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This blog was my online wordsmith workshop, where you'll find notes on my writing experiences, excerpts from my fantasy and science fiction novels, and essays of a more homeworld flavor.  Some of the advice therein may still be of interest to new writers so I have left it here but due to technical difficulties, I no longer post here regularly.  You can look me up on Dreamwidth, although I do not post frequently. 

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Monday, August 31, 2009

Magic vs Science, Fantasy vs Science Fiction
I've posted a couple of space poems on Homeworld and will post some stuff on my recent reunion after I wrap up Writercon notes. Then mid September I'll be on the road and off line for a couple of weeks but I'll post a good long section of From Beyond the Wall before and after as well as some tales of writing on the road. Beautiful bits of nature make great inspiration for fantasy landscapes.

Magic vs Science

This session ended up addressing a lot of elements of style for fantasy and science fiction since it dealt with, among other things, mixing them. In the end, it seemed like the panel members were pushing much stronger for the use of science, scientific method, and modern ideas of rational though in fantasy and much less for magic in science fiction. It will probably be appararent in my notes that I disagree, so be prepared for bias and opinionated phrases. (I think rationalizing magical elements takes away the very qualities that make fantasy a joy to read and write--and most successful fantasies don't, supporting my view, while I love stories that have thrown magical worlds and alien planets on collision courses. They are very hard to write well but delightful to read.)

The session was billed as a cage match but not much of an argument. They all agreed that while there were clear differences between the two, most liked both and didn't mind a mix. Some even thought that magic should be treated as if it were a science, with rational explanations and rules for its use and limits (though they admitted that stories that didn't were no less popular for that).

This one was also more of a true panel discussion, with different questions being addressed by all of the panel members rather than the panel members each taking one turn to say whatever they want about the topic. My notes are a little more irratic as a result but it made for a more interesting session.

As an example of how the differences work, they compared NCIS and CSI. NCIS isn't a soap opera but it does focus more than CSI on the characters and interaction with the other people they encounter in the episode, and how those personalities impact the investigations. They also have warmer, less cool-professional interaction than the CSI shows. The CSI shows, on the other hand, focus on how the science helps solve the task at hand. NCIS, then, is more like fantasy, and CSI is more like science fiction, though those are but a few of the elements that make the differences.

The magic of science, one argued, is when the science is not explained, it just IS, a black box taking the place of a magic wand. Several examples were discussed: Dr Who encountered people who thought technology was magic and he could explain it away scientifically, in contrast to Torchwood where they encountered mythical beings and didn't bother trying to explain the source, just accepted their nature as is, making it more fantasy-like.

Fantasy tends to focus on the poetic and beautiful, the mystery and unknown. Historically, yeast was magical, the unexplained result of ritual, the explanation unknown, simply cause and effect without knowing why or even needing a why. Medieval alchmey was an early attempt at being scientific, but the explanations could be quite bizarre in our view and they had no concept of what is now accepted as the scientific method. Some of the panel members thought magic should have explanations for everything, to be practical and follow common sense, and considered fanfic as a channel for the explanations to be developed (but I think alchemical type explanations would be more appropriate for fantasy; otherwise, by the earlier definitions, it becomes science fiction and not fantasy at all). According to that panel member's view, one of the authors who mixes them effectively is Madelien L'Engle, who combines science and spiritual issues and questions/issues of human experience. (Though not mentioned earlier, there seemed to be general agreement that spiritual issues leaned a tale toward fantasy, regardless of other considerations.)

Along the way we switched from the magic of science to the science of magic and some of the resultant discussions made it clear that though they are fantasy fans, some of the panel members didn't understand what they liked about fantasy, and others revealed that they paid attention to the movies but didn't read the books, e.g., Harry Potter, commenting that it was a "problem" that the kids only eat sweets and that they didn't explain where the food came from. (In fact, in the book, they don't just eat sweets and they do explain where the food comes from, but even if that weren't so, would it matter? The story conveyed what the characters noticed, not the whole: would it be so surprising that kids would recognize the generous supply of treats and not care about the rest? Does it matter to the story where the food came from? --It does in one book, which is why it comes out; what must matter in the end is the story. The rest is extraneous. That's one reason I like the latest Harry Potter movie (Half-Blood Prince) better than the book. The book could have used a bit of editing down, but the movie contained what mattered and was less dark than the book.)

One of the panelists noted that Canon (the content of the original book, movie, or series) often doesn't worry too much about the background trivia, culture, etc. It is just there without explanation, and that in itself is very compelling. It does help if the writer has some sense of the structure, vision, rules, even if they aren't explained in the book or show, if only to prevent blatant inconsistencies and contradictions.

One panelist went so far as to suggest that it should be possible to "develop" magic (as if it was a field of science) beyond just developing new applications. (I wonder, who would do the developing? Does she see wizards and alchemists as kinds of engineers who can fiddle with the source of magic? This may have been one of those who suggested it would be a good idea to move fantasy into the era of the industrial revolution... i can see the "scientists" of that era trying to develop magic, just as they tried to toy with nutrition and esper talents, with about equal success as they wrote history without evidence or documentation.)

Another or the same wanted a cost for magic, power in power out, physics... A better alternative was the suggestion of limits and consequences, if only to prevent magic becoming too easy an answer to every problem in the book. If power is infinate, there shouldn't be any problems, unless that in itself is the problem... Likewise, evil too powerful should overwhelm all, which makes a poor story. (I don't see a need for a power-in, power-out kind of balance, but to have tension and conflict, the protagonists and antagonists need to have a measure of balance between them.) In Star Wars, the Force has no obvious cost, but its use is limited and eventually everyone can see when it seems to achieve too much. It is at least limited by the character's ability to apply it with skill and wisdom. As a writer needing to tame a power, or limit it for the sake of balance and conflict, consider weakening the wielder with distractions, internal crises, crises of faith, and other sources of tension that enhance the story in the process.

Crossovers

Crossing between worlds (e.g. unrelated shows) is a common trope, especially with contemporary, near-reality (or even reality) show characters going ot a fantasy/SF universe, but can get quickly out of hand if not considered with care. For example, do the characters from the "reality based" world know or not know about the magic they encounter? Do they accept it or assume it is science whose explanation they don't yet know? Consider whether reality- based characters can deal with the realization that magic is real. Maybe they can because they are accustomed to black boxes: how many of us really know how a flat disk can convey pictures and sound, for example? The mix of low tech/primitive and magic might be a little harder to accept, if they want there to be an engineer behind the magic wand, though...

Going back to NCIS, what happens when they land in a land of magic? They would assume that clues make sense once understood, and not accept the reality of either the SF or Fantasy they have landed in. They are more likely to consider it a trick, an effort to hide the explanation or whatever.

Doing a crossover effectively is aided by looking for points of similarity. In fanfic, the writer needs to make sure they aren't wrecking canon. In Canon, the writers have to have very solid, strong characters, regardless of the sometimes variable world they are in. The fanfic writer has to have a good understanding of that character and the character's reactions to events or it will just feel like a mixed world rather than a crossover. For example, Farscape is very mixed, consistently inconsistent with lots of mystic elements and potions as well as wierd science. (Religion though as faith, not magic).

Superheros, on the other hand, don't differentiate between fantasy or science fiction because they have a different style and such that makes them a separate genre from either.

I hoped they would address a little more of the style issues, and they hinted at some but didn't get into it in any depth. A few bits were mentioned in passing. One panel member said that in Science Fiction, change is typically considered a good thing, while in fantasy it is bad, a threat to a desired status quo. At least one of them did point out that when you start to explain the magic, mythical, especially in terms of rational contemporary concepts, it tends to take away the sense of fantasy and shifts it toward science fiction instead. Likewise, the absence of explanation and other factors make a lot of recent science fiction more like fantasy, with spirituality and religion more heavily portrayed (as in the new Battlestar Galactica), focusing on the allegorical, the historic religion, and having close parallels to world events rather than focusing on the science of the space flight and weapons and all and their impact on events and society. Heaven and hell as parallel universes with us stuck in between, meeting them with technology...

Guns are not usually used in fantasy, a kind of anti-trope. This doesn't have to mean that they don't exist in the world... Buffy just outright says that guns never help (not that they have no effect, but that their use has added consequences, and when side characters use them, there is collateral damage).

When there is a mix, rules become more important, for example, what counts as "mundane" and what counts as technology? Mundane tends to mean medieval, low tech, maybe basic mechanics like levers. You can also have places where the technology brought along from elsewhere doesn't work while local tech does...) but either way, the writer needs rules, or reasons for inconsistencies.

An alternative is to have interaction between science and magic, like spells that help technology vulnerabilities; e.g., a spell for fire suppression: if it's commonly available, flammable materials might be more commonly used... A consequence, like having too much power: if it is too easy to use, it might also be hard to control or easy to overuse so that weaknesses develop unnoticed. Evil characters, similarly, can be more powerful in some ways than the good guys, even need to be, in order to be a threat, but not necessarily in all ways, or they can't be defeated.

Whether magic or science, they should be treated like characters: having a role, purpose, and having certain consistent, recognisable characteristics, whether explained or not.
31 aug 09 @ 7:57 pm

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Building relationships and story tension
My weekend is going to be busy so I'm not counting on being able to post anything. So, I'm posting the next installment of From Beyond the Wall a day early as well as another session of Writercon (notes there from).

Some thoughts for stuff to come: After From Beyond the Wall, I'm going to switch pace to some science fiction, possibly a bit more piecemeal though as i have a few short stories as well as several novels that are not quite as far allong as Mattias. I've done end-to-end reviews but mostly only enough to identify the many gaps that remain. I'll be trying to do major revisions as I post and that may slow progress. But I think it will prove interesting, a chance to see a little more process as well as be a part of the discovery as characters develop and grow. That's the hope anyway. We'll see how it goes. Meanwhile, Mattias has a few more chapters and a grand battle yet to go. I hope you like it.

Building relationships without sex, Writercon session

I was a little nervous about how much sex talk this one might include as sources of comparison or whatever, but the speaker quickly moved past that into the main material, which not only provided a lot of advice and ideas about making story friendships realistic and interesting but also as things to keep in mind for our own day-to-day lives.

The majority of interesting relationships don't involve sex. Romance stories are often enhanced by its absence, for example, Lady Hawk.

Elements that can contribute to tension and interest in friendships, family, and romantic relationships can include: history; how much they know about each other, how open they are or aren't with each other.

In reality, friendship is often more important to people than anything else, especially to the young, where the loss of a good friend to a move or break up can be very devastating. Friends never talk about the rocky part of their relationship; they would rather leave it behind than risk the loss of the friendship. "Buddy movies" are very popular, even when the friendship is between guys, women like them. The importance of the relationship is shown through time, attention, expectations of mutual support, even when family might decide not to help.

Secrets are good sources of tension because they get in the way of friendship: really good friends can always tell, and they normally know the best and the worst about the other person to the cause for secrecy disrupts the normal flow of the friendship. If you can't rely on them, can't tell them something for whatever reason, the whole foundation fothe friendship is threatened. This even includes fairly minor-seeming causes such as distractions "I don't have time"--what can be more important, either regularly or at a particular moment? (In groups, that is likely to be particularly important to the leader, accustomed to being the central figure in the lives of non-leaders, whereas hangars on might accept that the leader has many demands to answer to. When hangars on get a life outside the circle, that can be very tension-causing because the central role of the one is threatened and the whole nature of the friendship is threatened. (Similarly, I can see where the friendship would be threatened by a shift from two best buds to one of them becoming a leader, the other dropping to one of many, as with Harry Potter and Ron Weasley...)

History and knowledge of the dark side allows friendship but may prevent romance (Cordelia can't get past Angel being a vampire). It is commonly accepted, trope-like, that a male-female friendship, especially if both are "good looking" is likely to become romantic unless there is a specified reason for not doing so. These reasons can include "feeling like family", friend as brother (implying both a friendship worth not taking risks with a romantic liason, and a friendship that has become as life long as family, even if events take you apart.) Another is history: having comforted each other through broken romances, for example, or having had a failed romance, friendship with the opposite sex might follow, but not friendship with romance. Another "reason" might be the point at which the story takes place. Different roles and conditions apply at different points in the relationship or different kinds of friendships:

Buddy friendship (different than a Buddy movie) is usually less intense, not always reliable, but they have fun together and go to the other person to get cheered up.
You-and-me-against-the-world friendship is the one you go to when you are in trouble, needing help, the reliable yes, whatever you need, or a band of brothers with a mutual problem; e.g., Stranger in a Strange Land. Mentor, under-the-wing is not so equal a relationship, with one, usually younger but maybe just less mature, relying on the other more than the reverse.

Male friendships have had a long-standing popularity: not only for the themes of loyalty and sacrifice more associated with male roles, but because they tend to be less complex. The male friendships may not convey obviously in reality but play out in military, life-dependency groups. Male friendships tend to involve/be expressed in terms of physical activity together including wrestling, sports, and games (even if only video, board, or card games) while the focus of female friendships tends to be less physical and more emotional/social/talk-based.

What defines the relationship in the story, what makes the story interesting is the tension, conflict, potential for disruption. What makes the friendship strong can also get in the way, e.g., knowing the worst, being too unalike, not symbiotic.

Real friendships more often fade (same old problems or lack of conflict/interaction becomes boredom) while family can't just fade. it is there, permanent, so lasts or breaks up with varying degree of violence.

Patterns of behavior in relationships:
Men typically have lunches but not dinners together, activity with talk but less just talking, competition and parties, doing things together or planning to do things...
Women don’t typically compete if still friends: competition is likely to end the friendship, more discussion of life and feelings, just being together or over any kind of meal.
Men and women interacting as friends are more likely to interact the guys' way, doing things, at least driving while talking, so don't have to make eye contact. An exception might be a man who has grown up with several sisters or if the friendship is unusually close, then the guy might concede to the woman's pattern of behavior and expression.

Class and cultural conflicts can exist within a friendship, including even minor differences in family behaviors and interactions: hugging, dinner routines, public displays of affection might make one or the other uncomfortable, pushing for changes in bahavior, avoidance of sharing friendship with family interactions, etc.

Similarities are common to a degree between friends, but they can also be sources of conflict: leading to compeition in jobs and other relationships, Status differences can cause jealousy (e.g., when one friend gets married and the other not, or one gets another friend that might ot might not get along with the first). Solutions and rebalencing are likely to take the form of a recognition of mutual envy: e.g., Ron is jealous of Harry's wealth until he sees Harry’s reaction to getting a real Christmas present...) Status features can include money, powers, visibility (fame), sidekick/leadership (a friendship where one is a leader may break up or at least get rocky if the follower changes in such a way that they gain confidence and independence). Different kinds of status and rank may have different kinds of impact on the relationship, more so than women. Expressions of gratitude and appreciation, especially by a leader for the side kick (s) can make a big difference in smoothing over strains.

Women tell each other everything but wouldn't appreciate learning that their male partners were doing the same, so couple-to-couple relationships are rare and if they exist, tend to be only as couples (e.g., through a shared activity) and not also as individuals. (Rick and Lucy, Fred and Ethel make fascinatingly complex relationships but are extremeely rare or short lived in reality).

Pairings: it can work to have two alphas but it works best if they are very different rather than similar, so that they can take turns being the dominant/lead in different circumstances: complimentary, with clear character differences (which makes it easier to convey in the writing, too). These differences can take the form of specialties, or idiosyncrasies. They will be a source of constant conflict but can either have no clear "winner" in any given situation or different leads/winners in different situations. If one is not an alpha per se, they should at least have a specialty, a special value (e.g., a beta but a genious) if they are to be equals rather than one a follower the other a leader.

Much of these same issues apply in a group. In order not to fade out as a group, members of the group need to share leadership or have a contribution that is unique to them and that they can actually use in the context of the story. Relationships within the group are likely to change constantly, which allows for a lot of interest but also complicates the writing. Who is closest at any given time will vary with circumstances, access as much as preference: being there, saving, comfort and gratitude, sympathy or failure to notice, external conditions that distract, pressure, or test the relationships. Family especially is never a duo: any two are part of the group, too, with different relationships to other members of the group, including keeping secrets (or failing to do so), jealousy and expectations, differences and rivalries, historic barriers and tensions and understandings.

Family doesn't necessarily impact life as much if physically separated but people don't normally get over loss the way they can with a casual friendship (friendship close as family, while it lasts, will have that kind of lasting impact, and even later, maybe, like out-of-touch family rather than faded friendships)

Imperfections in family members also have a different impact than imperfections in friends. Bigger problems are tolerated out of percieved necessity, such as controlling, bossiness,being critical, noticing bad habits (rather than ignoring them as a friend might), unwillingness to forget old nicknames and stories, sibling rivalries. As a writer, avoid projecting these kind of family-unique issues onto friendships, unless the friendship is intended to be lifelong, family deep. Even then, friendship should have different roles, maybe family-like but not "unchosen", not as tolerant of really bad behavior. With family, you can do really terrible things and still come back, but that would normally break a friendship, would not be maintained by choice, only obligation.

If intending a friendship to turn romantic, it will be more believable for the reader if clues are provided in advance. These include such things as physical touching (even hitting is still touching; a slap is more readily followed by a kiss than a cool lack of connection), sacrifice on behalf of a third party (Spike saving Dawn not because he likes Dawn, but because Buffy does), and unspoken signs/tags of romance such as a thank you kiss, sympathetic hand holding, meeting eyes across a room. If not intending the relationship to go that way, be careful to avoid sending wrong signals and building wrong expectations, which will then be disappointed. Friends as close as siblings don't play act with a kiss.
27 aug 09 @ 9:52 pm

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Guest Speaker Event at Writercon
Guest speaker was an academic who has studied genre writing and culture as a social issue. Some of it was quite interesting but I didn't entirely agree with her. For example, she seemed to be under the illusion that all genre writing is easy to read and formulaic, not requiring much effort or thought, in contrast to the SF con Confluence, where everyone agreed that one of the factors that contributed to the decline in popularity of real science fiction is that it requires thought and understanding of worlds, which is not an easy read, even in the absence of sophisticated technobabble. Genre fiction can be very thought provoking and challenging, just as contemporary fiction can be trivial and light.

I accept that formulae, tropes, and other certain patterns are common and needed to the bare minimum degree that they define the genre, but I would argue that tropes do not themselves define the genre in most case. Tropes grow out of popular new ideas within and between genre's, but the original is still part of that genre due to basic subject matter and certain elements of style, not because other story tellers decided to use its idea for their own tale. It may in part be that she was overly using the word trope. One of the examples I noted was that romances shouldn't be bloody; but the presence of blood and gore is hardly a trope in itself, or even a defining one in isolation from other elements else all the CSIs and half the other detective show on television would be labeled horror.

She did make some other good points about other elements that define genres however, noting that the existence of "Speculative" fiction is hard on several genres because it blurs the edges so far that people don't know what they are reading and what to expect. Fans of specific genre's have certain expectations and when books that don't meet those expectations are thrown in the mix, it makes them shy away from other new authors and unfamiliar tales for fear ot throwing their money away at books that aren’t what they wanted despite advanced billing. Alternative History, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and contemporary with some token element of one or another all get lumped into the vaguely defined Speculative category and instead of encouraging broader reading, it may discourage exploration in the face of uncertainty and doubt. Many good genre stories subvert elements of a genre by crossing over tropes and styles and such, but the solid expectations have to be there in the first place for it to be subverted.

Style elements that help define genres and sub genres including survival of given characters, happy or tragic endings, descriptive focus (where is the time spent: do detailed descriptions of physical interaction between characters overwhelm descriptions of scene and setting? Does place or science play an active role in the story? Are all characters assumed to be human without needing to say so?)

Genres also have cultural elements, not just the book or movie but the audience. the audience has to be understood, marketing has to understand and direct its efforts accordingly. If marketing, publishers, etc, don't understand the audience, the genre is shifted and so is the ability to sell successfully. If ads imply the wrong thing and are understood differently by a different audience, expectations aren't fulfilled and the audience will be unhappy (like when a movie or miniseries is too different from the book or t.v. series; like Mission Impossible. One of the big defining elements of the t.v. series was the complex interaction of a team, each bringing their part of the plan into place, but the movie was all solo action adventure. it would have been better off to be billed as a new and independent title, so as not to build up wrong expectations). New fans might like it, and old ones might accept that the title means nothing, but old fans first feel betrayed.

It can be like stepping into a whole new genre, the clues impossible or difficult to decipher, like Anime'. A new watcher might guess that something is important, but they won't understand why until they have watched many episodes or get someone else to explain.

One of the more interesting bits of the session was video clips that spliced together scenes and music from t.v. and movie shows in such a way that it focused on elements that could be taken very differently out of context. One was scenes from Supernatural, sliced and dices such that it focused on things normally associated with other genres: horror, screwball comedy, detective, westerns, and social dramas. Color, speed, shading, light, conversation vs action, physical (long shot of whole bodies in motion) vs psychological (closeups on expressions) all play a role. Of course, all genre's can play around the fuzzy edges and are more complex than a single film technique, but they still form markers that need to be there for the audience to feel that expectations have been met.

Another mixed several shows including Firefly, Supernatural, Heroes, all focusing on sibling relationships gone wrong (and further distorted by implication of sequences). Sibling issues are interesting in any genre. They are close, but unlike lovers, trapped by family bonds. They can be abusive or bizarre but not fully escaped even then and as such are fascinating topics, inclined toward tragic due to the intensity and inescapability of the conflicts. The film clips also showed how easily a bad choice of film markers (shot angles, sequences, music) could lead the audience into reading in meanings from different genre's (long looks in a romance are very different in meaning but not portrayal from those in an adventure/horror). Individual words can also act as trope, with different meaning in different settings and genres, a kind of social tagging that is sharable only so long as the writer/audience community all understand it the same way. (And the speaker took if further, saying that the share-ability of the tagging created a broader society, a community, beyond the genre.)

Writing (and video) challenges can create a kind of trope in themselves. A whole bunch of stories will appear with some odd element just because some popular site has issued a challenge. She gave the example of "eggbeaters" and "an alien made me do it," which I gather was popular at least in fan fic for awhile. (I can imagine hide-and-seek appearing in several published books in a kind of rash, if Friday Fiction had a more widespeard audience, for example). Many such things cross genre's. For example Groundhog Day. The movie is in no way science fiction despite the unexplained repetition of the day, but it appears in many science fiction books and series. Such popular tropes are not a problem: readers will look for them because they like to see how different authors treat them, how different characters behave when confronted with them. These are where the differences in character can really come out, whereas characteristics may be nearly invisible if there is no common framework to allow comparison. Parallel universes offer another means of comparison: the one version of the self is probably not the only one traveling... how do you tell when the right one is in the right universe?

One of her main themes seems to be that the concept of the truly original is artificial. The truly unique has to create a taste for itself, too, and readers are unlikely to understand if it contains nothing familiar that they can relate to, if nothing is recognizeable. Cliche's can be done well and used effectively with care. What do we actually read? What do we like to reread? Often these are based on tropes. (But trying to convey it to someone else can be surprisingly hard if you have not read an overlapping selection of books. One described something they had read and I immediately guessed that they were describing The Enclave, (genetics, telepathy, a bit of romance)but another sentence later and I realized it was entirely different, set on another planet, hard core science fiction, etc.)

She gave the example of "empreg", a fan fic trope which seems typically to refer to a nonhuman getting a human pregnant, but it's also a wide spread trope in comedy (a man having a baby), horror (devil spawn), "aliens made me do it" variation, etc. Even not being allowed to have sex becomes a subversion/reference to the same trope.

A last note I had from the speaker event was that some shows acknowledged the role of the audience (fan fic and otherwise) as an extension and important part of the community and its success as a show. (I have a note about shadow worlds - any one know what that might mean?). These can include the use of online tools for interaction with fans, even to the point of letting fans explain inadvertent discontinuities that might later be used in the show. Others are less respectful, even rude. They might not appreciate the distortions and wierdness portrayed in some fanfic, but that doesn't mean they should be rude to everyone for it...

The last video included a bunch of visual tropes that appear in many geners including: the bubble bath/tub scene, dancing (comedy or romance or both), showing off in a mirror, and others.
25 aug 09 @ 8:52 pm

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Writercon writing workshop
A little more on fighting for writers that I missed from my earlier notes:

Check out http://www.intuitor.com/moviephysics/ for lots of things not to do in your stories...

Non lethal moves can be very useful for ending a fight; cutting off airflow in a choke hold, for example, will make a person freeze in fright, out of self preservation--the same grip can do permanent damage or kill if the person fights it,and instinct tell them so.

People who are drunk or especially if they are high are also unpredictable, not only failing to feel pain even when they are dying but not reacting in any normalm predicatable fashion as their minds misinterpret input randomly (which is why police sometimes get into issues about “excessive force” - what counts as excessive when the target is functioning with the strength of a demon, not knowing they are straining their own muscles, not knowing even if they are wounded and dying?

Trying to write about larger group fights can be both harder and easier. Trying to describe it in too much detail just gets clunky so write the confusion, instead, focus on what is happening to the target. If a small force is overpowered, protect their backs to buy time: think of LoR 2 when the three are surrounded by the horse army, backs to each other, weapons out like a porcupine.


Workshop:

Due to flight problems (I believe there was an unidentified package scare at LAX that weekend, disrupting flights, though I don’t know if that was the cause), “Herself” was not able to host the writing workshop, but Martha Wells stood in for her. It was a surprise to find a published author who seemed never to have participated in writing workshops, or at least not ones based on freewrites, and as a result we didn’t discuss much of our results, but hearing the other people’s work had value in itself and the directed free writes (all intended to build our understanding of our characters and their behaviors) was valuable and raised many issues to consider as we assess how our characters are reacting to a situation.

I considered whether I might say something to help get the discussion started, but barely managed a comment or two the whole time in reaction to what others had written. I know I see what is wrong more easily than what is good about other people's writings and it never helps to be merely critical, nor to spout basic guidelines like "show don't tell", especially for a very quick free write when the point is more the content than the presentation.

We were tasked with using one character to whom as many as possible of the exercises would apply, in order to more fully enrich one character rather than add bits to several. I would recommend applying many similar scenarios to each significant character, especially if you are writing a novel. Not all will be useful as scenes, but some may, and the ideas generated can do much more as you build the character's role in other scenes.

I chose Qiri, one of my few alien protagonists and have included some of the shorter free writes below. (We had as little as five minutes for some, including thinking time, and some of them required a lot of thought).


: Character is under pressure to get somewhere and is delayed by extreme weather: why are they in a hurry?

It was very brief (the times varied), perhaps to help with the sense of urgency. While the extreme weather made the scene "exciting" I lost the character's sense of urgency along the way and she started having too much fun with the storm. I wonder if it is realistic, maybe depending on the why of the hurry? Would the extreme weather take the focus, or the cause to hurry? Can any character really hold onto both in their attention?

: Character covets/needs an object (even shorter)

That one, though it was not in essence demanding, generated a lot of thought on my part: the situation to see an object to covet, the kinds of objects a character would be interested in generally or at a specific time. Do they want it because they see it and like it or because they needed it all along and are finally finding it (but may not be able to get it, still...) The wanting (and not being able to get on a whim) provide great tension and a chance to convey a lot about a character: their reaction, their interests, their history, their current qualities (would they steal it or let it go?)

In the process, I discovered that Qiri is not a very material being. I have some who like their toys (weapons) or who have a fair amount of possessions (or would want them), but Qiri isn't one of them and it took me a while to figure out any object she would care about besides data crystals (and she's into them for the contents).

: Character encounters an object belonging to a significant ancestor

Another great chance to bring in the character's history, and in my case pointed out part of my character that I had given no thought to. I spent much of the few minutes just thinking about what objects might be meaningful in her culture, and what ancestry might matter to her. The short little bit i wrote made me think about whether her own history might be a driving force, or whether she would disdain the thing as being from the past and no longer mattering. Looking back at what I wrote, I can see I hadn't quite--and still haven't--decided her attitude toward some of it, but it gave me a chance to consider aspects of her culture despite the brevity of the exericise.

What I wrote: Qiri fingered the jewel. Her mind labeled it a crystal, but this one wasn't manufactured. It was from the ground, dug up probably by some flightless worker, or maybe some alien miner, not bothered by being underground. It sparkled red, faceted, hypnotic, a thing of beauty, a thing of the past.

: The challenge sentence was long, my notes less so, but essentially the character is in a room with another character, who suddenly sees in them something profound and in comprehending something new, appreciates it.

Most of the attempts didn't really fit and mine caught the new comprehension part, I think, but not the appreciation of it. Choosing the right something is probably a big part of the difficulty with this one, but there is also the issue of POV. Most of us chose our main character as the POV character, and in that case, they have to realize what the other character is discovering and react to it, rather than if the other other character is also the POV character and can present their own realization directly.

I wrote: Qiri looked out over the city. The glass reflected the dazzling orange of the setting sun, shifting slowly to green as the light dimmed in the dome.

"You really mean that, don't you?" her legal asked. He hadn't moved from the doorway the whole time, giving her space as if any room could be big enough to remove the awareness of being enclosed, trapped.

Her body finally turned toward him, though her eye stalks twisted in their effort to remain in place, her gaze lingering on the horizon. "Of course. No Eld would choose life at cost of a stone or steel prison for even a day."

: Character is frightened by a face (real or imagined) looming out of the dark.

I wrote: Qiri bent eye stalks over the rocks, certain she had heard movement. She didn't like waiting in these wild places. Her studies had been culture and language, not wildlife, and who knew what creatures might slither in through the night, or stalk. Or crawl. They didn't have to be big to be dangerous. Click, a spatter of clicks were pebbles rolling. Inches away a face caught starlight and she screamed and jumped back. "Oh, it's you," she said with a sigh.

: Tense meeting with one or more people where the character feels at odds with their role, feels like an imposter.

I wasn't the only one to come up with clothes as part of the role, and of the expressions of discomfort. How often are our daily roles displayed in the form of different clothes, depending on the nature of the activity and setting? Sometimes the circumstances played out more, but I think most of us failed at one part or another at this one: we got the setting of being in an artificial role but not the discomfort with it, or got lost in the description of the POV character. From my previous conference I would offer the reminder, we don't often notice our own normal features or clothes we normally wear, only what is different or unusual to ourselves, so we are better off not mentioning the normal. It comes across as awkward and odd, no matter how well phrased. We at least needed more time on this one, to build it fully.

: Character awakens without knowing where they are: what is the setting (focus on the light), and retrace how they got there.

This one definately needs more than five minutes! Fifteen maybe... I managed a fair amount because my character already had a scene where the waking up part is important and I just shifted the focus, but it is a trope which has been used as a focus for entire novels. The focus on the light was interesting, and the nature of the setting: the not knowing part makes a good excuse to focus on details of a place that would be unlikely if the character is crashing out of weariness, or whatever else might have taken the character to somewhere unfamiliar the night before.

In case anyone didn't notice, I posted another few scenes of Mattias on Fantasy Explorations yesterday, as well as the Fiction Friday scene. That one was about the character/novel I have been spending much of my time on lately, though I never would have thought of a game as appropriate to that tale until the challenge. Now I can see where something typically light and fun could provide great contrast to her normally dark mood.

Nor was I the only one to see the potential for a game in a dark story. Several of the other Fiction Friday participants did something of the same flavor.
22 aug 09 @ 8:47 pm

Friday, August 21, 2009

Fiction Friday
Challenge: Start your story with a game of hide and seek.
I just did a quick scene for this one, not quite sure what to do with it:

Candice ducked around the corner and up into the slanted air shaft, pulling the trailing edge of the evening gown up into the darkness after her. The shaft didn't go far, just up to the next half level of the lounge but it was deeply shadowed, not intended to be noticed by the ship's passengers. She wached, smiling as several equally over-dressed legs sped past, patent shoes and sild slippers shimmering in the golden lounge light.

Their passage left behind an unexpected silence and she realized that she hadn't heard the feet on the deck, only the merry voices of her inebriated persuers. The stillness was like ship's night, never complete, a low hum so constant in her ears that she only noticed it when she woke alone inthe middle of the night. She hadn't done that in several nights. Tilnron had been beside her, keeping away the silence with his breath and heartbeat, keeping back her fears, like the party.

The party had been intended to dispel the jitters of the passengers and, she suspected, keep them clear of the busy crew. Here where phaze lines and stellar phenomenon took the liner's course close to the Cerel/Commonwealth boundary, everyone was on high alert.

A sharp clatter made Candice jump and she caught herself as she started to slide down the shaft's light slope. Braced, she pushed herself further up into the darkness, then held still as she trembled, nerves jangling, envisioning Cerel boots on the deck.

the Cerel prisoner guards had favored metal tips on their boots. They had no need to sneak around. There was no place to hide or flee. The metal tips made a sharp impression in the flesh and memory, and the guards liked to keep the prisoners nervous. They wanted the prisoners to feel the racing of heart and breath as anticipation was awaken by the clicking of the boots on the floor, wanted them to imagine what those clicks portended. Would it be another trip to the labs for some vile test or tortuous experiment, a bored guard randomly picking some unlucky prisoner to torment with demeaning tasks and humiliating poses or to punish for some imagined infringement of the ever-changing rules. Would this be the last time she was taken from the cells, to meet, at least, her final fate, or would the guard merely walk on toward the next cell?

Candice strained to hear some sound, and it came, another click, this one stopping close by. She curled up in terror, tucking her knees close to her chest, barely daring to breathe. A door behind her opened, she started to turn, and tumbled, slipping and sliding down the shaft as she screamed. Even before she stopped, she looked up at the source of the sound, dreading what the guard would say.

Tilnron stood above her, half in shadow, half gold from the lounge lights, his mouth open, his hands frozen with the shaft door half open as if he had been frozen there. her screams trailed off. "Uh, I-uh, found you," he said.


To see what other authors have done with the challenge, see: http://writeanything.wordpress.com/2009/08/21/fiction-friday-118/
21 aug 09 @ 10:27 pm

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Writercon - fighting for writers
Sharks vs jets

Excellent handouts and teaching session on fighting especially between unequal beings. She indicated the handouts would be put on line and I'll post a link to them if I can find them.

Fighting in writing - like sex and horror, the writer might do better to leave out the "best" parts. Usually you don't need to catalog every blow. It can get tedious. The more interesting parts are typically the set up, the start, a few expem[lary exchanges are usually enough to get a sense of the nature of the fight, its duration, etc, then the result, and in many cases that is enough.

Privilege of the sword only men and only gentry allowed to carry a sword much of the time (besides affording one) in the past, and that same group always TRAINED to use them giving them a distinct advantage over anyone picking one up without training. Others can of course get them illegally and would have to be trained illegally as well but other weapons are more likely unless they are in a position to pretnd to be gentry (clothes, training, bearing, etc) else will automatically be seen as a criminal. (Ruffians as lower ilk with swords...?)

A short person will have a shorter sword and a shorter reach so will have to be on the defensive until he can move it but once close, inside the rang of the other, has the advantage because the sword can't come Inside the range readily and the bigger one has to push him away to fight. (him in this case presumed to be small or a woman, fighting out of place for whatever reason...)

Leverage matters more than strength and a small person has good leverage because of a lower center of gravity )and women usually have a lower center even if they are the same height as a man) but endurance and lung capacity matter even more. Once winded, strength leaves the limbs.

Timing - each stroke takes time, parry starts after thrust or swing begins; if attacked have to defend or die BEFORE countering so can wait equally well in defensive position as offensive. More often fighters "die accidentally" because it is hard to "cheat: with a sword fight (save by someone else joining the fight) but it's easy to move forward at the wrong moment, right into the opponent's sword.

The face scarring practice - fighting without a helmut and cutting the cheek at the end of a bought is associated with a very specific kind of duel--schlaegger -- a German practice, not wide spread.

Fencing poses and such are a taught practice for style, grace, nobility, as part of the noble right of swordsmanship, not all that helpful I a real fight though in a duel between two trained that way it is common practice to do what they have been taught. For pure practicality, it's easier just to stab and wrench (the latter to cause actual damage so they bleed out instead of recovering).

When come up pommel to pommel - bring elbow up to hit face to break lock.
For rapier, crossbar at naval is considered ideal length, anything else is a short sword, one handed, anything longer is one and half or two handed, earlier, less stabbing and more chopping. - Those are heavier as well as longer and women will probably not be able to fight with them and they can't be used on horseback because of the need for leverage, longer htan two hand hilt, likelihood of killing your horse...

Because of low center, women are harder to knock down...
Women were more often trained in the use of a foil (practice sword) (earlier instead of foil, another sort of training sword might be used) as a means of offering fun exercise as well as self defense but wouldn’t actually own or carry a real sword, normally; they would however have daggers, and sometimes folding knives that could be hidden.

In the cases that they were trained, it was so unusual for a woman to wield a real sword that it was seen as amusing, odd, entertaining especially if they could best a male opponent, so they might get away with a lot, including killing (known cases of them getting away with it because they had entertained by the shock of being able to best a man).

Smaller means smaller target, and faster moving, whether height of girth and speed means that they can parry and strike back faster than an opponent, allowing them to be the aggressor if they get to the right distance. The blow might be lighter, so go for the good wound, including tendons in legs or arms, back of knee (kick front of knee), to disable and ease the fight, while a bigger fighter will go straight for the killing blow with more expectation of achieving sufficient force.

Knives
Aim upward in chest to avoid being blocked by bones.
easy to get hand as well as blade stuck if they go in far enough to do damage, get pulled down when they fall or turn etc so let go of blade and withdraw hand fast -- will get very bloody.
Knife fights are more likely to end in a double kill because the one can't pull far enough away before the other can stab (again, not knowing he is already dead).


Bare handed-- size matters much more, even against black belts, though the black belt training helps. It is easy and common to fight dirty.
Handy dirty attacks include: lifting by the ears (if you can hold on, ears tear easily under the weight).

Skin is easily penetrated, flesh and organs are soft, bones take some force or weight.
Adrenaline is a powerful thing with some very specific effects: pain is not felt immediately, even death blows. The heart will keep pumping until the body leaks out unless the heart is struck, so a "dead" person will fight on as if uninjured for a couple of minutes. More running means more bleeding and quicker dying. Lacerations are more likely to bleed out. Organ penetration while fatal is usually fatal slower, due to infection unless clothing and other stuff is gotten out, not as often death on the battle field. Takes several days to a horrible week to die of infection of an organ so they will try to dig it out...then might bleed out or die faster of infection...
Even if shot, there is usually a delay before body registers that you have been hit, that there is a problem, the nature of the problem, then eventually the pain.

Emotion makes hands unsteady so a lot of training is to try to get people past the fear, anger, etcetera, by prodding, insulting, pressure, to get where they can stay calm, but they still really don't know how people will react until they get to a real battle. Sound as a show of force, and to aide in relaxation, not out of fear or anger...

Being a lefty is an advantage in many cultures, especially if you can learn to fight that way, partly because lefties are often taught to fight righthanded, left handed being even considered evil in many cultures, partly because even lefties are taught to fight righties and don't hardly knwo what to do if they encounter another lefty and haven't been taught to fight them. For similar reasons, it's handy to be a lefty if you are fighting hand to hand and small

Fists don't really do much damage even if it hurts: it's only the accumulative effect that does real damage
kicks are more effective and--like contact with concrete--can be hard to survive or slow to recover from a kick in the right place (e.g., head) and if you are kicked (or concrete) into unconsciousness, you will not wake up soon.
A kick in the ribs does a lot of damage fast but survival is more likely and will stay conscious. Can even get up and run briefly, but likely to fall down before getting far or catching anyone.
Becasue of adrenaline etc., people can walk briefly even with a knee or leg injury for a few minutes, and if injured frequently, can learn to do more while in pain, but not the first time.

Don't pull out arrows, nails etc. The tightness of the wound protects you fron bleeding out, but once the objects are removed, the wound bleeds out fast, so someone better be right there to tend the wound.

Zero grav
Smaller means more control, less inertia

Jumping on back NOT recommended as a small person’s attack because the big one could just fall back and crush and strangling is a slow thing. About the only effective jump on back is to cut throat and could still land under the falling body.

A lot of things intended as nonlethal can kill e.g., by blow on head, damage to an artery, (even without breaking skin), non lethal projectiles can still penetrate flesh if close enough to have some force.

A newer non lethal item (thinking sci fi) is the shock knife, used for training, to shock instead of cut and illegal in half the states even at low power (less than a tazar) but can theoretically up the power.

The key trick many women are taught for self defense is not all that effective with the typical key chain because it easily injures the wielder and keys are often too short. Screaming is usually more effective.


Semi automatics: safety can be accidentally bumped off and gun go foff, revolvoer will NOT go off accidentally but takes a moment longer to fire. culture may dictate weapons choices as much as anything. Americans like pistols even though they are less accurate, shot guns even worse but accuracy isn't necessarily the intended result... Knowing how to use a gun is not the same as knowing how to keep hold of it in a struggle, so many even trained in safety and use get shot by their own guns.

Household and other weapons of convenience: kitchen knives are flimsy and likely to break. Ceramic knives are very sharp and can slice but will break if used to stab.
Pens, scissors, and other "pointy" objects take a lot of force to do anything.

Canes, unbrellas, etc. are not good attack weapons, necessarily, but they do widen the defensive zone and if there is space to swing, a cane can deliver a bone-breaking blow.

Lower ribs are more easily damaged but won't puncture lungs--just painful while higher ribs are harder to break but do more damage if successful; a punctured lung is paralyzing, stunning, scarey, even getting wind knocked out is a shock, scary, and even more effective from the side, so it's a good, realistic way to halt a character's participation in a fight without being damaged for the longer run...

For writing, consider the availability and use-ability of the weapons, the need for training, how the characters might gain it, the reaction of observers to the presence of weapons not easily hiddedn, or the surprise of their appearance, the impact of wounds on the flow of action within the battle (set up for a death blow or to end a battle unresolved) or as a set up for later action (the romantic death scene, the recovery, the need to fight soon after the battle).
20 aug 09 @ 8:01 pm

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Writercon and other notes
As usual, my want-to-do list is growing rapidly and my available time is not. I'm trying to do an end-to-end of a novel that is nearing completion to correct plot, identify missing or misdirected scenes, identify needs for further character development, settings, etc. I'm also trying to research web/blog options, finish typing up conference notes, follow up on some web activities like Fiction Friday, and get more nonfiction essays written for Homeworld. And find more places to send query letters for my novels. Homeworld is near bottom, the rest are a toss up depending on my mood.

Well, here's some more from Writercon:

Session 2

While not the focus of the discussion, the second session raised the issue of comments on blogs and on-line stories and several interesting ideas were brought up. Two things in particular I thought enlightening: comments encourage posting on the same theme, and the general reader finds it easier to comment on trivia, simplistic, and weightless topics (including cutsie, flippant, and sex scenes) because it is easier to relate to without thought, easier to express publicly; but that doesn't mean that they don't like the richer, deeper, rally good stories that they aren't commenting on. They are less likely to comment on the latter just because they have gotten into them, and don't want to step out of the rich world of the story to talk to a stranger (the author). In those cases, getting one comment out of a hundred readers is all that can be expected, and should be seen as enough to encourage the author to keep going. Violence is also likely to get more comment because being hurt is easy to relate, to connect to day-to-day reality.

One thing that helps enrich scenes and give the reader more to relate to is physical interaction. For friends, this might include such simple acts as braiding hair, wrestling, light massages, medical tending, or just going arm in arm open and honest. Romantic relationships can be portrayed as simply as touching hands, cheeks, combing hair, a foot under the table, and other light interactions. Plot is important too, but as hard as it is for the writer, it can also be hard for the reader to relate to and if it can be conveyed through more familiar mechanisms, the story will make a better connection.

Some tips for dealing with plots effectively:
--list who is where when
--know who knows what when or thinks they know what when (and know why the misleading indicators are going on, too)
--the author must know what is really going on, but the reader and characters don't necessarily.

When basing a story on a past show (and even if not, for planning your own stories): consider what you loved about shows you liked: FanFic, not going on the air is not limited to the 40 minute story line; on the other hand, viewers LIKE the 40 minute story line, they liked the characters as they were; they might even like some of the show elements that seem "problematic" (for example, there was a discussion elsewhere about Harry Potter and the "problem" of having a lack of rules for the magic--words, gestures, wand waving, anything might go, [and the movies never showed healthy food or the source of the food, though those that read the books know the answer]--yet how much of a problem was it really, considering its popularity? Who really cared whether there were rules, and does fantasy often based on belief, really need rules?). Good fan fiction can/should try to incorporate those elements, perhaps continuing a certain season in a different direction that the directors took it, showing an alternative course of action, or using the "problems" to advantage.

It is also possible to have adventure without explosions and all, but it tends to be cultural adventure, then, and that requires careful world-building, which is also hard. Common problems that crop up, are money: to the characters have a source of income for what they are spending, or are they thieves? How is money distributed within the group? Logistics and other behind-the-scenes issues can be a place to move in tropes from other genres to good effect. If the world is really weird, everything else needs to be really normal to help bridge the gap between the reader and the wierdness.

Complex personal relationships don't need much of a plot to be interesting (hence the success of reality shows): push a group of people together with strong personalities and let them interact. As long as characters and the situation are well developed, the story will take care of itself. On the other hand, real conversations and technical discussions are generally boring of themselves: a point of tension or conflict is needed, or issues that must be dealt with through the dialog.

Some tropes that can be very effective: pre-series character development is a good source of gen material. Stories that address discontinuities in the show's technobabble or timing/sequencing can be be fun to play with. A NORMAL day in the life of a central character can offer rich material, as can showing events on an episode from the POV of a side character, or from a side character walking in at the end of the trauma...

The cocktail party had more the topics of discussion I expected coming in, clean with literate discussions of books as well as shows and movies, writing as well as comparisons between fan fic and published writers. My table group decided that fan fic was really an internet kind of invention. There were (still are?) fan magazines, fanzines, etc before FanFic, but they weren't this. A lot of those are no longer in existance because of copyright issues. A full fan convention would have, perhaps, more about the shows (including official paraphenalia, suvenirs, etc) and less focus on the fan fic. A storm wasn’t much better for digital movies than an old t.v.
18 aug 09 @ 7:29 pm

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Writercon session 1
The biggest meeting room was set up with big circular tables as for dining which made for awkward seating and seemed pointless since the only food water there was an hors d'ouvre buffet with tiny plates that required little or no table space. Still, the speaker system was adequate and the panel members were conscienscious about using them even when they would rather not have needed to. About 200 people could fit in the room and we never quite filled it up.


The first session I attended (not the first session of the conference, which started Thursday night whereas i was traveling for half of Friday) (If they'd spaced the panels better, they could have fit all the sessions in between late Friday and mid day Sunday). One of the themes of the session was ownership of stereotypes and offensive terminology. The closest I can liken it to is Yankee Doodle, which was intended as a song to insult the yanks; but the yanks adopted it for their own use and so it could not offend and the enemy were denied their verbal weapon. Some special care has to be taken when writing about a group to which we do not ourselves belong however. If the adoption by our characters is premature to the adoption by the real group, it could offend rather than aide the cause.

The next speaker's theme was tropes and their impact on gender roles in a story. There are many in romance fiction, as in any genre: e.g. waking up as a member of the opposite gender. The quickness of the gender swap limits the readiness for dealing with it, but allows the author to openly discuss and portray stereotypical issues that might otherwise be under the surface, subtle, or offensive, and to "clear the air" of symbols. it is also a chance for authors to be "mean" to the opposite gender if they like through the humor of the situation, while providing instantaneous sympathy for their need to pretend to be a gender to which they weren't born. However, a danger to using common tropes is that it is easy to get sucked into the stereotype and end up with a trite ending or a rediculous one.

"Enigmatic Blue" main point (as far as I noted it) was that subtle sexism can be more dangerous than having a strong, obviously sexist character. The character can point out the problems of sexism and prejudice, while the subtle incorporation of it, especially unawares, can support and encourage such behavior. One of the strong temptations is to treat a female character as vulnerable as a means of short cutting to a rescue, generating sympathy and bringing about interaction with the rescuer. Rape, for example, is often used as a way to put an otherwise strong female character into a weak position. Similarly, a guy getting upset over something to the point of tears is a quicky way to garner sympathy from a female "rescuer"/comforter. These tropes can be used, if used carefully, to add complexity and depth to characters and their interactions but if used as a short cut can simplify and turn the story into a cartoon.

The fourth speaker followed the same theme and pointed out that language in general can enrich or it can make characters flat and stereotypical, both due to the poor choice of specific language and overuse of an otherwise good choice. One of the eamples she used is “articulate” as a compliment to people of color: it is not so much that they object to being complimented for being articulate, but that that is perceived as the most noticeable thing about them (reflecting the assumption that this is unusual or a-stereotypical). Dread locks was originally a derogatory phrase, meaning dreadful locks, so not all appreciate that term, either (perhaps more so in England...). One way to use stereotypes effectively is to start with one, then give it a twist; e.g. a blue-collar red-neck with a vast education, or Legally Blond--the daffy blond with a brain. Similarly, the common bad slang can be used to establish an attitude, but then have the character do something positive, showing the depth behind the surface.

During the open Q and A it was pointed out that real life and the story can’t be the same. it isn't enough of an excuse to have a character use some inappropriate term in the heat of passion" (rage, etc) because there is always the underlying knowledge that an author consciously wrote it. At a minimum, the use of the bad word must have consequences within the story. It can't be merely gratuitiously, but must also be appropriate to the circumstances, the character and the story. That the character would say it is not enough, in and of itself without consequence. At a minimum it should reveal something about the character that is not otherwise clear, a hidden side, for example, that impacts the character’s behavior later. The author needs to be aware of it and know why it is there in the story.

Rigid, cool, and other characteristics can make a character interesting but a malleable character can allow for more situations to develop to take the story line where the author wants it to go without artificiality. It can also put them into a greater range of situations where they become vulnerable and sympathetic without resorting to simplistic tropes.
16 aug 09 @ 5:16 pm

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Writercon notes begun
Also, check out Fantasy Explorations, where the battles continue.

Writercon will not be remembered as one of my favorite cons. Many of the people I met were friendly and open, a few proved very willing to explain what was going on and to chat on a variety of subjects during the excessively long long breaks (2 1/2 hours was about 1 1/2 hours too long given the well-stocked con suite and other easily accessible food sources) Many of the panels and workshops provided valuable writing lessons and experiences, which I will share in coming posts.

Part of my problem with it was my own ignorance. Until I got there, I didn't realize that FanFic is a group unto itself (whether it knows it or not) and Writercon was not intended for as broad and wide ranging an audience as the typical SF or Fantasy con. Many of them thought that they were just fans who reading and writing about their favorite characters beyond what's in the show or movie, but they were, at least for the most part, a fairly specific group of fans who are familiar with each other's online personas if not necessarily more than that, and who, like many groups, have a shared view and language of their own. Theirs is made up of primarily abreviations (for which I was quickly thankful) and a few nicknamy terms that defined the focus of their shared "genre", specifically:

:het--stories of heterosexual graphically described sex

:slash--stories of other graphically described sex

:gen--which seemed intended by some to mean intended for a younger audience, perhpas no sex at all but the use of the term varied. It might generally be less graphic but was still, in my limited exposure at the con, not consistently enough ratable even PG that I would recommend to even an impressionable college student.

:terms which merged the names of two movie or television characters to indicate that they were the protagonists in the above tales. (e.g., Spuffy=Spike and Buffy getting it on.)

As a result of the prevalence of those topics and due to the heavy use of foul language especially on the first day (one of them said that it was okay if she swore because we were all adults, as if vulgarities and swearing weren't more typically part of rebellious adolescent behavior), I could not in good conscious recommend FanFic or any of its cons to a Christian fan. For myself, I quickly stopped asking the definition of any term i didn't recognize and learned to avoid the sessions billed as sex or gender-related even in the most innocuous-sounding way.

The write-ups on the panel topics were great, the speakers knowledgeable, and I was able to pull out several good points about writing and story building from the panels but during the first sessions I sat in on, the lessons were virtually all explained in terms of sex scenes with detailed and graphic examples, although the rest of the time I either selected better sessions or the content was toned down.

The majority of attendees seemed to be heterosexual women with unusual tastes in writing material but it was overall the most diverse group I've ever been among, even when I was living in the big city. They also seemed to average about half the age of the other conventions I've attended this year. They were in general even worse than I am about giving out web addresses, even when the topic was web pages, but the majority used online persona names to introduce themselves which probably makes them easier to find through a search. Everyone seemed to get along well and weren’t afraid to talk to strangers like myself, though by end I noticed that few of the minorities (men and non-white) groups made more than token appearance at the con suite and the last panel I attended proved that the group was not without its problems with tolerance (more on that later).
15 aug 09 @ 12:07 pm

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Confluence wrap up and observations
An underlying theme of the event was concerns about the general decline of readership in American especially among the younger generations. Not only have they been spending less time in libraries--and some school programs don-t do much to encourage story reading--but;s been replaced not by online reading and learning but by interactive games and texting and other non-reading activities. It's not as bad elsewhere, so it is not unavoidable. If a book reaches foreign markets, it's likely to do well. In many cultures, the primary commuter past time remains book reading, not surfing. In those places, the example set by commuting adults puts books in a more favorable light for the young, and in turn, fictional worlds are held in better respect.

Science fiction in general suffers because of the difficulties some readers have in relating to worlds too different from their own, or just relating to the world view at all, since so much pop culture is so focused on the character interactions that the story can be relocated with hardly more than a place name and maybe a few words of scene description being changed: port town, southern city, foreign land, it hardly matters. In traditional science fiction (much of the speculative fiction not so much), the world--typically defined and structured around one or more key elements such as specific technological advancements, metaphysics, or unique alien outlooks and capabilities--interacts actively with the story and the characters and has a key role in the direction the story takes.

I liken it to something I was told long ago: disbelief can be suspended for one important assumption, maybe two, but three is pushing it, but for an established sub-genre, like space aliens or time travel, I think what defines the sub genre can be treated as a given, still allowing two other things, and almost requiring at least one that has an important impact on the nature of the culture. Interstellar travel in some form, for example, is pretty much a prerequisite for human-alien interaction, whether it is time tunneling, space flight, or some other form of connectivity. It can probably be treated as a given, allowing an opening for tele- whatever or some other element to have the stronger impact on what makes the alien culture different from ours, for example. It is the pervasiveness of this element as part of the world in which the characters live, and its impact on the characters and their interaction with each other that stands out, to its advantage or disadvantage, in science fiction and fantasy.

In these genres, the world--including how it operates, its rules, and its impact on the characters lives and their society--changes perceptions. It does matter, and it is reality, often related to current changes in our own world. Just look at the impact computer technology and the internet have changed our life styles but it's not a part of reality that American Society is interested in considering, perhaps because of the high level of change in our daily lives.

Perhaps another facet of the same gem is the reality show mentality, which doesn’t so much add a new element, but separates a group of people from the mundanities and complexities of life and focuses on a single, controlled aspect of life in which those people can interact. Like most contemporary fiction, and even more nonfiction, it's easier for the majority of people to relate to without thought or consideration of other factors that would come into play in an uncontrolled environment (our real day-to-day world). The near future speculative SF is very similar: contemporary in most ways, simplified for novelization, with commonly one specific new element thrown in for the players to interact with. (Not to pick on it, it's just the most recent speculative fiction I've read, but I think one of my problems with the Enclave boils down to my seeing the genetic engineering as the one big thing, the thing that changed people's awareness and behavior, while it was essentially part of the contemporary world rather than the science fiction). The more classically science fiction part was the tele-stuff; but while it was there as something that existed, it didn't really impact what happened to the main characters that I could tell, didn't change how the others reacted to those who possessed it. It could have been deleted and would hardly matter. In science fiction, the science fiction-y element should matter.)

Science fiction has had influence on technology, choices in direction, social issues, and raised awareness of a variety of scientific and technology issues and their potential for impact on our society. Still, our own living world has been going through revolution. Some of the traditional readership is tied up in dealing with the resulting changes instead of thinking about the changes yet to come. They don't need to read fiction to stimulate their imagination and suggest alternatives or to imagine that the new technologies hinted at in science class are already in place around them: stimulus and new ideas are surrounding us faster than we can assimilate their impact on our lives. Maybe this is why fantasy (and historical fiction) has been growing in popularity. It is often based in simpler, non-technical worlds and familiar past cultures, a taste of fresh green in the midst of a metal and electronic world.

Which is not to say that science fiction has lost its place. I would say rather that it has a potentially greater role than ever before, but that its handling and treatment may need some reconsideration by authors. Specific technologies set in simpler, past worlds, premature to their true discovery may be easier for the technology-inundated reader to enjoy. Longer looks at current trends may be in order, taking a step not into tomorrow, but into our children's tomorrows may give a better perspective, perhaps focused on as little as a day or a week in an individual life instead of trying to treat whole planets in all their epic complexity as has often been done in the past. Or perhaps we could consider life with an element of our technology missing, as a way of addressing it's impact on our lives. (Would that be science fiction? Does a negative play the same role as a new positive?)

Whatever we try, it still behooves us to offer ideas to the young future scientists who strive to make our dreams their reality (and to do so in such a way that it avoids our nightmares and hopefully silly, unlikely fears).

Altogether, it was VERY SF, not much fantasy expect where people get mixed up what is fantasy or SF; and as a result, a great inspiration and a prod for some SF stories I have been neglecting. More to come on that.


13 aug 09 @ 6:20 pm

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Living as a Writer and Free Write notes - from Confluence
Quicky update then more notes: maybe children's stories aren't my thing. A quick and generic reject on Winona and Winky's wanderings. Not a surprise, but I always hope it will at least be something other than a generic reject.

Living as A Writer panel members: William Keith, Scalzi, Hunt: A panel largely of people actually making a living as a writer, but some with support of another income from a spouse and those not, (and those with), often writing not only fiction but non-fiction and/or multiple genre's to maintain steady income (one genre doing well while the other drifts out of favor...). Often writing is not the only income, but a writing-related field like editing or teaching supplements the writing. Flexabiity also helps maintain awareness of changing needs and wishes among customers and publishers. There is a tendency to see things as always the same as when we got started, reading and writing our favs, but it always shifts and changes.

Subgenres come and go so it does help to be flexible even within fiction writing, and pay varies as well as popularity: game scenarios, gothic romance were popular for a time, historical fiction is on the rise after having almost disappeared.
--Awhile back (many years) 60 page books were common, when grocery stores were a common place to pick up books, even SF.
--Along with the shift toward bigger book stores and bigger publishers, bigger books and hard covers became more popular and common (and more fantasy rather than SF)
--Now... shifting (in other panels, 60,000 words were suggested as a reasonable limit for a good SF book-- a lot more than 60 pages!, though many publishers allow up to 100,000 words (a very thick book!) (My own fantasy books run up past 300 pages, my SF not so much, but none of the latter are done, either...)

Some of the discussion was about the perception of writers, as not "working" because they were writing and because they were doing it at home. There are also issues of gender roles (male writing at home assumed to be house Dad, as if writing could be accomplished with several kids needing constant supervision and attention).

3 cents per word is mediocre, Analog has paid 5-7 cents a word (for a long while). Neither rate has changed for MANY years despite changes in the rest of the world, so effectively writer pay has gone down. Non fiction pays better overall and writing skills do carry over, if you can stand the topic, or a day job... they recommended NOT trying to do nonfic writing AND a day job - there will be no time left for the fiction. Tor may pay 25 cents a word. Online magazine are beginning ot pay more than they used to for SF and Fantasy, and some small presses are growing, which should improve their ability to pay authors. All the major publishers pay about the same; they actually like seriels, so let them know you have more books to come: Harper, Tor, Dell, etc

In SF, short story's are mostly a play ground, a way to test ideas unless it is really successful the pay is poor: novels are where the money is, and SF and Fantasy (unlike some other genre's) don't need a start in short stories to be considered as a novelist.

Pseudonyms are used but often are very public, or soon become public knowledge. They serve as a kind of branding to let readers know the type of book; they recommended leaving this up to the publishers, who sometimes also pick the names. Pseudonyms are especially useful for those who write both fiction and nonfiction, to make sure the books get in the right part of the book store to sell to the intended audience!

To look for publishers (fiction or on-fiction), start at the Writers Market guide, especially for contact info which can be hard to find on line, then go to the indicated website to check for updates on status, interests.


Free writes

Ade hosted writing exersizes Saturday and Sunday mornings before other things got started, mostly guided freewrites. One of the writing exercises was to think of life-changing experiences (for self or characters) and change the POV to the opposite sex. In some cases, I think people switched to the other character in a scene between a man and a woman without changing the scenario. I couldn't think of any good life-changing events that could be captured in a single scene in my own life so I picked a scene I had roughly designed in the past and switched the sex of the two characters involved without changing their respective roles in the action. Either way, it was a very interesting exercise, both for the awareness of gender in POV and character building, and also to think about what constitutes life-changing events.

There are a lot of classic events, some of them perhaps the same across many cultures: childhood departures and firsts, (going to school, going on a date), transitions and separations (college, job, moving out, getting married) and exterior events that impact the flow of our lives and our perspectives on the world, (war, deaths in the extended family, disasters, corporate clostures, new inventions)

They all make really good story fodder but they aren't all easy to capture in one story much less one scene so it takes some thought on how to incorporate them. Some of the most profound changes may be a decision, all internal, and its affect may come a long time later before it is clear that it means anything at all.

Also, in a story, every scene has the potential for being life changing ultimately: characters may know it at the time or might not. Decisions made have the potential for changing the direction of the story--and the author needs to allow it to do so, or be prepared to change the character such that they are more likely to make the decision that the story line needs.

Challenge: take a life-changing event, write it as a scene, then break it down to its scene elements: emotion, character, dialog, setting, action/change and try to capture the quality and nature of those elements in a fiction scene.

Challenge 2; take a list of all the life changing events you can think of and consider what the equivalents) might be in the life of a protagonist and an antagonist: How do they impact the nature and ultimate role of the characters. How does the way those events play out differ between characters to make them who they are? Let us know what you discover.

One more from Confluence to come, then on to the next conference and its notebook. Don't forget to check out the rest of Chapter 12 on Fantasy Explorations.
11 aug 09 @ 9:23 pm

Monday, August 10, 2009

Space Travel and Stellar Wars from Confluence
Bud, Catherine Asaro, Jeffrey Landis - another session with lots of science or engineering degrees and covered a lot of ideas quickly so my notes are more chaotic even than usual.

Check out on Google: Millis break through propulsion efforts, Tau's Arrow foundation: theoretical studies in propulsion technologies far beyond anything we have now.

Alpha Centauri is only 3 and a half light years away and it would still take us thousands of years to get there with the fastest technology and know how we have (aided by planetary slingshots to aide in acceleration and all). Even at relativistic speeds (approaching the speed of light) it would still take awhile (several years, obviously, but probably lots more than four years, as it would have to be a long acceleration and deceleration--no more than 1/2 grav for long periods though we can tolerate lots more for very brief periods (minutes, not weeks!)) though it would seem less to the travelers, with time dilation even at small percentages of light speed.

Vascular Light, Faster than light, ideas to explore but NASA involvement in exploring wild ideas and those still mostly seen as unachievable or theoretically impossible has to be limited for political reasons, even if other theories say they are not so unattainable.

Right now, faster than light and other options are achievable even as theoretical possibilities only through the use of imaginary numbers (square root of negative 1), but the use of that with the speed makes a lot of concepts work, and at least enables exploration and studies of a useful sort for science fiction: hyper fast, warp, fuel-less travel?, control of gravity/inertia (anti-gravity).

If fast, long hyper speed travel is used: space battles become a lot like jousting: aim, shoot or ride past while striking, (with the computer: no eyeballing here!), then after speeding past, look back and see what happened, maybe take another shot at it, maybe keep going... Things going in a straight line might look like they are turning, twisting, different than real shape because the visual effects are speed of light and so independent of/distorted by the speed of the objects

An alternative mode of battle might be to fight like 17th C ships: more or less stopping or at least significantly slowing to shoot at each other. Manuevering slowly might be possible as with wind blown ships, but high speed turns aren't so good for occupants, even if they provide a source of Kinetic energy that might be converted to power for weapons

Position in space is not a point, it's a vector. Even derelict ships could be moving at a good cllip (and over time, not necessarily a straight line). So: finding them is not trivial, dealing with them is not a matter of parking. Likewise, battle lines do not apply. Two lines/groups of ships moving toward each other would quickly pass right on through each other (note the jousting scenario).

Missiles HAVE to be smart but might be tiny: dust can do damage at relativistic speeds and all the leftover debris from a collision or fight keep going: smart dust? nano engines for steering control? nano sensors to guide?

This session had some interesting debates between panel members, as well as some fanciful speculation to prod the imagination of writers: Catherine speculated on AI's, who with such vast mental capacity (in order to be independently intelligent) would surely be bored running hotels, for example and therefore have plenty of leftover mental capacity to study human behavior 9of thousands of guests simultaneously, no problem) and interact with fellow AIs. Would they bet on the less predictable behavior of the hotel guests? Get involved? (Has she written on that or related topics?)

Bud's Sam Moon series plays on all the classic SF tropes; consider flumes, a ship that makes 5 light year-long random jumps with a probability drive...

A commercial payoff is needed to fund big ventures like space travel, but so far lacking a commercial payoff or potential even in the solar system.

A group got together to discuss a generation ship's requirements. Assuming minimal genetic diversity for a viable population using normal breeding, high level of recycling of every product and byproduct, it would still take a ship 60 miles long and 30 miles (wide? diameter?). the size requirement could be reduced by bringing along genetic material from others (sperm bank style). There would also be issues of having enough specialist, brainiacs, cultural matters, technology focus to maintain it on its long travels. One of the problems is that its’ not seen as all that interesting a topic in itself because "it's been done" several times and it may be hard to make it fresh and interesting.

Our culture is already different than a very short while ago due to changes in communication technologies, and that can be considered when thinking of the future and other areas of of technology, in ways not imagined before the internet. Those who grew up with the internet, or at least were exposed to while they were still in school) might have friends all over the world, friends that they've never met; far more than in the days of pen pals, and knowing each other better due to speed of question/response (if they are sharing the right information about each other's lives). This also means global exposure and globalization of culture (and a tendency toward the generic as dominant, everything else suborned to sub cultures)

Exposure to conditions (such as environmental conditions on other parts of this planet or on other planets: Different traits become possible/valuable, like drought-tolerant aboriginies, sun-filtering dark complexions so...
--choose different places to settle
--use genetic engineering to help adaptation
--might it make the settlers so different that they wouldn't be accepted as humans?

Even oceans have multiple biomes (mostly depth/light associated), so people on pne planet could make different adaptations for each, and its easier to change a group of people than to change the world. Among other things, the world might tend to go back to the way it was, or continue changing in some unpredictable way or remain unstable once changes have been begun.

Typical behavior is to go, adapt, and remain, not go back, regardless of the reason for the move. It is also typical to not like enclosure/llmits/boundaries, so people wouldn’t likely choose to remain on ship or in a dome forever, only while it serves a specific purpose (for example, while traveling or to accommodate a mix of environments in close proximity).
10 aug 09 @ 7:44 pm

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Teaching with SF cont from Confluence
(Mentioned by someone in this panel or elsewhen as a reason for fading SF readership lately) is that lots of readers don't think the world matters (including their own), don't want it to matter, don't want to have to think about it. (These won't be the ones who like historical novels either, or won't appreciate the rich and complex cultures portrayed in the well done ones). They also don't want to have to go to the bother of decoding; early teens don't even want to have to decode real life, much less the weird stuff.

To deal with these attitudes, panel members suggested looking for other aspects of the story that they can relate to in terms of other media and genre, such as “survival tale”, adventure story, shoot-out westerns, or idea stories.

Such readers also WANT an info dump and explanations, rather than just hints, so they don't have to spend their reading experience puzzling through clues that aren't supposed to be or don't need to be a mystery. (The panel members didn't say, but I thought of the 'show don't tell' which was addressed in the writing workshop, pushing to give clues to emotions rather than specifying with emotion words: but such readers may prefer to have both the showing and the telling of what it means, though I would still emphasise the first and minimize the latter to bare essentials, even for teens and young adults.) If no explanations are provided, they have to read very closely: not necessarily a bad thing, but may fail to encourage readership among a hesitant audience, especially in SF where a lot simply has to be explained in order to convey the unfamiliar settings and technologies effectively.

(Maybe this is why longer books have gained in popularity: 60-70,000 words, or even 60 to a 100 pages, which is even few words, used to be common, but now longer is often expected, much of the difference being taken up by more through explanations of what is going on and why. To the classic writer, it seems unnecessary, but we have a generation that has not read that many classics. Even my own, older generation, classics were seen as valuable but not often read and I read many on my own just to be able to say I had and to be able to recognise allusions and references to them. Which ones are addressed in the standard tests for high schoolers these days?)

There is also a tendency to assume that SF is about machines and technology and such and NOT about people, when in truth it is often about the relationship between people and their culture and environment, including the influence of other people within and around that culture, just like many classics (e.g., Jane Austin's novels come to mind: less about individual personalities than about society's expectations for them).

SF couldn’t exist prior to the Industrial/science revolution of the 17th and 18th C, but we are seeing similar social condtitions now. Many students who attend courses in SF don't understand the difference between SF and Fantasy partly because they accept mystic and religious things like astrology as science, think of witchcraft and magic as Science Fiction, (and haven't parsed literature enough to notice any of the differences in style elements; exacerbated by the increasing prevalence of speculative fiction, which being grounded heavily in contemporary fiction with the smallest science-fiction or fantasy twist (Batteries not Included comes to mind and The Enclave, which I reviewed in June, both of which might be billed Speculative fiction and have less science-based fiction than James Bond). That slides them more toward pop fiction and a broader audience, but makes even the lightest science fiction seem hard core by contrast and which then often lack the more traditional style elements of science fiction or fantasy.

The teachers have also noticed an increasing lack of interest in understanding the known or exploring the unknown, an important incentive for going into the science and analytical fields, as well as a necessary first step for understanding and appreciating science fiction. "Wven as we recognize a need to do better at teaching technology and sciences, something in our culture seems to be pushing in the opposite direction; none of the panel members suggested a source but I speculate that it is the focus on safety. In my own childhood explorations, I did things that were considered unsafe, was told not to do them without explanation of why and did them anyway, and recall the delight and surprise of the discovery. I received an electric shock once but remember it with a kind of shocked delight and I credit that surprise with being part of the source of my own continuing curiosity about the world in which I live and the worlds that could be. Without that sense of discovery as a child, without time for imagination and uncontrolled play and a little risk now-and-again, what do we offer kids to stir their curiosity?)

Cultures NOT seeing this decline, maybe even inclines in interest in the world and how it works have a growing interest in SF works (many translated from English) Professor Tenn predicted that China will be more interest in our SF writings than our own culture. (For awhile, Russia was starting to take the lead in both writing and reading SF but that seems to have faded.) Science in general follows the same pattern for the same reason.

This problem with science appreciation and understanding rationality also results in a lack of understanding about the political and financial decisions related to science in our country. For example, if I understood correctly, skin cells can be used just like stem cells for things like cloning to grow a new heart. That changes and could potentially end a lot of contentious issues, and yet how many know or care? It's also a huge difference between that (cloning organs from one's own body for use in the same body) and experimental composition through genetic engineering or the artificial creation of new species!

If teaching reading, these days the teacher needs to provide class time for students to read. Even though they enjoy it, they won't create time to do it on their own because the attitude is so poor towards "Wasting time" with reading (fiction or otherwise). Reading is subtly if not actively discouraged through de-prioritization and stereotyping (as if only a geek would choose to read, or as if a real man wouldn't read a manual. (Even on our metro's, commuters are more likely to be texting or doing something on a phone or computer than reading a book, at most a paper. (In many other countries, commuters are almost universally reading books, instead).

More sessions to come but the next section of my notebook has other things about the conference so I'll post a couple of them here before I close:

--Sampo flat screens are to be avoided. They get abused in hotels, but a fancy, certainly expensive flat screen should not crap out after 1 1/2 hours on a regular basis (at which point it overheated and had to cool for an hour or more before it would turn on again. I missed the endings of a couple of movies that way before I gave up.

Feedback from the workshop leader on my submission was not nearly as bad as I feared, though I will look it over again with the topics we addressed in the workshop in mind, especially (but not only) the first several pages that I'll include with agent queries.

They had a GREAT play based heavily on Dr Who and Firefly (see also Serinity) but included allusions and references to many other SF movies and shows as well as multiple Dr Who episodes. They handled transitions and timing errors very nicely and amusingly, some excellent performers. Also a lovely musical show afterwards.

If you want your story to get the attention of filkers...words and phrases that convey rich metaphors are helpful, clear themes that ring true independant of the names and unique words in the story, warrior themes and magic are popular, but relationships built around them are better, themes in the form of predictions seem to be popular too, for fantasy: fate, legend, petterns.
Copyright (especially unique made-up terms like "jedi") is an issue and it's better if the terms can be readily avoided while having a story distinct enough to be recogniseable: (whales and time travel are not copyright in themselves, but their reference together is clear enough to anyone who has seen the movie, without having to worry if the reference is this movie or that movie...)

Movies are big business and tend to be very copyright sensitive, since they have their own music and product lines, etc. The book authors seem to have a more mixed attitude but mostly less concerned about things like filk and isolated art work. It just aides the hype and constitutes free advertising. (I picked up the Deryni series because of a great filk tape, but a bad filk never kept me from buying a book). Now, if someone does a huge line of products... and especially if they distort it and send it in a different direction while maintaining the unique branding... that can turn problematic and may be why some discourage it. (Some of the FanFic stuff at Writercon, for example, way distorted from the original... Not what I would necessarily want any of MY characters associated with!)

Well that's enough for the moment. I should finish up my Confluence notes this week and might even start my Writercon notes by the end of the weekm but no promises.

Challenge: write a blog on what you see as the elements that define science fiction or fantasy or both and send me a link or the post and I'll add it as a comment here.
9 aug 09 @ 10:07 am

Friday, August 7, 2009

query letters and teaching with SF
A scene has been posted to Fantasy Explorations (several short scenes, actually, and there's more on Confluence below, but I wanted to also let my readers know something of what iI've been doing besides attending conferences. I polished the children's story I wrote (in the middle of the night) and sent it to Arthur A. Levine books, whose web site I partly blame for the inspiration of the tale. They have quite an interesting policy of asking authors to send only one query or manuscript, then waiting until it gets returned before sending another, to give other authors a chance to join the queue. They also had delightfully clear and useful advice about how to write a query letter.

The main point was that the cover letter should reflect the style of the story, to give the publisher (or agent) a feel for the writing, as well as being something leaning toward a cover blurb. I took that to heart and here is part of my cover letter:


I trust Winona and Winky will at least while away a few minutes of your day. In Finding Flowers, Winona and Winky are taking a walk in the rain, and as children often do, they are finding other than they expect. Winona is looking for flowers, though they are not yet in bloom, but Winky, who is very wise, doesn't discourage her from her quest. Together they discover new delights, until the thought of flowers is left behind. The woods they are walking in are based on northern rain forests, and Winona and Winky find mostly mushrooms and slugs. Winona is disappointed initially, but further investigation and Winky's occasional insights help her discover that mushrooms and slugs can be entertaining, too.

Finding Flowers is intended as the text of a children's picture book, with just over1500 words. I'm no artist myself but hope my words will convey my vision to your artists, of mushrooms in their vast variety, fern fronds as tall as Winona, fallen mother trees sporting moss, insects, and inspiration for a child's imagination, as well as Winona and Winky, full of wonder at each new discovery.

I'll let you know what I get back.

Challenge: try writing a cover letter from the view of a POV character.


Confluence session notes for Teaching and SF:

John DeChancie, William Tenn, Charles, Timmons, seem to also be writers but mostly teach either online or at schools of various levels. Good story tellers, too! (About their experiences over a few or many, many years).

They typically teach at least some people who are unfamiliar with the genre (or with several genres if they are giving survey courses, for example Charles, to young writing students). This offers several hurdles, as many who have not read SF have huge misconceptions about it, and when they try writing it, they don't understand what they are missing (a phenomenon I've noticed when publishers slide outside their familiar kinds of books, too).

It may help to point our what is similar to other forms of writing:

--Future and near future SF has many similarities to historical fiction (which might be why the Historical Novel Society conference seemed to have so many directly applicable panels!). The main difference is that the "givens" (things the characters either notice as unusual or don't notice because it's so normal, and needs to be pointed out indirectly) for a historical novel are found through research of the period, and for SF, the author must design these features of the culture. Like history, it has to make sense, to be both interesting and believable.

--Many believe that SF and Fantasy are just random speculation, that they don’t have to make sense or follow logic, no basis in a consistent premise, even.

--Many who try writing it, even a few who have been published, somehow, have never read science fiction or very little. Maybe a Stephan King novel, or maybe they think Harry Potter is science fiction, not understanding the differences between SF and Fantasy. Or maybe they saw one SF tv show and liked it.

--Sometimes the resulting speculative fiction might be more reachable to the not-so-SF fan audience (when it has managed to get published), but it has mostly resulted in confusion, mixed expectations, and bad attempts at SF writing.

Some have read almost nothing; more recently even the avid readers miss what's good and important because they have been reading a lot of the more recent stuff. It may be good or bad, but many follow certain patterns, then when asked to read some of the classics, they don't appreciate them, thinking them unoriginal, not realizing that they ARE the original, and the ones that followed were built on them, like Tolkien and HG Wells.

to be continued
7 aug 09 @ 7:49 pm

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cyber Wars part 2 from Confluence
Organizations/governments are less likely to break the network because it would be self defeating, but terrorists or terrorist-supporting government is more likely to do a focused attack on some of the network (especially ifit is unaware of the longer range echoes, for example to just-in-time delivery systems that may be among their own suppliers of basic supplies, or similar impacts on non-redundant systems. Unfortunately, such systems, and all our computer networks have unintended consequences, hidden that could change the world... (Now there is an interesting plot element...)

Other countries beat the US our on computers because they are trying to do what we do with far less powerful computers, and because out inefficient software has lots of leftover garbage code that they can play with.

The interactivity of the internet also means there are many helpers available: merely persuade some of the populace that some form of computer attack (not even a high tech one) would help some worthy cause; many do it all the time, not attacking, but sharing their computer's power, for example, by contributing a little power to SETI, and other requests for power or more active aide. "proto bot nets" can be used by spam producers as a source of autogeneration, and even anti-virus software frequently has virus and spyware incorporated.

Panel members speculated that the success of I-phone will encourage attack-ware developers to pay attention to mac software, although as it becomes more like Unix, it also becomes harder to attack because it is harder to get to the core software and do anything to it. (Until now, it had been more the limits of proprietary information and the less wise-spread use of the underlying software that has left it largely untouched).

No manner of protective software can block, of itself, physical access to a system, so that is likely to remain both a protection and a vulnerability: if attackers do get physical access, it is very exposed to any kind of attack.

6 aug 09 @ 8:05 pm

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

GOH and Cyber Wars at Confluence
Guest of Honor speaker

John Scalzi was a jounalist before he got into SF. He and others noted that more authors are SF and F writers after doing something else, either writing or in the sciences. Like many of those, his "SF" writings are light SF/Specultive. Unlike many who started e-publication, he was successful with his online presence enough to make money and get the contacts to get asked to write books, fiction and nonfiction. He does LOTS of twitters, humorous quips rather than much personal day-to-day trivia. On the other hand, he did encourage to include at least some personal material (with permission of other people involved, if applicable) in order to make the connection between author and reader.

You have to write what you love and hopefully it will also be commercially viable.

His entertaining chatter, which included a little about the shock of discovering how non-diverse his new neighborhood was after having lived on the coast, vignettes about neighbor reactions to learning he was a writer instead of working... was delightful to listen to and the tips I wrote down along the way hardly touch all the topics he mentioned:

Religion will be there in the future; religion, and in particular organized religion and related practices can play good or evil roles in a story.

SF tends not to have much in the way of minority characters, and even if a major character is a minority, the cover art might show a white person... Mr Scalzi sometimes leaves it ambiguous, for example with a Kenyan name and little or no physical description of the POV character (you can't have every POV character look at themselves in a mirror, so close POV characters are often not described substantially, however, some readers have indicated that they didn't consider that enough, though making a big deal of race doesn't work, either.

Cyber Wars

I noted that these introductions were not so much about their writing--though they all did that too, but their day jobs (and that even the most widely published of them, Swann, still had a day job. Most of this one wasn’t so much much about SF of computer stuff, but current day reality (including some of the frightening stuff).

--The shift from push technology (see War Games, the kid finding comupyters by dialing phone numbers, and other clunky means of getting information by those who the information was not directed at: Most got it because it was sent to them.) to pull technology (its mostly hanging out there for anyone to grab, if you can find it).
--Its also been a shift from standalone computers (see War Games again) to integration and internet.
--That combination of pull=based technology and integration (and interactivity) is the source of cyberwar concept: fighting with data for devestating impact.

Today, cyber wars are ongoing, but mostly not here in the US, where we have much more comparatively secure software (despite the stuff that makes the news periodically) and paranoia (about some things). On the other hand, it’s not for want of attacks against our systems, enough that many systems that were linked to the internet through firewalls are now air-gapped to protect the servers. And we pour a lot of money into that security, a sure sign that attacks are common enough and effective enough to be worth the expense by corporations who traditionally have to lose a lot before they will put up a fence.

The government is even more under attack than corporates and dot coms. (the stats are kept primarily to persuade congressional funding to continue).

Funding is easy for the attackers. Even "joke" attacks: maybe no more than a token proof of successful penetration, often have a huge payoff in the form of sales of anti-virus software, selling spam-generating software to marketers and anti-span software to e-mail services. (Some of the spam generation is using esposed computers tht don't even know they are penetrated).

Loss of service attacks are more of what many think of as "cyber war" -- malicious intent to harm rather than to make a profit. There are plenty of those, too, with potntially far greater impact if they get into the wrong database or computer system.

The ubiquity of Windows has exxacerbated the problem because less nad less of the software is proprietary and the software is so bulky that it is easy to sneak in additional code unnoticed, and to build apps on top of the base software without having to write all new code. It used to be that special systems did not use the same code, making it harder to attack, but these days, windows underlies a lot of systems, such as ATMs, store cash registeres, etc, and those systems pass transaction information through the internet (albeit with some protections). Eastern Europe is particularly vulnerable in this area, but it is not the only area where travelers guides should recommend against using ATMs to get local currency and cash.

A lot of cyber war stuff has been small scale and individual crime, but governments are getting into the act, too. One of the panel members drew a comparison between the medieval use of nomads by Russia, co-opting them to use their expertise as a special cavalry unit. Now Russia co-opts criminal groups to use their special skills to conduct cyber war, attacking the computers of their regional adversaries.

Part of the percieved advantage of cyber war is that it doesn't take a lot to make a mess. A small change in a database can have additive, domino-like impact in a database, and databases tend not to be as well protected as the systems they are on, except by not being on the internet (can't be, because of the need to input data as well as get it out again). It also tends to reside on old, messy software. (Wasn't there a movie about someone trying to collect the fractions-of-a-cent in bank data transactions that typically get ignored, and suddenly finding he had a million dollars? The fractions might not get noticed, but the milliions did!)

Information warfare includes intel, misinformation, and comms interference. These days the communications part is less of a threat than some things because of the multiplicity of channels that are available: blocking one is just a temporary annoyance. However, sometimes that’s enough to achieve an important goal, such as preventing an opposition group from organizing a protest or consolidating voter response just before a controversial vote.

Efficiency versus Effectiveness also comes into play with computer-dependent just-in-time practices. Just-in-time means no extras, no back-up, and no excess companies holding on to the edges or excess production capacity for the bigger companies. All in takes in many industries for one or two companies to close and we have an instant shortage, with not even a warehouse of waiting items to draw on while a new source is found. That means the network is more vulnerable and a small problem can have a ripple effect with a big impact.

To be continued
5 aug 09 @ 6:30 pm

Monday, August 3, 2009

More from Confluence and such
Well, I have survived another month of too much travel and hope to stay home awhile. I've posted another scene from Mattias on Fantasy Explorations, and a love poem on Homeworld (Accoring to Dead Poet's Society, the act of writing poetry is all about love, and the best poetry tends to be about love. I don't claim to be a good poet much less a great one, but I hope you will enjoy the sentiment anyway.

I attended Writercon this past weekend. My definition for FanFic last Thursday was headed in the right direction but missed the mark and the con was very edifying. Lots of friendly people, the most diverse group I've ever encountered anywhere, and I'll have lots of notes and observations to share after I get through my Confluence notes.

Science Panel:
Planetary Systems
Sue Linville - PhD biology and animal behavior, short stories and non fiction
Jeffrey Landis - short stories, novel, poetry (a new book--I'll try to get a link), NASA, mars rover, shuttle mission designer (his wife is also a writer, with a PhD, in literature)
Diane Turnshik - Astronomy until she became a home Mom, teaching, stories, visiting Astronomy professor.
Catherine Asaro - Quantum chemistry, if I got that right, a concert at the con based on her book (which, if I got it right, included invisibility, else she studied the potential for invisibility; note that if invisibility is achieved through internal chemistry, it will not affect the clothes)

It's been announced that planets have been found circling other stars but their finding doesn’t exclude others. So far, they can mostly be found only when they are very large compared to the size of their sun, and relatively close to the said sun so that the star is actually measurably moved by the planet's gravitational impact. There are other ways, but they are more limited.
--The Transit method, for example, requires that the planet's orbit be oriented such that the planet passes between us an its sun so that they red-blue Doplar shift can be seen as it goes past.
--Even more limited opportunities happen for the Micro Lensing method, which requires the star with the planets to pass between us and another star behind it, which happens fairly briefly when it happens at all.
--Direct imaging might be able to catch planets when they are well out at their farthest distance from their sun, so Earth is not quite as unusual as it was seeming for awhile.

A particularly interesting find was that pulsars have planets. This was believed impossible because pulsars are assumed to be collapsed matter following super nova’s. Astonomers accept that the planets are there, after all, but now assume that they must have arrived after the pulsar formed.

What they haven’t found yet is Earth like planets (well, maybe one...), but that is no where near meaning that there aren’t any (despite the assumptions of some) because the techniques available to find planets at all remain limited and Earth is not what they mean by large planets close to their suns. Earth-like remains important because it is assumed that they are the planets most likely to have something we could identify as life (or that we could visit in the long run...)

Whether there could be life on those planets... a long way from testing that!
--no water channels with boats on mars, but still maybe some sort of life signs...
--Europa - maybe volcanic-type heat under a frozen surface; lots of interesting chemicals in that kind of a mix...
--Center of galaxy is considered a very unlikely place for livable planets because lots of supernovas going off, limiting survival rate.
--Far far from galaxy, not enough heavy elements for life as we know it.
--Oxygen-based means carbon-based life forms (for chemical balence and stability). Some feel that silicon can work, if it isn’t oxygen-based.

Meteors have been found with atmospheric inclusions, and presumed to be from Mars, and carbonite, meaning oxygen and water were present. Like a lot of things, though, that includes assumptions about things all working the same way they do here, among other issues. On Earth, such inclusions are the result of bacteria, typically, but these are smaller: how small can life be and still have a genetic definition of life. Can there be nano-bacteria? Viruses are smaller but they are not considered a life form.

Mars also has evaporates/salts, signs of past liquid flow; maybe it was warmed from green-house effects or a stronger magnetic field to hold onto atmosphere: as if cooled, with less core, it would have less magnetism and maybe more strikes than its one really big crater. There was some talk of the evaporates being related to sulpheric acid, but overall, it is not particularly acid, so something else would have had to be present to eventually neutralize it.

When considering what forms life might take, consider that even Earth has many extremes including life in rocks (very slow, not like the speedy rock-eating Horta of Star Trek fame), life in super-deep water with too much pressure for any normal life form to live, animals that live without water, animals that survive total freezing...

There is also a life paradox at play in the current biological sciences. Most biologists believe that the life we have on Earth could not START from current conditions, even though current conditions are needed to support life. It is believed by many, even most, biologists that what will create the organic chemicals necessary to life are Veunus-like conditions, which are not liveable. Hmm... that would seem to be a problem.

A book has been produced (I didn't catch the name or author and the speaker may not have recalled it) which goes through and describes current views on where life might be found and what conditions would be needed in order to support life, including sun types, the distances of planets from the sun, orbit issues (theoretically, life could exist on a planet in tidal lock (always had the same side toward its sun, like the moon toward Earth), but a lot of additional requirements would be needed to make life sustainable, such as an atmosphere with plenty of wind, even near the light/dark line.
--A dimmer sun might work (we aren't as sensitive to lighting conditions as many animals). It also addresses potential impacts on cuture and lifestyle, for example, due to tdiffering lengths of the day and seasons.
3 aug 09 @ 4:40 pm

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