Posted tagged ‘process’

Apo-poly-logies.

May 28, 2010

Ok. I’ve been absent for quite a while. I’ve now graduated from undergraduate which means I’m going to have much more time I can dedicate to this project and hopefully in the future such long hiatuses will not occur.  So, here we go again. I’m also going to try something new by publishing entire chapters of my novel so keep an eye out for that. Until then, stay tuned.

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The creative ghost in the machine.

March 22, 2010

We writers spend so much time trying to be original. It’s not just for our sake so we can flatter our egos and point ostentatiously back at how unique we are. We also do it because we like to think we are dreamers. We look at the world outside and reconfigure it in new ways inside to bring it back out in the form of art so others can enjoy it and share in our dream. It’s so human that nothing could replicate it. Creativity is ours and ours alone. We paint the Mona Lisas and we write the sonnets. We also make the music… until Emmy came along. Emmy, and its new version, Emily Howell, are programs that create new, original music designed by Professor David Cope. The first program baffled people by creating songs indistinguishable from Bach original pieces, inciting an enraged uproar. Now, the second version is out and creating even more inspired pieces that you can find clips of in the link along with a lengthy and interesting article. In that article you will find what I’ve said multiple times: creativity is recombination of existing elements. Yet, it is recombination with a soul, isn’t it? Does the program feel the music or the thrill of making something new? Probably not but you have to give it credit. It recombines the way a DNA synthesizer recombines, coldly and with precision but creating products that are still beautiful. I think this demonstrates how we too are like the machine. We take everything we’ve seen and heard and process it; yet we do it because we love it, because it compels us whereas Emily Howell does it because Professor Cope hits the start button yet the results are still stunning. How does it know to put the notes in such an order as to evoke emotion? Are our emotions so transparent that we can be triggered to feel something based solely on an algorithm? What does this mean for the music industry if a machine can make music that sounds more genuine and heart-felt than most of the human musicians populating the Billboard charts? Whatever the case, I look forward to a machine that creates because it shares the human love of creating something new, something no one has seen or heard before.

Wednesday it comes to an end.

March 21, 2010

On Wednesday, I will have finally completed my novel. I don’t mean that I will have reached the end of the novel, put the last word down, but that I will have crested the hill of my fourth revision or so. I am very excited since this means that the final step will take me over the threshold of the crafting stage to the sales stage. To be honest, I am quite nervous. I’m still working on it, cutting, rewriting, and trying to make sure every single plot point matches and makes sense. As far as I can tell, my work is coming to an end, though as the creator of the story I will never be able to look at it as complete. There will always be things that I will think could be better or be improved. It will never be perfect in my eyes, but if I don’t stop myself then I’ll never get to the next stage in which I try to send it into the world. So, once I add in the final revision on Wednesday, expect a celebratory post which will probably include fond reminiscences of writing this thing and final stats such as page count and word count. Until, then readers, keep writing and enjoy the process.

The Creative Writing Process: Part 3

March 20, 2010

Wow. I apologize for the delay in posting. The past week has been all about catching up with things I should have been doing over spring break. Oh the life of a college student but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. In fact, with the end of my senior year looming, I find myself wishing my under graduate career would just go on indefinitely. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work like that and we all find ourselves having to move on to the next phase. But enough of my personal musings and let’s get down to some writing!

So, you’ve come up with an idea that you want to expand on. You think it’s grand and you want to turn your vision into something that people will talk about and other writers will turn to years down the line. There’s just one problem: you need to start somewhere. How? We’re talking about a major undertaking and you haven’t a single word on the page. What I did to start out was to put it together like a puzzle. You can do this in your head but the problem is you will forget things. This may be a good thing sometimes. A little chaos is necessary for creativity but if you have a great idea or have plans for a plot twist you just know will wow your readers and you forget it, you will be kicking yourself for a long time. So what can you do to get your ideas down without actually writing out the story?

There are two very useful programs available that can help you trace out the possible routes your story can go down. The first is a program called FreeMind. FreeMind uses a wire diagram setup that allows you to create nodes from which other nodes can be attached and branch off. Want to brain storm a complex series of double-crossings and deceit? Make a “parent node” with lots of little baby nodes that will represent the literal web you are creating with the exploits of your characters. The same can be done for plotting and it will definitely help you keep it all straight. It’s a versatile system with a fairly small learning curve though you will have to get used to it. The second program requires far less practice time.

yWriter, now in its fifth version, can be used after you’ve completed your graph of the plot. What it does is provide a small but useful suite of functions that allow you to create folders for character biographies, setting descriptions, and finally, a robust system that breaks your novel up into chapters, allowing you to concentrate on the dynamics of character, setting, conflict, props, and other important aspects that contribute to a chapter functioning.

I used both programs in the planning stage of writing a novel but neither of them can really write your novel. Instead, you’ve got to pull the ideas together into something coherent and these programs can help with the organizing procedure. So where do you start? At the beginning is what I’ve heard works best. How do you know what that is and what’s worse, how do embark on this adventure? When I started my novel, I felt like I was about to jump off a ledge. It was a strange, out of control feeling, like if I started, I wouldn’t be able to change course. Once you’re falling, the only thing that will stop you is the ground. But that’s not true. You are in control at all times which is why you should start by thinking, “Alright, I have an idea for my story. This is a test run of sorts, a first draft of a first draft. A pilot episode of a book.” Test out a first chapter or two.

The two big questions you must ask to test the beginning of your chapter are: “If I picked this up in the book store, would I continue reading?” and “If I start here, will I be able to get where I want to go?” If the answer to either question is “no,” then you must switch things up. “But I thought my work with those programs would have fixed this!” you might be saying. All I’m saying is that even after I did all that work, I still discovered that when I went to write the novel, the ideas proved less secure than I had thought which meant that I had to modify them. I no longer have the first draft but if you looked at that then at the current and, I think for now, final draft, of the first chapter, you would think you were reading totally different books. This is okay and you should never be afraid of changing your ideas if you discover they are going to limit you and prevent you from telling the story you want to tell. Still, where do you begin in your story?

For my novel, I begin in media res which means, “in the middle of things.” In many stories, you will have to do this if you wish to avoid four chapters of pure exposition. This will force you to consider how you will get your reader to follow along with the narrative since they will be dropped into a world that is going full tilt. The up-side to this is that there is no down-time. The action or at least the intrigue begins at page one with later chapters providing the much-needed, and necessary, moments to pause and build your characters. The in media res method will give you the opportunity to introduce your problem or conflict that will be the center that your characters will circle around and it may introduce one of your major characters as well. You could begin with a description of the scenery if you wish and if you think that it will be important to adding atmosphere or revealing some important detail of the world. However, do not wait too long to introduce some human element, even if you use the method of a false protagonist in which the first character we meet is not actually our protagonist and may even be the antagonist. The fun for the reader will be the surprise that comes from the switch to the protagonist or main character’s narrative. Whatever the case, do not make the reader wait too long to encounter a human they can identify with. People want and need to have a person to ground them, to make a new and unfamiliar world you are introducing them to a little more recognizable and easy to follow. Whatever you do, don’t start off pummeling your readers with back story of the world or character. Readers don’t want a history lesson or a case study. They want a story about characters living and operating in the world you are creating then and there. So now we know that, where and when can we begin?

Start your book where your conflict starts. This is the most efficient method I know. What is the first encounter or first action that draws your character into the main plot of your story? That is where your story begins. In an action oriented book, what is it that the protagonist does or has done to her/him that brings the character into the main web of the story? Is it a plot to steal valuable secret from a science lab? Maybe your character is a con man who manages to con the people behind the theft into letting him in on the robbery and he steals the info for himself. In this story, you might start right at the heist detailing the run then surprise your audience with the character running off with the info. Why not start when he joins the group? The group stealing from the research team hired the con man, yes, but the actions of the thieves only start to affect him when they go after him. All the rest is exposition you can fill in as the story progresses.

That’s about all I can say for actually beginning your novel. Hopefully this was helpful in making that first big leap into the story. For the next time, I’ll see what pops into my head. Possibly I’ll talk about how to introduce background information and maybe I’ll talk about writing style though that might have to be a separate subject all its own. Until then, good luck starting your novel!

Torn in a million pieces. The middle ground in writing can be difficult to find.

March 10, 2010

Well, I’m finally back. I spent a few days in Washington, D.C. and went to the Smithsonian.  Pretty much all of it. This is why I haven’t been posting. I really can’t stress enough how great it is to go to one museum after the other and how many great ideas you can uncover just by looking at all the knowledge and experience stored there. But that’s not quite the point of this post.

The Buddha advocated finding the middle path in all things. Going to either extreme of something will only lead to problems and I’m finding that to be just as true when it comes to writing. One thing I’ve been finding is that I am still looking for a style. I’ve so far been to the two extremes of writing and am displeased with the results of both.

My first major writing project was actually more of an experiment or a practice exercise. After finishing an anime series I really enjoyed, I decided to expand upon the universe of the story line. This is called fan fiction and I have to say, if you want to get a feel for writing with the opportunity for near instant public feedback and no pressure, do a little. Pick something you like and write till your heart’s content then post it in any of the myriad fan fiction sites on the net. Looking back at the story I wrote, and I will not publish here since I will essentially be embarrassing myself, the word that pops into my head is “effusive.” Everything is too much. There is too much description, too much time spent inside the characters’ heads, too much of everything. It was an immature voice that pretty much taught me how to keep a cohesive narrative going and how to generate suspense. As a learning experience, and as an opportunity to entertain fellow fans of the series, I have no regrets which is something anyone who has an interest in writing must do: look at everything you write as a learning experience and to forgive yourself for transgressions committed in your novice state. If you get caught up on what you’ve done wrong, you’ll never advance.

My most recent novel is a vast improvement over the verbose and tortuous prose of my fan fic effort. Descriptions don’t trail on and the flamboyant use of similes and metaphors has been curbed. However, I’ve run into another problem and that is I don’t feel the characters sometimes. I do not know who they are because, in trying to eliminate excess, I’ve created a paucity of expression, I’ve muted the observations and thoughts of my characters. This is something that, as I continue to revise my novel, I am dealing with, giving free reign to my characters’ thoughts so that they will get to speak and tell us how they see the world. I find it incredible reading over the sections I’ve m modified in this way, getting that feeling of vibrancy, the feeling that this isn’t a character but a person who’s made us privy to his thoughts. This brings me round to the question of balance.

Part of writing is giving rise to a structured chaos. Human thoughts and feelings are not linear and easily traceable however, if we are to create a story, there must be some level of cause and effect, an economy of words and conservativeness of expression or else our imagination will pour out over the page and make the work unreadable to everyone but ourselves. Writing is a bit like a drug in that it just transports you. If you let it, it can put you in an altered state where ideas and words just flood your mind and end up on the page, but just because they seem to come naturally doesn’t mean that, in their unstructured form, they are necessarily at their best. However, if you don’t let the words move like water, then you build a dam in your mind and have to synthesize the words in an artificial manner.

I’m convinced that there is a border that you can walk though that cuts through both territories. It’s just that it can be very difficult to find the sweet spot where there is enough detail to create a convincingly realized world and enough restraint to prevent the story from being bogged down. Again, this is all part of the process of discovering what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully, as this novel turns the corner of its third (fourth maybe? I’ve lost count to be honest) revision, and I get a clean copy then a read through by multiple people, I will be able to determine what to keep, what to add more of, and what to jettison.

Hackers outdone by Spanish police.

March 4, 2010

A stylish portrayal of a brute attack style

While hackers are often made into rebels with a heart in cyberpunk fiction, the truth is not always so heroic. A group of Spanish police officers recently cracked open a massive botnet operated by three, potentially more, individuals. So far they know that it has infected a total of 13 million computers in 190 countries, infiltrating half of the Fortune 500 companies and 40 major banks. A botnet is a network of hacked computers that act sort of like zombies. Once one is infected by the virus, it will send infected packets to other computers. The brilliance of it is that these are not malicious viruses. The virus does not destroy your computer but instead lies dormant. When the hackers need to, they can instantly access their own personal army of computers who they can instruct to do whatever they need. This can be useful in planning DDOS attacks against large targets or stealing personal info en mass.

Science fiction today, science tomorrow and I’m not even through the first chapter.

March 2, 2010

One of the problems that comes with writing science fiction is that science is moving so quickly. Come up with an idea you think is ahead of the curve and maybe a month or so later you are likely to hear about developments in or relating to that idea. By the time you get your novel out, the technology you thought was so cool and sleek is old news. Every sector of technology is shooting ahead at blinding speed. So what can science fiction writers do to stay ahead or is there any point?

Part of the problem relates back to the issue of creativity. How can one be creative when everything has been done? Synthesis proved to be the answer as far. One can combine parts of existing things to make something new. But does the same apply for coming up with a convincing sci-fi world? Let’s look at the world of computers and cybernetics. Human augmentation, making us faster, stronger, and smarter, depends on robotics, bio-electrics, and neuroscience. All these things have gotten to the point where there are now working prototypes of a system that augments human strength by reading the user’s nerve impulses and telling the exoskeleton to move in the way the person wants. The idea of preserving memories in an external device is also coming closer as neuroscientists learn about how the brain stores memory and the way the brain communicates with itself.  So, these once fictional devices that that would make a human being more human than human are now in the process of being realized as science plunges forward. Even with combining different existing things together, can we ever get ahead of this tidal wave of science? Well, yes and no. Yes, we can stay ahead by imagining what the world would look like with new or developing technologies in full swing. What would happen if every surface could be used as a touch screen? What if we all had augmentation? Part of what sci-fie does is look at not only the technology but our interaction with it as it influences the way society functions. While technology may surpass us, even while we’re in the writing process, there is still the opportunity to examine what would happen once the technology is released into he world. There’s a second option available as well that fairly insures that the science remains fiction and tantalizing for a long time to come.

Stories set in the far future, with technologies that we could only dream about, may not come to be for years. The best part is that one could simply take technologies that exist now and ramp them up the the nth degree. In this way, one maintains the fictional element for much longer though, in this day and age, even that is no guarantee that you might read an article about one of your ideas that will make it seem like you simply copied the idea. The point is that the stories that survive are those that are timeless and having dated technology can either be seen as a benefit, like in Neuromancer which we now look at as a major contribution to our idea of the net, or it can make it seem quaint. A far future story allows one to create a world of technology that will remain elusive for much longer. The final part of the puzzle is how you use it.

The technology being developed can be used in many ways and have many implications. Part of what will keep your story fresh for a long time is the way it addresses social and human issues. People want characters, people they can identify with or at least admire. People are also interested in their social environment and how they relate to it. While society is always changing, always picking up new traits and developing new cultural practices, we can look at cultures around the world and learn how they developed and borrow from them. In the end, characters have to interact with the society in which they live which leads to things we can all identify with or understand. Some characters may want to destroy society. Maybe another wants to fit in. Maybe another is looking to defend society. There are a myriad ways we interact with the social world that, no matter when a book is read, we can understand. These human elements in the end may make the story stick around in people’s minds. Of course, that shouldn’t prevent you from trying to create a world that people will dream about or tremble over for years to come.