Monday, August 30, 2010

Building a Culture From a Concept

In 2003, I went to Europe with my dad, as a final father-daughter thing before I moved away to university. Dad was also using the trip as research for a book idea he had, so we spent a fair bit of time wandering around baroque churches, cathedrals, and palaces, and then discussing them later. This triggered an interest in architecture, which surprised me, but also taught me something important: the products of a culture are connected to that culture.

Yes, I know it sounds obvious, but let me explain.

Up to that point, I'd learned about 18th-century wars, 18th-century industry, 18th-century nobility (via films), 18th-century music, and 18th-century literature. They were all presented as separate subjects or at least separate events within the same subject. Nobody made an effort to connect them, to link them together with an overarching theme or a timeline. In fact, nobody in university really did that either, for any era, which is a shame. Figuring out what connected everything really helped me get a sense for the era.

So what ties Baroque and Rococo art, architecture, music, literature, and fashion together? The idea that artifice and symmetry are highly important. It found its way into everything, as all good cultural ideas should. I'm going to explain how pervasive and influential the idea was, but first I want to point out two ways of looking at the explanation.
  1. This is an explanation of a past mindset, and an explanation of how all things in a culture spin off from a single thread. This might be better presented as a web, but it would be harder to read and infinitely more time-consuming to produce on this end.
  2. The bolded idea above is the core concept for a fictional world. Now that we-as-writers have that idea, we have to create an entire world out of it. The following is that creation.
Art in the Age of Enlightenment

The Baroque cathedral in the St. Gallen monastery. One of the great Baroque churches.
  • "Artifice" means "clever or cunning devices or expedients, esp. as used to trick or deceive others", according to my computer's dictionary. Emphasizing artifice in 1700 meant emphasizing the mind, the products of the mind, and man's ability to make things (art-, from ars 'art'; -fice, from facere 'to make'). The adjectival form of artifice is artificial.
  • Wit is a product of this. The goal was to be pithy, clever, funny, and allusive, and thereby show off your education and your creativity*. This is at least as important as making people laugh, if not more so. The concept of wit directly influenced/engendered periodicals such as The Spectator, satire such as Jonathan Swift's, and comic drama such as The School for Scandal and The Beggar's Opera
  • "Clever or cunning devices" also applies to both the heroic couplet, brought to the fore by Alexander Pope in works like The Rape of the Lock, and the desire to have a Latinate word for everything.
  • The same phrase also applies to architecture, which was incredibly ornate in a very symbolic sort of way (every church we went to had a different 'theme' that all the paintings and stucco adhered to, such as "ocean"); fashion (just look at how detailed the embroidery was); and music (counterpoint, especially).
  • "Devices … to trick or deceive others". Take a second look at the picture of the cathedral above.** Do you see the marble? That's painted and varnished plaster. Do you see the gold? That's gold foil or gold paint, over plaster or maybe wood. Every palace from the era uses the same or similar tricks to make cheap objects look expensive, or to convince people that they were seeing one thing, when they were really seeing another. Schloss Favorite, for instance, has a "hand of cards" in the parquet of the ballroom, as well as an "beetle". The goal was to show off your skill (or the skill of your workers), and to elicit moments of surprise from your visitors.
  • Being able to stick to a form while doing something new was also applauded. I think this is a big part of why there were themes in Baroque cathedrals, why every noble's ceiling was painted with Greek and Roman mythological figures, and why the sonata and symphony appeared during this period. They're all very organized—symmetrical, even—and yet there's so much variation at the same time.
  • Also, in terms of music, technical prowess was emphasized. This is why Bach made so many of his compositions difficult, and why Mozart wrote in flourishes and trills. (Another reason why Mozart was one of the great Classical composers, even in his own time: he had a thing for surprising people.)
  • Baroque gardens had clean, geometrical lines, wide open spaces, and a tendency to identical on both sides of an axis.
  • I'm also using "symmetry" to mean Enlightenment nostalgia for the good ol' days of the Greco-Roman period. They brought the gods and goddesses into their paintings, sculpture, architecture, and writing in a big way. Nostalgia can also be credited for the drive to make English more like Latin (which is, by the way, a pretty symmetrical language).
  • The emphasis on the mind and creativity surely had something do with the advancements of science and rational thought during this time. 
And of course, we can't have world-building without reasons why. 
  • A lot of the artifice (and probably the symmetry) that crops up in the Baroque/Enlightenment era was there to break up the monotony of aristocratic lives. It would have to be—nobles, and to an extent, the middle classes, were the only groups of people with the time and wealth to enjoy, create, and sponsor this stuff, and really, they had nothing better to do with their time. 
  • A lot of the artificial architecture can probably be attributed to the nobles and Church being much less wealthy than they wanted everyone to believe.
  • The importance of the idea grew over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, as the nobles began sponsoring more creative people and we made more scientific discoveries. It's there in Renaissance England too (sonnets, for example).
Now, I know I've missed stuff here. It's bound to happen when you're trying to condense an entire historical period and philosophical movement into a blog post. I also know that artifice and symmetry weren't the only influences on Enlightenment culture, just the biggest ones. Orientalism was also very important, judging by how many orangeries there were, how much porcelain was produced, and how often Asian imagery crops up in artwork.

Going back to the ways of reading this post:

  1. If you chose to read for history, rather than world-building, I hope you've gotten a better picture of how all the cultural pieces fit together, and how they all spring from the desire for perfection and the lauding of technical prowess.  
  2. If you chose to read for world-building, rather than history, I hope you saw how one idea can generate multiple cultural outcomes, all connected to each other and forming a whole. We tend to think of history as a series of disjointed events, when it's actually more of an ecosystem of ideas and human action. I think world-building should follow the same holistic path. 

One caveat to all this: I do not, in any way, shape, or form, have a degree in history, nor have I explicitly studied the Baroque era. I could be flat-out wrong about everything I've just said—but I don't think I am.

* Like Twitter
** Its theme, by the way, is Eden. All the ornamentation looks like plants, and there are an awful lot of cherubs.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Writing is Like Theatre

I know I'm not the first person to come up with this, but I think it's true: writing is a lot like acting, and not just in the obvious ways.

I've done my share of acting—school plays, extracurricular drama … things—and I'd like to think I'm good at telling funny stories. I'm certainly a good mimic, if reactions can be trusted. I've also done time behind the scenes, in pit bands for school musicals. So while I've got no proper dramatic training, I'm familiar with what acting is, how you do it, and all the lovely fun that happens during rehearsals.

Writing is Like Theatre Because:

  1. To be convincing, you have to channel characters. You have to know every little thing about them and bring that confidence forward, or the audience won't get sucked in.
  2. It takes a lot of practice. You don't get cast as Hamlet if you've never acted before.
  3. The audition process kills.
  4. To act a part well, you've got to go over the lines until you've committed them to memory. To write well, you have to go over the manuscript until it's perfect, and you end up memorizing it in the process.
  5. When writing fight scenes, it often helps to block out where all the characters are standing and moving to. When directing fight scenes, blocking is key, or nobody knows where to go.
  6. There will always be critics. Not everyone will enjoy your performance.
  7. Actors, like writers, specialize. It's rare to find someone equally good at Shakespeare, Hollywood action, and slapstick comedy.
  8. There is always a moment (or fifty) during rehearsals when you seriously think the show won't go on. The lights break, the stagehands get confused, the lead actor gets a cold. But you go on anyway, and it turns out fine in the end.
  9. Actors don't always do what they're supposed to. Neither do characters. Directors and writers must fight the urge to throttle them, and then work with what they're given. 
  10. Actors, like writers, realize that they're all in it together, and tend to support each other, especially when they're working the same show/writing the same genre.
  11. At some point during rehearsals, the actors will start to misbehave, play pranks, and goof off to relieve tension. At some point during revisions, writers are tempted to do the same.
  12. Sometimes you have to go over a scene again and again and again….
  13. The people on the sidelines (family, friends, stagehands, band members) don't always understand what it's like to be in the thick of things, or how the current project can absorb approximately 120% of your brain cells.
  14. It can take weeks to build a set, find the props, and make the costumes. It takes a comparable time (minimum) to create and populate a world.
  15. Actors and writers tend to display big egos while being on the verge of self-doubt a lot of the time.
  16. You can tell when a production is amateur. It doesn't cohere as well.
  17. Everyone says writers need to read their work out loud to check for bad writing.
  18. The first 'novels' were oral.
  19. When you get down to it, it's all about storytelling.
Of course, this list is based on my experiences, and my experiences are limited to amateur productions (often very amateur). I've probably missed stuff, and I've probably misrepresented the larger acting world through dint of not having seen it.* So feel free to chip in, add on, or correct!

* Probably the writing world too. I'm fairly new to it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Measuring Myself Against a Must-Watch List

In honor of the oncoming school year, io9 is conducting a crash course in science fiction this week, and one of their three initial posts has been on classic sci-fi films. The list's geared towards newcomers rather than old-timers or general fans, but I think it can serve as a must-watch list for anyone who wants to be well-versed in SF. (Possibly in the same way those "100 Top Books of All Time" lists can, where you have to take them with a box of salt, but hopefully not. The films io9 lists are good films, important films, and I don't think many people will contest their importance in the sci-fi canon.)

Of course, I had to compare my own viewings to the recommendations, and I was pleasantly surprised! I don't think of myself as well-versed in science fiction, the way I think I'm well-versed in fantasy*, mostly because I've read more fantasy than sci-fi, but I've seen a lot more of the films on the list than I thought I would.

So, the list, with commentary:

Metropolis (1927) - Seen, thanks to SF club at my university. Enjoyed.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) - Have not seen.

Forbidden Planet (1956) - Seen, thanks to the SF club at my university. Thought it was okay, but cheesy and slightly confusing at points.

Planet Of The Apes (1968) - Have not seen.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Seen, because I'd heard about how wonderful and groundbreaking it was. Did not understand in the least. Possibly was too young (17).

Alien (1979) - Seen, because Dad said, "What do you mean, you haven't seen it?" after years of, "Sorry, it's too dark and disturbing for you." Moderately enjoyed.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - Seen, because the children of the family friend who babysat after school liked it. Seen several times since. Enjoyed it, and its sequels, far more than I enjoyed the prequels.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) - Have not seen.

Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982) - Have not seen.

Blade Runner (1982) - Seen, thanks to the SF club at my university. Moderately enjoyed, though I'll admit to not following 100% of the mind-bendy-ness.

E.T. (1982) - Seen, because my parents rented it for family movie night—or was it "we want quiet time, have a movie" night? I can't remember. Definitely enjoyed, enough to watch it a few times since.

Tron (1982) - Have not seen. Plan to see before the sequel comes out later this year.

Back To The Future (1985) - Have lost track of how often I've seen. Love it to pieces.

Brazil (1985) - Seen, thanks to Dad's love of Monty Python. Thought it was so-so. Really did not follow much of it. Again, possibly too young for it (early teens).

RoboCop (1987) - Seen, thanks to the SF club at my university. Thought it was okay, if slightly cheesy.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) - Have not seen.

Ghost In The Shell (1995) - Have not seen.

The Matrix (1999) - Seen, years later, after Dad bought it at a garage sale and said, "What do you mean, you haven't seen it?" Enjoyed more than I would've then when it came out, because I knew about cyberpunk by then.

Primer (2004) - Have not seen. Kind of wanted to at the time, but was on a student budget.

The Incredibles (2004) - Have seen. Want to see again. Definitely enjoyed, but think I'll get more from the rewatch.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004) - Have seen. Enjoyed, but didn't love. Found it rather trippy in most places, but that was kind of the point.

Children Of Men (2006) - Have seen, thanks to Father-Daughter Movie Night. Enjoyed, but didn't quite love. Close, though. It's definitely a great film.

Moon (2009) - Seen a few months ago. Enjoyed it a lot. A refreshing break from Hollywood action and a return to thought-provoking, slower-paced SF cinema.

District 9 (2009) - Seen, partly because of all the buzz and partly because a friend said, "OMG you haven't seen it yet! You so have to!" Very, very much enjoyed. I very highly recommend, but not to the squeamish.

Inception (2010) - Seen last week. Definitely enjoyed, definitely a great film, definitely should be on the list—but can't quite say I loved it even though it's brilliant. This seems to be a standard reaction, though.

How do you guys do on this list? Anything that you think is essential and not on it?

*Actually, I may not be as well-versed in fantasy as I think I am, but I plan to persist in the delusion until io9 posts its Best Fantasy Films list.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Monday Motivational Videos

I'm a big fan of TED. The speakers they pick, the ideas and knowledge put forward, and the freely available videos are pretty big draws for me, because learning things is fun and you never know when it'll happen. I've linked to TED videos here before, back in the Science! days, often when I was too rushed or unmotivated to do up a big speculative post full of linkage.

And yes, I'm doing it again today, except with less science and more writing/ideas. I have Plans for my Monday, and they don't involve writing a big post full of linkage or my own ideas. So instead I'm posting two videos that I hope are inspirational at best, and darned cool at worst. The first is a short speech by Adora Svitak, on the need for "childishness" in the world, and the second is by Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, her) on creativity and the original meaning of genius. (I'm pretty sure most of my readers have seen that one already, but I'm posting it just in case. It's worth another listen, too.)


Friday, August 20, 2010

Children's Fantasy (Canadian TV, 1980s)

I've been thinking about urban fantasy more frequently lately, thanks to @inkgypsy and #UFChat on Twitter, and thanks, of course, to my WIP and the progress I'm making on it. I'm not thinking deeply about it, per se, but it seems to be in my mind more. Percolating, if you will, which means at some point I'll probably come out with a nice long post full of thinky-thoughts.

But not today. Today's post is brought to you by a tweet that points out that Sesame Street is urban fantasy. No, seriously. If you don't believe me, watch the video below.

Did everyone see the monsters, giant birds, and talking dog? Good. The show also contains wooly mammoths and vampires, though they're not featured here.

Sesame Street wasn't the only urban fantasy (or fantasy) I watched. Now, I know most children's programming has fantasy elements in it, and that there's no way I could list them all here. Instead I'm going to focus on the shows available to me as a Canadian kid in the 1980s*, because I'm much more familiar with them than with the American shows of the era.

So, without further ado:

The Polkadot Door - A man, a woman, four puppets, a giant green kangaroo that talked, and a magical door that acted as a portal to anywhere in the world. I've just watched a number of videos from it on YouTube, hoping to link to one, but none of them combine the kangaroo and the door. Also, the videos are highly cheesy and twee, which I think goes with the era and target demographic. I remember it being a lot more magical.

Today's Special - A mannequin with an enchanted hat, a female store manager, a bumbling security guard puppet, and a computer AI. The first third of an episode, for your enjoyment:

The Friendly Giant - A friendly giant, who lives in a castle, reads books to a giraffe and a rooster. Needless to say, this was one of my favourite shows, because there was a new story every day!

Babar - Yes, I know this is talking animals, but come on, it's Babar! There are multiple societies of talking animals! It's even historical fantasy, in a way, because the elephants dress and act as though they were in a quasi-Victorian world, and Babar's palace is almost certainly Baroque.

If you're familiar with Canadian children's TV of the 1980s, you'll notice I left out a few. I don't feel talking animal puppets a fantasy make, unless there are other elements involved. Just about every kids show has them, too. (That said, Mr. Dressup and The Elephant Show are classics, and Under the Umbrella Tree isn't half-bad either.) I also left out Fred Penner's Place because I don't think it qualifies under any circumstances as fantasy. It was all about the music. (I may also have forgotten some shows. It's been a while.)

When I look back at these shows and my memories of them, I can pinpoint parts that wowed me and influenced me. I'm pretty sure the portal in the door, the giant in the castle, and the fact that a mannequin could come to life and have adventures were the first instances of other worlds, magic, and transformation that hooked me. If not, they're the first I remember so that has to count for something.

*Yes, this is partly a nostalgia fest.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Backstory Problems, and a Giveaway Promo

I've been reading through my world-building notes the last few days. There are 18 pages typed, plus a stack of notes on scrap that I'm working on digitizing, plus what will amount to 5 or so more pages of world-building notes to fill in various plot and motivation holes that have come to my attention.*

This is a lot of information.

Obviously, there's no way I can or should put all of it into the novel. I also know I need to put more of the world-building into the novel, because even though the characters know this stuff and act accordingly, the readers are left out in a few places.

I think I'm doing okay with the most important bits—the societal backstory, and the technology. Not perfect, but okay. There are a couple paragraph-long "speeches" about history and a lot of references within dialogue and narration, and, in terms of technology, I just have to describe it. But there are clunky places in the "history" passages, and especially in the "current society" passages, which are largely delivered via "person listening to the news while eating/driving". Um. Yes. Dealing with that.**

I'm more worried about the minor things, and not out of any kind of attachment to what I've created. The sections I wrote about medicine and cinema and the changes in the 5 continents that don't appear in the book—they don't factor into the novel at all. There's backstory to the existence or prevalence of some of the technology and cultural habits, too, but neither narrator would think to explain it—if they even know what the backstory is.

Should I try to include some of that anyway, to give a bigger picture of how the world's changed, or should I leave that out for now, in lieu of the planned theoretical sequels? I know how much info is going to be too much info, but I don't know how much is too little. Does anyone have suggestions?

In other news, Shannon Whitney Messenger is giving away books. Including Pegasus and Matched, which I've been hearing marvelous things about, and a YA paranormal by Kathy Reichs which I didn't even know existed, omg.*** There are about a million ways to enter, but I don't recommend that you do, because that means less competition for me. ;) (But no, really, go enter because she'll love entrants, I'm sure of it.)

* Argh.
** That said, suggestions are welcome.
*** What, I like her.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Times I've Been Hot (Not Like That!)

We've reached the mid-August heat wave here, though compared to a lot of places in North America, I reckon we're doing pretty well. I think we've only had a few days in the last few weeks that have been over 25°C (77°F)*. We were doing worse this time last year, when we had a week of 40°C (104°F) and I spent the whole time doing not much of anything except fan myself and pray I didn't get heat stroke on the way to work. 

So, in a semi-ode to the weather and because nothing from my list of blog post ideas strikes my fancy today, I thought I'd share some of my previous experiences with weather-based heat.**

Experience 1: My grandparents used to have an orchard in the Okanagan Valley. For those of you not highly familiar with BC geography, the Okanagan is not only a tourist destination and the fruit bowl of the province, but it's also basically a desert. Summers regularly get to 40°C or higher, meaning that  all outdoor work must be done before 10 a.m. or after 7 p.m. or you're almost guaranteed to get heat stroke***. Of course, my family would visit my grandparents for a week or so every summer, and the kids and grandkids helped pick fruit to take home. We were rewarded for coping with the heat by trips to the lake in the afternoon, and by the fact that my grandparents had air conditioning.

Experience 2: We also regularly visited the orchard during our spring break from school, so that Dad could help get things ready for summer there. Mostly this meant he was grafting and budding trees. I got drafted for a few years to help with budding—in the early morning sun, on sand for hours at a time, but with adult supervision and a canteen of water.

Experience 3: The area I grew up in is classified as semi-desert or grassland, depending on which altitude you're at. Summer's regularly 25-30°C (77-86°F), which makes it marginally tolerable to be outdoors in the afternoon, but almost gives pretty good incentive to not be so. Fortunately, we lived near enough to a lake that we could head to the beach or go out on the water, and cool off that way.

Experience 4: The summer of 2003, Dad and I went to Germany (and region) for a month. This was part grad gift, part research trip (for him) and we spent a lot of the time travelling and staying with relatives to keep the costs down because they're family. 2003 was also the summer that much of Europe had weeks of 40°C-ish heat and the eldery were dying in droves from the temperatures. Europe's a fantastic experience, but it's slightly diminished when all you can think of sometimes is "need water" and "am melting". Fortunately, everyone sells mineral water and we're big on mineral water in my family.

Experience 5: The summer of 2003 in Canada was one of the worst recent ones for forest fires****. 2010's a pretty bad summer in that regard too. I've never been close enough to a fire to be part of an evacuation notice, but I've certainly been close enough to see the charred, smoking remains of hillsides, and to live under smoke haze for weeks at a time. It's scary, and it isn't fun, and if there was a magic wand to make global warming and all its side effects disappear, I would wave it like the world was ending. 

What are your most memorable encounters with heat?

* I know the duplication is possibly annoying, but I'm assuming that there are people reading this blog who can't do conversions in their head. People like me, in other words.
** As opposed to electronics-based heat, a.k.a. the different ways I've burned myself. 
*** It only happened to me once.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Multiple Canadas

Thanks to a Vanity Fair article on Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, I've realized something: A lot of the image of Canada that gets set up as The Canada is primarily Ontarian or Maritimes, and secondarily urban. That's the Canada kids learn about in school. It's the Canada they check out of libraries. And it's not always their experience of Canada. Not all kids live in the eastern provinces, or in cities.*

In school, I learned at length about the explorers who'd mapped Quebec and Ontario, and colonists who'd founded the eastern half the country. I learned about the people who "found" BC and the people who came to settle it too, but not in as much detail. For instance, Sir Alexander Mackenzie was mostly known as the guy who found the Mackenzie River, and oh yeah, he walked to the Pacific Coast too. I learned about the fur trade, but more how it all played into what was going on in Ontario than what it did for the province.

To be fair, I did learn about BC history too—Vancouver and Victoria, mostly, and the Chinese workers on the railroads over the Rockies, and all the nasty things we did to the Natives. I suspect every province tailors at least one year of its history/social studies curriculum to its own history. I do wonder, though, how much gold rush history kids in Vancouver get. I got a lot in my schools, but that was because I lived in gold rush country and could take field trips to Barkerville.

Another thing: the middle-grade and young adult novels I read depicted, for the most part, other parts of the country. Anne of Green Gables is set in Prince Edward Island. Farley Mowat writes about Ontario, the Prairies, and the Northwest Territories. There were a whole host of time-travel coming-of-age stories set in Toronto and northern Ontario. Not to say that all the Canadian authors I read as a kid were east-centric**. Kit Pearson, who I adored, wrote a book set in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island, and because of my parents' connections in the BC publishing scene, I got a lot of reading copies and recommendations for (once-again) time-travel coming-of-age stories, set in the gold rush era.*** I connected with those a lot better, but don't think many of them made it out of the province or even onto classroom reading lists the way Mowat and Pearson did.

It strikes me that a lot of the Canadian Image, especially the one given to kids and tourists, is relatively candy-coated. The reality is there, but the nasty and embarrassing and imperfect bits are glossed over or flat-out ignored. And yes, I'm aware that's to some degree because many of the rural and otherwise "imperfect" voices are silent, given little press outside the local area which already knows what they're saying, or discounted as being kind of whiny.****

I hear a lot of talk online (mostly by Americans, on American publications) about the need for greater diversity in YA, the need for better realism, the need to really speak to readers. I agree, though it's maybe a little weird for me to say so publicly since I'm not a YA author, but this is something I feel strongly about and, well, writing this post lead me here and I'm not about to change now. I do know that I felt a kind of disconnect with the books I was reading and the history I was studying, because I didn't see my area depicted very often and nobody shared experiences with me.

For the record, this is my Canada:*****
  • the "I just saw cougar prints while walking Fido" phone tree
  • Canada geese eating the soccer field
  • trick-or-treating in fleece-lined boots and a thick jacket because it's -10°C and snowing
  • waiting for the school bus at -30°C in three layers of clothes and still being cold
  • lake ice actually being pretty bumpy because it freezes in waves
  • red-winged blackbirds that start screeching at top volume at 5 a.m.
  • 20-minute drives to town, 3 hours to the nearest decent mall, and 6+ hours to the big city
  • suburbs where a 10-minute walk could put you in the middle of a forest or on a ranch
  • schools that have high Native populations, rather than high immigrant ones
  • for that matter, schools with 20 kids tops, K-10, and schools with grad classes of less than 100 
  • summer vacation picking fruit on an orchard in 40°C heat
  • forest fires, evacuation warnings, and smoke drifting down the valley for a month
  • towns where the only event with better turn-out than the rodeo is the high school musical

I don't know what's being published in Canadian MG and YA these days, so maybe there are books that include my Canada now. If so, tell me! I'd have read them then. I'd probably read them now. 

What's your region really like?

* I should probably point out that it is a British Columbian Thing to be bugged by how the eastern part of the country ignores us, and to carry on at length about why. So grain of salt, eh?
** Or that I read more Canadians than Americans and Brits. I didn't.
*** Time-travel coming-of-age stories seem to have been big in the 90s.
**** Feel free to discount me for that too, though I'd rather you didn't.
***** I didn't experience everything on this list, but I know people do.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My Editing To Do List

I was originally going to post about everything I learned at the forensics workshop I attended last night, but then I realized that this post would end up about two paragraphs long, and that's not cool. So I'm going with Plan B, which is all about The Novel.

For those who missed my announcement on Twitter, I finished a round of edits on my book last night. I was working on adding content because I'd slashed huge chunks out of the manuscript and was desperately in need of word count. I think the book barely qualified as a novella. It's firmly in novel territory again (though sadly still slightly below the recommended word count of 80k*), but that doesn't mean my work is done.

Just in case anyone thought editing was easy, here's what I have to do still before the manuscript goes to my betas**:

  • In the first few chapters, set the world up more. There've been power shifts and population drops, and right now we have no feel for that.
  • Also, this world has superheroes. Where the heck are they, exactly?
  • We barely have any feel for what the bad guys are doing. They're there, they surface reasonably often, but we get no sense of their goal even if we get their personalities and philosophy.
  • We need to overhear a series of conversations indirectly related to the goal of the bad guys.

  • On the subject of superheroes, there's a fairly important secondary character who is one, but we don't meet him for a while. I need to add more references to his character before we do, or some of the reactions in that scene won't make sense.
  • My hero gets beat up a lot, but doesn't seem to be feeling the physical effects enough.
  • Someone figures out what my hero is up to. However, we don't see the steps taken to reach that conclusion.
  • My hero needs to do some self-practice before a few scenes, because right now, stuff's coming out of nowhere. 
  • For that matter, my hero needs to describe himself better. And so does the villain. ***
  • Villain needs to have more problems. With robots, but especially with … other things.
  • Hero needs more anger at his dad. Or I need to scrap that all together.

  • I need to figure out how prevalent Asian honorifics are in this society. And then I need to change various appellations to fit that.
  • The villain's narration might be too choppy in places. I need to smooth it out.
  • I need to do a pass focussing on clich├ęs, and change them to something geeky or something world-related as needed.
  • I need to do a pass focussing on current slang and speech patterns, and futurize them.
  • I need to remove most of the instances of: look, sigh, glare, laugh, nod, grin, go, sound (v), actually, really, pretty, thing, stuff, nice, was, was -ing, just, wonder, start, to be, begin, feel, seem, appear, it had/was

I also need to make notes of words and objects I've invented, so I can refer back to it, and I need to punch every plot point into iCal, my handy timeline device****, along with boring things like work schedules and travel times. (And then I need to match that timeline up with date references in the book.) Oh, and I need to put chapter breaks back in, because the book's currently organized by date.

It's a lot to do, but I shall triumph! Hopefully this year, even! I even know how I'm going to fix the problems, though I'm crossing my fingers that this is the finite list and nothing else is going to pop up.

* Whatever. 75k is close enough and it's going to get longer.
** I've rewritten my notes a little to give better context. And gloss over spoilers.
*** Villain ≠ bad guys
**** Seriously, iCal is awesome. It's already saved my butt a few times on this novel.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Whatever Happened to the Sci-Fi B-Movies?

A friend talked me into watching Despicable Me last night. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would* and I started thinking about it on the way home—not the themes of family and life's passion and happiness, but the way they handled the science fiction elements.

There's a whole class of children's films that basically pay homage to Golden Age comics and B-movies (The Incredibles, Sky High, Monsters vs. Aliens, Igor, Jimmy Neutron, Planet 51, the upcoming Megamind), and they all seem to use the same stock elements in the same zany, irreverent way. Aliens are green and evil. The villains caper with glee, cackle, rub their hands, and don't pose much of a threat to the hero. There are shrink rays, laser guns, death rays, and freeze rays, as well as a variety of robots and flying vehicles.** More specifically, there's little to no actual science behind anything. Even live-action Sky High ignores the laws of physics.

The only adult films I can recall that do the same things are Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and Mars Attacks. Most adult sci-fi movies seem to be either comic book adaptations that play true to modern life, tales of space travelers, or idea films like Inception. This isn't a bad thing, although the comic book trend is getting kind of old, Marvel aside***. I like what's being produced for people my age, though I only watch the stuff that looks good.

I'm all for having science in science fiction, but at the same time I really like the goofiness of old B-movies and serials, and the same goofiness we find now in kids' sci-fi. I'm not the only one. So why don't we see more of this in adult films? Is Hollywood assuming adults are now too smart and cynical to enjoy the story of Joe Scientist, his trusty sidekick, and their race to destroy Doctor Von Evil's death ray? Is Hollywood trying to be realistic and true to scientific fact? Are screenwriters rebelling against the tropes of the B-movie, or unable to produce a script that uses them and still gets picked up?

I can't say, of course, but I'm betting the answer to all those questions (except the first, rhetorical one) is "no". Hollywood routinely ignores actual science in adult films. There are enough screenwriters out there that someone must be talented enough to write a second Mars Attacks. Movies like Hot Tub Time Machine, The Hangover, and Sex in the City II prove that Hollywood will gleefully release movies without much substance.

So where's my primary-colored world of The Giant Space Tarantula and The Man With the Heat Ray?****

*I go into every film expecting disappointment. And kids' summer movies tend to be on the lower end of the quality scale anyway.
** I generalize. Not every movie I've listed as all these tropes.
*** I badly want to see Thor and Avengers, and Iron Man is just awesome.
**** On a side note, why don't we have books that revamp the old tropes, in the vein of Doctor Horrible or The Incredibles?

Friday, August 6, 2010

An Interesting Take on Parapsychology

A few years ago, I read a book that examined the paranormal from a semi-Freudian perspective—incubi, succubi, ghosts, poltergeists, stigmata, spontaneous combustion, past lives, mediums, automatic writing, hypnosis, etc. It even touched on UFOs. The author, Stan Gooch, detailed real-life accounts, but only the ones documented by researchers, psychologists, and medical professionals, and spoke objectively about them. He discussed the neuropsychological aspects as well—what parts of the brain turn on or off, etc. He also brought up mythologies and ancient languages, where they have bearing on the material. Like the fact that djinn behave like incubi and like poltergeists, and they're not the only mythological creature world-wide to have both abilities. Or the fact that pretty much every Indo-European language has a cognate of "mare" (as in nightmare—click link for examples and etymology) which has something to do with night and terror and sexual desire and forces pressing down on you and occasionally getting bitten. (Yes, he agreed that sounds like a vampire.)

Gooch makes a convincing case that 1) the paranormal exists as a manifestation of the unconscious and/or what he calls the "hidden observer" and 2) paranormal phenomena are one end of a spectrum that includes psychosis and multiple personality disorder. He does this by invoking Occam's Razor a lot (For instance: You see your sister, who's alive in New York when you're in LA. Do we say "ghosts can be of living people" or "astral projection" or "hallucination likely brought on by loneliness"?) and by tying various elements of each phenomenon together (for instance, people hypnotized into talking about past lives change their entire manner, voice, face shape, etc. So do mediums and people with MPD.)

There's also a lot about the power of the mind. People with "past lives" are really recalling info they heard or read long ago, because they give factual errors for dates or locations, and they recall this without remembering they know the stuff. Stigmata appear where people think they will, not where they actually should be, and they appear in contexts that don't involve religion, such as vivid remembering of a childhood beating. If a hallucinated person ("ghost") "changes" some part of the hallucinator's environment, the hallucinator's nervous system reacts as if the change were real, not imagined. For instance, if a hallucination covers your eyes, your visual centre in the brain will register a lack of light.

"You experience what you 
want to experience" is what this boils down to.

Of course, there are problems with the book. Gooch is pretty heavy on the Freud in some places and there are some parts of some phenomena that he doesn't explain, such as poltergeists (one's excess psychic energy) moving objects around, or the fact that a large percentage of automatic writing is backwards and/or upside-down. Instead, Gooch argues that, based on the fact that they can't be discounted so must exist somehow, we need to do more research. I'm inclined to agree with that. I have a weakness for psychology along these lines, and definitely have a weak spot for the paranormal.*

Which brings me to the reason why I just summarized a book. As you probably know, I'm a geek. I've been into the paranormal since I was 9 or 10 and read every book on Nessie, Bigfoot, ghosts, UFOs, hoaxes, fairies, unsolved mysteries, and the like that I could get my hands on. Putting the paranormal into your creative work is the quickest and easiest way to get my attention (followed by superpowers, then magic). I'm a fan of 
Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among other things.

So, I want to talk about this and get people thinking: 

  • What does it say about the worlds of  Supernatural or Buffy or any other similar fandom/verse, if the reality of that world is that the baddies are hallucinations of subconscious or unconscious desires, and that the people who see them have some psychic ability, whatever that means? 
  • Is there a paranormal phenomenon I haven't touched on here that can/cannot be explained through Gooch's theory, or that hasn't been touched on enough for you-the-reader to know if it can or not? I'm summarizing, after all. There's things he's said that I haven't. 
  • Can we use this take on psychic and paranormal phenomena to generate a whole different type of urban fanasy?

I'm open to any kind of thoughts or comments, including (polite) rebuttals and counter-arguments. Over to you. 

* I also bought the book for research. It asks some interesting questions I can use to start stories, should I ever want to.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Research Photography

Setting the book you're writing in the city you live in makes research a lot easier, because you don't have to rely on Wikipedia and GoogleMaps quite as much as if you'd set the book in a completely different city. You already have locations in mind, you already know the feel of the city, you know neighbourhoods and demographics, and so on. This may be why I set my WIP in Vancouver. Kind of.

However, when I need quick reference images when I'm writing, Google Streetview only takes me so far and taking a 30-minute bus trip to get a look at a building or street corner isn't the best use of my time. So every so often I go out on my dayjob's "weekend" and take photographs of various locations. I thought I'd share some today, as kind of a sneak peek at what I'm working on, without having to say anything about the plot. I'm not really paranoid. Honest.

Images after the cut, because this post is longer than normal and rather pixel-heavy. (And I have no clue how to get rid of the underlining. Sorry.)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Triceratops and a Theory of Dragons

There's been a fair bit of buzz this last weekend-and-a-bit about how Triceratops fossils are actually juvenile Torosaurus fossils, or could be, maybe, because dinosaur skulls could change shape with age. In other words, Torosaurus should really be Triceratops, and we might have to re-examine other sets of closely related dinosaurs for the same juvenile/adult relationships. (I think we're already starting to do that, but can't remember which dinosaurs have been reclassified already, so can't look them up to link to articles. I know there was one of the duck-bills…)

Anyway, this apparent plasticity of dinosaur bodies has gotten me thinking: Can anything else be reclassified the same way? Specifically, do we now have the tools we need to reclassify (Western) dragons as dinosaurs?

  1. Dinosaur bones were one of the foundations for the idea of dragons in the first place.
  2. We know of flying reptiles that weren't dinosaurs, and dinosaurs that evolved into birds. Reptiles with wings are not an unsubstantiated concept. 
  3. There were carnivorous dinosaurs. There were also intelligent dinosaurs. These were not mutually exclusive categories.
  4. Co-incidentally, Dromaeosauridae is a family we know had feathers.
  5. There is evidence that dinosaurs and similarly-dated aquatic reptiles have survived well into the modern era.  
  6. A number of bird species hoard shiny objects. Birds are almost definitely descended from dinosaurs.
  7. Evolution can do remarkable things, given time. 
  8. Some dinosaurs were very big. So are some dragons.
  9. Since we now have evidence that dinosaurs changed shape as they aged, it is not impossible that a species or two could have gained the ability to sprout wings out of their backs upon reaching maturity. We simply don't have any fully mature specimens to examine.
  10. Most cultures have some kind of "imaginary" reptilian creature, frequently one that eats people. Dinosaur fossils are found all over the planet.
  11. Dinosaurs are extinct. So, we believe, are dragons.
Three obvious "flaws" with this theory: no evolutionary evidence (we just haven't found it yet); no explanation for the fire thing (yeah, I don't have one either, except standard mythological exaggeration); no legends of Pan-American dragons, per se (thunderbird, Quetzalcoatl). 

That aside, I think I've listed enough facts to build a good case for the theory that dragons are, in fact, giant flying Utahraptors with a unique defense mechanism. And don't tell me that would make dragons a solely North American phenomenon. First, there's Achillobator, and second, dragons can fly