Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

October 31, 2012

MRP Day 31 – Writing every day

The Month of Relentless Positivity comes to an end in a few hours and, wow, I caught up. I came into the month with the plan to write a blog post every day, and on average I succeeded. This Halloween entry brings the tally up to the requisite target number, even if I did have to double up over the last couple of days to make up for some slow days.

To be honest I expected to fall short. Not because it was an especially hard target to meet, but because I knew there would be days when I was too busy or tired in the evenings for writing. I had a further cunning notion that I might not stockpile a few extra entries ahead of time, and what do you know, I’m more cricket than ant.

No surprise there.

I got what I wanted out of the exercise though. I got back into the habit of sitting down and hitting the keyboard, more or less every day, and pumping out words to some specific purpose. Sure, there were probably a few days – okay, probably more than just a few – when I was more or less going through the motions to meet an artificial goal.

I’m okay with that. I don’t know how it works for anyone else, but some days I’m happy just to put down the words, and I’m learning to be okay with the fact that there will be days when they’re just not very good words.

Tomorrow is the first day of November. National Novel Writing Month. I have a novel to rewrite that I don’t think is going to get any better-thought-out for further procrastination. It’s probably going to be about 90,000 words or so. If I enter and ‘beat’ NaNo, I’d have it more than half-finished. If I kept that pace up, it’d be done by Boxing Day.

I’ve thought it over. I’m not entering. I wrote about 20,000 words in October, chunked into unrelated articles  of about 600 words apiece. I don’t expect to have all that much clear air in November – by which I mean the freedom to do whatever I want after 8 pm until sleeping every day – so the thought of hitting wordcounts of three times the size every day for the next thirty is…daunting, yes, but also unrealistic.

That doesn’t matter. If I can match even the pace that I’ve set myself over the past month, I could have this novel done in five months. Maybe it’ll take a bit longer than that, or maybe I’ll hit a groove and get it done sooner.[1]

So I am not doing NaNo, but I am going to try to keep myself honest and at least track my progress here. I’m probably not going to blog much, but I will check in once in a while with updates. Tomorrow I start writing the second draft, this time keeping themes and endings in mind and the dead end, go-nowhere plotlines excised. I take it as a good sign that even after spending months on the first draft only to finish with a frustrating incoherent story, I am jazzed and excited to take another shot at getting it right.

Now to go off and spend a little time tinkering with Scrivener to get it all set up.

Good night. Stay positive.

 

[1] And as soon as I wrote that, I realised that the first cricket test match against South Africa starts in a week or so. I’m doomed.[2]

[2] But in a positive way.

MRP Day 30 – New Star Wars (A cautious woohoo!)

Filed under: geekery,news of the day,the month of relentless positivity — lexifab @ 11:19 am

Twitter is alive this morning with the horrific groans of an internet-stopping nerdgasm [1] with the news that Disney has paid something like four billion bucks to prise the mouldering corpses of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises out of George Lucas’ gold-plated fingers.

Despite the prequel trilogy – about which I will say nothing because this is the Month of Relentless Positivity and I have almost nothing positive to say about them – I am still more or less a Star Wars fan, in theory if not in practise. Back when bubble gum cards were a thing, I remember my brothers and I collecting the first Topps The Empire Strikes Back series with passionate intensity. I think between us we managed to complete one set, but we must have had about thirty of that one card showing Luke in the bacta tank. Star Wars was never my top fandom (that would be Doctor Who) and over the years it has slipped below Star Trek (or at least some of Star Trek), Babylon 5  and other mass-culture fictional universes in terms of my enthusiasm.

That said, there are obviously good stories that can be told in the setting – The Knights of the Old Republic games are great (well, I didn’t play the MMO, but I heard good things about the storylines), and I’ve enjoyed the few episodes of the Clone Wars animated series that I’ve watched, even though it focuses on characters from the prequels. I have been waiting with cautious optimism for the live action television series that has been in production for the past couple of years [2].

I’m primed, in other words, for there to be new Star Wars – as long as it’s good. And as John Scalzi points out, putting the setting into the hands of the rapacious Disney entertainment megaglomerate might not seem like a great fit for creative freedom, but both Pixar and Marvel have gone from strength to strength since being added to the Empire of the Mouse.

So I’m hopeful we can look forward to the usual cutting-edge visual design that has always been a hallmark of the Star Wars movies (even the prequels) being placed in the service of good storytelling (which was only ever a hallmark of Empire, and arguably Star Wars [3]). At the very least, I hope they will make films that I would be happy to show to my kids before they are teenagers, unlike the prequels. We will see soon enough though. The first new movie – Episode 7, apparently – is scheduled for release in 2015, with two more sequels by the end of the decade.

Then again, perhaps more interesting is that the Disney-Lucas deal includes the LucasArts games properties, which means in theory we might also one day see Monkey Island or Grim Fandango up on the big screen. And that would be hot.

 

[1] Which unfortunately is drowning out coverage of the post-hurricane recovery on the US east cost and basically everything else that might be happening somewhere on Earth.

[2] Come to think of it, I haven’t heard anything about that for a while. Wonder if this development will kill that project stone dead?

[3] Nobody actually calls it A New Hope, right?

October 30, 2012

MRP Day 29 – A reading backlog

Filed under: books of 2012,the month of relentless positivity — lexifab @ 1:45 pm

All my life I’ve always had a few books lying around, ready to pick up the instant I finish with my current read. New and secondhand bookshops, libraries and even jumble sales all have a powerful attraction on me. I can fossick a badly-sorted shelf display for hours if left unattended. Rare’s the day I wander in and escape without a purchase.

The existence of my kindle, the ease with which I can indulge my irresistible urges for impulse purchasing and the sheer range of cheap and readily available ebooks have all combined forces to overwhelm my will and my reading list. The latter has become a seething thing too vast to be encompassed by a mere slab of plastic and electronica [1].

I just did an audit of the unread titles sitting on my kindle. There are:

  • 15 novels;
  • 11 anthologies or short story collections (4 of which are “Complete Works of” various authors, one of who is Dickens and another G. K. Chesterton, both appallingly prolific writers);
  • 2 issues of periodicals (both short story focused);
  • 3 works of non-fiction;
  • 3 stand-alone novellas or short stories; and
  • both The Iliad and The Odyssey, which I count separately from the above for various reasons.

On top of all those, I have two anthologies and a short story collection that I picked up in paperback at the recent Conflux dealer’s room [2], two novels I am beta-reading for friends and up to half a dozen more works of various lengths expected to flow in from Kickstarters and subscriptions.

Now, delightful as it is to me to be so spoiled for choice, there’s no getting around the fact that it is going to take some time to work my way through that stack. Hence I am absolutely, positively [3] placing myself under embargo for the rest of the year. No new books until I clear the backlog…

or there’s a really good sale.

 

[1] Not really. The kindle’s memory is TARDIS-like in its spaciousness. I can choke it with tonnes more crap yet.

[2] I can’t pass by a dealer’s room either, I have discovered.

[3] See what I did there? Huh? Huh?

MRP Day 28 – Whedon endorses Romney

(Trigger warning for Dr Clam – pertains to US presidential election. Proceed with caution)

By now everyone has probably seen this short video of Joss Whedon endorsing Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy, right? Celebrity endorsements are the cringeworthy lifeblood of modern politics – as opposed to, you know, actual policy – so it’s nice to see one that trades off the usual bland, affable positivity for articulate and compelling points.

It’s two minutes long. Just watch it.

I think there are three things to note about this:

1) when you’re a rich American, you can pretty much say whatever the fuck you want and get away with it, but it’s nicer for the rest of us if you can at least be funny and satirical while you are doing it;

2) Whedon does a pretty damn good job of nailing his routine in a single shot for someone who is not a professional performer; and

3) The kitchen is so clean and well-ordered that I can’t choose between ‘mesmerising’ and ‘unsettling’ as a descriptor.

October 29, 2012

MRP Day 27 – Review – Anywhere but Earth anthology

The first thing to say about the Anywhere but Earth anthology from Coeur de Lion Publishing is that it’s a pretty damn thick slab of stories, over 700 pages in paperback form. There are 29 stories, most of them short but at least a few straying up into novellete territory, and most of them by Australian authors. As is the style of the times, it seems, this hefty collection of science fiction is a themed anthology. The title will give you the gist – these are all stories set far from the human homeworld. In many cases it’s not mentioned at all, and a handful don’t deal with recognisably human characters at all.

Unusually (in my experience) for a book like this, editor Keith Stevenson has not elected to insert himself in the work with an introductory foreword or in fact with commentary of any kind. What you get for your money – which is incredibly good value by the way – are the stories and short author bios and nothing else. I think it was the right call, mind you – these stories speak for themselves.

As with any collection of this size, there are some stories that didn’t work for me, but overall the quality is exceptionally high. To my undertrained scientific eye the vast majority pay reasonable attention to keeping the science plausible and consistent, though one or two stretch the limits in order to shoot for a more lyrical effect (I’m thinking in particular here of Margo Lanagan’s “Yon Horned Moon”). As a reader I tend to be much more concerned with good storytelling than strict fidelity to science, however, and Anywhere but Earth delivers. There is such a wealth of appetising material here, ranging from punchy little episodes like C J Paget’s “Pink Ice in the Jovian Rings” and Alan Baxter’s “Unexpected Launch” to troubling, expansive landscapes of alien worlds like Lee Battersby “At the End there was a Man” and Chris McMahon’s “Memories of Mars” to violent military thrillers like Jason Nahrung’s “Messiah on the Rock” and Brendan Duffy’s “Space Girl Blues”.

The quality of this collection is frankly astonishing, given its size – there are only two I can think of that I didn’t like at all, and perhaps only two or three others about which I was ambivalent. Of the rest, I am hard pressed to pick a favourite, but I will mention that “Eating Gnashdal”, Jason Fischer’s horrific vision of a post-human culture, is inventively funny and creepy; Penelope Love’s “SIBO” lives somewhere at the intersection of zombies and triffids and therefore rules; and Sean McMullen’s “SPACEBOOK” pulls off a view of near-future social networking with a brilliant and unpleasantly plausible twist. And I could mention at least a dozen more stories which might be in my top three on a different day.

Anywhere but Earth is a massive, generous, impressive tome. The ideas on show are clever, funny, weird and sometimes deeply alien, but almost invariably worth your reading time.

October 28, 2012

MRP Day 26 – Review – Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

I reviewed the first of Miriam Black book, Blackbirds, back at the start of the Month of Relentless Positivity, so it makes sense – to me – to bookend the series, as it were, with a look at the sequel. I read it (on the Kindle) while I was away at Margaret River, sipping wine and sampling chocolates while I chowed through a story even more violent and sinister than its predecessor. So, just a warning for anyone who may be confused by my lauding a deranged horror-thriller under the MRP banner – I’m doing that again.

I adored the squirming rank guts out of Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds – its spiteful arch protagonist Miriam Black with her malign visions of death, its black comedy, its psychopathic bad guys. I loved its bruised and buried but still-beating sense of hope unquashed and fate defied.

The sequel, Mockingbird, somehow manages to find darker places to drag poor Miriam. Unable to face the compromises of an ordinary existence, she reluctantly takes an opportunity to make some semi-legitimate money from her unfortunate affliction – the ability to see how a person she touches will die, in precise and vivid detail. But Miriam being Miriam, she sees more than she wants to and finds a way to make a bad situation worse. Before long she is trying to save the students of a “school for bad girls” from a very sick serial killer. Worse than that, she’s suffering increasingly regular visitations from something dressed up as the ghosts of her past, which may or may not be the thing that gave her the death-visions. And worse than that again, she may have to confront the mother she walked out on years ago.

The actual plot is terrific – a serial killer hunt more tense than a tow cable and twisting like a cut snake – but the real meat of the story is in Miriam’s confrontations with what could be a spirit guide or a taunting revenant or her own guilty conscience. Her self-doubt, dark sarcasm and a regular one-two punch of instinctive lying followed by the telling of blunt unpalatable truths keeps friends and allies at arm’s length, but she can’t avoid the uncomfortable revelations that come out every time she closes her eyes (and even a few times when she’s awake). She is faced with the horrible realisation that there might be more to her visions than just some spiteful curse; she may be burdened with the unbearable horror of having a purpose.

Mockingbird dashes along like a fox with the hounds at its heels, though many of its worst horrors are reserved for the moments of breath-catching contemplation. The antagonists of Blackbirds were vicious and deranged, but like cartoon monsters compared to the monumental sickness that Miriam has to deal with here. The characters are rounded and distinct, but often defined more by their flaws than any possible virtues. Miriam remains a compelling lead, wounded and sharp-tongued and incapable of surrender, but thankfully this time out her truck-driving man Louis gets a bit more depth as well.

The smart dialogue and prose rolling out with belligerent ease make it easy to read even the more confronting scenes, many of which are more emotionally than physically brutal. Wendig reserves some of his best, most evocative writing for the death-vision sequences, which are even more beautiful and dreadful than in the previous story. There is worse stuff than red balloons in this one. The language is, of course, Wendig-esque – the man loves a colourful turn of phrase, and his palette favours blue.

Mockingbird is a supernatural thriller that wanders close to the border with horror more than once, but never commits itself fully to hopelessness and despair. For all her darkness, Miriam Black is a survivor with a streak of nobility to go with her self-loathing and remarkable instinct for making the most destructive choices in life.

October 27, 2012

MRP Day 24/25 – Back to the Island – Season 2 Review (long)

Filed under: the month of relentless positivity,Uncategorized — lexifab @ 12:24 am

Finally we arrive at the end of Lost Season 2, with the Hatch blown comprehensively to bits and the Others manifesting as something more complex and sinister than the sharpshooting jungle ninjas we have assumed them to be. Did the followup to the tremendously popular first season meet expectations? Were our burning questions anwered? Have our favourite characters changed? Who lived and who died and what made no sense at all? Read on!

It’s been over a year since I wrote the wrapup review of the first season and I look back on the detail of that essay with a certain amount of horror. I really wrote over 3000 words on stuff like ratings? Eesh. That won’t happen this time, let me tell you. Unless it does. So let’s get to my ratings!

The ratings

Counting the two-part finale as a single episode, my average score for the season was 7.43. That’s slightly up on the 7.3 I rated Season 1. I think that Season 2 cemented the show’s rythmn. Smoothing off some of year one’s rough edges helped to avoid complete stinkers, with the exception of the dreadful ‘Abandoned’. On the other hand, there weren’t too many episodes that reached for the stars either – for me the only real standouts were the Hurley psychodrama ‘Dave’ and Sawyer’s ‘The Long Con’. Everything else ranked from okay to pretty good. A flat curve seems about right. Season Two of Lost was remarkably consistent in terms of quality – the show found its feet, paced its character development out a little more evenly and introduced new ideas and mysteries at a steady rate.

The new characters

Boone’s corpse was hardly cool before we had a whole swag of new characters join the cast – and to complete the deck-clearing, one of them shot Shannon to death on sight. Trigger-happy boozehound Ana-Lucia, sweet neurotic Libby, calmly seething spiritualist Mr Eko and Bernard the dentist (not counting the brief return cameo of Oceanic flight attendant Cindy, who only hung around long enough to remind us she was in the pilot and is still an Australian). Desmond Hume became something of a framing device for the season, abandoning his post in the Swan Station in the first episode and returning in the finale to (eventually) save everyone. And before we forget him, Henry Gale the fake balloonist was also a commanding presence.

The barrage of new characters was an interesting gambit which could easily have gone wrong. Despite my aggravation about the method in which she was written out, I don’t think the show suffered for losing Shannon at all – although following her death Sayyid played a remarkably low-key role for most of the season. Despite the fact that Ana Lucia and Libby were both bumped off before we really got to know them [1], I think the addition of the Tailies was a good play, if for no other reason than it spared us from even more angsty backstory episodes. Jack and Kate’s pre-Island stories in particular seemed to bottom out during Season 2.

A couple of the character arcs worth noting: Locke finished another season with a crashing collapse in his self-confidence. It’s apparent at this point that if Locke is Lost‘s Man of Faith, then his faith is possessed of both overweening arrogance and a glass jaw. The man goes to pieces faster than a hand grenade and with much the same result – other people tend to get hurt. This is an arc that will get old fast, I think – Locke finds something new on the Island to believe in and dupes at least a delusional few others into buying into his nonsense, Locke looks more closely at the miracle and finds it has feet of clay, Locke goes bugshit nuts and tries to break everything with hammers. I guess we will see in Season 3 whether this is a pathological condition with him.

Another character who goes through the wringer a bit in this season is Charlie. He makes some bad choices, true, but mostly everyone just assumes the worst about him and ostracises him to be on the safe side. I can see why the producers of a primetime network television show might not want to portray a heroin addict too positively, but apart from getting tetchy and strung out early in Season 1, I don’t recall any reason for the other characters to assume he’s dangerous. Why not, in fact, just shrug and let him have his junk? Who was he hurting, exactly? Worst case, he’d have OD’ed and died, but more likely he’d just wander round with a dumb smile on his face most of the time. I can see why Claire might not want to let him carry the baby around but still, everyone freaks the hell out about his supposed addiction when they could just have chilled. It was pretty sanctimonious, really, and I’m glad that Charlie recovered at least some cred by the end of the season. Mind you, terrorising Sun to help with Sawyer’s gun-stealing plan was still a major dick move, so no credit there.

The deaths

Having firmly established at the end of Season One that Lost is not a show where characters can expect to be safe, no time was wasted in get Shannon into a shallow beach grave right next to her brother. Add Ana-Lucia and Libby to the list of shooting victims, and what do you get? Well, for one thing you get three of the six regular female cast members gone gone gone [2]. That’s…hmm, a bit problematic, isn’t it? All three were shot for sudden and horrible dramatic effect, unlike all the male regulars who were dramatically not shot dead at all. And really the only one of the three deaths I thought had significant emotional impact at all was Libby’s – and that was mostly because she seemed to have an intriguing story that we still don’t know. I think it’s a little unfortunate that the necessity to cull the burgeoning entourage cast came at the expense of the women.

Come to think of it, Michael and Walt aren’t dead, but they did get off the Island, which probably means they’re not coming back. And those guys were two of the three black people in the cast [3]. Sigh. Maybe the show runners should get the benefit of the doubt – but if Sun and Jin end up buried on the beach in Season Three, we may have a problem…

The changing mystery

Not much changed about the format of the show – by and large each episode centred on one character and showed flashbacks to some time before the Island. Claire’s flashback episode conspicuously broke the mould – her flashbacks were to events that occurred during her kidnapping in Season One. The purpose of that kidnapping is still unclear, although it’s obviously something to do with the fact that Claire was pregnant and now has a child. The Others are still up to something (maybe more than one thing).

Obviously Season Two was focused mainly around the various Dharma Initiative stations and what purpose they served. The finale suggests the path that Season Three will take – exploring the Others and getting to know (partly) what they’re about. Hopefully someone will remember there’s a Smoke Monsters roaming about the Island as well, and maybe we’ll find out what’s going on there.

As for the Others, we have a few hints – Henry Gale says they work for a great man and have what sounds suspiciously like a religious fervour for some task he has set. Then again, if we know only one thing about Henry, it’s that he’s an accomplished liar and nothing he says should necessarily be believed. It’s likely we’ll see more of what makes him tick as well.

But the big central mystery remains – what (and where) is the Island? Why is it that you can only leave if you sail on a particular bearing? What’s the problem with babies? What is the weird electromagnetic energy pocket that builds up and builds up until it is released in a burst of powerful magnetic attraction/repulsion and turns the sky loudly purple? Why did the Dharma Initiative build the Swan Station on top of it? Who came up with that clunky Numbers-computer-every-108-minutes-or-the-world-ends procedure? What the hell kind of cockamamie psych test were they running on the poor bastards in the Pearl Station? Why do the Others have a fake primitive village setup, complete with fake Hatch? Why does the statue only have four toes? WHY DOES THE STATUE ONLY HAVE FOUR TOES? And how is it that Penny knows to watch for the crazy electromagnetic signature of the Swan Station explosion from the Arctic, no less? We don’t know any of this yet.

Conclusion

I guess the conclusion I come to is that Season Two changes things up from Season One, but not much, and more in terms of cast than format. Desmond and the Swan Station provide the backbone of the Season. Desmond with his unhinged flight in the first episode and despondent reckless return at the end. But the real star is the Swan Station, which throughout the series not only provides a change of scenery and a new source of firearms, but also goes from being an intriguing question to what we assume must now be a gigantic smoking crater. Along the way we learn about a lot of new concepts – Dharma, Hanso, the food drops, the network of underground stations, the Others – but we’re still wondering about a lot of stuff from before, not the least of which is the Smoke Monster.

It was an interesting departure to do away with the survival imperatives – food, water, shelter – as a dramatic device, by having the Swan and the food drops essentially supply everything (pretty much by magic, if you want to get all cargo cult about it). It’s obvious that the producers think that they have a compelling enough mystery underway now that the audience doesn’t need to see Locke hunting boar any more [4], so they felt safe in taking the spotlight off both the natural hazards of the Island and the confrontations over limited resources (although there were still a couple of instances of that, most notably when Sawyer got all the guns).

As a whole I think it worked well, though there were definitely lows and highs. Michael and Charlie both went through pretty dark character arcs, and only Charlie emerged with his reputation (and then only arguably). Several new characters were alive long enough to whet our appetite for their story, but not long enough to give us a good meal. Shannon died even more uselessly than she had lived. Most of the central cast stuck to their usual guns of arguing, waving guns and going on poorly-planned jungle expeditions.

Season Two demonstrated that the degree of interconnectedness between the characters is both fantastically complex and unlikely to be a coincidence. CIA spook Kelvin is a good example of this – he has direct ties to Sayyid’s past, indirect ties to Kate’s (through her soldier father), he was on the Island with Desmond and in fact his death contributed to the crash of Oceanic 815. He and Christian Shepherd and other lesser-profile characters are woven throughout the crash survivors’ stories, binding them together in some significant way we can’t see yet. The coincidences and the connections point to a new and probably important series of questions:

Who are the survivors of Oceanic 815, what is important about them and have they been brought to the Island for some reason? And why?

On to Season Three…

[1] And how suspicious is it that the two characters written out just happened to correspond to the two actors who were picked up by the Hawaiian five-oh for drink-driving? My guess is not very suspicious at all.

[2] I don’t count Rose. She’s not in most episodes and anyway, she’s obviously a favourite character of the producers. Nor Rousseau, for much the same reason.

[3] Not counting Rose again.

[4] Alhough come to think of it, having all their needs supplied by the Hatch meant that the survivors no longer need to depend on Locke’s skills for their lives. That might actually help to explain his otherwise somewhat unconvincing emotional collapse towards the end of the season.

October 25, 2012

MRP Day 23 – The Coode Street Podcast

Filed under: podcasts,the month of relentless positivity — lexifab @ 12:20 am

I call myself a science fiction fan, if anyone asks. But secretly I know that in that highly unlikely theoretical scenario, I am fudging my answer, because I am not really a science fiction fan. Not really and properly in my heart.

The reason I say that is – well, it’s a bit hard to explain. In my head, “proper” science fiction is largely dictated by that first word, which is intimidating as hell to me. In the definition in my head, science fiction means hard science: complex physics, engineering, maths, chemistry and biological concepts explored speculatively but plausibly and consistently. It means speculating on big ideas and it may insinuate a sense of wonder, but it also requires the author to understand the physical and conceptual ramifications of this engineering marvel or that tricksy gene therapy. To write “real” science fiction, an author can’t just fudge physics and hope for the best – or rather, she could, but only if she understands the implications of the fudge.

To my distorted way of thinking, science fiction requires knowledge, applied with discipline and challenged with rigour. It might be a bad writer who shows his working – and tediously explains the physics of tethering an orbital platform to a Lagrange point, say – but woe betide the author who hasn’t done the thinking behind the scenes. Loose threads and sloppy science both stick out like sore thumbs, and the internet has taught us that the weak will be torn limb from limb for the crime of showing their weakness.

My point is, while I am pretty sure I could get up to speed quickly to write about some reasonably complex biological processes (as long as there’s no serious maths involved), on the rest of the broad spectrum of science discipline, I am utterly screwed. My maths is feeble and the intersection of physics with everything else baffles me. I tried and failed to follow Hawking. I can’t think about physics in any depth, I struggle to read about it and I sure as hell can’t write about it.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I am rather in love with a podcast that celebrates science fiction and discusses it in depth: the Coode Street Podcast, hosted by Johnathon Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe. Strahan and Wolfe are obviously lifelong science fiction fans, deeply steeped in the traditions of the form. They are academics and critics well-versed in both current and historical works. And they get the science, or if they don’t, they have mastered the art of sounding convincing.

Coode Street is a weekly podcast discussion on science fiction and fantasy (more of the former than the latter, although they have wide ranging interests). It’s erudite, insightful and fascinating. They grok science fiction, they care about the field and its wider place in literature and society, how it informs and is informed by technological change over time and they like to speculate on where it might go in the future. I don’t consider myself a real fan of science fiction, because basically I don’t feel as smart or as informed as these guys sound. Basically it’s like listening to two awesome teachers talking. Recommended (in particular for Clams).

Next day edit: I sound like I’m putting myself down all through this, which means I should learn a lesson about attempting to write with relentless positivity after midnight. (I won’t). In ideal circumstances I would scrap the whole post and try again, but – eh, it’s out there now. So instead I’ll try to restate my point and see if I can make it a bit better this time.

I should clarify that I see a distinct difference between hard science fiction and the rest of the field. It’s hard SF that I am trying to describe here – the challenging, scientific SF of a Greg Egan or a Stephen Baxter (sometimes) or a Kim Stanley Robinson. And I am not complaining about writing which is dry or overly technical. All three of those writers use very accessible prose and convey their ideas well, and I have no doubt that there are others as good or better.

My problem – and I want to stress that this is a problem with me rather than with the field – is that I feel like I can’t appreciate great works of hard SF. I am acutely aware, when reading a speculative work that proposes some breathtaking concept that I lack the frame of reference not only to figure out what is being described, but also to catch the nuances and to comprehend the broader implications. Stumbling across incomprehensible scientific revelations happens to me all the time. Perhaps I’m not a sufficiently attentive reader (that’s very likely, in fact). Perhaps it’s the author’s job to spell those out, I don’t know, but I would hate to imagine an author hamstringing their elegant fabrications just so scientific semi-literates like me can get the point.

And the thing is, I know that I have a better and broader understanding of science that 95% of the population of earth [1]. I do. I’m well read, I retain at least most of the basic principles I learned in high school and I stay at least roughly abreast of the latest popular science news. I like Big Science ideas. I am intensely interested in what’s coming next and what that means for the human race. I am ravenously sci-curious.

But I don’t feel like I can ever be in that club, because I don’t make the height requirement. Even though I’m probably the only person who thinks there is one.

Further edit: Nope, still failed to be positive.

How about this: I want to love hard science fiction in the Egan-esque vein. Somebody please recommend something great.

 

[1] Within my own circle of friends and acquaintances, I am almost certainly in a much lower percentile…

 

October 23, 2012

MRP Day 22 – Plotting

Filed under: the month of relentless positivity,wordsmithery — lexifab @ 10:48 pm

Relax. Today I’m not linking to any gems of writing advice I’ve inadvisedly plucked out of the internet. Instead I’m going to coopt the Day 22 entry for the Month of Relentless Positivity to mumble to myself about plotting.

It has been said that there are two types of fiction writers. There are those plotters who plan everything out before they get started, so that they have a clear destination in mind and a road map for getting there. Then there are the pantsers (referring to their tendency to write by the seat of their pants, who might be more politely referred to as discovery writers), who start from some compelling characters or inciting event and keep writing until a story emerges.

I’m more naturally inclined to pantsing it, just making stuff up as I amble along, content to nut out the next idea or two and not to worry about what comes after that until it arrives. I tend to find that when it’s working, it makes writing fun and even thrilling. The desire – compulsion, even – to know what happens next is a powerful motivation for continuing to write.

It’s an approach that seems well suited to an activity like National Novel Writing Month, which is an exercise in blurting out one idea after the other over a sustained period without a lot of thought about how it all fits together. When I wrote my first novel [1] there was simply no time to work out what was going on. The day to day planning for each evening’s writing stint basically consisted of coming up with a scene setting and a couple of characters to occupy it, and then typing to see what happened, filtered through a lens of the story’s “vibe” (tone, language and subconscious stuff like motifs and probably theme).

In the end I had something that I suppose was a more or less coherent story, albeit one in need of a brutal edit. I don’t know that it was a very satisfying one though – a lot of things happened around the nominal protagonist, but he himself was poorly conceived as a central character. He didn’t drive the plot with his desires, nor did he change much or discover any great revelations as a result of his adventures. A lot of stuff went down in the story, but arguably not much happens for any interesting reason.

I mention all that not because I am disappointed in that story or recriminating with myself nearly a decade after the fact. It’s just that with my current novel project I’ve tried to go the other way and attempt to plot it out. Now in a sense I’ve already failed at that because I’ve already written a draft of the story, which was part plotted and part made up as I typed. And the first draft is not bad, although there are major continuity problems (like when I killed a secondary character off and then decided that I’d done it at the wrong time so he was alive again in the next chapter, or when I changed one of the POV character’s name, profession and plot motivation about four chapters into a subplot that I realised was going nowhere).

But it’s a good story, I think, and I want to get it right, so I’m having another go. This time, I’m trying to impose some self-discipline and working out the major plot points and story turns and characters arcs and backstory and supernatural effects beforehand, so that I have at least the outlining equivalent of a good mudmap with coherent instructions and useful landmarks identified.

Tonight I hammered out 500 words on how the story is supposed to end. I’ve *never* done that before. That was definitely what was missing in the first draft. I had no sense of where I was going with the story. As a result, it meandered as it went and it stumbled at the climax. The ending I wrote was nonsensical and almost shorthand in places, because I knew it was disconnected from what I’d been intending with the rest of the story.

This time around I am working on putting together a clear picture – in my head at least, if not on paper – of where I am heading, and what needs to happen in order for the characters to get there.

If you’re wondering where the Relentless Positivity is in all of this, it’s here – I intend to finish this story, and I intend to tell it as well as I can. I don’t know if it will be a story that anyone else will want to read, but I do know that it’s a story I want to write.

And it’s time I got started with the writing, I think.[2]

[1] Still findable on the internet if you have great mastery of google fu.

[2] As a long aside, I have been prepping this outline with the notion in mind that I would make this my National Novel Writing Month project in November. I still might, but I’m leaning away from the idea at the moment. Realistically, I don’t have time to physically type 2000 words on more than about two to three nights a week, so I know that I’m going to be spending a lot of those nights feeling an extra pressure to catch up on NaNo’s notorious ever-advancing minimum word count. I have a feeling that placing that extra pressure on myself on top of the expectations I have to”do the story right” this time would be a bad idea. In this instance I think I’m better off setting myself a more modest target and then enjoying beating that goal than trying to maintain an artificially fast pace and burning out from shame and lack of sleep.

MRP Day 21 – Blood donation

Filed under: fitter/happier,the month of relentless positivity — lexifab @ 2:33 pm

You know what? I really, really enjoy donating blood to the Red Cross. I like that there is something that I can do that costs me a little time every month or two, and a small amount of discomfort, which actually helps people to not die. Because I like the idea that there might be people out there who are not dead because I could find some time to lie down, read a book and drink a chocolate milkshake once in a while. I mean, as opportunities to exercise commitment to civic wellbeing, it sets a pretty low bar.

A few years ago I went from whole blood donations to plasma, and then after that to platelets. The latter two take considerably longer, but are usable in a far broader set of circumstances. On balance I think that makes it worth the extra time.

Now true, because I work in a government job there is very little impediment to me taking time out of the workday to swan off and get dracula’ed. For one thing moments of my indispensibility are few and far between, but more pertinently Commonwealth public servants – Canberra ones, at least – are actively encouraged to bleed for the cause. Perhaps they think we won’t get all uppity about public debasement of our work if we’re dizzy from bloodloss?

Anyway, check out this Red Cross promo animation on the blood donor program and sign up for a donation today [1]

 

[1] Unless you are pregnant, have had dental work or tattoos, have been locked up in prison or consorted with prostitutes or exposed to Mad Cow Disease or you’re scared of needles, hospitals or blood. They probably won’t ask you to hang around if you tick any of those boxes.

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