all the other things in the Database wasn’t helping On This Day reach its potential. The problem lay in its placement: without an identity of its own, it was only ever going to be an aspect of a sprawling mass of data. Don’t get too upset, if you happen to like that feature – there’s a twist coming. There’s always a twist. In many ways life is somehow more twisty than novels, as you never now where some ‘wham moment’ is going to come, out of the blue, to change things. You’ve got to keep a look-out for the wham moment… It shouldn’t be too difficult to spot.

There Are Two Kinds of Features in the World

There’s an important distinction to be made between the type of things which can only ever be used as part of a greater work, and those which can happily exist in isolation. A great example of this is an EPG – when you want to know what shows are on right now an EPG is a very handy tool to have on your television, but it isn’t something which has much (or any) use if you don’t have a television. How many people, bereft of a television, are going out to purchase a television guide from their local newsagents? Not many, if any, I’ll wager. The EPG is a feature which can only properly be used as part of something greater, in this case (in abstract) network scheduling and (in fixed form) a television.

Within the concept of an EPG there lies a whole bunch of other concepts, unimportant to this train of thought, but I might come back to those. The important thing to take away is that you can’t strip out an EPG and use it, for anything remotely interesting, without the surrounding technology and events which make it useful. It also, crucially, is location-specific. While you may not consider this to be a drawback, if you are using your EPG to find the latest episode of your favorite series, it hampers the use of EPGs globally – nobody in Australia is going to give a moment’s thought to what is currently showing on Norwegian television, and it is unlikely that an American would care what is on French television.

The basic format of an EPG, therefore, can’t be scaled up. There’s no way to deliver a single EPG to the world, and make it useful to all due to the inherent limitations.

We need another example, so how about we take a gander at maps.

Maps used to be considered as giant, unruly things, which needed to be manhandled back into a more compact form when they were used. Folded over and over, they rapidly made users lose patience when attempting to locate that one street, but have, in the modern age, ballooned into big business. Do an internet search for a company, and you will likely find a map in the top right of your screen which displays the location of the company. There are sites such as Google Maps, which attempt to provide a comprehensive guide to locations, and satnavs which guide people as they go about their work and leisure. There are a multitude of apps which have maps of various descriptions and levels of usefulness.

I’m sure someone, somewhere, has come up with an app which shows what the layout of your location looked like in the eighteenth century, telling you what companies used to exist in the buildings you pass every day without a second thought. History drips from each and every map, and that alone makes them an intriguing and possibility-laden tool. There is a lot more which can be done with maps, but we aren’t talking specifically about maps today.

The thing you should be seeing here is that maps are scalable – they transcend their use in other media.

The difference between maps and EPGs is how they can be exploited on a large scale, and this way of seeing things is something you should be looking at in everything you do, and in everything you experience. Can something be sliced out of its location and expanded in isolation, or is it best left as is? There’s usually a clear Yes/No answer to this, and if you can’t immediately see the way in which something can be utilized outside of its current use, then the answer is likely “no.”

A lot of people these days have many different things on their sites and blogs, and while I appreciate the convenience of having these disparate projects gathered together in one place it does mean that people wanting only one of these interests highlighted have to wade through material which isn’t of as much interest to them. By splitting things out, the material of interest can be intensified in its concentration on a specific subject. This isn’t something which will work for everyone, and I accept that some interest are only ever going to be marginal, though in this instance I think I’m on the right track.

Crowdsourcing in Meatspace

When people talk about crowdsourcing, they often use it as a term which exclusively applies to the internet. This is fine, as far as things go, but there is a lot which can be done in day-to-day interactions which go some way to answering the question of this having a real-life equivalent – let me start by offering a small piece of advice:

When surrounded by extremely talented people, it is common sense to make use of the wealth of experience and knowledge that people have.

While I’ll always be hesitant to flat-out ask for help, I have been picking the brains of some of the programmers who I have access to at the moment. It has been rather difficult putting into words some of the effects which I always wanted to achieve, and struggling through some difficult (and highly experimental) notions on my own hasn’t produced the results I’ve been after, which is why talking things through – however imperfectly, and however far from implementation – has been a great way to figure out the edges of the possible. These discussions have revealed hitherto-unsuspected means by which to completely alter the appearance of common utilities for rather dramatic effect.

I still can’t reshape tags and categories into something useful – and I doubt either will improve any time soon – but there is real headway happening.

Before I get any further into the main thrust of crowdsourcing in everyday life, addressing the limitations of tags and categories is important.

Grab a book – any will do, so long as it has chapters, sections, segments, or its contents are otherwise separated somehow. A film guide, cookery book, or any index is perfect for this. I want you to loo through the contents for a moment, and see how things are laid out in a very specific manner. Most film guides (or guides to musical artists, television series, novels, or other media) is usually handled alphabetically, with – in certain instances – a small section at the back of the work ranking these by ratings, or years released, or some other metric.

Now take a look at any blog doing much the same function as one of these guides. Take your time and work out what is different about the two media.

Anyone with a sense of order and logic will note immediately that the online versions of these guides aren’t (usually) presented alphabetically. In order to have an alphabetical list you need some side-scripting in play. However, when using tags or categories to search through a site’s contents the material is presented in a ramshackle manner, with no sense of planning at work. Tags and categories are even worse when the important aspect of a post isn’t the entire post, but merely a small portion of that post. Then the tags and categories are next to useless, returning a great amount of useless (and counter-productive) material.

We can consider categories to be a top-order sorting method, sorting posts into a handful of groups which have a specific area of interest. If you look at blogs which focus on pop-culture, you will likely see a Music category which returns reviews of albums, singles, and possibly live gigs, as well as noting where interviews have been published. You might get posts dissecting promo imagery, noting which posters are for sale, talking about merchandise, and other results. If you are only looking for reviews this can be annoying. Worse, when a review is buried in a post which covers other things a reader might not look all the way through the post, preferring to go elsewhere to read a standalone review.

Tags a second-order sorting method, able to look at specific things – a particular band within the music category, say. Narrowing down the number of results to those which comply only with the specific area of interest required. There is, however, a problem with this method as well – if someone is covering things as they come across information the results will tend to jump around the timeline of the band: making note of the release of their second album, then covering their formation, then looking at a reunion tour, then a review of their first album, before covering the childhood of the lead singer, then noting their break-up. There is (currently) no way to sort tags by the date the material covered occurred, only by the date the piece was published.

What we need, then, is a more refined third-order sorting method, and one which doesn’t rely on the whole post being considered important.

Sections have long seemed the method by which this can be accomplished, though I am skeptical of their backwards-implementation – who has the time (honestly) to go through everything they have written and objectively look at each paragraph, then place code detailing to which larger work it belongs, and where in that work it should be placed?

Lets say, for argument’s sake, that someone has written extensively on television. Their content might be broken down in Categories by the nationality of each series broadcast (ignoring the thorny problem of joint productions), with each series earning its own tag. Maybe, in this scenario, there are some posts which cover rarely seen television shows, or which cover those which are no longer extant (in whole or in part), though by looking at the categories and tags it is difficult to see in which order the events took place.

What would be required is a way to:

a) return only the information pertinent to the subject of lost series or missing episodes.
b) arrange the order into a timeline of when each show was initially broadcast.
c) split out only the information about the show (ignoring commentary and personal updates)
and d) join the information seamlessly so that it appears to be a longer work split for internet publication.

Almost everyone ought, in this day and age, should be familiar with the big names in CMS . Instead of looking at these as cheats (which I often do), I’ve been attempting to ponder the ways in which they operate, and how they could be radically improved for the benefit of readers. Considering the range of subjects which can be covered in a single post – especially from anyone with eclectic tastes – this might be something best handled by an overlaid application, able to be accessed by a blog’s creator while viewing the resultant pages without going into the control panel to make alterations.

By selecting a section of text, one ought to be able to give the highlighted material a meta-tag related it specifically – perhaps “Everything I’ve Written About John Coltrane” – before highlighting other paragraphs and tagging them as being specifically about Tim Buckley, or Iggy Pop, or Linda Ronstadt, or Robert Johnson, or whoever else. Then, because selecting individual paragraphs on a given page to return isn’t going to magically sort them into order, there needs to be a secondary action where the (rough) chronology of the event can be indicated. It would make sense to have the ability to override this, however, to place it within the collected material in a specific place.

Once enough material has been properly curated (at least a few thousand words) in the prescribed manner there should be a place on the dashboard to further fine-tune what is a single work. each paragraph able to be grabbed and moved up or down in placement in the collected document – though not edited, as this would also change the original post. Having placed the “collected highlights” in order, the same software which allows for the tagging and ordering of the text really needs to do something with the results. My initial thought was that there should be a generated page presented to the reader, giving them only what they came looking for and nothing more, but something else occurred to me…

What if the completed document could automatically be pushed to, say, Smashwords?

Crowdsourcing in Meatspace (second attempt)

I seem to have got sidetracked. I’ll attempt to remain on-topic, but don’t hold your breath.

As I was saying, there’s a lot to be said for asking really smart people their opinions on attempting something before you go ahead and do whatever stupid thing you intend to do. It isn’t a way of proceeding that I have ever really thought about, preferring to leap first then check out where I’m likely going to land. It has worked in my favor as much as it has been a hindrance, and the mixed results really should tell you that getting someone to check over your plans is probably a good idea.

Some things have proved utterly impossible even using the full range of tricks, but – in almost every conversation – there have been nuggets of information I’ve been storing away. Small details which, when placed together, are enough to provide me with a rough guide with which to proceed. There are things which, although they might prove difficult to implement, are very tempting… Almost enough to justify doing something crazy with the bones of the Database. I didn’t want to tread over old ground without a notion of how to make it work perfectly, but the On This Day feature – so cramped and neglected within the guide – was the perfect thing to expand and nurture into something greater than itself.

An aborted attempt at dumping a bunch of stuff online brushed up against the possibilities of the feature, though my considerations there hardly covered enough to justify immediately proceeding, and when work interrupted the process I put the thought to one side. Now, with things more or less settled for the moment, it is time to reassess the concept of expanding and refining the concept. This led to the first of two things which would prompt my decision to remove the feature from its current home – the scripting required.

Having adequately covered how my brain processes what should be achievable with current technology, I’ll move onto the suggestion of doing something with a proper platform…

There are days where you find the perfect thing you need for the work you have to do almost just sitting there, ready to be plucked up and used. Then there are days where no matter what you do, or where you look, the perfect tool for the job remains ever out of reach. There’s a few things which, despite rarely being used, are essential to have in your toolkit for the moments where they come in handy.

Here’s another piece of advice for you – never turn down an opportunity to play a game. If someone suggests you might want to turn up to play a board game with a handful of interesting people don’t immediately write it off as something which isn’t for you… Grab these moments, as they often work on the parts of your brain which need a little oiling once in a while. I spent a very enjoyable evening, and, for a small while enjoyed a game of Trivial Pursuit.

On Monday the 22nd this game led into a conversation regarding the way in which certain television series have seemingly been completely ignored by the internet, and how the lack of information perpetuates the lack of awareness – it is a problem that can only be solved by presenting information about these series into public awareness, but tracking down such information is hardly profitable when so little is known about the series. A classic Catch 22 situation. If someone was to systematically present these forgotten series in some way, the audience might (generously) be a small, devoted one. That isn’t what most would want for their work, although generating enough interest to garner a large audience of the curious is quite possible.

Not only is it possible, treating the information surrounding these series with a splash of magic – tantalizing snippets of history focusing on the ingredients which are sure to bring in the curious – might lead to such a resurgence of interest that the near-invisible series from not-too-long-ago might, eventually, be released to the public either on a physical format – a dedicated DVD or Blu-ray, or as a special feature on a computer game – or even on a digital platform somewhere. The starting point for any of these shows to gain traction these days is repeated exposure to their existence, and that requires a special kind of presentation.

By the morning of the 23rd I had a list of around fifty shows which, for various reasons, have never been repeated nor released on DVD. That it is possible for me to do this without a great deal of effort – merely searching for the shows through Google and clicking through two or three links – should tell you something about either the woeful treatment certain series receive, or will merely confirm the depth of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies. When I covered the Compact Annual, noting that I had no idea what the show was about, I never suspected that things would lead me to deliberately uncovering more information on shows which had disappeared from public view, though in retrospect my frustration at the lack of adequate information being readily available must have lingered in the recess of my brain.

It was working out the breadth of productions absent from any retailers’ lists which, combined with the interest of people who had heard of some of the shows, that the second thing to push home the notion of repositioning On This Day happened.

With people who knew code to hand, and with suggestions for shows that ought to be better remembered, things began to snowball. On the 23rd I decided to register a domain on which to place day-specific comic-book information, and – the next day – I picked up three more domains on which to detail the history of television series, films, and music. Every time I think I’ve covered enough to justify a launch I’m confronted with another coding challenge, and when I think that the code is (more or less) stable and cohesive enough to launch I pick up more information which needs to be added. I’ve been very conscious of certain failings which exist in similar things, deliberately avoiding the common pitfalls.

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Some News of Minor Importance

Posted by BigWords on February 4, 2019

Having kinda, sorta, almost got the computer working, for the moment at least, there’s a few things which can’t be put off any longer. Having already lost a great deal of the technology I was counting on coaxing through until overcoming events, it looks as if I’m going to have to replace more than anticipated. This is problematic given my circumstances…

It has become apparent that no matter how many hours I put in, there’s simply no way I can make enough money to keep everything going, so – although I am loathe to do so – the only recourse left is to consider additional income. Things need to change. No matter how many hours I put in, and despite stretching myself across various jobs, money is an ever-present problem. Regardless of any attempts to improve matters already made, there is always another bill, another unexpected expenditure, another emergency.

For the past few weeks I have actually had stomach pains because of the stress, which (added to other lingering problems) is as distracting as all hell. This is a new thing. New things are meant to be nice – new things should be treats, not torments. The hours are killing me, and there’s little time left to think at the end of each day, never mind carry on with insane non-profit-making ventures such as the Database.

So I’m going to do something radical to rectify the situation.

Those of you who have read my thoughts here (and elseweb) will be aware that I am entirely disparaging of advertising. I really dislike the intrusion of irrelevant content alongside information, which is the essential definition of advertising. There are, admittedly, instances where the inclusion of such material adds something intangible to a work – such as in Victorian novels – though modern advertising is so often ugly and lacking in nuance as to completely turn me against its intrusive nature.

I’ll be cracking open the files and notebooks, and presenting a bunch of writing which really deserve their time in the sun. Better still, there will be complete explanations of how I work things out. All the secret tips and tricks I’ve accumulated over the years, with which I have made my writing appear slightly smarter than it actually is. There will also be a few new things which I’ve had bubbling away at the back of my brain for a very long time.

All manner of creations will be covered, and – as soon as there is enough money to purchase a fully-working computer, scanner, and hard drive – start to get some of the artwork uploaded as well as the writing. If things go really well, I’m planning on expanding to cover videos and other goodies.

The subject of income has always been a problem. As much as there are things I want to do, there needs to be some additional income otherwise I’m going to perpetually be in the situation I find myself in at the moment, struggling to keep afloat week by week (which is, I have to admit, my own fault for following what I deem to be interesting ideas rather than seeking lucrative assignments), and of the ways to bridge the two is Patreon.

While it isn’t a perfect solution, it is a way to (hopefully) stem the amount of money I am hemorrhaging.

On that subject, I’ll also add that I’m not taking any more “helpful advice” from family and friends, as every time I listen to suggestions on how I should be doing things, my life merely gets more difficult and expensive – as much as such “assistance” is appreciated, for the thought if nothing else, it isn’t doing me any good. While I’m not going to go into specifics, I am, at this point, too tired – and in too much pain – to keep going in this manner.

There was a while there when it seemed like everything was going wrong, but a few jobs going I’m *almost* making enough to cover expenses. “Almost” being the pertinent word in that sentence. It doesn’t leave me any time to write, or – if I am brutally honest – time to consider anything save for getting through another week. It isn’t the best place to be, and I’m really, really missing the time to do interesting things.

Which brings me back to what I am beginning:

Gary James Presents

Egotism much? Well… Yeah. Deal with it.

You’ll probably be wondering why I didn’t merely use this blog, and that’s a good question – I don’t want people to be frustrated by the posts being locked to non-Patreon subscribers, which might be seen as an annoyance, and I don’t want to force people to subscribe to something which is going to cost them money. It is rude to presume that people will want to have another commitment, and regardless, I’ve plans to eventually cover some things here that wouldn’t sit well with the purpose of the new blog.

That purpose, in case the name didn’t give it away, being to present all of the material I have written.

It may take a lot time to get through everything…

That I intensely dislike the notion of asking people to pay for blog content should be obvious from comments I have made. This isn’t a decision which I have made easily, and it isn’t one which I particularly care for, but I’m at a loss as to how I can break away from endless hours of toiling. The worst thing about the way things are, beyond a general lack of working equipment, is that there is nothing to show for the weeks as they pass. I’m getting no closer to any goals.

Because I’m planning on posting every day it doesn’t make sense to ask for money on a per-post basis – for as little as a dollar you can follow along as I disassemble storytelling techniques, slam genres together, arrive at strange and unsettling conclusions, and point out where things come from. While I’m doing that, I’ll also update the material which has appeared elsewhere (including here) to include some insights I’ve had in my time away.

If that doesn’t work, I’m going to be wearing a sign reading “Will write for food.”

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The Path

Posted by BigWords on April 8, 2016

When I was offline (not that I am technically back online) there was a lot of time to contemplate the way things had turned out – choices, decisions, strategies. The constant reminder that so many of my plans had gone sideways was mitigated by a line which I’m still, all this time later, not sure if I came up with. There was a circuit which turned a large circle round the three small villages I took to examining. A long straight road, a rather erratic road, a few paths which led nowhere… Walking and thinking helped concentrate ideas from loose concepts into something usable.

It was during a particularly nasty day – howling winds and sleet rain – I found myself on a different road, walking into the rain, with the knowledge that I was going in slightly the wrong direction. I knew where I ought to be heading, but there wasn’t a way to get back to the correct area. To my left, in the general heading I needed to be moving in, there was trees. Biting back the feeling that venturing off the well-known into the unknown, and aware that I didn’t want to appear in a headline a decade hence reading “unidentified skeletal remains found in woods” I pressed on.

And here’s where the line, the phrase which has been rattling around my skull for the last year, came into play. I was moving carefully, over fallen trees, pushing back branches to move past thick growth, leaping over a small stream that wound lazily past the trees… My footing always one mis-step away from a bad ending, something occurred to me – this was a lesson. Something to be learned from, and something to remember. And it is where the line came from – popping into my head perfectly formed, and feeling like I hadn’t earned it.

Some people walk the well-worn path, while others make their own path.

I looked it up in a couple of quotation books and came up with nothing. Am I smart enough to pull that out of thin air? I still don’t know, and there’s a part of me which is quite happy to run with it as a gift. I don’t need to press my ego by stating that it is mine, because it really isn’t. It’s something larger than me, and I’m not sure I would lay claim to it anyway. It’s something which we should all think – something which should push us. We can do what others have done, the same successes and the same failures. Repeating what others have done isn’t difficult. It is copypasta life to go with the safe options.

The clock ticks on. Old ideas, put together to deal with specific problems which no longer matter, merge with the modern complexities which demand new methods of attack. A suggestion made twenty years ago, a brusque off-the-cuff dismissal of what was then the done thing, came back to me – a way of bringing together a lot of people to do something which mattered. More and more, I find myself wanting to leave a legacy which isn’t about me, or about what I can do. I want to see people take something and go their own way with it, to build and adapt to their own requirements and show the kind of imagination I find remarkable.

And the final note today:

We should blaze our own paths, irrespective of history, tradition, orthodoxy and arbitrary rules. I’m bringing that to what I am doing, taking careful steps to keep in mind the ways others are operating – making choices (sometimes very difficult ones) which are going to separate opinion. That’s cool. I don’t expect everyone to be on board with some of the things that I’m going to be instituting, but there’s no knock-on to the people who aren’t playing along. I’m balancing things so that people aren’t going to be adversely affected.

But that’s skipping ahead. Spoilers.

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When ‘Good Enough’ is Good Enough

Posted by BigWords on April 7, 2016

There are things which are plausible enough in and of themselves to pass for an explanation, and there are things which demand explanation in order for some clarification beyond the Shrug of God. Then there are things which you can drop in with no thought other than the cool factor – and those are the most interesting references. For me, whenever there is something thrown out there that suggests foresight, there’s always a tingle of excitement that the universe lined up things just right.

Okay, this is stretching the original text, but just read the subtext:

It is the great prerogative of Mankind above other Creatures, that we are not only able to behold the works of Nature, or barely to sustain our lives by them, but we have also the power of considering, comparing, altering, assisting, and improving them to various uses. And as this is the peculiar privilege of human Nature in general, so it is capable of being so far advanced by the helps of Art, and Experience, as to make some men excel others in their Observations, and Deductions, almost as much as they do Beasts.

Robert Hooke; Micrographia (1665).

And while we are at it…

The next care to be taken, in respect of the Senses, is a supplying of their infirmities with Instruments, and, as it were, the adding of artificial Organs to the natural.

Robert Hooke; Micrographia (1665).

Doesn’t that just scream transhumanism? Am I the only one who sees that?

Consider this a challenge of sorts – don’t settle for merely repeating the same quotes seen peppering the text of every other novel. Dig deeper, read works which you wouldn’t otherwise consider, take the time to understand the message you are delivering, and (the really important part) bring something new to the table. Originality isn’t a requirement, because we all know where striving for that leads, but at least carve out something new.

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The Thing I Can’t Talk About

Posted by BigWords on April 6, 2016

Towards the end of the month, in a shade over two weeks from now, there’s going to be an announcement which goes a little towards explaining exactly why I have trekked halfway across the UK to get internet access, but right now, sitting the wrong side of the official kick-off, I can’t go into any details on what is going on. The plan, as it was, began with a request to jump in with an established group doing… well, that part is hugely complex.

The skinny on why I went in a different direction, and joined with the folks I am currently producing words for, is that the other options all required things I didn’t have easy access to. Or any access to. The option of doing what I wanted, rather than conforming to other requirements, was too strong an enticement, and – the important part – I was getting to bring a lot of my work to the table. I have a lot of material which has never been seen in any way, ranging as far back as scripts from the 90s. There’s plenty to play with.

There’s many things which I am changing in the process of making material which can sell easily – some essays are being repurposed into fiction, a television proposal for a sitcom is being heavily altered, and I’m having to get used to the idea that the lack of equipment can be as much of a push towards solutions as it is a pain in the ass. It won’t stop me complaining abut ancient software and terrible hardware, but if all goes well I will be able to upgrade when the money starts coming in again.

The only way that the Thing I Can’t Talk About is having any effect on my day-to-day life is the time everything is taking. I had planned out a lot more I wanted to do before things got close to the announcement, but there’s a hundred and one things which need immediate attention (and I am on point all the time, apparently). I haven’t done this much design work or editing in years. I’ve even been doing small amounts of CGI in aid of moving projects forward, which – on a computer over six years old – isn’t the most relaxing activity.

It also means I can’t take on any other work while things are so busy. Which kinda sucks when I’m mostly in this gig for the green. I still haven’t seen anything which is meant to come out in the first wave of material, but it should be fine given the nature of the folks who I’m dealing with. Anything that sucks? Hell, I can take the blame for anything which isn’t polished and shiny – as long as there isn’t any throwing of vegetables and fruit, which I don’t approve of. Throw candy my direction instead.

As soon as I get info, I’ll link it here.

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Language,Words & Power

Posted by BigWords on April 3, 2016

There’s a long-held notion among varied peoples that words, specifically names, have a certain power – that by naming a thing you can exert power over the object itself. There’s a short story (Vernor Vinge, if memory serves) which has avatars in a Dungeons & Dragons type environment using words as spells, and NewWho has used the notion in “The Shakespeare Code” to rather spectacular effect. It’s interesting that so many cultures, across vast distances and throughout history, have come to the same ideas in amazingly similar descriptions.

Yet there’s something about that notion, the simple act of naming, which bothers me. For the last eight or nine years I have kept a little Latin grammar book near me. It is a reminder of an era in which these books used to be much more useful. I love the soft leather cover, the neat, orderly columns, the dainty, playful typeface which belies the utility of the text. It isn’t a flash book, or a particularly obvious text, but I love it all the same. Likewise, not three feet away sits a German dictionary from (I think) the fifties. Sturdy and utilitarian, it is everything that the Latin book isn’t – intended to be used for its purpose and no more.

I got my hands on an Italian phrasebook a few years ago which had the beautifully simple notion of illustrating words, and it was most likely the act of placing names to things in other languages which kicked off the trail towards a question which I still haven’t found an easy answer to: Is naming something the act of power, or is it the name? See, names are just a collection of sounds (or letters, which are illustrated depictions of sounds) which assist in everyone understanding that which needs to be communicated.

Lets back up a moment – the words you are reading here use the Roman alphabet, which comes to us through the Romans (no surprise there) who got their letters from the Etruscan people, who took inspiration from a flavor of the Greek alphabet, who got their letters from Phonecian texts. The words which the letters form are in English, which has a history that will make your head explode if you attempt to fully understand all of the various ways in which we got from Chaucer to here. Along the way we picked up arbitrary rules, style guidelines and (eventually) deconstructionist tendencies in *ahem* certain quarters.

Which is to say: the words we use, day to day, aren’t ours. Not on a personal level. We share these words, and combine them; we play with words and see how far we can move them until they break. The World Wide Web isn’t a web, the Internet isn’t a net (and isn’t it rather amusing that both webs and nets catch things?), but we accept these words to describe that which has no physical presence. And as we name these things, we take control over them.

While we share certain words with other languages, and accept translations, we are no closer to true names. Unlike those who posit Latin names as being authentic (no, they are the scientific names), and despite attempts by some at tracing the roots of words back to the earliest forms, I am still not convinced that anything we can use now has the power which supposedly comes from the naming convention.

Which raises the question: what kind of a name would inanimate objects call themselves? For that matter, do animals have names they call each other? Is an arbitrary name imposed externally as valid as a name which something innately possesses?

You can probably tell, by these posts, why it isn’t wise for me to be alone with my own thoughts for a prolonged period of time…

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Considering the Sun

Posted by BigWords on April 2, 2016

It is rather surprising where, precisely, the thought process behind an idea begins. Not just the usual nonsense trotted out every so often when someone asks “where do you get your ideas” (which is superbly pierced by “There’s a P.O. box in Schenectady…”), but instead the dot-to-dot of process. It is most like hitting YouTube to watch Voyage Voyage by Desireless, and somehow – two hours later – you are watching, mouth agape, as someone does parkour with a perilous drop one missed footstep away.

Here’s a challenge: find a jaw-dropping WHAT THE HELL, DUDE video which doesn’t have the standard YouTube comment how the fuck did I get here added beneath it. Go on. I’ll be waiting.

That is pretty much the best way I have of describing my thought process. I start at point A and work through multiple strands until I end up somewhere unexpected and surprising even to myself. Which is how a conversation about something entirely mundane ends up with me dropping an idea which raises more questions than answers: how the hell did I, of all people, come up with a plausible answer to why the surface of the sun is so hot? I mean, c’mon.

The before part, where I was in my thoughts before, is not important. It has been so long that I’m not sure if I’ll ever come up with the steps again, but the idea seems “not dumb” in a way that many other answers… Just don’t. Before we go much further, I’ll explain the idea here.

The material ejected from the sun – the constant push of material off from the surface, in the form of light and matter – is only as effective as the speed it can attain. Whatever is not fast enough to escape the mass of the sun, what is trapped by gravity, can’t fall “back to the surface” because there is no surface. Gas, remember. So there’s this chaff, whatever waste that is being pushed on from below, and is being heated, while not attaining the necessary speed to be blown off into space.

I’ll admit that I haven’t probed that notion at all, mostly for fear of finding a flaw, but as an easy answer to the problem I am incredibly pleased with myself. Does it work? I am not entirely sure I want to be dissuaded from the answer, as it is awesomely simple. The sun is crusty. There was a couple of weeks that I actually considered writing it up with diagrams and in a far more technical language, but I don’t want to spend the next decade getting into serious science.

Despite the story which that was going to appear in being… less than stellar (hey, a joke) it stands as a neat reminder that when I put my mind to something I can come up with surprising answers. Even if they are half-baked (two jokes for the price of one, kids) and not necessarily correct.

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The Black Terror: Roundup 1

Posted by BigWords on May 24, 2013

So, you may be wondering – if this all fell together so easily, why am I not doing anything with the character? Well, because others are still working with The Black Terror. They may not be using the character to his full potential, and – in all likelihood – there will never be a proper exploitation of all the things that make him so interesting, but that doesn’t matter. I can’t play with the character while there are stories published elsewhere. One of the main elements that makes me excited about a property is being out there on the sidelines of what people are doing, taking characters in new directions and ignoring the (often insipid) popular movements. Maybe there’s room for a comic-book title featuring the character which is less mainstream, but as long as he is appearing elsewhere I won’t be involved in the character.

This example isn’t a particularly unique insight into how I patchwork a grand story together from thin material, and I could have done an equally in-depth piece on The Lady In Red, or even Robin Hood (if anyone is using the character, please get the historic “great forest” feeling in there somewhere), but it shows how a great story can be told about even minor characters. When I have expressed dissatisfaction with the stories which I have been reading, it is mainly because people aren’t being either as bold or as intuitive in their extrapolation of characters as they should be. I want the wild and intelligent elements to come to the forefront, and be played with – I need more intelligent material to pore over than many people are willing to write. It is neither difficult nor time consuming.

There’s a lot of stuff I won’t touch. I dislike the thought of writing something just because it is popular at the moment. I could do a helluva vampire novel, but what’s the point? There’s already too many mediocre attempts at Twilight-lite fiction, and by adding to the considerable number of titles muddying the genre I would merely be committing the same literary necrophilia as those who I am irritated by. Playing follow-the-leader is fine for children, but for authors it is a sign of desperation and lack of strength. Standing clear of the traffic already clogging up genres is the only way for people to grow as writers, and avoiding any confusion is paramount to establishing that most important of credentials – originality. I know people are gonna be headdesking at that word, as there is nothing truly original left, but having a degree of originality in the writing is different to plot.

I scratched the notion of doing something with Black Terror rather quickly, so I never got to the point where I had a page-by-page breakdown, and had I managed to quell the feeling that I was stepping on the work being done with the character elsewhere I would have created a tighter focus on the conspiracy drawing him to The Spider (or his niece, as she will have that name by the 1940s). The problems inherent in bringing any character back from the public domain are that they aren’t controllable – others have the ability to go ahead and use the characters in any way they see fit, and there is no right or wrong in their use. There might be entirely uninteresting uses, but those aren’t “wrong” per se. Just not to my taste.

There’s a lot of characters which I have a passing interest in the future of. Most of them are in the public domain, and freely available for use, though it is a hard sell convincing myself to tackle them when there are others utilizing them. One of the most neglected Golden Age areas is the Egyptian characters. This bleeds into the pulps as well, infusing the magnificent discoveries with a sense of wonder, mystery and horror. The use of Egyptian heroes (Ibis and Kalkor in comics, right through to low-budget films) have always felt as if they were slightly underdeveloped. I’ll go so far as to make note that modern comics don’t have a grasp on just how much there is still to be done. Hawkman, long an Egyptian-tinged hero, never felt as if he was truly connected to anything approaching reality.

For anyone writing characters tied to Egypt of the 40s, reading Montet’s 1958 record of his expedition is pretty much essential background research. And as for the lighter depictions of WWII – really, are people sitting down with a DVD of Saving Private Ryan and claiming to have done the necessary historical research? Yes, I may be overstating just how irritated I am with much of the comics on the market right now, and there are good things appearing, but there seems to be too many light and breezy versions of history which are presented as having some validity when they merely reprise what has gone before. Like anything else, this results in lowered fidelity with each removal from the source material.

Although it should be obvious, I have no intention of writing for DC or Marvel. I know most people would be desperate to get their hands on those characters, but the quality of the writing – overall – has been rather low from what I have read, and I would feel bad if people following the adventures of a character were subjected to one of the intermittent crossovers through anything I did. There hasn’t been a worthwhile one since the original Crisis back in the 80s, with each money-grabbing, poorly plotted mess becoming more and more irrelevant to the mainstream. Mainstream readers don’t care about superheroes, and they care even less for stories built on the continuity snarls of superheroes.

For a while now I have been concentrating on developing and building up material for my own titles, but… Yeah. This hasn’t been a good couple of years. There will be a proper something appearing at some point which will go some way to answering what has been happening with that material, but it is a ways off just yet. And it won’t be the kind of things that you can go get anywhere else.

Having laid all that out, I think I have covered everything I set out to do. Time to leave this via a nice, relaxing piece of music…

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The Black Terror, Part Three

Posted by BigWords on May 23, 2013

Back to the Skull & Crossbones… Man, that is so full of potential. And it opens in to a lot of things that can add depth to the character. It was while sketching out a basic timeline that I realized that I could strengthen the ties back and forth between the stitched together elements. Going back to the Herbert West story, and the explosion that aborts the experiments on Major Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee, D.S.O., I had another feverish moment of canon-welding. There’s a funky character called Phantom Raider Of The Sky whose visuals and history fit the tone and mood which I was going for. And it fitted with the general theme of the characters being bound by events from the past, unable to escape the consequences of actions taken by others.

By incorporating other characters using the logo, I was able to form a timeline – John Perry of the Daily Clarion running a series of stories which seem to be using the Terror image, but it is Black Fury; a Japanese assassin of The Black Dragon Society trying to dirty Benton’s name; the actor Perry Knight appearing in a play in town… With the increasing appearance of the skull and crossbones surrounding Benton, it was also a way to increase his discomfort about having a secret identity, and the thought that someone might have discovered his role as Black Terror could be used to rack up the tension. It also led to a way to get other old properties tied into the continuity. Of course, having the plot set up through happy coincidences and conspiracy theories wasn’t enough. The basic reality of the character outside the fantasy has to be right for verisimilitude.

There are a few essential posts for anyone writing chemists working in a drugstore in the forties. There are not one, not two, but three posts which Sarah Sundin has written that are essential to capturing the atmosphere of the era. It was reading those posts that I realized I needed to show Benton in the white outfit (and that hat) which held so great an era-appropriate tinge. Nobody has really caught the forties flavor of the character, and it is stuff like the uniform which helps. Small details. I was reading books on vintage automobiles for something else a few years back, though I don’t have those to hand. Irrespective, there are places to get a feeling about the cars in play at the opening of WWII

One of the things which attracted me to the character was the political edge about the character. One of the foes was Alderman Peters, lining his pocket and providing shoddy constructions, then there was the fact that his girlfriend worked for the mayor – it was a milieu almost built for a heady mix of corruption and political shenanigans. There isn’t another character from the forties so readily adaptable into a clever, in-depth examination of the ways that the war impacted on life. Even the throwaway element of his professor turning to crime for funds due to his research being appropriated for the war effort was strong enough to drag in some other character moments. It had the potential to be the forties version of The Wire if handled correctly.

When I talk about being able to see the connections which exist under the surface of a story, it is all this stuff I am talking about. It isn’t difficult to whip up something so complex and intelligent in a couple of days. I mentioned that there was a need for something more personal in the character – the original comics present a remarkably solitary figure despite friends – and it was in family that the character would face his greatest fears. He needed a brother. There’s a film which has slipped into the public domain that felt like the work of a divine hand, a narrative that tied itself into the character so well that there was little choice other than to accept Charles Benton as Robert’s erstwhile brother.

And the serum in that film is soooo right.

So, with all the pieces of the puzzle falling into place remarkably easy, it was time to address those guns. I am not adverse to characters wielding firearms, and in stories which take place in a pulpy, film noir world, there needs to be at least one scene where a character empties a revolver. But all the time? It gets too similar and tired, and there isn’t a link to the character’s other moments – with being a chemist, I had the notion that there might be more to the use of knockout gas or something… Small vials of milky liquid thrown at enemies rather than gunplay also fits with the attention paid to pugilistic tradition. This, in turn, keeps the character fresh and interesting when paired with characters who are more closely associated with carrying firearms.

Oh, and because he’s into boxing, it opens the door for Costigan to make an appearance at some point.

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The Black Terror, Part Two

Posted by BigWords on May 22, 2013

I am not, never have been, and probably never will be a full-blown conspiracy theorist, but I know people who are. It is handy to know such people, as having complex, and contradictory, plots by secret organizations explained is something I never tire of. Honestly, that shit is hilarious. It is all the fault of the Masons, the Bilderbergers and… IDK. Disney. Whatever. But the thought that there could be some agency behind certain events made me think of cool and interesting ways to weave an air of uncertainty through things. Hence the requirement that the ideology of the conspiracy peeps bleed into everything from an early point and get more pronounced as Robert Benton is dragged into the middle of the whole mess. The CIA would not come into existence until 1947, so I started thinking.

The organization started as the OSS in WWII (concurrent with the timeline of the Black Terror), and as I needed a face for the OSS I settled on The Spider’s niece, Silvia Rodney. She linked the voracious information-gathering and the complex manipulation elements together, and I decided to recast her and (post mortem) her uncle as members of an offshoot of a secret society. The skull and crossbones emblem, having a degree of relevance to this, meant I could pepper the number 322 and 42 in various permutations throughout the story. In the use of the chest emblem, even though there was the existing chemistry relevance, the added symbolism that the new threads brought meant I could explore some of that yummy Lovecraftian goodness with good reason.

Having this secret organization funneling research into superpowers, reanimation and other psuedoscientific things seemed highly amusing. And, in my mind anyways, Herbert was somehow still alive after encountering his misbegotten creations – possibly yelling “Nades, Suradis, Maniner” before the undead figures could dismember him. Regardless, the thoughts were flowing about the potion, the heroic persona, and the boxing connections. The most important element of all being the potion, which had felt too contrived and simplistic for a character who was quickly becoming more than a mere superhero in my mind. Transformation sequences in comics, film and literature are ten-a-penny, and normally don’t interest me as much as the question of identity and… well, stories which can be done.

Lets just step back for a moment and look at transformations.

There have been a bazillion transformation sequences in television, on film and in comics – ranging from the fetishistic Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and Transformers sequences which lavish attention on shiny, shiny weapons and vehicles, through to… Well, the obvious character. There’s a reason I chose that video to highlight the problems of making a worthwhile transformation sequence. There are any number of examples to choose from, but in looking at The Black Terror’s appearance, there needed to be something extra. There are all kinds of reference material available about the effects of certain compounds on the human body, though this is one area where anything is permitted. Outside the remit of reality, and open to any interpretation, it is the most truly free elements the character permits.

The classic transformation sequence in fiction is rather… bland. Just take a look at the recent Captain America film to see my problems with the traditional form – it is too clean and simple. I like the idea of something more dramatic. I had a two page sequence planned, with thirty panels depicting the veins standing up in Benton’s neck, face reddening, a mad grimace twisting his features. His forearms pulling up in decorticate response as foam comes from his mouth, then twisting his head to one side, jaw clenched, before slumping to the ground. It is here that the big departure from the established continuity was required – I wanted to make Timothy Roland older, maybe in his early twenties. And that let me use the line “No doctors. And don’t tell anyone about the compound. If anyone asks, then… tell them it was formic acid or something.” A nice nod to the original comics, while keeping the horror elements.

Having laid out most of the main elements, there was one lingering problem that kept coming back to me. I hate masks. They are all too easy, and muddy the boundary between the adventure heroes and more stereotypical superheroes. I dislike superheroes, and the inclusion of the mask bothered me. Having established that Benton is a master chemist with access to potentially game-changing compounds, it made sense to make another leap for the sake of drama. There’s an exciting difference between a mask and a “visage of terror” (a line used repeatedly in Weird Tales). The use of chemicals to transform his face into an ashen, horrible image of pure terror – completely unlike his normal face – while in costume was the hook I needed to get into the story.

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