Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book Report: Interesting Times, by Terry Pratchett

As usual, when I'm not ready to plunge into new reading but still want something to read, I turn to Pratchett. This is another chapter in the story of Rincewind, the most incompetent and cowardly wizard on the Discworld. When he's set to the distant Counterweight Continent, he stumbles into an ineffectual rebellion, a sinister plot, and the theft of a kingdom by a group of elderly barbarians. As always, his desperate attempts to avoid becoming involved lead directly to his playing a pivotal role in shaping the future of the mysterious Aurient.

Even after repeated readings, I find myself lingering over his phrases, his puns, the spin he puts on words that make you stop and think about what they really mean. Combined that with a comical action plot and themes that include aging, grief, and the true nature of courage, and you have a book that I come back to again and again.

Ulysses Rating: 5 - I'll read this again and again.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Schrodinger's Cat

Current Reading: Interesting Times, by Terry Pratchett

Inspirational Quote: "Let me outta here!" -- Schrodinger's Cat

For those of you unfamiliar with the theory, Schrodinger's Cat is the title of an absurd illustration of one of quantum mechanics more bizarre corollaries. Put a cat in a box with a vial of poison that will open if a radio-active atom decays. Choose your atom such that there's a 50% chance it will decay within an hour, then seal the box and wait an hour. During that time, the state of the cat is indeterminate. It can be said to be both alive and dead. The universe doesn't know.

Any prediction of the future here requires you to account for both possibilities.

At the end of the hour though, you may open the box and examine the cat. It is not the cat's state, but our observation of that state which causes probability to become certainty. Only when we look can we predict whether the cat's future contains a shovel or a bowl of kibble.

So let me introduce you to Shrodinger's Cat.

His name is Ash (that's his real name. I usually avoid real names here because I don't think it's fair to expose my family publicly without their consent. Ash, however, seems to have no objection. No matter how many times I explain the concept of the internet, all I get is the standard cat look of contempt mixed with the resignation that comes from realizing that without people there are no scratches behind the ears or bowls of food. I take his silence as consent). A week ago he started moping and acting out of character. I took him to our vet, who determined that something had caused his kidneys to stop working. His urea and creatinine (is that the right term?) were so far above normal they couldn't see it with a telescope. We figured that was it. Finito. Kaput. The fat kitty was meowing, and it was best to spare him (and us) further suffering. Penelope and I went to the vet's with every intention of seeing Ash to his final rest. Then Penelope looked into his face and said, "He's not ready to go yet."

He wasn't. They dosed him with intravenous fluids to the point where he either had to pee or dissolve, and he peed. The numbers came down into the normal range and we brought him home. He's been here for four days now, eating and drinking and moping a bit but still active and aware. I don't know if he's been peeing. Short of following him around, I don't know how I could find out. And even if I did follow him around, how many of us can pee when someone's watching?

Anyway, it's into the vet's again tomorrow for a blood test to see if how well his kidneys are functioning. There are three possible states: they're working well enough, they need medicinal assistance, or they're toast.

The future is indeterminate.

If Erwin Schrodinger were alive today, (and there is no probability of his continued existence: his death was observed, and therefore his current state is determined), I'd book a ticket to Vienna for the express purpose of giving him SUCH A KICK.

Tests show his creatinine is still a little high, but the rest indicates that his kidneys are functioning again. We take him back in a month to see if there's any change.
Nine lives indeed.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Penelope's uncle passed away, and was buried on Saturday. She's taking it hard.
Aeneas has been suspended from school for three days for missing classes.
One of my two cats has just undergone acute kidney failure. We're attempting last ditch treatment, but we'll likely be putting him down before the end of the week.

I wish I had something more... interesting to say, but at the moment it's taking all my concentration not to go fetal and stay that way until the meteor arrives.

I hope you've had a better week.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Report: Chill, by Elizabeth Bear

The sequel to Dust, in which the Jacob's ladder is now in flight and trying to repair itself. Unfortunately for the new captain and her companion AI, there are still the ghosts of old angels with which to contend and something insidious is taking over areas of the ship.

This was a slightly easier read, as I was now familiar with the setting, and it delivers on the promise of more of the same that one expects from a sequel. I'm looking forward to the next book, Grail, which has yet to be released.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Book Report: Dust, by Elizabeth Bear

I had some difficulty with this at the beginning, and it was entirely due to an orientation issue. The back promised a story of a generation ship in jeopardy, but the opening read more like a medieval fantasy complete with swords. It's the story of a servant girl who rescues a princess from captivity and tries to help her return home.

But that's not all it is.

The story does indeed take place on a generation ship, the Jacob's Ladder, marooned by some ancient accident in orbit around a black hole/red giant binary system about to go nova. The engines have been damaged and the ship's artificial intelligence splintered into a dozen different personalities ("Angels"), each vying to be the one to control that intelligence's eventual reintegration. "Magic" is the result of advanced nanotech which enables some fantastic capabilities in those who possess it. "Monsters" are evolved plants and animals or machines modified by AI and nanotech. The whole is presided over by the warring kingdoms of Rule and Engine, removed from their origins as Command and Engineering by hundreds of years.

The story is fascinating, and what seems a straight-forward "rescue the princess" fantasy twists itself into a story about love, loss, heroism and family in which the fate of the "world" really does lie in the balance.

Bear writes some beautiful passages, and mixes SF and Fantasy in a way that manages to remain loyal to both without devolving into "Star Wars" style melodrama. My only complaint here was that I had difficulty understanding the setting.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Book Report: Metatropolis, ed. by John Scalzi

I've been reading an interesting swath of books lately. Among the authors are Jay Lake, Elizabeth Bear, and John Scalzi... so when I discovered Metatropolis through Mr. Scalzi's web site and it became widely available through Tor, I decided to check it out.

Metatropolis is a collection of stories set in a shared future world where fossil fuels are near exhaustion and urban decay has begun to tip over into urban collapse. The collection focuses on the recreation or resurrection of cities, about what can be done with them when the infrastructure that made them possible begins to decay. It's an interesting and extremely thought-provoking read. I read this just after completing the Tales of Ibis, and Metatropolis does for green cities what Ibis did for A.I.: presents a vivid, compelling future where the logical extension of human drive and capabilities leads to some startling insights.

This, like Ibis before it, is thinking person's science fiction. It's not space opera. It's not fantasy with robots. It's a plausible exploration of societal evolution and its effect on the individuals caught up in it.

If I've made it sound dry, it isn't. Each story stands perfect by itself, with believable characters and gripping plots that make for a great read.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

*Addendum: Lake, Bear and Butcher are all represented by agent Jennifer Jackson. It seems we have similar taste in authors.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Time Marches On...

...and it's left footprints all over my face.

Whaddaya mean it's been 2 weeks since my last post? Impossible. It's only been... a couple of... days. Right? Days? Maybe a week, tops. Ten days at the outside.

Reader's Digest version of things going through my head:

November is National Adoption Month here in the True North. Adoption is a cause near to my heart. Think about it while I try to find time to compose a suitable missive.

James Frey is up to no good. Again. Why is a respected academic institution inviting a fraud to speak to its students anyway?

Nathan Bransford, a man whose endeavors in the blogosphere are directly responsible for my own efforts, abandoned agenting for a "real" job. I wish him well. I also wish I'd sent him a query just so I could have one of his rejections. I suspect they're going to become collector's items.

There's a "new" black hole in the sky. They're fascinating objects: little knots in space-time, pin pricks in the universe.

I've read some good books lately, so my Book Reports are behind too. While I'm collecting my thoughts about stuff, tell me:

1) What are you reading right now?
2) How many books do you read a year?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Writers: Get Over Yourselves

One thing that concerns me a great deal in my perusal of author, agent and editor web sites is how often they focus on writing. Eg: this is a very good author blog in which she discusses how to write.

Now, I guess given the nature of those sites that's only to be expected. What bothers me is the overall feeling that I get from visitors to these sites that the universe is screaming, "The publishing industry isn't fair to writers! Why isn't publishing doing more to help writers? Rather than go with a publisher, I'm self publishing because that way I can actually get my book in print!"

When I get this impression, all I can do is shake my head and wish there were some way to help the purveyors of such thoughts get their heads on right. So here, possibly for future reference, possibly just to vent, is a verbal whack upside the brain-pan.

Get over yourself. It's not about you.

The explosive growth of the web has made it possible for everyone who wants to write words to publish those words to a world-wide audience.

I've managed to post something on average every week for the last 2 years. Assuming 500 words a post (very conservative), that's 113000 words. The effort has garnered me 20 followers. Followers are people who get notified by Google of a new post, provided they are signed in and bother to check, which they may or may not subsequently read. I average about 3 visitors a day. Most are google searchers who are looking for something else and who pause only long enough to say, "Nope, that's not it," before moving on. About 1 in 3 actually pauses long enough to read what's written here (and thank-you for that).

Writing has become such a common pursuit that we even have a month dedicated to producing it. But the broadcast of information is only one part of communication. The other part, the part that is currently being neglected in this cyber-oriented world of ours, is the reception.

Who's listening? Who's reading?

The answer is important. If everyone's writing and nobody's reading, then we have the equivalent of a room full of people yammering at the top of their lungs and wondering why nobody's paying attention.

I'd like to be more popular. I'd like to be Scalzi (note that he doesn't talk about writing very often). I'd also like to be rich, but that ain't happening either. And that's fine. I haven't put any real effort into attracting readers, and so the results are in line with my expectations.

I look at the web, and I see how easy they've made it for people to write, but I don't see where they've made it as easy for people to read. The closest we've got to a tool that makes things easy to read is a search engine, which is the equivalent of having someone go through the bookstore and tell you "These are all the books that contain the word 'asparagus.' Now go through them all until you find one you might like." The web really ain't user friendly. Why not? This essay puts it succinctly: "...far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them." People are willing to pay to put content up on servers. They're not willing to pay to read (access) it (except for adult content which... well, it's one more reason I think the species could use a good meteor). Writers are desperate for an audience and willing to pay to get their words out. That's why being a scam agent often pays better with less effort than being a real one.

Readers, however, are being woefully served by everyone except the publishing industry. Publishing, whatever complaints may be leveled against it, exists to make money off readers. As a result, publishing caters to the readers not to the writers. So you've written a fantastic novel of romance and tripe farming? Congratulations. Sorry the publishing world has rejected your book, but all their research tells them that buying a novel with detailed instructions for growing your own tripe is unlikely to pay off. Not enough people want to read it. Once a novel, or any book, comes out from a reputable publisher you can be sure of at least one thing: a large number of people believe that someone out there will be willing to pay to read it.

Publishing is a pull industry. They don't look at supply (for which I'm grateful). They look at demand. They study the market (readers) and try to figure out "What do these people want?" Oh, they get it wrong a lot, but they get it right often enough to be a viable (if ailing) industry. They've also figured out what readers don't want: Novels that are badly written, poorly plotted, predictable, dull... In other words, they don't want about 99% of what ends up in an agent or publisher's slush pile.

So: writers... before you complain about the commercial publishing industry, make sure you've spelled every word correctly and used standard grammar. Make sure you've written in paragraphs and scenes, that the book actually works, and then...

And then do a national book market study that shows how many people are interested enough to plunk down a minimum of $10 to read your book.

They're going to be giving up what (probably) is the equivalent of one or two paid working hours to own it instead of more food, clothing or luxury items, and then several more hours of personal time time to read it. Are you sure your humble collection of pages are worth that to enough of them to make the editing, publishing, packaging and marketing of those pages profitable?

If the answer to that is a resounding, "Yes!" and you've got the numbers to back it up, then complain away. I want to hear what you have to say.

Otherwise, please shut up.

Don't tell me how you want readers to read your book, because what you want doesn't matter.

All that matters to readers is what they want. All that matters to publishing is what readers want. I think it's okay for authors to want something else. Some want to inspire the world. Hurray! Some want to write a Work For the Ages. Go for it! Some want to make a living off their novels (not all desires are realistic). More power to you! Go forth and write to your highest and best ambition. But in the world of commercial publishing, don't expect any of that to interest anyone. You're not paying for the product, so the only say you have in what's produced is in what you offer for possible production.

Make it good. Make it readable. And regardless of what happens, don't ever forget:

Publishing: It's not about you.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Current Reading: Dust, by Elizabeth Bear

Inspirational Quote: "Boo!" -- Just About Everyone

In case you've missed it, the majority of the wester world has just finished celebrating All Hallow's Eve, also called "Hallowe'en." It's one of the holidays I've always found interesting because it's managed to survive into the current century without being co-opted by Christianity. It's a pagan anachronism that's had its teeth pulled (there is little true fear associated with it now, and macabre displays are just part of the fun), but it showcases cultural superstitions in an entertaining way.

I also like it because people give out chocolate, and personally I think we need more holidays where that happens.

In the true spirit of Hallowe'en, I should curse you, BUT that's just plain unfriendly. Instead, I hope you and yours enjoyed the night, and that subsequent stomach aches and dentist bills prove not too onerous to bear.

Oh, and also, here's a picture of the Guardians of the Kingdom. Cassandra's responsible for the little pumpkin, although her mother wielded the carving knife. The bigger pumpkin is mine, and it's supposed to be an owl. Really. You can almost see it. Apparently my artistry was not up to the challenge of rendering avian features in melon flesh. I shall try not to be crippled by my awareness of that shortcoming.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Where The Heck Did That Come From?

Current Reading: Metatropolis, ed. John Scalzi

Inspirational Quote: "It was a dark and stormy night..." -- Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Some things on my mind:

The Big Bang Theory: how does Penny, a part-time waitress and failed actress, manage to afford an apartment in a building where apartments are so expensive that two physics professors have to room together to afford their two bedroom? The tips must be extraordinary. (Note: This came to me at 11pm, after I had been in bed an hour. I got up and immediately told Penelope, who was out on the living room couch watching the Food Network. She told me I was overthinking things again and that I should go back to bed. She was right, but I think she missed out on the significance of the epiphany. I bet no one told Archimedes to go finish washing up and put some clothes on before he ran down the street shouting. In real life, "Eureka!" moments just aren't as exciting as history makes them appear to be. Such is my life, folks.)

Justin Bieber: The boy gets a lot of trash (and the occasional water bottle) thrown at him. HOWEVER (and despite earlier comments which may mistakenly seem to indicate the contrary, this includes Miley Cyrus), I wish I had accomplished as much by the time I turned forty as he had by the time he had turned seventeen. "I'd rather be a has been than a might have been by far, for a might have been has never been but a has was once an are."

Bulwer-Lytton, it would be wonderfully appropriate if I were to sing your praises off key. La la laaa...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Action Scenes

In a truly staggering moment of genius, I scheduled this post and the "Reaction Scenes" post in the wrong order. Thus we have reaction before action, which may be fine for Blogger, but is going to seriously mess up physics. The laws of causality should never be tampered with, folks.

In the post on scenes, I broke them down into two kinds: action and reaction.

Action scenes show the point of view character trying to change the direction of the story. They begin with a goal, and end with that goal either achieved or lost.


A goal is a simple, short-term objective. Don't confuse it with motive. A character's motive is a long-term desire, likely the focus of the entire novel. Winning the hand of the princess is a motive; getting into the castle where she's imprisoned is a goal. Bringing down the syndicate is a motive; discovering who controls the mob is a goal. A lot of project management guides focus on goal setting and lay out criteria for good goals. If I adapt their philosophy to the goal of a scene, I'd say it has to be:

Specific: I think what the POV character wants has to be clear to the reader going in. The prince wants Rapunzel to let down her hair.

Measurable: A reader ought to be able to tell, when it's all over with, whether the character achieve their goal or failed. Either the hair drops or it doesn't.

Achievable, Realistic: The character has to stand a reasonable, although slim, chance. If he keeps his voice down, he should be able to attract Rapunzel's attention without waking the ogre guarding the castle.

Timely: I don't think a scene should drag on forever. Nor do I think it should be over too quick. The goal should be something the POV character wants and could achieve in the near term. The Prince has to get Rapunzel out of the tower before the ogres eat her for dinner, and by the smell of things, someone's already heating up the cookpot.

I'd also throw in another criteria:

Staked: In order for the reader to invest in the scene, they have to have some understanding of the consequences of the character's success or failure. If the Prince succeeds, Rapunzel lives. If he fails, she dies.

I believe it's vital to get the goal right because so much that follows depends on it.


Once the character has a goal, there has to be some obstacle throwing his/her achievement of it in doubt. Without opposition or obstacles, the scene has no drama. "Rapunzel lowered her hair," is not a dramatic scene. It's a sentence, and not a very interesting one. "The Prince called to Rapunzel, but she could not hear because the window was shuttered," isn't a scene either, but it's the start of one. There's a goal and an obstacle which throws the success of the POV character into question.

Butcher believes that opposition ought to be in the form of another character. I can understand that, because character interactions are always the most interesting. I don't necessarily believe that's something I can pull off all the time, though. I have a subplot in the Somnia Secundus where the protagonist has to solve a puzzle. The obstacle is the puzzle itself, not another character. I like to think the scenes involving the puzzle are dramatic, but I'd be foolish to believe they come close to matching the drama of scenes where the protagonist has to deal with opposition from other characters. It is far more interesting to have the Prince convince an ogre to open the window than it is to have him attack the shutters directly.


Here's the payoff of the dramatic scene, the resolution. Ingermanson insists on calling this the "Disaster," and I can see his point. Butcher points out that a dramatic scene can have four possible resolutions:

1) Success -- The character succeeds. Yay. We're done. How boring. This outcome really ought to be saved for the final confrontation of the book: the climax. Even then, the only drama for a scene that ends in success comes from establishing before hand that success is only remotely possible and is going to be achieved at tremendous cost.

2) Success, BUT... -- The character succeeds, but has set off some unintended chain of events that is going to make things much, much worse going forward. Rapunzel's hair made so much noise coming down that all the ogres are now alert. Getting out of the castle is going to be tricky. This is inherently more interesting and dramatic than success because it makes the reader question the success of the next step in the plan.

3) Failure -- The character has failed, and the goal has been denied. If they're going to act further on their motive, they're going to have to set a new goal and try something else. Rapunzel's hair has been hacked off. If the Prince wants to rescue her, he's going to have to come up with some other way into the castle. Failure is always more affective than success because it raises the question, "Now what?" in the reader. In the next action scene, the stakes are going to be higher and the chance of success slimmer. It's going to be more dramatic.

4) Failure. AND... -- Not only does the character fail, but that failure has made the situation worse. Rapunzel's hair has been hacked off and their whisper back and forth has attracted the attention of the hungry ogres. This is always the most interesting and dramatic outcome. you've put your character up a tree and surrounded it with alligators... and now you've taught the alligators to climb. "Now what?" has become, "What's left?" in the reader's mind.

Dramatically, the flow of a novel should consist of scenes with worse and worse setbacks until, at the climax, the reader believes the situation to be almost hopeless. At that point, success is surprising, welcome and emotionally satisfying, which is the whole point of the reading experience.

"Now what?" is the question that should be raised in the reader's mind at the end of every scene. Seeking the answer to that question is what keeps them reading. But it doesn't pay to raise questions without ever providing answers (Lost, anyone?). That just frustrates the reader and encourages them to put the book down.

I don't want that ever to be an option in something I write, so as a writer, I'd better answer it.

Next time: Reaction scenes.

Monday, October 18, 2010

I Wonder What He'd Charge?

Inspirational Quote: ""It turns out writers are now a dime a dozen but house painters are becoming rare . . . I will make more money painting three houses a year than I would if I wrote three bestsellers." -- Farley Mowat

I came across this quote here. I remember reading Lost in the Barrens and the Curse of the Viking Grave, although it's been so many years that I doubt I'd be able to tell you anything more about them than the titles.

All in all, an interesting fellow.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Reaction Scenes

In the post on scenes, I broke them down into two kinds: action and reaction.

Reaction scenes follow action scenes and show the point of view character trying to deal with the resolution of the action scene. They are prime places for a writer to bolster the reader's emotional connection with the character. They are ideally suited for slowing the pace of a story, introducing a pause in the action and allowing both characters and readers to catch their breath.

Like action scenes, reaction scenes have three phases.


The character has just experienced something of considerable emotional impact. There has been drama. There has been action. Human nature dictates that the first thing a person has to do is react emotionally. How does the resolution of the preceding action scene make them feel? Frustrated? Afraid? Enraged? Giving the character time to react to events is vital to making them accessible and sympathetic to the reader. The prince has discovered Rapunzel's hair is gone. There's no way in and he can hear the ogres stirring. He's crushed... it seemed so easy when he planned things out back in the safety of his fortress. He's also afraid because his sword isn't going to be much use against a family of ogres.


After the character has had time to react, it's time to get over the past and concentrate on the future. The resolution of the action scene makes the reader ask, "Now what?" It should make the character ask the same thing. Only the character had better come up with an answer.

There should be several possible answers in the writer's mind, regardless of how many of which the reader will become aware. Each one should illuminate some aspect of the character's personality. Rapunzel's lost her hair, and the ogres are coming. If the prince is a coward, he could run away. If he's brave but stupid, he could stand his ground and try to defeat the ogres. If he's clever he might hide in the woods and pretend to be an army, running from tree to tree and shouting orders, hoping to frighten the ogres off. If he's a dare-devil, he might try to climb the tower without follicular assistance.


The character chooses one of the options. Now they've got a new goal, and that leads us straight into the next action scene where the character will act on this decision. Will the character succeed with this new action? Likely not, but then what will happen next? The prince decides to hide in the woods and pretend to be an army. Ogres are dumb. They might fall for it. Of course, if they don't, he's wandering around in unfamiliar territory surrounded by ogres that know the terrain...

Unlike action scenes, reaction scenes seem to be kind of optional. To dispute Newton (does that make me a bad physicist, or just a writer who wants to be good?), not every action scene requires a full reaction scene. Sometimes, a few lines are sufficient to provide all the emotional connection the reader needs, and providing more carries us down from drama into melodrama. Sometimes, reactions, dilemmas and decisions can be implied with a few words at the end of the action scene and a true reaction "scene" can be skipped altogether.

As I said before, the flow of action and reaction scenes creates a rhythm in the story, shaping the pace and tone through how much emphasis is placed on each type. The hard part, for me, is learning to write this way, to think in terms of action and reaction during composition. Many times I look back on work I've done and have difficulty figuring out what the character goal for a particular action scene is. Without that, the rest of the scene lies lifeless on the page and I either have to rewrite it or kill it.

It's a lot of effort, but I've seen the technique work very well in Butcher's Dresden novels, Lake's Mainspring/Escapement/Pinion novels and even Yamamoto's work (and he doesn't even write in English). I recently wrote a short story as practice, concentrating on action and reaction scenes. It's the first time anyone in my writing group has told me they couldn't set down without finishing something I'd written.

So, you know... there's that.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Beiber's Book Bid

Justin Beiber, the pop phenomenon, has just released a book.
No doubt it is another celebrity book that will sell magnificently.
No doubt it is a book that was dying to be written.
No doubt it is a book I shall die before reading.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Current Reading: Metatropolis, ed. by John Scalzi.

Inspirational Quote: "If we make the analogy that drama is a language for presenting emotional energy and that, as a language, it possesses its own, unique grammar for the construction and presentation of meaningful dramatic actions, then it is not a very big leap to say that every dramatic film scene is analogous to a sentence, for like a sentence, the dramatic scene is the expression of a complete idea - a complete DRAMATIC idea. And like a sentence it is composed of a SUBJECT (the character driving the scene), a VERB (the central action of the scene) and an OBJECT or OBJECTIVE (what the character is striving for)." -- Billy Stoneking Marshall

I've been trying to learn how to write a good novel for a while now. A long while. They say the only way to learn is by doing, but honestly, I don't see how that can apply to activities like flying or alligator wrestling.

Fortunately, writing is not a life-threatening activity (although RSI is a constant danger). There's always something new to learn or discover. For a lot of my learning, I rely either on good books that demonstrate effective techniques, or on writers writing about what they think and how they work.

In the last few months, I've been learning about scenes. "Write in dramatic scenes" is an old piece of advice I keep coming across. But that advice demands some kind of functional definition of "dramatic scene."

A quick web search turns up all kinds of references to dramatic scenes. Most of them contain good information about types and flavors, but there's not very much out there about definition or structure. This was interesting, and Holly Lisle's discussion of scene contains a vital piece of information: scenes are about change. They start with the world in one state and end with it in another. But I think there has to be more to it than that. Five paragraphs describing the turning of the seasons is definitely about change, but I don't think I'd call it a dramatic scene. The drama is missing.

For a real understanding of the dramatic scene, it makes sense to look to the theater (since the western prose tradition arose out of Greek theater). Many articles about writing scenes for the stage contain valuable information and guidance that can easily be applied to writing scenes for a novel. Television writing, strangely enough, can also help. David Mahmet wrote a memo to the writers of The Unit that lays out in plain language everything a writer needs to know about writing the dramatic scene, but as Musashi said over and over again, "You must train deeply to understand this."

Drama is conflict. Conflict requires character. A character tries to move the story in one direction, while another character or force tries to move it in another. The scene ends with success for one side. The story changes. Jim Butcher's livejournal breaks it down very clearly. Randy Ingermanson analyzes it in detail. (I recommend you read those people, and the books they mention. They are both more articulate and more experienced than I.)

I've studied some good books, and I can see the dynamics they discuss put to practical use. It's a good model that propels a reader through the story with a dynamic rhythm, a rise and fall to the action, that I'd love to be able to emulate. To emulate, I must first understand... and this is what I understand:

Essentially, there are two types of scenes: action and reaction.

Action scenes show the point of view character actively trying to achieve a change in the story. They begin with a goal and end with either success or failure for the character.

Reaction scenes (Butcher calls them sequels) follow action scenes and, as may be obvious from the name, show the POV character reacting to the resolution of the action scene. They begin with that reaction and end with the character committing to the next course of action.

Butcher and Ingermanson refer to a novel's plot as being a flow of scenes: action, then reaction, followed by another action and reaction, each building on what went before and heading to the climax. The balance of time devoted to each has a huge effect on the pace of the work. Stories that consist of many long action scenes and few short reaction scenes create a breathless rush. Those that favor reaction over action are likely to be more emotionally intense and introspective.

I suspect all of this sounds rather cold and analytical, and out of place when discussing art inspired by passion. But it's a discussion of a writing technique, a way of achieving an effect that really should be no more out of place than a discussion of pointillism would be when considering the work of Georges Seurat, or a discussion of sentence structure would be when studying Shakespeare.

Art doesn't come from technique. Art comes from the application of technique.

Next time: Action Scenes.

Book Report: The Tales of Ibis, by Hiroshi Yamamoto

I'm fascinated by languages, not just what they say but how they say it. When I was a kid, I read somewhere that the Eskimos had 21 words for snow. Southern Ontario English has two: "snow," and "d*mned snow." It's amazing because there are some things that simply can't be described in English, while they can be depicted in Innu with amazing accuracy. Add to the different volcabularies the wealth of context and idiom built up by every different culture and you begin to see Orwell's point: if you don't have the language for a certain thought, then you can't think it.

So I was excited to read Yamamoto's book not just because it sounded interesting (AI in a realistic future), but because I wanted to see how the translator dealt with words and idioms that are unique to Japanese. What I found was a beautifully-written book in any language.

It is a collection of five short stories loosely bound together by a narrative thread. A storyteller from a culture of AI-hating humans is captured by an intelligent robot who, to his surprise, doesn't kill him. Instead, while he recovers from an accidental injury, reads him stories written by humans about machines.

What came through in this book was the brilliance of Yamamoto's imagination. He's taken thoughts about artificial intelligence and its impact on human society to place I never imagined existed. In telling the story of the emergence of electronic people, he tells the story of humanity's paranoia, illogic and foolishness (at one point, a medical care AI decides that the only way to understand and accept human behavior is to assume that we are all suffering from various degrees of dementia), yet he manages to extoll our virtues as well, the best qualities that the artificial children of our intellect proudly carry into the future, and eventually to other worlds.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Thought for Food

Current Reading: The Tales of Ibis, by Hiroshi Yamamoto

Inspirational Quote: "Misfortune, and recited misfortune especially, may be prolonged to the point where it ceases to excite pity and arouses only irritation." -- Dorothy Parker

It's Friday evening. I planned to write a post about scenes. It was going to be truly magnificent and inspiring. It's a shame you missed it.

Instead, I want to gripe about my relationship with meals today.

I don't mean to imply that I'm having any disagreements with my digestive tract. Far from it. We're getting along famously. We've forgotten all about that episode with the four-alarm chili and the bean burritos even though my family seems intent on discussing it over and over.


Today I went to an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant on my lunch hour. I went alone, because I like to get some writing done, and because I'm lousy at social interaction. They brought me a checklist of the sushi and rolls they had available. There were no pictures, so I wrote random numbers for quantity beside things that looked either familiar or interesting. They brought it on a flat plate, arranged so much like a Zen garden that I didn't know whether to eat it or meditate on its symmetry.

I was used to tiny sushi: tightly bound rolls and compact rice balls tied to fish with little green belts. This was large and loose and terrifying, and I had no idea how to eat it. I started to panic, but covered it by mixing some wasabi in soy and leafing through the layers of fresh ginger they'd brought.

I guess you should never eat alone in a strange place. You should bring a friend well-versed in the local customs.

I tried one of the rolls, and what I could get to my mouth was quite delicious, but everything fell out of the little green belt, and most of it crashed to my plate. I am not sufficiently good with chopsticks that I can pick up much. Mostly I use the sticks to shovel things around until someone notices my distress and gives me a fork, which I ignore because pride and stupidity are my motivations in everything. I managed to scrape up much of what had fallen out, and eventually turned my attention to the cucumber and avocado rolls.

They were were the size and shape of ice-cream cones and wrapped in dark green seaweed. What was I supposed to do? Use my fingers? Something in my I-aspire-to-middle-class background rebelled against the thought. I surreptitiously glanced around at the other diners in the room, but they were all either experienced or sensible, and had chosen dishes that looked nothing like mine. They were of no use, but I'm a bright fellow. I have a university degree and a history of being too smart for my own good. I wasn't going to let an insensate foreign delicacy defeat me so easily. I assessed the tools at hand.

Chopsticks. That was it.

I also had a little square ceramic platform on my table, and I didn't know what it was. A plate? A place for resting my chopsticks? A miniature podium in case I felt like giving a speech? (Take my advice. Don't try it. The Indian restaurant STILL won't let me back in). I had no knife, of course. I don't think sushi restaurants allow them. We might use them to take hostages.

I considered putting the roll on the podium and lifting it up so it would slide into my mouth, but my mouth was too small. I also thought of using the edge of the podium to cut my food in half. The idea had a certain appeal, since it would solve my problem and justify the presence of the podium. However, I didn't see anyone else using the crockery to flay their food, so I abandoned that train of thought. Finally, I reasoned that there was no taboo against biting off some of the roll and eating it a bit at a time.

Did you know that the green seaweed paper they use for those things is pretty much bite-proof?

Also, that there is no way to look dignified with the pointed end of a cucumber-avocado roll sticking out of your mouth like misplaced unicorn horn, bobbing up and down as you try to gnaw through it?

I learn these things so you don't have to. You're welcome.

I finished off my selections with more determination than style, and I was almost sure that the laughter coming from the other tables was not directed at me.

The waitress, who was a petite Chinese woman who looked very much like she was doing her job under protest, dropped by to clear away the shrapnel of my meal. I thought she asked if I wanted anything more. I said, “Yes.” I hadn't been entirely sure what I was getting into, so I had ordered conservatively. Now that I felt I could handle things, more or less, I was ready to get down to the business of feeding. She nodded, took my empty plate, and vanished. I spent some time writing considering the irony of a Chinese waitress in a Japanese restaurant. It's no odder, really, than having your four alarm chili and bean burritos brought to you by a waiter who's accent couldn't have been more than a year out of Glasgow (what happened to me later was certainly not his fault). It's a small world.

My waitress, obviously as the result of a miscommunication, had vanished and my time for culinary experimentation had expired, so I packed up, paid, and left.

That's why I was still hungry as I walked out of an all-you-can-eat restaurant. Quite a trick.

No matter. I'm not normally a big eater, and I had a nice home-cooked meal waiting for me this evening. Barbecued spare ribs and rice. My stomach grumbled its way through the afternoon, then I picked up my daughter from school and drove home. The house was empty except for the smell of barbecue. Penelope had dumped some back ribs in the crock pot with some sauce and let it simmer for eight hours. Mm. I set Cassandra to do some coloring and cooked up some rice and was about to sit down when the phone began to ring. Telemachus had take a bus to a friend's house and wouldn't be home for supper. Aeneas needed a ride out of town to another friend's place where he was going to spend the night. Penelope had forgotten that tonight was games night at the church, so she and Cassandra were leaving as soon as Penelope arrived from work. Oh, and could I put together a tray of fruit with yogurt and granola for them to take with them for the games night pot luck?

So here I sit alone in front of a rack of barbecued back ribs and eight cups of rice. I think I'll eat the whole thing and then drive into town for chili and burritos. I don't think I can be blamed for what happens after that.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Happy Birthday, Jim

Jim Henson would have been 76 today. His birthday should be celebrated every year by the eating of a rubber tire to the music of the Flight of the Bumblebee.

Someday, if I am very, very good, I will be immortalized in foam by having a muppet made in my likeness.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


There's a sign in the kingdom advertising a spa/salon. It says (among other things) that "microderm abrasion gets rid of sunspots."

I wonder if the astrophysical community knows about this?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It May Not Be As Much A Wasteland As I Had Thought

Current Reading: The Tales of Ibis, by Hiroshi Yamamoto

Inspirational Quote: "Oh, well, this would be one of those circumstances that people unfamiliar with the law of large numbers would call a coincidence." -- Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) The Big Bang Theory Pilot

I have a cold. It's a great, solid, hairy beast of a thing that's packed my sinuses with wet cement and crapped phlegm down my throat until I can now express myself in twenty-one varieties of cough. Do I have your sympathy? Don't waste it. I've got a cold and I'm a wimp. Go feel sorry for someone with real problems.

Anyway, thoughts are having the devil of a time surfacing through layers of exhaustion and mucus so I've been spending rather more time than necessary dazed and staring at the television. And I've discovered two things:

1) The Big Bang Theory. I caught 10 minutes of it one evening between other activities and laughed so hard I fell off the sofa. I'm a geek with a university degree in physics, and I don't want to talk about how much of myself and my old friends I see in this show. Penelope has brought home the first 2 disks of the first season, so there's a good 6 hours I'm going to lose...

2) Avatar: the Last Airbender. It's a kid's cartoon. I'm a forty-plus adult. I get the feeling there's a point to be made there, but I have no idea what it could be. The boys and I used to watch this when it was playing on one of the Canadian kids networks, but somewhere in the second season, episodes got skipped and we never made it to the end. The recent Shyamalan film reminded me that it was pretty good.

Good doesn't cover it. This is amazing. A 35+ hour feat of serialized storytelling set in a fantasy world where eastern martial arts allow the manipulation of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. 11-year-old Aang is the reincarnation of the Avatar, a magician responsible for maintaining peace and balance. When he awakens after 100 years in an iceberg, he finds the Fire Nation has started a war that has nearly destroyed the world. To set things right, he has to learn to master the four elements and defeat the Fire Lord. Standing in his way is Prince Zuko, the conflicted son of the Fire Lord who's become obsessed with capturing the Avatar.

It's got lots of action, but there's a tremendous amount of humor too, along with a bit of romance, and a touch of tragedy. Forget the live-action version, this is far superior.

And now I'm going to go back to working my way through boxes of tissue...

BTW: phlegm is one of my favorite words. Where else, in English, do you get the "ph" form of "f" and a silent "g" all in a compact 6 letters?

Friday, September 17, 2010

What's Your Excuse?

I've never found writing easy. Honestly, there are times when I'll seize just about any excuse to avoid doing it.

I have a full-time job I don't enjoy. I have three children, two of whom are teenagers who have made some dark choices lately. Most of the time, I'm tired. A fair bit of the time, I'm so wound up by the actions of my children that all I can do is worry and hold in the panic and try to give my wife something to hold onto when she can't take any more.

When I'm looking for them, excuses to avoid writing are readily available.

But I have this thing I want. It's not for my kids or for my wife. It's a selfish thing just for me.

All the excuses are just a way of separating myself from it, of putting it off maybe until I'm lying on my deathbed and thinking, "I thought I'd have more time." I've been using my excuses lately (the new one is that I have a terrible cold that's making it difficult to think in complete words, let alone complete sentences), even though I've been feeling guilty about it.

For those of you who are like me in that respect, please go and read John Scalzi's take on things. I don't know what size boot he wears, but it's left an impression on my backside that seems entirely justified.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


We have hurricanes, but no himmicanes even though we all know that guys make a bigger mess than girls.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Faith and Fiction

Current Reading: The Stories of Ibis, by Hiroshi Yamamoto

Inspirational Quote: "When you have come to the edge / Of all light that you know / And are about to drop off into the darkness / Of the unknown, / Faith is knowing / One of two things will happen: / There will be something solid to stand on or / You will be taught to fly" -- Patrick Overton

I was born and raised an atheist. As I've grown older, though, and been exposed to science, philosophy and the hammer/anvil relationship that is life, I've found belief in nothing to be quite difficult to maintain. I don't think you can go too far in modern science (which consists essentially of asking, "Why?" with the persistence of a 2-year-old) before you run straight into "Because that's the way it is." Substitute, "Because it's God's will," or, "It's random," or "It's predestined, fate," if you like. It all boils down to the same thing. Quantum mechanics is math wrapped around "I don't know," and you can bet Schroedinger's cat was praying the lid would stay shut.

In spite of my skepticism about skepticism, I don't consider myself a Christian, Muslim, Hare-Krishna, Scientologist or anything else, really. If anything, I'm a Zen Buddhist by way of Groucho Marx (who was Jewish, by the way).

You may agree. You may not. Whatever. This isn't about me or what I believe.

This is about faith, and people of faith, and speculative fiction. I don't mean faith in oneself, or faith in science, but spiritual faith: the belief in a higher power. Faith has shaped our history and our present (not always for good). Conflicting ideologies have shaped our maps. But it's surprising, when you look at speculative fiction, how little an impact faith has on our imaginings of other worlds.

Just looking back over the books I've read (see the list to the left), only a handful touch on the impact or importance of faith. In Coyote Horizon, a fanatical bishop does a terrible thing because he cannot abide a challenge to his faith. In Mainspring, it is Hethor's faith that compels him onto his quest. American Gods, paradoxically, is about gods, but not about faith, and Shadow remains skeptical even while his life becomes bound up with the Gods of the title. Very few speculative fiction novels contain people of faith, or are about people of faith.

When people of spiritual faith appear in speculative fiction, they often get characterized as misguided zealots (see Coyote Horizon). Science fiction is full of religious people who oppose just about everything, especially the march of progress (I love Sagan's treatment of this in Contact). In fantasy, religion often gets demoted to cult status and most of those cults are evil organizations worshiping things with tentacles. They exist so that Conan can pillage them. Occasionally, the good cults are showcased for their ability to heal (which seems to be the distinguishing mark of "good" religions). They exist so that the protagonist doesn't have to deal with their injuries. Messiahs are, strangely, a favorite topic for speculative fiction. Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune are two monumental works about messiahs. They always come to a bad end, though.

I have yet to see a speculative fiction story about a good Catholic whose faith helps sustain her through his trials, or a Muslim whose peaceful practice of his faith is key to his ability to withstand the tragedies that befall him. Instead, false Gods appear all the time while true ones only pop up occasionally. There's very little speculation about God in speculative fiction. We don't ponder his/her/its existence except obliquely. We don't wonder about his species or gender, whether he's one or three or three hundred. And yet these questions are central to a great deal of our society.

When religion appears in speculative fiction, there is a predominance of monolithic cultures: all members of a species belong to the same religion. Looking at humanity, that seems ridiculously unlikely. Even within Christianity, which dominates here in Canada, we have Catholic and Protestant, United, Jehovah's Witness, Mennonite... more variants than I can count, each one claiming to worship the one true God in the only right way.

Once in a while, I come across a thoughtful treatment of religion and faith. Speaker for the Dead included a Catholic priest who took very seriously the spiritual well-being of the human settlers on a distant planet... and of the aliens who shared that planet with them. Babylon 5 lampshaded the monolithic spirituality of its aliens in one episode where, to showcase Earth's dominant religion, the commander filled a hangar bay with a line of spiritual leaders that stretched out of sight.

I think faith is an important aspect of character. I know people whose faith has led them to be more tranquil, more tolerant and wiser. I also know people whose faith has appeared to justify their prejudices and allowed them to be abusive without shame. I find it curious that faith, which plays so big a part in our world, plays such a small part in the worlds we imagine.

Naturally, I'm interested in your thoughts on the matter. Particularly any counterexamples: speculative work where faith is an important and positive aspect of character.

Book Report: Fool Moon, by Jim Butcher

Like the first Dresden Files book, this one is a textbook in structure done right. It's an incredibly fast read, and difficult to put down because almost every scene and chapter ends on a cliffhanger.

In this, Harry Dresden is brought in on a grisly murder where the victim looks like he's been savaged by a wild animal. It's a werewolf, of course, but not only does he have to deal with more than one, they're on different sides in a multi-party conflict. There are also different kinds of werewolves, from the berserker Streetwolves where the transformation is entirely mental to the loup-garou, an almost invulnerable shape changer whose savagery can't be controlled.

This is a good read, a potboiler that owes a great deal to Philip Marlowe. If it has a fault, and I don't think of this as such, it lacks the depth of some of the other books I've been reading. I think that's a trade-off, something sacrificed to ensure a breakneck pace. It's an exciting book, but it's not a place to look for a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be human.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Report: Coyote Horizon, by Allen Steele

The thing I love about the Coyote books is the combination of character driven stories and the hard science fiction setting. The books also have a political and societal awareness that puts me in mind of Dune. This book, part one of a two part Coyote story treads some of the same ground as Dune, but it is very much its own story. I think this one strays a little further from the hard science by introducing artificially introduced telepathy. However, it also explores the religious/spiritual/philosophical impact of contact with an alien race in a way that I've never quite seen before.

This is not merely some pedantic treatise, though. There's a good story here about a murderer who finally finds redemption through an alien philosophy, who becomes a teacher, a messiah and a martyr. It's also about a lone-wolf game hunter who finally connects with someone, and an ex-politician who can't bring himself to put the needs of his new world behind his own needs even though he's long retired.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Fourth Floor: Notions, Oceans, Potions and Vegetation.

Current Reading: Coyote Horizon, by Allen Steele

Inspirational Quote: "Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." -- Howard Thurman

Random detritus from my brain:

I'm beginning to understand the truth about the necessity for conflict in a dramatic scene. Without it, there is no question in the reader's mind, nothing to compel them to read on. So, from this we can deduce that nothing interests people more than a good fight. I'm not sure I like what that says about human nature. It's possible that Juvenal was right: all we desire are bread and circuses.

Penelope tried her hand (and Cassandra's too) at vegetable gardening this year. Naturally, she chose the same year that the construction equipment came in, flattened our forest and filled in our swamp. As a result, we got half-a-dozen cucumbers, a dozen pea-pods and a miniature lake that drowned everything else. It was kind of pretty, but there's something a little weird about seeing cornstalks rising from a pool of water. I'm trying to convince them that next year, they should plant rice.

I am not qualified to raise children. My sons insist on doing stupid, dangerous things despite all I do to dissuade them. I hope they'll live long enough to see their brains develop. Actually, I'm hoping I'll live long enough to see their brains develop. They seem to be getting along fine, but I'm a nervous wreck.

This is a great place, although it's changed a lot since my youth, when it seemed like a combination of Disney World and the starship Enterprise: the essence of cool crossed with fun. Cassandra and I loved the reef-in-an-aquarium and the Harry Potter props exhibit. There's just so much to play with that, even though she can't read yet, she found dozens of things to do no matter where she went.

Cassandra discovered Harry Potter through the Lego video game. It's funny and clever and requires some thought. When she found out we had the books, she insisted that I read them to her. Of course, there's a lot in there that is dark and frightening, so we've only read the first, and we skipped over many of the creepier parts. While I was reading to her, I expected her to grow bored. The Philosopher's Stone is quite a long book for a six-year-old, and there are no pictures. I thought we'd soon be turning to Flat Stanley or Junie B. Jones for a little relief, but not only did she hang on every word of the much longer book, but afterward she insisted I make up stories about that world and its people. Mostly Fred and George, because they're funny and mischievous. Although some may cast aspersions on Ms. Rowling's ability, I can only watch her work spellbind a little girl and wish I had even a pinch of what Rowling has in barrels.

After that, we saw the movie of the Philosopher's Stone, which was darker still, so there was a lot of skipping over bits and we missed the climax entirely. No matter. She loved it, and couldn't wait to wander among the sets and costumes in the Science Center exhibit.

Summer is drawing to an end. It's been cool and rainy. On some trees in the Kingdom, the leaves are beginning to change and the air is taking on that smell which says Autumn is just around the corner. I love this time of year, partly because it's pretty, and partly because of the memories of falls when I was a kid. Nobody likes to go back to school, but for me there was always anticipation. Something new was about to start, and I could feel the possibilities spread out before me just waiting to be explored. Autumn always smells to me of potential and nostalgia.

Oh, and burning leaves because when some people see something breathtakingly beautiful, it only makes sense that they gather it up and set fire to it. People. Seriously, God, were we really the best you could come up with?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


You can't find Happiness with Google Maps (unless you're looking for Happiness as part of a business, which doesn't help with your personal life. Or Happiness as a street, which I don't trust because I don't think I'd be happy on the street).

You can find Bliss, but only in New York or Michigan. Ecstasy can only be found in a lake in Minnesota. Peace is in North Dakota. Joy is in New York.

Apparently we don't have any of those things in Canada.

You can't find God, but he's got a lake in Manitoba.

You can't find Enlightenment anywhere, and good luck finding Wisdom. They aren't on any map.

I leave you to ponder the geo-philosophical implications of this...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Beginning Again

Current Reading: Coyote Horizon, by Allen Steele

Inspirational Quote: "I've seen worse things start off better, and better things start off worse," -- Me, in a philosophical mood.

For this, I wish you could follow along with me in the pages, but I don't want to do Mr. Steele the discourtesy of quoting a significant portion of his work. If you have read Coyote Horizon, or can be convinced to go out and buy it, please do, because I believe studying its structure will be very informative.

I was reading this in the tub this morning (I read in the tub a lot. Usually until the water gets cold). I've enjoyed Mr. Steele's work, starting with Labyrinth of Night a number of years ago, and I've particularly enjoyed his Coyote novels. It's hard science fiction, and I've found his tale of the first human colony both compelling and believable, so I've really been looking forward to reading the latest installment in the series.

This morning, while developing submersion wrinkles, I delved into the prologue. Unlike my earlier post, I'm not going to concentrate on the first paragraph, but on the prologue as a whole. Nor will I quote it verbatim.

The scene opens in front of a house on an escarpment. The first paragraph is a bit dull, although the first line mentions that it is the home of two former presidents of the planet Coyote. I didn't find it as compelling as I found the openings of most of the books I mentioned in that earlier post, but to this point, Steele has never disappointed me and the promise of another of his stories is sufficient motivation to hook me.

It's the second paragraph where the questions start cropping up: why is the POV character told to arrive early? Why is the house so inaccessible? What does she want that makes climbing to the house a reasonable action?

The main conflict of the prologue is introduced right away. It looks like reporter vs. mountain, but the geography is just a manifestation of the ex-president's desire to avoid visitors. It's actually reporter vs. ex-president, with an interview as the stakes. The reporter suffers two setbacks: her recorder is taken away, and the president side-tracks the conversation. Only when the reporter rises to leave (takes action) does she get her recorder back and permission for the interview.

She has achieved her goal, but the interview she gets isn't quite what she was hoping for. Her first question elicits an explanation of the forces active on Coyote and the pressures on its people. This is for the reader's benefit, although it doesn't feel like an info dump. It feels like the reporter is challenging the ex-president with these facts, daring her to make a statement or take a stand.

Instead, the reporter gets challenged instead. The ex-president points out a ship being built to explore Coyote's equatorial river, and lets slip that the expedition is causing some trouble for the ex-president and her husband (who is also an ex-president). Far from getting an answer to her questions, the reporter leaves the encounter with a whole new set of questions.

By the time the prologue ends, the reader knows something about the backstory, has met some of the main characters, and has broad hints about the coming conflicts likely to be triggered by the ship's expedition. It's an effective setup driven by a pattern of goal, obstacle, setback.

How Spent My Summer Vacation, I, part 2

Yoda-speak is just another way George Lucas has destroyed modern culture (just kidding, George. I can't remain upset with anything that features muppets).

In addition to exploring tracts of tamederness (it's like wilderness but not as wild), my family and I took in more urban pursuits. We hit Canada's Wonderland, which is a great place if you enjoy roller-coasters and an absolute paradise if you enjoy long lines of people. One piece of advice, though: don't take teenagers in a surly mood or you'll never be able to get on "that one coaster you stand up on and corkscrew," or "that other one where there's just the seats and nothing around you but the overhead track," because apparently "waiting sucks. The rides suck. This whole place sucks. Can I go sit in the van?"

Sigh. When we'd taken all we could, we strolled over to the water park and Telemachus, Cassandra, Penelope and I enjoyed the ups and downs of the wave pool while Aeneas watched our belongings and dozed off in the sun. That's about as close to a compromise that made everyone happy as we were likely to get.

From Toronto, we went to Ottawa. They have museums there. Cassandra loved the Museum of Science and Technology, which apparently is not a boring museum where you can't touch anything. She loved running around and pushing buttons and flicking switches and making things go. I can't wait to get her to the Toronto Science Center. I notice they have a Harry Potter exhibit, which is wonderful because I've been reading the first book to her and she absolutely loves the Harry Potter Lego video game.

While we were there, we also discovered a grist-mill museum along the banks of the Rideau River. Cassandra loved it too, surprising me because it was not particularly large nor particularly interactive. When I told her it was supposed to be haunted, she got so excited I thought I was going to have to drag her out of the place when they closed.

Since she enjoyed those museums so much, I decided to take her to see one in the town where I grew up. In the almost twenty years I lived within walking distance to Glanmore House, I had never visited it. Now that I'm an out-of-towner, I guess it's okay to do something touristy. It's a beautiful place, and I can't avoid using the adjective "sumptuous" whenever I think about it. As we entered, the curator handed us a scavenger hunt sheet which kept Cassandra whirling from room to room trying to find everything. The glimpse of an upper-class Canadian life during Victoria's reign fascinated me, and the realization that it had been used as a residence within my lifetime gave the whole experience an extra bit of perspective.

I sometimes think that in our rush to experience the world, a world that grows smaller as communications and travel grow simpler, we tend to appreciate the distant and the foreign over those things closer to home. In the past few weeks, I've seen a different side of the little world I've lived in my whole life and I've found it as unexpected and fascinating and captivating as I would have had I never laid eyes on it before. It's a wonderful experience, and I've been lucky to see at least some of it through the eyes of a little girl to whom the whole world is a strange and beautiful place.

I hope you've been as lucky.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation, part 1

Yeah, so it's the weekend and I hadn't posted anything as promised. I plead summer.

Three weeks ago, I started my summer vacation as I always do: with grand plans and high hopes. Naturally, things didn't work out the way I hoped they would. However, although I didn't get the shed cleaned out, or the door frames repainted, there were highlights.

Cassandra and I set out to visit every conservation area within the drainage basin of the river close to where we live. We did alright and had some very nice walks through mosquito-infested lowlands. It was only toward the end of our efforts that I discovered the local conservation authority actually divides its lands into two categories: Natural habitat preserves and conservation areas. Conservation areas have trails laid out, guideposts, signage, potties and sometimes picnic and swimming areas. Habitat preserves don't. In fact, they don't even have signs telling you where they are.

I guess they figure that if you're a plant or an animal, no amount of signage is going to help you, and if you're a person, well... the whole point is to discourage you from disturbing the plants and animals (see the common definition of "natural"), so why waste the money?

We spent an hour one Thursday driving up and down a road looking for such an area which was clearly marked on the map but absolutely indiscernible in the real world. When I had finally narrowed it down, it turned out to be a stretch of impassible wetland. Fortunately, ice-cream is apparently a reasonable remedy for most things that disappoint a 5-year old.

Still, we have some beautiful areas set aside from development, in which one can glimpse the glory that must once have been: the vast forest which covered most of Southern Ontario. Oak and ash, birch, pine and Douglas fir. You can stand under old growth, trees that were huge before Cartier cross the land, and hear nothing but the wind rustling the leaves (and the whine of mosquitoes the size and color of ripe tomatoes). It's at those moments you realize what inspired the Group of Seven, and it's difficult not to feel inspired yourself.

I was inspired to remember the bug repellent on our next trip.

There are whole rush beds alive with the song of frogs and that high pitched buzz that comes from some insect or other (I never found out which) which cuts through the air like an industrial saw and makes you wonder if the source of the noise isn't a bug somehow made out of steel. I always associate that sound with hot summer, because I always hear it when the sun is beating down and the air is still.

And then there's the water. I grew up on the banks of a river whose depth varied from a killer six feet of icy gray foam during the spring runoff to a quarter inch in low-lying trenches during the heat of August. It was the background soundtrack to my life as a kid. We lived just down from a dam, and so the roar of the water cascading over the cement buttresses was constant. In the winter, we could hear the boom of floes as the ice growing upstream pushed them over the top of the dam to shatter on the rocks twelve feet below. A few big ones would shake the house every year.

So I've got a soft spot for water. Especially creeks, where you can sit on the bank and listen to water run over the limestone shelving that passes for rocks around here. We spent part of an afternoon sitting on the cement-and-stone ruins of an old grist-mill dam watching water bugs and minnows, larger fish and frogs go about their uneventful but fascinating lives. Cassandra discovered some very big snails but couldn't quite be persuaded to pick one up. They're icky, apparently, although I'm sure other snails find them quite attractive.

There are a few places we haven't gotten to yet, and we may not get the chance. Daddy's working a lot, and Cassandra's got day camp keeping her busy. But still there are weekends and there's always a chance for us to slip away for a late summer hike.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book Report: Devil May Cry, by Ian Fleming (Sebastian Faulks)

To this point in my life, I had not read Ian Fleming. Nor had I so much as dabbled in the numerous 007 books created by various authors under license. I had, however, enjoyed most of the movies up to and including Octopussy (forgive me).

When I saw this lying around, I thought, 'Why not?' I knew the Bond of the books was quite different from the Bond of film, so I went in with no real idea what to expect. What I got was a spy thriller set in the mid 1900s during the cold war, in which a deformed pharmaceutical producer with a hate on for Britain tries to heat up the war after growing impatient with promoting heroin addiction in the English underclass. Add in exotic locales (Iran, Turkey, Cold-war Russia), a psychotic henchman and twin damsels in distress who aren't what they seem.

It was a decent enough read, but I really didn't think the book got going until the second half when Bond discovers the villain's lair and begins to investigate. The pages before that read more like a seedy travelogue with occasional bits of intrigue and violence. I did not find much tension in the first part, and had things not picked up when they did, I'd have laid this aside.

As I say, I haven't read Fleming or a book about Bond before, and there may be conventions or traditions associated with them of which I remain unaware. My dissatisfaction may be due entirely to having uneducated expectations.

Ulysses Rating: 1 - I finished this, but I didn't enjoy it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Quick! Post Something Before Someone Thinks You've Died!

My apologies for the recent run of whitespace. I am currently experiencing temporal dislocation (I can't find the time).

However, I'll be back with something pithy/witty/deep/nonsensical/musical/clairvoyant/hydrophobic/iconoclastic/sympathetic/pathetic/subjective/objective/massive/prehensile/masculine/porcine/bovine/flatulent... or at least free-associative before the approaching weekend.

In the immortal words of Han Solo: "We're all fine here... uh, how are you?"
So: uh, how are you?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Starting at the Beginning

Current Reading: Nothing for the moment. I'm on vacation and thinking a trip to the bookstore might be just the thing...

Inspirational quote: "He who chooses the beginning of the road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determines the end." -- Harry Emerson Fosdick

I having some trouble beginning. Not starting. Starting, I can do. But beginning and beginning well is a trick I have yet to master. As I said in a previous post, I think reading actively is important for a writer. I think it's foolish to ignore what's already been done.

And beginnings are important. Numerous agents, editors and readers talk about the importance of the first chapter, the first scene, the first paragraph and the first sentence. That's where we've got to hook the reader, to grab them and compel them into the story such that they don't want to leave until it's over. But how do you pull it off? What works?

Well, as with plots, I decided to turn to a selection of books I've read recently and really take a hard look at their beginnings. My thoughts are in italics... because, in my own head, my thoughts are in gray italics. Weird, huh?

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher:
I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. Why is the mailman early? He didn't sound right. His footsteps fell more heavily, jauntily, and he whistled. A new guy. He whistled his way to my office door, then fell silent for a moment. Then he laughed. Question of why he's early answered and replaced by new question: What's so funny about his office door?

Mainspring, by Jay Lake:
The Angel gleamed in the light of Hethor's reading candle bright as any brasswork automaton. Exotic situation: angels and reading candles and automatons. Why is there an angel in the room? The young man clutched his threadbare coverlet in the irrational hope that the quilted cotton scraps could shield him from whatever power had invaded his attic room. Trembling, he closed his eyes. Reaction shows that this is unusual, terrifying, and we read on to find out why it's happening and how he deals.

Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett:
It was midnight in Ankh-Morpork's Royal Art Museum*. Pedestrian place (museum) juxtaposed with an exotic city. The footnote here leads to a humorous aside about the city, its nature and government. It occurred to new employee Rudolph Scattering about once every minute that on the whole it might have been a good idea to tell the Curator about his nyctophobia, his fear of strange noises and, he now knew, his fear of absolutely every thing he could see (and, come to that, not see) hear, smell and feel crawling up his back during the endless hours on guard during the night. It was no use telling himself that everything in here was dead. That didn't help at all. It meant that he stood out. Introduction to an unusual character in a situation sure to cause him trouble. What's going to happen to push him over the edge?

Outrageous Fortune, by Tim Scott:
“Fuckers,” I whispered to myself as I looked at the small, pristine business card held lightly between my fingers. Reader wants to know what's on the card, and who deserves the expletive. On it were the words:“Don't you hate it when this happens?” Reader wants to know what happened.

Recovery Man, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch:
Jupiter filled the dome as Rhonda Shindo pressed the chip on her wrist to slow the express sidewalk. Exotic place with Jupiter, chips and sliding sidewalks. Reader wants to know where she is and why she's slowing the sidewalk. She glanced upward, always startled when the planet loomed so large. That night, Jupiter was sand-colored with streaks of brown. Sometimes it seemed redder and sometimes it had more orange. More of the exotic setting. Doesn't raise any more questions, but does put off the answer to the question the reader already has. Anticipation, delayed gratification.

Coyote, by Allen Steele:
This is the story of the new world. What new world? It begins not there, however, but on Earth, in the closing years of the twentieth century. Where? Is this based in reality? Have I already lived through the event to which he's leading up?

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman:
Shadow had done three years in prison. What for? He was big enough and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife. This is about the character, and raises questions about why his love for his wife occupied so much of his time.

So what can I get from all this? (Yeah, I know... seven books is a statistically useless sample from which to draw generalizations, but if one wishes to draw conclusions, one must do so on the basis of the available sample... 'cause anything else is just makin' stuff up).
  • Questions. It's all about questions. From the first sentence, each opening raised questions in my mind that I wanted to push into the next sentence to answer. The sentences that follow might answer that question, but often there's a bait and switch as though the author were saying, "You think about that for a moment. I'm going to tell you about this first." There's the promise of delayed gratification, of anticipation that propels me forward.
  • Often, the first sentence is short and punchy.
  • The openings above seem to fall into three different types:

    • Unusual event, or usual event that doesn't play out the way it usually does.
    • Exotic setting, or familiar elements in an exotic arrangement. Probably not a good idea to extend this more than a short paragraph before introducing a character or event.
    • An unusual character, or a character with unusual attributes.

A couple of interesting and similar conclusions can be found here and here.

At one point, I had what I thought was a beautiful beginning sentence for the Magnus Somnium: "It ended in fire." I liked it because starting a book talking about an ending really raises some questions, and because it book-ended (pun unintentional) nicely with the final line of the story: "The sun rose, and the new day began in fire." Unfortunately, the book now starts in another place that works much better, so I've lost context for the line.

Oh well, back to the writing board...

Outrageous Fortune, by Tim Scott

Unquestionably the best book I have read so far this year that starts with an expletive.

Which puts it in a class of one. No matter.

This is a bit of a mind-bender that puts it almost in a class with Philip K. Dick's work. As a reader, I was never quite sure what was going on, or why or just how "real" everything I read really was. It's about a dream architect who one day discovers his house has been stolen, and that the thieves have left behind a business card with an invitation to call them. After that, things get weird as he's chased through city boroughs organized by musical genres by a limpet encyclopedia saleswoman (who latches on to her mark and won't let go), and four motorbike riders named after the Apocalyptic horsemen. In the process, he discovers a plot to assassinate god using a virus that could give everyone the same dream, that will keep them from believing.

The thing that didn't work for me here is that 9/10ths of the book concerns these events, but the resolution (I'll try not to spoil anything here, but forgive me if I mess up) concerns something only slightly related, and put me in mind of Dallas for reasons I won't go into. Once I finished the book, although I could see the rationale behind the ending and all that led up to it, I felt a little bit cheated. It was not as though aliens arrived in the final few chapters, but as though they had been there all along and I hadn't noticed. It reminded me also of I Am the Messenger, in that the events of the book happened for a reason which made sense but was not satisfying.

Ulysses Rating: 2 - I had a tough go.

Book Report: Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett

It's a big book. Bigger than most of the Discworld books that are starting to overflow my shelves. It's also a bit of a departure. Although it takes place within Ankh-Morpork and Unseen University, and although it features the only faculty in the multiverse capable of destroying reality while trying to get in a game of billiards before tea, it's not about them. On the surface, it's about a mystery in the form of a being named Nutt who doesn't seem too certain about who or what he is. Beneath that, it's a meditation on Nature vs Nurture vs Free Will.

Are we what we are born to be? Are we what we are made to be? Are we what we decide to be? It all comes out in the mix of a football (soccer) prodigy whose dad died heroically while playing the game, a chef who's sensible and dependable and rather like a crab in an unpleasant way, and a beautiful girl for whom being beautiful just might be enough to get her through life.

The book is complicated and deep and rich and, although still funny and absurd in places, reminds me more of Pratchett's Nation than of any of his other Discworld work. And I guess that's where it fell down. It feels too big, I guess. Sprawling and less tightly plotted than his earlier work. This isn't a bad thing, but it's not quite what I read Pratchett's work for and so not only did I take longer to read this than I normally do, I found myself not quite as satisfied by it as I'd hoped to be.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Under Deconstruction

Current Reading: Outrageous Fortune, by Tim Scott

Inspirational Quote: "Four things, actually... well, four things and a lizard." -- David Tennant as Doctor Who (I can think of no better title for a blog than "Four Things and a Lizard).

First, a PSA:

Reader and all-around good egg S.L. Card points out a workshop notice for ReConStruction which may interest those in, around and capable of getting to Raleigh N.C.

And now, to what's been on my mind for a while...

I try not to give generic writing advice for two reasons:

1) If I'm so smart, where's my book? (It's coming... it's coming).

2) What I think makes perfect sense for me is not guaranteed to be sensible for someone else.

But if there's one piece of advice I accidentally gave that I really believe in, it's this: if you want to be a good writer, read actively. Don't just consume the printed word, but digest it. Make a note of the bits that affect you. If you're in love with a character, try to figure out what the writer did that made you fall in love. If there's a phrase or image that haunts you, try to understand what there is about it that makes it memorable. Once I've finished books, I go over different scenes and passages again, the ones that stayed with me after the cover closed.

Sometimes I even read with a notebook.

The Magnus Somnium is being stubborn. It drags in places and zooms in others. High points seem just don't seem to be as high as they ought. I think it's a plot problem, but in order to understand the fault, I first have to really understand plot and structure. This is handy as a guide. So is just about everything Jim Butcher says here. And I'm sure by now, if you write fiction, you've compiled a million of your own references.

But what does it all mean? I have trouble with moving from the theoretical to the practical, and I admit it freely. I love theory, getting lost in ideas which are perfect and flawless and inspiring. I also love the practical applications because that's where theory crashes into the real world loses all the bits that don't work. It's just the transition that mystifies me.

So I decided to take a look at a couple of books I enjoyed recently and examine their plot, see what happens when. I present the following because I hope it will be as instructive for you as it was for me. I apologize, as there will be spoilers (it's unavoidable... I can't talk about plot without telling something of the story).

Mainspring, by Jay Lake (324 pages)

Page 1: The Angel appears to Hethor and gives him a mission. (0%)

Hethor seeks advice about the mission.

Page 28: Hethor is expelled from his apprenticeship. (8%)

Hethor journeys to Boston.

Page 54: Interview with the Governor ends in prison. (16%)

Escape and time on the Basset.

Page 177: Crossing the wall, almost crushed by gears, loses his guide. (54%)

After confronting an antagonist, he spends time with the Correct People.

Page 289: The Airship crashes at the South Pole. (89%)

Journey under the pole with tests.

Page 316: Final confrontation with the antagonist. (97%)


Storm Front, by Jim Butcher (322 pages)

Page 4: Harry gets calls that result in 2 jobs. (1%)

Surveying the scene of the crime.

Page 30: Harry commits to investigating black magic despite the trouble it could cause. (9%)

Harry investigates the Lake House.

Page 76: Morgan delivers a warning. (23%)

Interviewing the suspects.

Page 168: The black wizard sends a demon after Harry. (52%)

Harry loses some hair and discovers his cases are connected. The antagonist's identity is revealed.

Page 262: Attack in the office. (81%)

Harry prepares.

Page 293: Confrontation at the Lake House. (90%)


Now that I've seen how things are put together in the real world, I can start to draw a few conclusions:

  1. Both books use a ticking clock. If Hethor fails to wind the mainspring before a given date, the world ends. After he loses his hair, Harry has to find and defeat the black wizard before the coming storm arrives, or he'll die. Time is as much the enemy as the antagonist.

  2. Each book has a handful of significant incidents that mark turning points in the protagonist's progress. They're usually disasters, although they might not be recognized as such. They're separated by stages that lead up to the next turning point.

  3. (Turning Point) Books I like start off with an unusual event in the protagonist's life that gives them some purpose and forces them to act. This inciting incident might not be the result of the protagonist's action, but everything afterward will be. If it's not right on the first page, it's very close to it.

  4. (Stage) After that, the protagonist reacts according to their usual nature. In the first case, Hethor seeks knowledge and advice from his superiors. In the second case, Harry checks out the crime scene.

  5. (TP) Around 10% into the story, we have the first big disaster. Harry promises he'll solve the crime, but then is forced into a car and told that doing so would be a mistake. Hethor's thrown out of Master Bodean's house. Both these disasters isolate the protagonist. Hethor's lost his home. Harry alienates the cops.

  6. (Stg) The protagonist seeks the most simple and obvious solution to the problem. Hethor goes to the authorities. Harry pokes around the Lake House.

  7. (TP) Around 25% into the story, another big setback. Hethor gets his interview with the governor, and ends up in prison. Harry finds out the White Council is watching him VERY closely. The problem can't be solved the easy way, and trying to do so makes things worse. Either the problem is bigger and more complicated than they thought, or trying to solve it has created another, worse, problem.

  8. (Stg) The protagonist limps on, trying to solve the problem with a slightly different approach. Harry interviews suspects. Hethor becomes an apprentice sailor.

  9. (TP) Near the half-way point, something huge happens that changes the game. There's no retreat now, no surrender. Hethor crosses the equatorial wall to the mysterious southern hemisphere. Harry is attacked by a demon in his apartment.

  10. (Stg) The previous event has changed the world again. This time, the protagonist looks likely to fail and the consequences of failure become unbearable. During this section, the protagonist may gain allies, but they'll be lost or unavailable by the time we get to the next incident. Instead of being a follower, Hethor becomes a leader among the Correct People. Initially reluctant to use powerful magic, Harry cuts loose and discovers the black wizard's identity.

  11. (TP) 80% into the story, a final disaster strips the protagonist of all support and all hope. Hethor crashes his airship at the pole, without the Key Perilous or time to find it. Harry and his police liason are attacked in his office, costing him the last of his talismans and nearly exhausting his magic.

  12. (Stg) There's nothing left to do now, no choice, but to storm the enemy fortress/proceed to the goal. Hethor seeks the mainspring. Harry goes back to the Lake House.

  13. (TP) The climax happens anytime after the 90% mark. The clock runs out and the protagonist confronts the antagonist and either wins or loses. Hethor fights to wind the mainspring. Harry tries to stop the spell that will end his life.

  14. (Stg) Once the climax is over, so's the book. There are a few pages of cool-down, an aftermath or "where are they now," but it doesn't take up much space. It shows the reader how the protagonist's life has changed as a result of events.
Of course, not all books are structured like this. Literary fiction plays with structure all the time (although Racing in the Rain breaks down pretty similarly to the above), but commercial fiction seems to be built in the same way.

I know many of you who write will look at this and go, "that's way too restrictive. I can't write to a formula, or a skeleton like that." Fine. I'm okay with that. But are you sure you aren't already writing a plot similar to that above? It's a species of the 3-act structure, and an evolution of the Heroic Journey, which has been running through stories since long before Joseph Campbell slapped a label on it. As readers, we have certain expectations for stories. We look for certain milestones. A structure like the one above helps us meet those expectations, and give readers a satisfying experience. I think we ignore such things at our peril.