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Archive for February, 2014|Monthly archive page

The Punctuatin’ Monkey

In Uncategorized on February 28, 2014 at 10:00 am

I spent a lot of time in January working on a “warm up” novel — whipping myself through a mediocre murder mystery I decided to write, in order to get back into practice after not working on original fiction for-ev-er. I posted about it in January, but I thought I’d share the post here, too, albeit a bit later.

Among the Google searches I performed for the work was a string of increasingly frustrated searches about the punctuation of text messages:

  • Grammar when narrating text conversations
  • Grammar when describing text messages
  • Grammar text message fiction
  • Chicago Manual of Style online

I am fortunate to have access to the Chicago Manual of Style through my work, but for the record, the Chicago Manual of Style does not define how to incorporate text messages into dialogue. My question was how to punctuate the following text message conversation:

Cooking wheat paste. Been pulling tape off a nude all morning. That sounds a lot more fun than it was.

I don’t know, there’s a sexy note to tape and nudes.

LOL Not when it involves scalpels.

Should it be, in prose, punctuated thusly, the way dialogue would:

Cooking wheat paste. Been pulling tape off a nude all morning. That sounds a lot more fun than it was, Anais answered.

I don’t know, there’s a sexy note to tape and nudes.

LOL. Not when it involves scalpels, she shot back.

Or should the punctuation on the text should be preserved, thus:

Cooking wheat paste. Been pulling tape off a nude all morning. That sounds a lot more fun than it was. Anais answered.

I don’t know, there’s a sexy note to tape and nudes.

LOL Not when it involves scalpels. she shot back.

And if so, should that last “she” should be capitalized, given the text ended in a stop.

I thought I’d go for the nearest approximation once it became clear I wouldn’t find anything in the Chicago Manual about chats, SMS, text messages. The problem is, I found two: one digital and one old-school.

When quoting something containing an email address, “Readers of print sources should assume that any punctuation at the end of an e-mail address or URL belongs to the sentence” meaning that you should punctuate the same way the digital statement was punctuated; plus, when citing a digital source, the Chicago Manual says it’s permissible, though not necessary, to enclose the URL in brackets which will isolate it from surrounding punctuation (thus preventing a corruption of the URL). This does look rather stylish and somewhat futuristic:

[Cooking wheat paste. Been pulling tape off a nude all morning. That sounds a lot more fun than it was.] Anais answered.

On the other hand, the Manual suggests that “unpublished field notes (the author’s own or those of a colleague or assistant)” which is informal communication comparable to a text message, should be “edited for consistency — with other notes and with the surrounding text—in matters of spelling, capitalization, punctuation…” and so forth. Which would mean punctuating the text messages like a conversation, per the first example.

Oh, what a madcap world in which we live.

When I talked about this on my livejournal, early comments favored the brackets, mainly I think because brackets do look cool. The end majority, however, thought that — being a conversation — the text messages should be punctuated like one. On the other hand, if logic ruled grammar, our world would be very different, I feel…

Let’s Have A Fight

In Uncategorized on February 21, 2014 at 10:00 am

This appears to be the week to talk about “things Sam is crap at”. Today’s discussion: conflict.

I have a hard time with conflict. I suspect it’s because I loathe confrontation. There is a difference, of course, between the two, but it’s a fairly fine distinction, and conflict often isn’t very interesting without confrontation.

The ideal conflict arises when two characters (I use the term “character” pretty loosely here) have goals or beliefs which, if they don’t outright contradict each other, at the very least interfere with each other. There are the four traditional “epic plots”, of course:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. God
Man vs. Self

(The gendered language here is an example of a lot of what’s wrong with the publishing industry today. I like to pretend that Woman is sitting nearby eating popcorn and laughing at Man’s stupidity, or off having more interesting adventures of her own.)

For me, a major problem is that any book or television show that isn’t about an individual against an external force — any media that is about individuals interacting — usually draws on the oft-forgotten fifth epic plot:

Man Vs. Stupidity.

Because the thing is, pitting someone against an external force gets boring after a while, but pitting someone against someone else who either genuinely means them harm or has a strong conflicting goal is really hard. Building up a believable villain is tough work, and when you’re writing about an ensemble, you rarely want one character to go so far into active conflict that they become irredeemable in the eyes of the audience. Especially since we love a good redemption arc.

So it’s easier to derive conflict from miscommunication, misunderstanding, or plain stupidity. And while I have a hard time watching the bad guy get the better of the hero through cleverness, I have a much harder time watching two people in conflict because they’re both being stupid. I see enough stupidity on the street every day, I don’t need to see it in my entertainment media as well. Or, god forbid, in something that’s attempting to be didactic.

But there is no doubt that writing conflict is hard work. Often, at least for me, it’s also not that interesting; I’m stuck back in the phase where world building is still the most interesting part of the story, for me, and only rigid self-discipline actually provides conflict for my stories. Writing the fight scene between Christopher and Lucas in Nameless was one of the hardest things I’ve done. It probably shows. And it could be said that the fight was driven by misunderstanding, but I like to think it was more driven by a fundamental difference in the way the two men saw the world at that moment.

There’s no instant fix for Man Vs. Stupidity. There’s no trick to escaping it and no writerly cure. It’s just a lot of bullheaded pushing — working to build a believable contrast between the ideologies of two characters, or giving a villain a genuine motivation.

Mind you, “I like chaos” has worked for many villains of the past, but you really have to sell that one to make it stick. On the other hand, when you do, it sure is fun….

The Rhythm Of Narrative (I Ain’t Got Much)

In Uncategorized on February 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

One of the things I was asked to talk about, back when I was soliciting topics, was the different rhythms of short stories and novels (thank you Brainwane at Dreamwidth!). Though, admittedly, this may be a short post, because I’m absolutely crap at writing short stories. It ties, in a great part, back into the difficulties that come with transitioning from fanfic to original work. I can write the hell out of a short fanfic, but a short story is nearly beyond me. Novel or nothing, it appears.

The major difference, at least for me, between a short story and a novel is the level and speed of worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is one of the few things fanfic won’t teach you, or at any rate won’t teach you well, because you’re writing in a world that already exists. Writing alternate universes helps, but you’re still using familiar characters or familiar settings, you’re still getting a helping hand from the fact that people who read your story have a contextual awareness they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Learning not to depend on a shared context with your reader is tough — and learning to build a world without it, in less than ten thousand words, is incredibly hard. Of course there’s some context, especially if you set your story in the world as we know it today, but you’re still trying to sketch out personalities, relationships, positions, situations, all in the space of a very few words and without resorting to clumsy, boring exposition. Most of my short story attempts are a lot of clumsy, boring exposition. It’s a flaw.

But then, some people haven’t the staying power for novels. Some bastards can do both, proving life is very unfair.

Not having written many short stories, I don’t know nearly as much about them as I do about writing novels. Mind you, I’ve only written a handful of novels, but they take a lot longer, and when you edit a novel you’re editing so much more. I feel like I can confidently talk about writing novels, if asked, but short stories…those are a mysterious thing. Even having read a great deal of them, they can be elusive. I’ve just finished reading one volume of HP Lovecraft’s short stories and begun on another, and while he is a big fan of somewhat clunky exposition, sometimes it just flies by. The man certainly had his issues, but I wish I had his flair for making exposition so glossy.

Part of it, too, is what interests the writer as a writer. I like to climb around in the stories I tell, explore side-paths, touch on the consequences of actions, add flourishes that don’t strictly speaking need to be there. Sometimes that stuff has to get cut for the final version, but some of it always stays in. It’s what gives a book flavor, to me, as a writer. Short stories have to be smoother and cleaner; there’s not a lot of room for decoration, and the flavor has to be packed in alongside everything else. That’s a very particular skill, and one I’ve never had reason to learn.

I think, sometimes, that I should write a book of short stories, but I’m saving that frustration for some other year, when the rest of life is a little easier. No use compounding trouble with pain.

Why Wiki Walk

In Uncategorized on February 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

Back in January, when I was writing about going “too deep” when researching for fiction, I referenced Wikiwandering, a term so new I’m still having to explain it to a rough fifty percent of the people I talk to about it.

Wikiwandering or Wikiwalking is what happens when you access an informational website and, during the course of researching one thing, end up researching multiple others when you follow links in the text. It’s not confined to Wikipedia; it is infamously associated with TVTropes, where most people, once linked, can get lost for hours. It also surfaces frequently when using sites like Cracked, full of informational lists.

I decided I wanted to do a piece on Wikiwalking, which would ironically involve a lot of research. But it turns out very little has been written about it, or at least, very little that I could find.

What I was looking for in specific was a psychological or biological (or both) theory as to why we do it — why we find new information linked from known information almost irresistible. My own personal theory was that it had to do with acquiring new data; evolutionarily speaking that’s quite a good thing, and now more than ever we are socialised to want data.

I thought it might relate to the idea of uncovering secrets; when you see a link in an informational article, you don’t know what the link means, so clicking it gives you a sense of unveiling and discovery (this is worse in TV Tropes because the links usually have funny but not informative names). Really, discovering a secret and acquiring new data are very similar, however, and neither is necessarily an explanation. Why do we want to know secrets? Why do we want to learn so badly?

When I opened the floor for discussion on tumblr, I got some interesting suggestions. Some thought that perhaps the compulsion is linked to “continuity of definiton” — that the links answer questions which arise in the course of reading — or to tailored learning, because you control precisely what information you access, and that control is particularly easy to exert on heavily crosslinked sites. “Reward schedules” were also suggested: “Wiki gives you something of interest (a reward) just often enough, with just unpredictable enough of a schedule to increase reward seeking behavior.” But why do we consider new knowledge a reward?

Storytelling is a very low-risk way of providing/acquiring new data, as I’ve discussed, and while you may learn more by “doing”, the ratio of payoff to risk in “other people doing” is much lower. I’ve never seen much written on how to make nonfiction interesting, but most people are aware that conveying data in an entertaining fashion is more likely to keep people engaged. Sites like Groupon and Woot make “interesting” copy their stock in trade, occasionally to the point of obscuring actual necessary data (a complaint I will make in detail at some future point, probably).

So it seems as though it may be as simple as the human instinct to gain new knowledge, facilitated by an easy interconnected structure (and, in the case of TV Tropes, encouraged by a certain level of “secret keeping” in the form of obscurely-titled links).

I have a secondary theory, however.

It arises from some self-analysis done by TV Tropes, because it is such an addictive site; they’ve adopted the term “Browser Narcotic” to describe “Any website that results in you opening a dozen tabs in a single session and using up hours of your time”. The term comes from the alt text of an XKCD comic on the topic:

“Cracked.com is another inexplicable browser narcotic.”

The key word here, I think, is narcotic.

A narcotic is an addictive drug, of course, but it’s also a self-medication, a soothing device (“Narcotic” in particular is clinically defined as a sedative compound). When I looked up WikiWander in a google search and got connected to a perhaps less than scientific definition I found what I think is another indicator: “Not only do you learn a lot, but it motivates you to do lots of things on a boring day.”

No it doesn’t. Wikiwalking teaches you a lot, but you don’t actually do lots of things. You do one thing: you learn.

But it feels like doing lots of things, which is the crux of the matter. When you research via Wikiwalk, you feel like you’re getting a lot accomplished because your brain is very active. You’re not “doing” a lot but you are “acting” a lot — opening browser windows, closing browser windows, switching back and forth between different kinds of learning as you move through different subjects. And who doesn’t feel a little ping of satisfaction when they can close a browser window, having wrung every ounce of knowledge from it?

“Browser narcotic” websites are self-medication — they make us feel accomplished even as we do very little. Part of that is undoubtedly because of all the learning, but I think part of it is because our brains are lighting up without us having to move around a lot.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. God knows, everyone needs a little self-medication now and again. And soothing through learning is a very low-risk, high-yield form of “wasting” time. But I’m satisfied with the thesis that browser narcotics are so addictive because they provide a sense of accomplishment and increased knowledge attached to an extremely low-expenditure, low-risk activity.

Evolutionarily, we were made for Wikiwalking.

And just because I’m a cruel person, you can read more about Wiki Walking at TV Tropes Will Ruin Your Life.

By The Days

In Uncategorized on February 8, 2014 at 10:01 am

If poets laughed dishonestly
As people laugh and talk in crowds,
If writers wept for private loss
And never said a word aloud –
In short if they felt as we feel
(And who denies their human lives?)
Then we can never really know
Except for fictions left behind
What makes a mind as bright as brass
And our life seem as clear as glass.

So, I just released a book!

It’s called By The Days, and is a compilation of the poetry I’ve written, online and off, in the past ten years. I’m not going to lie: a major chunk of it is The .Doc File Of J. Alfred Prufrock. If you’re not interested in hearing me ramble about it but are interested in buying it, you can scroll to the bottom where there be links.

Poetry is a difficult thing for me because I don’t have the critical consciousness for it that I have for prose. I can read a book and know if it’s a decent book or not, even if I don’t actually like it. With poetry, all I can really tell you is whether I like it, not whether it’s any good. The first time I mentioned to an English major that I liked Rudyard Kipling’s If, you should have seen the face she made. It was beautiful, in its own way, but it made me cringe and mentally note never to bring up my enjoyment of that poem again. (I was a lot younger then and gave more fucks what English majors thought of me.)

I don’t know how one goes about quantifying poetry on a critical level. I suppose I could take a class, but my past encounters with the academia of poetry have been less than positive. I think the most meaningful lesson in the craft I ever got came from my high school chemistry professor: “Free verse is like tennis without the net. Sure it’s fun, but what’s the point?”

Mind you, I have written free verse. And I do see a point to it. But whenever I read free verse I get that ultra-plebian voice in my head asking why it doesn’t rhyme.

So much of the common criticism of poetry seems based on judgement; it’s never whether you enjoyed it, but whether you ought to have. There’s a great exchange in a Rex Stout novel (Death of a Doxie) that sums it up:

Wolfe: I thought you had an engagement.
Archie: It’s for one o’clock, and I may skip it. The lunch will be all right, but then a man is going to read poetry.
Wolfe: Whose poetry?
Archie: His.
Wolfe: Pfui.

Most of the fun in poetry, it sometimes seems, is in being snotty about it.

At any rate, having finally run out of fucks to give about English majors judging me, I put all the poems in a book and it’s now available for your consumption (and snobbery, if you so desire).

You can purchase the Paper edition or the ePub edition at Lulu.com; you can also find the book for free at my Gutenberg archive. If you are interested in a signed copy, there is more information here at my livejournal about how to sign up to purchase one (profits from signed copies, as ever, are donated to a not-for-profit of my choosing, in this case 826Chicago).

The Fun Stuff: Being A Better Writer, Part Three

In Uncategorized on February 4, 2014 at 10:00 am

Today concludes a series of articles on becoming a better writer of original fiction, which came out of a post I did on the topic in 2011. Today is all about inspiration, which for me is the most fun part of writing.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Most writers disdain the question “Where do you get your ideas?” and have come up with a number of cutting and condescending replies. That is because writers are

  1. insecure,
  2. often unconscious of their own processes, and
  3. very frequently douchebags.

Like many artists, the vast majority of writers are terrified of the threat that one day they won’t have any more ideas, or their writing will be no good, or nobody will like what they do. Especially for professional writers, whose livelihood and identity are wrapped up in Being A Writer, this is a dreadful thought. Neil Gaiman neatly inverted this in Calliope, when he told the story of a man cursed by a muse to have so many ideas he can never write any of them down fully.

So writers don’t poke at their craft. They frequently don’t investigate where ideas come from or their process of writing, because they’re scared if they do the magic will go away. And those that do have an inkling of how Writing Happens are often scared that if they tell you how things work, you’re going to steal the magic. Or at any rate be better at it than they are, which is practically the same thing.

I am deeply insecure on any number of fronts, but fortunately not in this. I don’t think the magic is going to go away, and I’m not afraid of the day it might. A great deal of that is probably due to exposure as a teen to Alex Haley’s remarkable essay The Shadowland Of Dreams, which talks about the difference between vocation and identity. Even so, his essay about not defining yourself as “a writer” still encourages creatives to depend only upon their creativity, which can make a person defensive.

Writing is only a part of my identity. I have a day job. I also like art, and theatre, and cooking, and when people ask me what I “do”, I don’t say “writer”. Maybe that makes me less of a writer than I could be, but I don’t think so; in many ways, writing on my own time and self-publishing the results frees me to explore channels that contracted writers can’t. I get to rummage in all the scary places most writers won’t go.

So here is the secret of the magic: IDEAS ARE EVERYWHERE, and you can have them all the time if you want.

The vast majority of our communication at any given time is composed of stories. You get dozens of them in the newspaper every day. You hear them as you pass people on the street. You can see them just looking at some people. I know someone whose mother likes watching commercials because “they’re like short little stories!” We talk in stories all the time. We live out stories every day. The trick is to know how to turn an experience into an idea — to think, if this were a story, what would happen? What is that person’s story? What can I take from this? And that’s just a matter of habit.

Two examples:

  • While I was writing this, a reader commented to ask me what the hell one does with turkey tails, because they just received four of them and don’t know how to cook them. I don’t know either, but what a marvelously absurd predicament to be in. Adventures in Turkey Tails. That’s a humorous blog entry at least. And the research! You google turkey tails, you’re going to get stories. And really delicious-sounding soul-food recipes, it turns out.
  • The other day we were discussing a news story about a stolen religious relic in California, and that got me onto Napoleon’s infamous severed penis, and someone else linked me from there to the holy prepuce. Do you know how many stories about damaged or venerated dicks I now have bouncing around in my head? At least three, and that’s not even counting the student I once had who broke his dick. How would one unite the stories of Napoleon and Rasputin’s penes with the Holy Prepuce? Well, what if you were an expert in historical genitalia, and one was stolen, and you had to find out who did it? That’s a novel. (One which incidentally I might write, so nobody nick the idea, ok?)

The best way to “get ideas” is to read, to go out and look at stuff, to research things that are interesting to you, to have fantasies of any kind you like, and all the while to be thinking, how is this a story? What makes it interesting? How does this speak to the way I feel, or the way I think? Would it do the same for others? Is this funny or tragic or both? Why?

Ideas are all around you all the time, and there’s no real magic to having them. Just observation and habit. It’s not easy at first, but it gets easier.

And that is the secret of Where Ideas Come From. I feel so much better for having gotten this off my chest, you have no idea.

In Conclusion

Conclusions are suppose to summarise and restate one’s thesis, so let’s see. These are the things I believe make people become better writers:

Be committed and patient. Understand that work is sometimes necessary. Study your chosen masters. Think critically, and understand criticism. Learn the tools of your craft and fit them to your needs. Don’t fear the end of creativity. Train yourself to see the stories all around you.

And don’t worry too much about conclusions.