The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Posts Tagged ‘ideas’

Books – Something – Profit!

Posted by BigWords on April 11, 2016

An obvious question people are likely asking:

How do you know that what you are doing is different to everyone else?

Which is extremely easy – and yet tiresome – to answer. There’s thousands of indie publishers when you take into account the self-published and the niche publishers, but none (so far) have been set up in a way which embraces the promotion of books irrespective of the publisher. The main goal of That Which Will Be is to celebrate the rich diversity of books currently available.

The ways a person can promote a book on their own is going to be limited by a number of factors:

  • A knowledge of blogs/websites which review books.
  • Ability to present ideas in concise and clear text.
  • Ability to parse the subtleties of a forum or chat-room.
  • Access to websites which require paid access.
  • Access to websites which restrict membership.
  • Ability to network outside key areas of interest.

There are a bunch of other things which come into play, especially when you take into account foreign languages, paywalls, regular internet access, health, income and so on. As a catch-all for the big problems, we can see straight-off that some of the problems which restrict the dissemination of information about a title might be self-inflicted (however involuntarily), so by acting as a promoter I can try and get eyes on titles without authors pissing off people who don’t want to be given the hard-sell.

I’ll admit that there’s a lot of work involved in this aspect of things, and it is early days as far as the requirements go. I have small chunks of the overall layout and reach calculated, along with an estimate of how much work it is going to take. It turns out, amazingly, that the numbers aren’t so bad. In fact, it makes more sense to heavily promote my “competition” than it does attempting to maintain an increasingly irrelevant isolationist ideology.

That’s one aspect that I have been providing people with when asked about why they should join in this little adventure. What I haven’t explained is the extent of the advertising. See, there is only so much that a single website or blog can do, and that – in a nutshell – is the notion which is going to shake things up. This isn’t just a business plan, but a philosophy which is for the benefit of writers, readers and small publishers.

But… It isn’t entirely about that.

Whenever there’s a new idea, it needs time to settle in to a form – the standardized  version which has been tested and stressed, which has had the rough edges sanded off for a better user experience. I have a fairly solid grasp on how to roll out the wider application of the concept, and ways to prevent the blatant abuse of same. As I have pointed out – plenty of time to figure things out and examine the repercussions.

There is one thing which has remained constant. Throughout the process of putting writers, designers, programmers, musicians, and other talented people together, there has been a focus on shared benefits. See, it never made sense to my why people disliked the notion of having books adapted into games (Dune, especially, comes in for a degree of criticism in certain circles), or having albums written about characters, or other possibly interesting avenues.

Part of the reason I am offline is this – because the idea will draw out the freakshow crowd who are going to attack everything, and because I don’t want to draw the same freakshows to any of the places I hang out. There is enough to deal with at the moment without having to sort through all the additional crap which can be so easily avoided simply by refusing to make myself a target.

And there’s an addendum to the notion of everyone grouping together. See, I’m drip-feeding you the information for a reason… Should I go all-out and fill in details, the folks who see change – any change – as a threat, and who go out of their way to maintain a status quo… Those people are gonna go batshit. The implications have probably already hit them. As these words sink in, the realization of what I am promoting is likely forming in the brains of everyone else.

The sliding scale.
I want you to consider it.

How many indie titles are out there? Each blog and website deep into promoting works which profit them. Think about the individual push each title gets, and imagine if – even for a moment – the collective might of the self-publishing community working together on a single title… Everyone throwing their weight behind a title in the knowledge that their turn will come and the internet will fill with ads for their novels.

I told you my ideas were scary.

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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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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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A Pause For Breath

Posted by BigWords on May 20, 2013

My brain does not work the same way as yours. Let me get that out of the way straight off.

When I read things, my brain is accessing a small network of related material, cross-referencing and indexing away thoughts. There are no stories which exist in isolation, and while it may appear that things are held apart from other properties by limitations, I can see past those constraints and apply a reading that is rather different from popular opinion. As I have been discussing comics, I’ll start there. Continuity, in varying degrees, is a perennial hot topic for readers and writers alike. Most publishers of comics these days have a sense of continuity – both direct and indirect references, jokes, plots arising from continuity…

I’m breaking ranks in a big way here, but I gotta say that continuity, by and large, is something that is more interesting when ignored completely.

There’s a lot more I could say about Flashpoint, or Civil War, or any of the recent – and tiresome – crossovers. You probably don’t need my assistance in seeing how pitiful the attention-grabbing storylines spanning multiple series have become, destroying the flow of individual titles and cramming in all kinds of idiocy. It started well, with the original Crisis, but they have become unwieldy, cumbersome and annoying. It is one of the reasons that I try to avoid superhero comics in favor of… Well, anything and everything that doesn’t have a surfeit of capes and splash panels. Go read everything Eddie Campbell has done. And Bryan Talbot. Hell, for that matter go read Harvey Pekar’s stuff. Genius. And no bloody tie-ins with ludicrous hyperbole.

I don’t need publishers adding details to things when I am more than capable of filling in the blanks myself. My concept of characters varies wildly from the official depictions anyway, so reading the adventures of a character (specifically superheroes, but other types can be included here) I am most likely mentally ticking off all the things wrong with the script. There are degrees of severity to the “mistakes”, though I get most annoyed at simple real-world references that are wildly off the mark. For example, police characters in many comics seem to have been written with Saturday morning cartoons as the main reference point in their construction. Likewise, archaeologists are largely depicted in the same manner as Indiana Jones. That is, with no real attempt at believability.

If you have read this blog before, then you will know that I am a) hesitant to play with other people’s toys, and b) love the public domain. This is not, as it may seem, a contradiction.

Writing characters which are identified with specific companies, or form the output of a specific creator (such as Mr. Monster now being more identified through Michael T. Gilbert than the Golden Age character), seems – to me, anyways – to be rather pointless. It is the reason that I find it incredibly difficult to even think of writing Batman or Spider-Man, for example. When others say that they have a great idea for a story featuring a character from the Big Two, I tend to try not to say anything. Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to write for such companies, I just can’t see the attraction of tackling any of the long-runners. They have been around for so long that anything I could add to the narrative has probably already been done. It is time to move past tired and overused characters.

But the public domain? Gods, how I adore the public domain.

Look, you may not realize it, but you probably already own a fairly decent PD collection. You have the complete works of Shakespeare, right? Those plays are in the public domain. And everything Chaucer wrote. But it isn’t all old stuff, which may have difficulty attracting a younger audience, as you can see from my previous post about all the good things that you can legally download, upload, torrent and remix to your heart’s content. Go wild. In fact, I strongly urge you to keep uploading, downloading, torrenting, and remixing that stuff, as the continued exploitation of things which are freely yours to do with as you will keeps them from being taken back by unscrupulous companies. And yes, companies are trying to steal back things from the public domain.

I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t start lashing out at those assholes until I was 100% confident of my ability to be online and tackle them. I’m steering clear of the specifics, but you shouldn’t have too much trouble figuring out those to whom I am referring.

And I think I may have talked myself into writing an ethics post at some point. Add that to the To Do list.

With the Flashpoint read-through and this preamble, I have sufficiently prepared you for what is gonna come next. It is something I seriously considered for all of a week at the end of 2012 before scrubbing my brain and coming to my senses. Before I get into the swing of things, and may get rather involved in the details, I want to make one thing very, very clear – this is not a “look at how clever I am” thing. This isn’t about who is smarter, this is all about the very minimum authors should be doing. This is about how things should be. I want people to consider the titles on sale right now, and how much better they could be had a little more work been done. I’m not singling out people who aren’t living up to their abilities in the posts.

I have made comment about my war on mediocrity, and this is, partially, the outcome.

And thus we are ready for the main event.

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The Building Blocks Of Story – Finding The Ideas

Posted by BigWords on March 24, 2011

“Where do ideas come from?” is a question I seem to come across more than any other, and as the point has been raised again, I feel I ought to chip in with some of the things which trigger my synapses into action. The first thing you ought to know, because these disclaimers are important, is that I very rarely see anything another writer has done and think “man, that is an awesome idea… I wonder what I can do with it.” Ideas don’t just drop into my lap fully formed, no matter how rounded a first draft may appear to be – though given my recent outpourings, this may be all too believable for some. No, ideas come together slowly. They are, to use a clumsy and rather ill-fitting metaphor, like jigsaw puzzles which have no complete image to work from, nor any pieces which fit together at first. Stories, which are built off ideas in the same way that houses are built from bricks, tend to need a lot of work to get them into the right shape, so this post really isn’t about writing stories as much as it is about the ideas underpinning those stories.

Any story, whether it be a short story or a novel, has a triangle of requirements necessary to the propulsion of events – think of this in the same way as fire needs oxygen, heat and fuel. First comes characters: Without characters to inhabit the landscape of imagination, story becomes much more difficult to create (not impossible, but a lot harder), so I pull ideas for characters from all over the place. I don’t like uprooting existing characters from one story to serve another, so they tend to arise from “What if” questions, usually asked of real individuals. Amongst the people I have based characters on are Harry Price, R. Chetwynd-Hayes, Valentine Dyall, Margaret Rutherford, Sidney James and Richard O’Brien. They share the common feature of not being overly “pretty” individuals (the ‘Hollywood standard’ bores me no end), and they all have, or had, strong identities which come through in the characters I loosely based off of them.

There are a lot of writers who seek a strong voice for their characters, and I have said (numerous times) that using individuals as templates for fictional characters is not a bad thing. As long as people have been writing, real individuals have served as inspiration. This is not “lazy”, or “cheating”, or any of the other negatives associated with appropriating the strong voice and presence of a person who could benefit the work. When I go through a work to refine the dialogue of a character, I often have a strong impression of how they sound and act, and using the impression (not a parody) of a real person is a great boon to the editing process.

With characters sorted, the second requirement I need to get into a story is place. Location is more difficult, as it assumes the story has form already, when, in fact, very often stories come to me as impressions rather than solid, linear stories. Scenes, adrift of context, need to be put in some form of context as I am working, and there is often the need for more work to be done on location than any other piece of the puzzle. A few of the longer works are, by necessity, already tied to a specific location, but sometimes I like to take locations and work in stories simply so that I can play with the history of a place. This, especially as I am throwing around the building blocks I use to craft my writing, deserves a bit more of an explanation than the characters – who seem to show up, demanding that I find them somewhere to carry out their activities.

I really like Poveglia Island, because… well, for no other reason than it makes for a great story in and of itself. There’s a nice piece of travelogue writing concerning the island, though other versions of the history of the island tend to attract my attention more. It’s as if someone deliberately went out of their way to find the most haunted place on Earth to build an insane asylum, then set loose a mad doctor to do experiments which wouldn’t be out of place in House on Haunted Hill. It is, unfortunately, uninhabited, so tales told of the island require a special kind of crafting to get around the annoying factual element regarding its’ current status.

The third part of the idea triangle is not, as you may have thought, the inciting incident. The motivation for the story may be important, but it lies in a more complex part of the formula than character and location – the third side of my idea triangle is The Item. It doesn’t have to be something which is ‘in play’ during the story – it can be a virus released before the start of the story, or an artifact which draws the characters to it, or it might be something as simple as a shared experience which is elaborated upon. The nebulous nature of the third part is akin to the ‘oxygen’ part of the fire triangle – it is something which needs to be there, but may not be as tangible as the other parts of the equation.

Once ideas for characters, locations and the MacGuffin have been thrown together – often wildly, and with little assurance of sense, things have a habit of coalescing into story. From here on, things tend to get more complex than is easy to describe.

Posted in Over The Line, writing | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Some More Thoughts On Books

Posted by BigWords on January 14, 2011

I’ve touched on this before, but the subject of book design – and everything that a person can do to ensure the best product possible – refuses to go away. People keep coming up with new ideas, recycling old ones, and borrowing others from monthly publications, The nature of publishing is not too far from the attention starved kid in the back of the classroom desperate to have some validation of their existence, constantly pulling pranks and cracking jokes so notice will be paid of him (for it is nearly always a male), and this has been so for decades. The attempts to induce casual purchasers of titles to pick up a book has resulted in some very gauche gimmicks – from the hologram cover (notably used on Wes Craven’s Fountain Society, though better known as an aspect of the Dork Age of comics) to jewel-covered titles. Yes, it seems that there are people with too much money on their hands. The various attempts at attracting buyers has not been entirely successful over the years, and a handful of truly unattractive books have managed to make it to the shelves – none of which I will name here, in an attempt at retaining some degree of impartiality here.

A recent conversation turned my mind back to a notion which, initially, seemed as if it was a throwaway remark intended to get people thinking on the ways that the future was rapidly becoming the present. Adding digital content to hard copies isn’t a new concept, with CDs having been included with books since the nineties (there are a few great examples, a lot of fine uses, and a couple of pointless additions to the main text), but there hasn’t been a game-changing example in a while. One of the main problems with adding things to a book has been the manner in which the items were grafted to the basic design of a book. The cardboard CD sleeve design on inside covers is annoying (and nearly always a source of annoyance and interminable frustration in retrieving the disc), while the small foam stub has issues regarding the replacement of the CD or DVD-Rom. This is an important piece of the complete book if it is deemed worthy of inclusion, but too little attention is payed to the way in which it all hangs together. I’m more interested in a means of adding digital content which removes the need for such contrivances, and which steps neatly around new problems.

I can’t find the precise link to where I previously covered this, but I pointed out that hardback editions of popular titles were the best place to test-drive the fusion of the traditional and the digital. If you look at the spine of a big hardback title, you’ll notice that there is a gap between the binding and the actual spine of the book. By extending the edge of the book slightly there will be enough room to slip in a memory stick, and as memory sticks now have more than enough room in their memory, the concept of having the full text in a number of formats is not out of the question. This goes back to extended treatise on e-books I did as well, and I still insist there are much better e-book formats forthcoming.

Before anyone gets the idea that I’m somehow slighting e-books by referring to them in the same post as I go over “gimmicks” then I assure you that I am not maligning them. Far from it. Having stated before that eBooks are something which will slowly emerge as a full media separate from traditional publishing, there’s no need for me to further elaborate on their status. The current technology behind them is baby steps. That’s all getting me further away from the central idea I’m pondering, and the ways in which books can take advantage of their design.

When I started thinking about the gimmick-covers I immediately thought of books which tied in their content to the design of the cover. There are a few examples of DVD cases acting as showcases for the skills of the design team which prove that the packaging is sometimes more impressive than the contents – one of the Saw films (IV or V) has a circular saw mechanism in a little window on the box, which (after some words from John Kramer) starts churning away at flesh unseen… he clear plastic being already rendered to appear as if blood is spurting across the inside of the packaging. Yes, it’s a lame gimmick for a second-rate film, but it managed to attract my attention for a few moments. Had this been used on a film which I considered less childish in its’ theme, I may have actually bought the box instead of the regular packaging. Synthesis between cover and content is key, and with no thematic link, and cover effect is worthless.

Books, then. I like the idea of having something unique (or which at least attempts the illusion of individuality), so having something crafted on the cover is appealing. I was looking at samplers, and the conceit of having an actual sampler on the cover of a book about samplers hit me. It’s a neat idea, but my fledgling steps towards the art form have been less than successful, despite spending an ungodly amount of time coming up with a design which I thought was really funny – a zombie theme, naturally. Gauging how long I have spent unpicking the damn thing and attempting to make it look even halfway like something I would have hanging around a living space – never mind showing in public – means that the production of such things aren’t entirely without problems. Maybe having one on a cover isn’t the best idea I have ever come up with, as the production process would require an extended period of trial and error in the design stage.

The size of a book, in instances where adding things to the cover is concerned, really does matter. Would I buy a book which reproduced album covers at full size? Probably not, unless the reverse of each image had a substantial degree of contextual information. Would I buy it if it had an actual LP glued to the cover? Yeah. I really would. it’s a gimmick as much as anything else, but it appeals to my sense of the surreal, and has an unusual element. Unusual is good, because it immediately engages the reader in questions. There was a lot of talk about the first video advert in a magazine, and soon – when the kinks in the technology have been worked out – I can imagine a video cover on a book. Before the cries of “heresy” and “blasphemer” erupt, I am not claiming that such a move would be a step forward, nor a great advance in literary wealth, but it might shift a few more copies of a book which would otherwise not shift as many copies. Sales are damn important to both an author’s reputation and a book’s long-term status, so the first person to have such a cover would need to make sure that the title on which it is first implemented be damn good.

The proof of gimmick covers is not just in the world of comics (where the otherwise predictable and cliche-laden X-Men #1 sold a million or so copies), but also in the way that DVDs with multiple covers has become the norm. We are living in an age when the attention span of the consumer has to be taken into account, and any publicity which can be generated by something so seemingly simple as cover ornamentation must be looked into as an enhancement as much as it is a declaration of content. Content may be king, but the cover is the queen – that which people pay attention to, and which commands attention. I’ll refrain from the “just like a woman” comment, as I’ll only end up getting grief for that…

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How To… Or Not: Writing Guides Which Promise Too Much

Posted by BigWords on December 18, 2010

This post, as you will probably see soon enough, wasn’t the easiest post to write. There are times when ideas and words come together to make a thought concrete, then there are times when the idea refuses to be ignored, yet the words to describe what is happening in my head refuse to cooperate. This is a case of the latter. I started writing this a couple of days ago, and it still feels as if there are places I could have been clearer. Don’t worry, because that is what the comment box is for. If there are any contradictory, nonsensical, or overly-wordy parts which are confusing, then feel free to call me out on it. The things in this post are long-standing bug-bears which have slowly been revealing themselves to me, but I’m not all the way there yet…

There are a lot of How To books out there – in fact, it seems that there is a new one being released every few months – and despite the fact that so many writers pick up these titles I still retain my reservations about their worth. This is something I’ve come back to occasionally, and I have finally worked out a couple of underlying reasons for my feelings about them. I’ve got nothing against them being perused as an accompanying tool alongside websites, forums and other writing tools available on the internet (often at no cost), but to focus on them as an essential part of the writing accouterments necessary to produce a viable novel is flawed. The best of the How To books, and there are good examples, provide no examples of the finished state of a piece of writing.

It may seem counter-productive to say that there are inherent problems with books which are intended to make the act of writing easier, but the fact that so many of these guides offers what amounts to a game walkthrough for novels can harm a unique voice. The standard list of requirements seen in many – opening, escalation, character development, et cetera – is fairly standard, but there are some titles which demand that there be elements added which (depending on genre, the age range of readers, the tone of the novel) might confuse an already dense plot to the point where the original intention of the author becomes muddied. It’s where the first thought towards an explanation of my reticence became apparent:

How many novels adhere to suggestions made in a ‘How To…’ book?

You may think I am being facetious here, but it is a question which may not come to you if you are focused on improving your novel. If you take a handful of books off your shelf and subject them to the recommendations made in the How To book, then would you find that the books (however well received) fail to make the grade as interesting subjects / concise plots / riveting entertainment – according to the book at hand, of course… I tried to square away a few novels against the advice found in three How To books, and quickly realized that – according to the authors of the How To books – there were probably severe deficiencies in those novels.

I actually thought of the second point whilst pondering the separation between theory and practice, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Staying with the thought that there is a certain amount of ‘wiggle room’ in the recommendations, I pondered ways to make the task of extrapolating a generalized (or abstract) statement more specific to help in the writing of a scene. The best idea I could come up with – aside from an understanding and patient Beta – was to look at books which share common themes with the one being written. This presents a few problems, as there are writers who dislike reading in their genre while in the midst of writing their own material.

Yet there is a way to pinpoint possible areas of weakness through the study of contemporary literature outside of the How To book… For those of you who are well aware of my snarky attitude towards Star Trek in particular, and televised and filmic science fiction in general, then the knowledge that I hold David Gerrold in very high regard should be no surprise. His non-fiction title The World According To Star Trek ranks among the very best of published criticism – not only deconstructing the themes of the series, but explaining (in clear, precise terms) why each thing must be a certain way. I use that title whenever I think of a science fiction idea – weighing the concepts I conjure against the logic Gerrold demands of SF.

Yes, there are other books which do much the same thing, but I like that particular reference book. When I have moments of inspiration which points towards the horror genre, I tend to flick open Stephen King’s Danse Macabre – another book about genre and writing which emphatically isn’t a simple How To book. A similar urge to define the rise of YA drove me to seek out books on the Harry Potter phenomenon. While my non-fiction tastes have largely determined the books I have picked up in this vein, I have attempted to read as widely as I can in the study of preexisting books, and this has greatly assisted in asking specific (rather than abstract) questions about my work. It is a halfway solution to the problems of How To books, but one which I feel much more comfortable with than standard texts on novel construction.

The second point, which I mentioned in passing, is one of comparison. Writing a novel is not the same as baking a cake. Though both require a set of ingredients, you can’t mix and match ingredients from one recipe to another in the blind hope of coming up with an entirely new form of culinary excellence. Writing, unlike bakery, is filled with such things. The experimental fiction of the past twenty years alone has introduced new quirks into the repertoire of established and aspiring novelists, and daring releases will only become more common as further self-published titles break through to a wider audience. This is where specific information, rather than generalities, can be utilized to assist a story through the difficult birthing pangs.

The second point is thus:

Writing a How To… book is similar, in may regards, to cold-reading.

For those of you who have yet to experience a live seance, there are a set of probing questions which, if asked in a particular manner and with enough conviction, can simultaneously get participants to divulge information about the deceased and make it appear as if there is communication with the dead occurring. I dislike cold-reading. You may think that this is a perfect manner in which to learn more about your novel, but (just like those phony seances) you will simply be regurgitating information with the illusion of something greater happening before you. There are few real ways that repetition assists in learning – similarly, one of my arguments against introducing greater digital research exposure in schools is the fear that rote recital could replace understanding of subjects.

There is a third reason why How To books raise my suspicions, and it is the one I have returned to time and time again… The points made from one book to another vary so widely that any reasonable and logical comparison of details from one guide to another is impossible. The notion that the suggestions from general titles are universal to all novels, or that genre-specific guides can steer a genre novel to completion with minimal stress, is one I find wanting. With guides to preexisting novels, the themes and plot points can be compared directly and analyzed at leisure – separate from the originating work, appeasing those who do not wish to be influenced directly or indirectly by the writing of another. Yet again, I have to point out that intelligence and discretion be used in such a process.

I come back to the cold-reading comparison with this thought – if you throw enough questions at someone, then there will undoubtedly be questions which register as a “hit.” These instances where the questions seem to directly address you should be weighed against the questions which fall far from the mark.

This post has, through re-writing, ran on longer than I intended. I might return to the subject if there are enough points remaining to be considered, though for the moment this post can stand as something of a final word regarding How To books, and the way in which they should be treated as a supplement to other writing resources.

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Big Ideas…

Posted by BigWords on August 29, 2010

As I’m currently without internet connection, I can’t help think more about the technology we take for granted rather than less. The entire concept of “back to nature” is completely alien to me, so forcibly being made to exist without everyday necessities is beyond contemplation – a fact which is made evident by my continued (and nevertheless futile) attempts to reestablish some sort of stable internet connection here. So, given the way that my mind works, I’m currently obsessing over technology. All of it. I started out a ways back with all my concerns about how little progress had been made with e-books – a situation which, sadly, remains true – and it seems right that I cast my net a little wider to show you how little has been improved with all the myriad ways we have to augment the world around us. The time to start asking hard questions about our state of technology is long overdue.

The future has not, as some claim, arrived. We have barely started using things to their greatest ability, yet a few people remain convinced that we have made the faltering steps on the way to a world envisioned by Star Trek. While it is true that personal computers, data storage devices, personal computers and mobile ‘phones have managed to improve wildly generation upon generation, we are laughably far from the world we should be living in. Take, for example, the number of people who go missing each year. How expensive would it be to use something not unlike the chips routinely placed in pets on people. We would be able to locate anyone with GPS, saving countless lives each year – and not merely those foolhardy enough to scale mountains or traverse deserts. Missing people would become a thing of history.

I expect that the civil liberties zealots will probably be shaking with anger over the suggestion that we start tagging people haphazardly with this technology. Breaching human rights isn’t what I’m suggesting at all, being merely a suggestion for an opt-in procedure. They, of course, would point out that every new technology is evil until proven otherwise – the DNA database (one of the blessed few intelligent decisions implemented by police forces) is a perfect example of this. The anti-technology crowd would rather have criminals walking the streets. I say we all start asking for chips embedded in our bodies so that if we ever have need of them, they are there. Like the Boy Scouts are fond of saying, “Be prepared.” When the naysayers go missing we can look for them the old fashioned way – and we all know how effective that is. I’ll be first in the queue when the procedure is offered.

That is barely scratching the surface of what we could be doing. Taking transport as the easiest target for technological improvement, it is easy to see where people are slacking off in the big ideas department It is offensive to consumers when terms such as “intelligent vehicles” are thrown around by manufacturers who are under the delusion that surface gloss will hide the deficiencies of their product. The main problem when discussing cars is fuel. I’m going to go out on a limb and declare all petrolium-based engines obsolete. It is a messy, inefficient, wasteful and ridiculously expensive waste of resources when hydrogen-powered vehicles are ready to roll out of factories. It becomes farcical when the manufacturers insist that their engines have improved. No, they haven’t. The combustion engine we see in the current generation of cars is still based on designs over a hundred years old, so any improvements are merely tweaks. Not impressive when looked at that way.

A shift to hydrogen offers a limitless supply of fuel (something many people claim to be looking for, though the odds of them finding it in a more glitzy form soon is doubtful), which would also ease political pressures for some countries. While I’m thinking about cars specifically, I may as well add that HUD’s really ought to be mandatory rather than an add-on, as taking your eyes off the wheel for any reason is a bad idea (yes, kids, I really am suggesting you never look at your speedometer ever again). I’ve never understood the appeal of all the gauges embedded into the dashboard of new cars – it suggests a lack of confidence in the software used on the part of the manufacturers, and a stubborn sentimentality for antiquated solutions on the part of the consumers. The safety aspect of HUD implementation is only a minor change, but one which would convince me people are thinking about design rather than regurgitating old ideas.

Seeing as how I’ve started on vehicles, I may as well see this through before moving on to other targets. There’s a lot of things wrong with the way people use cars, especially older and slightly less advanced ones – I refuse to describe any modern, road-legal, straight-from-the-factory car as advanced. The biggest problem arises when people who are not educated in simple math decide to drive very fast right behind another car, raising the probability of a crash to one hundred percent if the vehicle in front has to brake for any reason. That’s one of the things that can be solved by technology if we took three seconds to think about the problem. It is clear that no-one has bothered to take those three seconds to think about the issue though, and I’m calling car manufacturers out on the issue. It isn’t as if we would even have to come up with any new devices to deal with this sort of thing, as the basic components are already used in many automobiles.

The sensor which is attached to the rear of some cars to assist in (and even, in some instances, take over from) reversing into a space, whilst quite useful as is, could be combined with the speedometer to indicate when a car traveling behind gets that bit too close. With clever software solutions to take into account road surfaces, weather conditions, visibility and other factors, the instances of being rammed from behind would all but cease. How, you ask, would knowing you are about to be rammed cease it from happening? Simple. All that is needed is a automatic limiter kicking in on the car traveling dangerously close. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that everything I have just outlined in that instance is already installed. All it would take is for the currently separated systems to be integrated, and one major cause of vehicular accidents to be removed from the many other dangers on our roads.

Remember those funny little automated vacuum cleaners? The cute flying saucer-shaped things which never quite worked as well as people claimed they would? They are a perfect example of existing technology being put to use in an unexpected and useful way, though by themselves are of little to no importance in moving us to a brighter future. They hold the key to ensuring that cars never leave the road to travel on pedestrian areas whilst under control. They might also be a way to stop accidents in forecourts as well, but it’s the wider application of the underlying mechanics which interest me more. The cleaners are prevented from entering locations because they are told not to move past a certain sensor point – normally to keep them in a specific room, though any demarcation of territory is possible given enough of the posts which transmit the boundary outline.

Take a moment to ponder that. Keep thinking. Have you caught up with my track of thought yet? Yup, that’s right. We stick those things along the side of roads, and drivers will be prevented from mounting the sidewalk because their car will cut out on them if they try it. It’s a simple way of solving a major problem, yet nobody has seemingly thought of it. I despair at the rampant lack of imagination being put into modern automobiles. It’s almost as if everyone has given up on cars as a viable method of transport, and industry heads are waiting on the axe to fall on the entire industry – a prospect not entirely unimaginable if they keep traveling on their current trajectory. A skeptic may argue that any, and all, safety measures are useless if people continue to drink under the influence. Which is why I suggest installing breathalyzers in cars so that they won’t start if people are near the limit.

Simple measures. I’m not revolutionizing technology here, merely adapting existing things to new purposes. That in mind, the sensor which is currently positioned on the backs of cars, as I described above, is one which has the most potential. It’s a rather pitiful nod to advancement of automotive safety, ignoring the immense potential inherent in having a real-time assessment of the space directly near the vehicle. It’s also one of the things which could be enhanced by implementing the aforementioned sensors along the sides of roads. Computing has managed to advance to point where a few gigabytes is neither expensive nor spacious, so processing information second-by-second cost efficiently (when compared to the overall price of a new family car) is negligible. You may think that the car you are driving is smart, but how much better would it be if the car knew exactly where it was?

Using sensors on each face of the car (front, back and sides), and on each corner, the on-board computer could analyze speed and road position against other cars and the road itself. It could also make adjustments to the preprogramed journey to avoid traffic jams if it was made to take information from other road users – accepting that they also have the system operational. Taking it a step further, the chip I mentioned each person being allocated to prevent them going missing could be logged in the memory of the automobile each time they enter the vehicle, and if they have spent too long driving, the car could prevent them from driving whilst tired (an oft overlooked cause of crashes). This would also have a law enforcement benefit, as the driver of a car could be doubly identified, both by the breathalyzer and the chip identification. It is the small changes which would provide the largest rewards to road users, pedestrians, and those entrusted to keep our roads safe.

Where would the power required to keep the roadside sensors operational come from? Even better than free power, we have limitless free power available to use here – using the motion of the wheels of the cars traveling on the roads to generate the power would offset any cost from installing them. The excess electricity could then be used to keep the street lights lit. It is something which gets brought up from time to time, though (to date) nobody seems to have the nerve to suggest it as something that actually has a chance of being seen through. If there is enough power generated – and when you consider how many cars are on the roads these days, there would be a lot of power generated – then power not used in maintaining the sensors and the lights could actually be sold. There’s a cash cow, sitting there under your asses when you drive to work, as yet untapped.

When I started thinking about the lack of imagination used in building our future, I never expected to find so many deficiencies. It’s slightly worrying that there isn’t more concern about how little we have advanced in the last few years, nor questions raised about the way new technologies are being routinely ignored. This irregular series of missives on the inadequacies of modern technology will continue for a while, or at least as long as I can be bothered to write it, because I really do want to witness first-hand the things we see in films come to pass. We may never make it back to the moon – thank you, Neal Armstrong, for raising our expectations to unmatchable levels – but we might as well make the most of what we can do. That means we have to ask hard questions, then whine about the lack of movement in regulating and disseminating the technologies we should have had a decade ago.

Innovation doesn’t come from companies. Innovation comes from consumers pleading and pestering companies to do the things they should have been doing all along. Go annoy car manufacturers with requests for them to start acting like they are living in the twenty-first century rather than perpetuating the mistakes of the last hundred years. Hell, something as easy as installing five-point seatbelts instead of three-point seatbelts would save countless lives every single year, and that is without bringing into question why run-flat tyres aren’t installed as standard. There are less visible, yet equally impressive advances, in the paint industry which means that scratches should never bother anyone any more. Has it trickled down to the automobile industry yet? Hah. Don’t hold your breath. Dents and bumps in the bodywork bothering you? Has nobody heard of ‘memory’ materials, which reaquire their shape? Apparently not.

We’ve not come very far from the pony and cart, and we deserve much better automobiles than are available.

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Origins Of A Story, or The Science Of Writing

Posted by BigWords on June 13, 2010

There have been a few writing related posts recently which have addressed various parts of the writing process, though the process of coming up with ideas is rarely – and justifiably – examined in great detail. It’s very difficult to describe the ways things (often completely unrelated) come together to make narrative. Being the type of person who likes to buck trends, I’ll lay out the way in which I came up with one of my current WIPs, for no other reason than I need to keep this blog active or else people will think I have died.

This is a kinda weird post, mainly because I’m attempting to marry two contradictory things together in one idea – the concept that writing (art) can have similar rules to physics (science) if you know what you are looking for. The belief that there is an elaborate set of hidden rules interspersed throughout stories only came about because I was looking for a way to describe how narrative is infused with a life of its’ own. It is, in a roundabout way, the partial answer to the stereotypical question “Where do ideas come from?” As a clear answer would be impossible, I rephrased the question in my head to “Are there analogies to science in writing?” The answer, surprisingly, was a resounding yes. It may sound too complex for words, and possibly contains too little of the former question for some, but it is an interesting thought process which led me here. Lets start with this:

The throwaway character at the beginning of “Dangerous” Calhoun (a superhero story) was meant as a homage to Indiana Jones, though through the Butterfly Effect became a much more important character. As a partial deconstruction of the main superhero tropes, I had set the world around the characters ten years after the outlawing of powered individuals from most of the US (with Nevada – for complicated reasons – the only safe haven left on US soil), so he had to be from elsewhere. Russia seemed a good place to have him come from, and yet, as I was writing, I realized there was an opportunity to tie him closer to the island where most of the action takes place. He was meant to die in the caves honeycombing Bali Ha’i, and through a combination of luck and inspiration I decided to have him eaten to death by tiny translucent spiders (which I had great trouble resisting having come from Mars as a tribute to David Bowie).

Only… It didn’t exactly work out as I had planned. If Calhoun, the hero, had to become involved, then I would need to tie the Russian into his back story. Having the missing Russian be an archeologist didn’t make sense once I tried tying it all in a nice bow. What connection could a superhero have with an archeologist? Much better that he goes in search of the means of his destruction – a xenobiologist. That, at least, gives him a karmic death. It also occurred to me that he needed a very low-level power, merely to remind people that I was playing with the stuff DC and Marvel present as great powers. Thus I decided that he could talk to animals – which makes his murder by the little white spiders all the more horrific, as people will hopefully come to the conclusion that he is listening to their thoughts all the while he is being devoured. By the time I had finished with him, the simple sketch of a Russian archeologist dying in the caves had transformed into a talking skeleton whose musculature and ‘skin’ had become the insects who had eaten him – a living skeleton to act as a guide for the hero to consult on his travels. This had an effect on my eventual choice for the villain as well, but I’ll come to that in a moment.

With the throwaway character now positioned where he can assist the story along better, I needed to explain the spiders. It made the caves too dangerous for my original idea of a standard supervillain’s lair, so by changing one tiny aspect of the story I had to substantially alter everything which came after. The spiders, though cool, were out of place. It made sense to have them somehow belong, so I needed to come up with an answer to the existence of the island. It was originally meant to have been created by a powered character as a “New Atlantis” – the floor of the sea risen by a combination of abilities to create a homeland for the people who were no longer welcome in America. If the spiders were meant to be there, they would need an existing ecosystem, which a newly created piece of land didn’t have. By substantially adding to one (very minor) character’s story, I had broken my story’s logic. The change from “new land from the sea” to “ancient uninhabitable island” came from that – the only characters tough enough to survive there being the very people whose powers made them too dangerous for US soil.

That brings up the other problem. If it’s a harsh environment, then my concept of a “mutant paradise” is screwed. There would be more chance of the dwellings being a shantytown, or ghetto, than anything approaching paradise, so the perception of the inhabitants as a major threat would be diminished enough to make the end – where nuclear missiles fall from the sky onto the island – completely implausible. It was only when I set about justifying the spiders that I realized they were, in every way possible, parasites. It wasn’t just that they had co-opted the body of the man, but their place in the cave had to have some sort of parasitic significance as well, otherwise they would merely be a plot point – and I dislike things cropping up simply for the sake of plot. If they are there, then they need to have a reason to be there. It wasn’t until I connected their actions to that of microbes on the human body that I got my answer – the island had to be “alive” in some way.

Ignoring how dumb a sentient island is for a moment – and I’m not going to even bother explaining Ego or Mogo to non-comic-readers – I needed something less stupid. Hence having the island be merely the shell of a Gamera-type cosmic horror. This would explain away the spiders in a more logical way, and move the end of the story away from man-made destruction to the birth of a greater threat. Having though that through, no longer was the idea of an intelligent, cultured villain whose super-powered apartheid goal relevant – I needed a more substantial menace to balance the increased danger of the island. A character whose life wouldn’t be threatened by the horrors lurking in the caves beneath the island meant that a more substantial power than strong suggestion was needed – and telepaths are overplayed in superhero fiction anyway. It soon became clear that there was a way to mock X-3‘s inclusion of Madrox at the same time as filling out the population of the island.

I had stated there were 1,696 powered individuals in existence (a nod to Soon I Will Be Invincible) after the Power Wars, so a substantial proportion of them would have ended up on the island, but that isn’t many people at all. A few small villages near me have more people that that, and they look so unimpressive as to be immediately forgettable. The changes I had made to the nature of the island – a “fix” for a minor character, remember – had meant that I needed to create another fix for the number of people on the island, a place too dangerous for normal people to live. Having dismissed most of the original text for reasons of credibility, I was now back to blank pages again. Thankfully I had the insight to watch the third X-Men film whilst in the middle of rewriting the scenes where Calhoun needed to face off against the villain, and a self-replicating enemy seemed too good to pass up.

Butchering an SF film script I wrote a few years ago, I took the enemy out of that story and dropped him onto Bali Ha’i as a more formidable foe – altering the basic Midwich Cuckoo variance to accommodate the new horror tone. Not only does the character replicate itself by touching others (overwriting people’s minds to act as an extended being), he now loses some functionality each time he does so. As the villain takes over more bodies, he loses a little more critical reasoning each time he does so – eventually becoming more animalistic as his consciousness is spread over thousands of individuals. It also acted as a neat analogy to the spiders earlier in the story. As an aside, it should be noted that for every minor alteration to the story, at least a dozen things had to be changed to fit the changes.

I’m not sure if this is an example of The Butterfly Effect, or if it comes under Newton’s third law. Whatever the science behind the rewriting process is, it is a pain in the ass when it is so complete as to turn one story into something else entirely.

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