Archive for the 'Writing' Category

Not everyone owns a hamster

Endless college lectures and books have discussed the use of symbolism in fiction writing. But the conversation continues because it is a very effectively technique for drawing attention to themes in a story that otherwise may not be clear.

Blogger C.S. Lakin has a lot of interesting bits of writing advice. In this blog she discusses using shapes symbolically.

Shapes are probably the last thing on a novelist’s mind when constructing a scene or an image system for a novel. Most of us probably pay little attention to shapes. Shapes of what? Well, everything has a shape, and even if you don’t think about shapes consciously, there are universal feelings that tend to go along with certain shapes, and throughout time and across cultures, shapes hold meaning and often symbolism.

Think about a character who feels stuck in a rut, her life like a treadmill. She feels as if she is going in circles, getting nowhere. Each morning she runs three miles on her treadmill. Her life is a merry-go-round of colorful painted horses that are not real. Without stating anything specifically, circles can be used in an image system throughout the novel. She could live at the end of a cul-de-sac with a circular driveway in front of her house. Her daughter could even have a pet hamster that runs in a hamster wheel, something she looks at every day and relates to. Her job could entail her doing some kind of repetitive motion that is circular (stirs sauces as a sous chef in a kitchen).

She makes a good, if obvious, point: we infer meaning to shapes. Jagged, spikey things are dangerous. Round, curved things are friendly. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has a whole theory of neuroaesthetics that gets into the idea that we were wired by evolution to find patterns (which are a form of meaning) in what we experience. If we hear a strange moan, and then hear it again louder, and yet again louder, it would behoove us to presume something dangerous is getting closer. Creatures who figure that out survive, those who don’t get eaten. (This might explain the menace in the JAWS theme.)

In essence, Ramachandran argues that when we “get” the meaning in an experience (be it “Wow, the monster’s getting closer,” or “Ah, her life is going in circles just like the hamster!”) we get rewarded with a good feeling—an emotional pat on the back. One could then theorize that if you insert such meta meaning in fiction (through symbolism and other techniques like metaphor) you set up opportunities for readers to “get it” and pat themselves on the back. And readers like books that make them feel clever and thus recommend them to their friends etc.

But here’s the beef I have with all this. Reality is not really filled with meaning. By this I mean, not every person going in circles has a hamster (some might have an iguana), not every evil person wears black (or has a name like “Dr. Satanus”), not every hero who hides their emotions beneath a hard exterior drives a Hummer etc. There’s some truth to these tropes and clichés, but I think programming them into fiction at a granular level makes the writing seem phony and unrealistic.

I think man seeks stability—that’s fairly obvious looking at human history. And I think we use myths, stories and even religion to evoke stability from the confusing and often meaningless world we live in. I understand the desire to create fiction that feeds that need, but I also think that on some level fiction should be confronting people with reality, making them a bit uncomfortable.

I’m reminded of a passage from David Byrne’s book “How Music Works” (which I discussed in this blog.)

At one point Byrne quotes the views of English author John Carey who said, “Meanings are not inherent in objects. They are supplied by those who interpret them.”

The plot wheel and random idea generators

Erle Stanley Gardner is the author famous for creating Perry Mason. He was also noted for his prolific output; he wrote 82 Perry Mason novels in his career! How did he do it? By using the plot wheel. (Demo of the wheel at the link.)

Key to Gardner’s remarkable output was his use of the plot wheels invented and patented by another of his successors, a British crime novelist named Edgar Wallace. By using different combinations of possible twists and turns for both major and minor characters, Gardner was able to construct narratives that held his readers rapt for several decades.

Crime fiction web site The Kill Zone elucidates…

When Gardner kept getting rejection slips that said “plot too thin,” he knew he had to learn how to do it. After much study he said he “began to realize that a story plot was composed of component parts, just as an automobile is.” He began to build stories, not just make them up on the fly. He made a list of parts and turned those into “plot wheels” which was a way of coming up with innumerable combinations. He was able, with this system, to come up with a complete story idea in thirty seconds.

I’ve been intrigued enough by the concept of a random plot generator to start work on a very basic music idea generator. It doesn’t actually write music; it’s merely a list of ways to accompany or dress up a basic tune (for example, by harmonizing a melody in thirds, or applying Bach style counterpoint to the melody.) I’m not randomly generating options though I might try and add that component later (though I would certainly use my discretion in choosing whether to follow the options it produces.)

But why would one want a plot generator or a music idea generator? Why not use the wonderful tool of human creativity? Mainly to overcome a problem that’s all to prevalent these days, the problem of too many options. When constructing a plot it’s very easy to say, “Our hero goes to Istanbul, no wait, Marrakech, no, Tripoli, and there he finds a golden sword, no wait, a magic coffee cup, no, wait, a mystical ashtray and then he…” You get the picture. Stories can suffer analysis paralysis if you can’t cordon your options in. The same goes with music and probably all creative processes. If we had all the time in the world then we could explore all the possibilities, but we seldom do.

The challenge of the “too many options” situation is that you have to know what to throw away. A plot wheel, or my proposed more advanced music idea generator basically uses chance to make these decisions. (A bit like John Cage’s chance derived music.) This isn’t a bad way to get the ball rolling though it probably results in somewhat hokey, discombobulated output. But if you want to knock something out, or are at a standstill, it’s a legitimate option.

This approach isn’t limited to creative processes, by the way. I used to go to movie rental stores and walk the aisles for close to a hour looking for the perfect movie. I probably would have been better off going to a section I liked (horror or independent cinema), throwing a dart and taking whatever it landed on.

My sense is that in this ever expanding world of choices – of 300 channel television, of a world of entertaining web pages (none more so than acid logic), of cheap travel, of Spotify and its collection of 300 trillion cds (I’m making that number up), of internet dating sites with hundreds of profiles etc. etc. – the problem of how to choose has become more daunting. A lot of technology evangelists say, “more choices are better,” but it many ways they are not. The process of choosing puts a heavy load on our brain. It literally tires us out. That’s why I feel choice shortcuts, like plot or music generators, have value.

This idea that to function efficiently one must eliminate unneeded information is not limited to people. The brain does the same thing. Here’s an interesting passage from Ray Kurzweil’s book “How to Create a Mind.”

[Vision scientists] showed that optic nerves carry ten to twelve output channels, each of which carries only a small amount of data about a given scene. One group of what are called ganglion cells sends information about edges (changes in contrast). Another group detects only large areas of uniform color, whereas a third group is sensitive only to the backgrounds behind figures of interest.

“Even though we think we see the world fully, what we are receiving is really just hints, edges in space and time,” says Werblin. “Those 12 pictures of the world constitute all the information we will ever have about what’s out there, and from those 12 pictures, which are so sparse, we reconstruct the richness of the visual world.

Kurzweil then notes…

This data reduction is what in the AI [artificial intelligence] field we call “sparse coding.” We have found in creating artificial systems that throwing most of the input information away and retaining only the most salient details provides superior results. Otherwise the limited ability to process information in a neocortex (biological or otherwise) gets overwhelmed.

So the brain has figured out how to allow passage of only essential information… to chose only the best channels from the 300 channel television, so to speak.

Is there any point to writing anymore?

This is a question I feel the internet age has engendered, in relation to both fiction and non-fiction. I’ll tell you why.

Let’s say it’s 40 years ago and you’re writing a book on auto repair. You’re describing a particular procedure and realize that before a person could engage in this procedure they would need to replace their radiator hose. So, you write up a whole section on how to replace a radiator hose. And it’s pretty useful; without it your readers would have to put down your book, go to the bookstore and find a book that explains the radiator hose replacement procedure.

Now, in the modern world of interlinked hypertext you wouldn’t need to include that section, you could just link to any of the numerous sources on the web that explain how to replace a radiator hose.

And, frankly, with this in mind you might realize there’s no point writing your book at all. Unless you are really discussing some aspect of auto repair that hasn’t already been covered in some other easily available source, you would really just be creating redundant information. And information these days, with the web, ebooks and such, is much more “easily available” than it’s ever been. (There’s is, admittedly, a challenge in searching through all that information for trustworthy and correct information, but with a little tenacity it’s doable.)

How about fiction? Certainly every fiction book is in some sense unique. But as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been doing a little work in the realm of book promotion these days and one thing I’ve noticed is that everybody and their dog has written a fantasy novel about a plucky band of dwarves/elves/humans that go off on a mission to free their land from the dark force that emanates from a great tower/mountain/city off in the distance. They’ve also all written novels about a hard nosed detective type with a flaw (alcoholism, self-loathing, pedophiliac tendencies) who has to go up against a serial killer of pure evil (and in the process redeem themselves.)

Are you really doing the world any kind of favor by writing these kinds of books? I would argue no. In both cases – redundant non-fiction and trite fiction – you’re basically creating more noise, more junk people need to wade through to get to the good stuff (like my work.)

So should people just stop writing altogether? Well, I doubt that’s going to happen. But I hope they consider what they are really adding to “the commons” before taking pen in hand.

AuthorHouse a scam operation?

Readers may be aware that several years ago I published a collection of my acid logic articles using the self-publishing outfit AuthorHouse. (Book available from Amazon here.) Over the years I’ve heard the AuthorHouse brand being maligned but never really got the gist of the complaints until I read through some posts on David Gaughran’s blog. Here’s a good one in which Gaughran describes an AuthorHouse practice of dubious morality.

Author Solutions – and their various subsidiaries, including Palibrio, Trafford, iUniverse, Xlibris, and AuthorHouse – has emailed customers pimping a unique opportunity to get your book in front of thousands of readers at the Miami Book Fair this coming November.

For $3,999 you can have a one hour slot at the Author Solutions booth to sign some books. You’ll have to cover your own airfare, hotel, and food, but you will get some free copies to sign, and some bookmarks to give away… if anyone shows up.

The experience of twiddling your thumbs for an hour, looking forlornly at a pile of poorly produced books, is likely to be so memorable that you will deeply regret not swinging for the premium package. For just $7,999 you get to do the book signing and get a 60 second video to treasure forever.

This is likely to be profitable for Author Solutions. In 2011, it had over 50 authors signing books, netting at least $199,950. The following year was even better with more than 60 authors participating, bringing in at least $239,940.

Those numbers don’t even take into account the 400 authors who shelled out $799 each to be in a “new title showcase” that nobody will look at, netting Author Solutions a further $319,600.

In total, Author Solutions made over half a million dollars from the 2012 Miami Book Fair. That’s a pretty good return when booths are going for just $1,000.

I will say, I’ve never had any issue during my AuthorHouse experience. My basic goal was to collect my work in an attractive package I could be proud of, and sell at least a couple hundred, and I succeeded. I was always wary of and disinterested in their various attempts to upsell me expanded packages.

Nonetheless, it’s a little disturbing to realize how much of what AuthorHouse and like minded companies sell is not basic self-publishing tools (like printing and editing services) but a dream. The dream of being a respected and accomplished author. While I certainly don’t think AuthorHouse’s actions are anywhere near criminal, they’re certainly designed to take advantage of authors with stars in their eyes.

Telling it like it is

In journalism, it’s common for a writer to ask a somewhat rhetorical question and then answer it using a quote from one of the story’s sources. I was struck by this use of the technique in a recent New Yorker article on cyber crime.

So is there any solution to our cyber problem? Every advance in connectivity and mobility seems to increase the possibilities for crime.

“We’re completely fucked,” Kellerman said.

Schnitzler’s voice

I’ve mentioned my interest in the theory that as the history of humankind has unfolded, our basic experience of being alive has changed, perhaps radically. I was reminded of this today as I continued to read the book “The Age of Insight.” At one point in the book, we are introduced to Arthur Schnitzler, a writer and playwright who lived in Vienna in the early 1900s and purportedly invented the technique of internal dialogue. This is the practice of presenting the character’s inner voice on the page. An example included in the book is from Schnitzler’s story “Lieutenant Gustle.”

How long is this thing going to last? Let me look at my watch… it’s probably not good manners at a serious concert like this, but who’s going to notice? If anyone does, he’s not paying any more attention than I am, so I really don’t need to be embarrassed… it’s only a quarter to ten?

And on and on…

Internal dialogue probably found its most prominent use in the thought balloons of comic book characters, as I’ve mentioned here.

The problem, of course, is that nobody really thinks that way. You don’t think, “Gee, I really need to get to work. I guess I’ll wear my blue tie today.” You just have a general sense of being late, and a fleeting desire to put on your blue tie. Maybe a few of the words pop into your head – “late,” “blue” – but you don’t think in full sentences.

Having said that, I do sometimes find myself kind of thinking in full sentences. Maybe that’s based on some assumption on my part that that’s how I “should” be thinking — because that’s how people think in books, movies and comic books. And I wonder if this idea, this concept of thinking in internal dialogue, is something relatively new to our species, perhaps starting with Schnitzler’s invention.

There’s another area be explored here. To think in even a kind of broken down internal dialogue requires us to have language. How do creatures without language — cavemen, or children raised by wolves — “think?”

Getting emotional in writing

I’ve been doing some guest blogging over at a friend’s blog dedicated to writing fiction. My latest post there discusses how the neuroscience of emotion relates to writing immersive fiction.

In 1994, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio published Descartes’ Error —- Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. The book was a conversational rumination on neuroscience; at its core was Damasio’s assertion that human emotion is a sensory experience. It is felt in the skin and viscera, transmitted along the nerves that travel through the body and observed in various components of the brain. This might not sound like a revelation but Damasio was essentially discarding the belief —- held throughout much of human history —- that emotions are felt in some ethereal way by a nonmaterial human essence (what might be called a soul). Damasio’s position is at odds with most religious thought and many romantic notions (including Descartes’ famous dictum that the mind and body were separate) which have pervaded literature and philosophy for the past 200-300 years.

A reasonable question at this point is, “What does this have to do with novel writing?” After all, this is a blog dedicated to the art of creating fiction, not understanding the physiological processes that comprise human emotion. This is true enough, but describing emotion is a big part of fiction writing. Characters have emotional states, and often quite a bit of conflict is driven by these states. Ideally, an author doesn’t want to just describe the emotional state of a character, he or she wants the reader to feel (at least in some small way) these emotions. And readers want to vicariously experience what a character experiences. That’s part of the thrill of reading a book.

It goes on from there, offering several gems of information.

War between content generators

In my recent piece on dream logic, I linked to this article about the possibilities of creating computer intelligence. There’s an interesting passage in it that I failed to really notice the first time I read through it.

It’s also reasonable to expect computers to help clean up the mess they have made. They dump huge quantities of information into the cybersphere every day. Can they also help us evaluate this information intelligently? Or are they mere uncapped oil wells pumping out cyber-pollution — which is today just a distraction but might slowly, gradually paralyze us, as our choices and information channels proliferate out of control? As each of us is surrounded by a growing crowd of computer-paparazzi all shouting questions and waving data simultaneously, and no security guards anywhere?

This is something I’ve been thinking about in relation to webpages and search engine results. Since the 90s, people have really been writing web content for two audiences: humans, who actually read the articles, and search engines who “spider” the articles and rank the pages in search results. The sad fact is that if you want to get your article read by humans, you need to keep in mind the demands of search engines which use various, ever-changing algorithms to rank pages.

In the early days, people could trick search engines into ranking their pages highly by using various strategies that created pages which were often completely worthless to humans. For example, if you were trying to rank highly for the keyword “dog” you could create a page which had words like “dog, canine, Fido, Rover” etc. in big bold letters at the top. Search engines liked this, people said “what the fuck?”

Since then, things have gotten better, but you still see a lot of “junk” pages out there. However, as I recently pointed out, computer software is getting better and better at writing news articles. It seems like things could quickly get to the point where people could publish 1000 similar articles on the same topic, figuring that at least some of them would dominate search engine results. At this point, human authored articles would be competing with computer-generated articles for search engine rankings. And, in any battle between humans and computers, computers always win.

The point the author makes above is that maybe computers could help weed through all the computer generated muck and find what would truly be useful. At which point an arms race between computer software develops: content generating computers versus content filtering computers. It seems that the only possible outcome is the complete destruction of humanity and the rise of a flesh eating race of cyborg aliens.

The appeal of writing

So I’ve mentioned I’ve been out on the web reviewing a lot of the information available on novel writing. One thing I’ve discovered is that everyone on earth is writing a novel. Seriously, it’s amazing. When are you going to finish your novel, dear reader?

Back in my 20s, novel writing was sort of my back up plan if I failed to be a successful rock star. My thinking was that the world of music might prove to be too competitive – after all, everyone wants to be a musician – but novel writing – because of the effort involved – would be less so. Most common mortals couldn’t have the stamina to engage in novel creation, I reasoned. But it looks like I was wrong.

I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve come to this conclusion: Who are the people making music? Mostly young people, because music is a – ironically – very appearance focused business. Musicians needs to have trim, tight bodies and god like good looks (areas where I, of course, excel). But writers…? Writers can be – are almost expected to be – doughy faced, sloth like creatures with crumbs of their lunch on their shirt and stains of feces on their fingers. In short, writers look like most of humanity. As a result, many people say, “There’s no way I could be a musician, but a writer – that seems obtainable.”

But, I think there might be more to it as well. Writing may not be the flashiest dramatic medium — film, TV and music come to mind — but it’s one that can be pursued with the most basic of tools: words. You don’t need to invest in fancy equipment; you can get by with a pencil and paper if need be. It’s the most naked of art forms.

Words of encouragement

Lately I’ve been reading through a lot of posts by bloggers describing the process of novel writing. This one is worth attention. The author, in his day job as a waiter, had an encounter with Philip Roth, a noted and famous author, albeit one whose work I have never read. The author hands a copy of his recently published novel to Roth and…

Then Roth, who, the world would learn sixteen days later, was retiring from writing, said, in an even tone, with seeming sincerity, “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

While ruminating, the author rebounds, concluding…

And though I have only one novel published—and experienced none of the success of Roth—I still feel strongly that the one thing a writer has above all else, the reward which is bigger than anything that may come to him after huge advances and Hollywood adaptations, is the weapon against boredom. The question of how to spend his time, what to do today, tomorrow, and during all the other pockets of time in between when some doing is required: this is not applicable to the writer.