Friday, November 26, 2010

Science Makes Life Magical

I don't have the mental cast to be a scientist—I'm too impatient—but I have the right cast to appreciate science and understand scientific discoveries and facts. I like knowing them, too, because they give me a cool way of looking at the world. There's just something about how the most minute, invisible processes can achieve big, visible, and varied results, and something about how even the most mundane parts of daily life are actually kind of neat when you know what's going on.

To wit, my day so far:

  • I finished my sleep cycle with a revitalized brain and body, which will serve me well for the 14-16 hours I'll be active today. I don't remember anything that took place during the REM period, but I rarely do. I was pleasantly warm thanks to my quilt trapping my body heat and the excited gas molecules coming through the vents.
  • I rolled over and looked at a series of light-emitting diodes arranged in a pattern that goes back hundreds of years and conveys numerical information. Conventionally, this information on this device indicates time of day, which is somewhat arbitrary and somewhat based on the periods of light caused by the tilt of the Earth's axis and the Earth's rotation. The units of time are arranged in base-60, a practice that goes back to one of the world's first civilizations, Babylon.
  • I got out of bed with the aid of a number of muscles and walked to a wall where I pushed on a piece of metal covered in plastic. This action opened an electrical circuit and led to a chemical reaction in a glass container screwed into the ceiling. This reaction released photons so I could see where I was going. I repeated this process with my desk lamp.
  • I pressed a button to generate the electrical signal that would turn my computer on. A bunch of complicated electrical things I don't quite understand happened, which resulted in photons which, once my eyes received the information and sent it to my brain for processing, displayed several sophisticated pieces of coding, several of which allow me to "connect" to the Internet and get news, updates on friends, and other sorts of information that are important to me. I spent a while processing the information received thusly, by moving my eyes across the lit-up area and doing a number of computational and higher-brain-function kinds of things to the signals they sent my brain. (I can go into more detail than that, but I won't bore you.)
  • I walked into another room and opened a circuit that would allow water to flow from a perforated spout near the ceiling. I used a lye-fat compound to remove grease and dirt from my body while standing the water so it would wash the compounds away.
  • I then used heated water to soften the seeds of a semi-aquatic grass. I also used heat to denature the proteins found in chicken eggs and those found in processed curdled milk (with bonus orange dye).
  • I ingested the grass seeds and protein, which will be broken down by stomach acids (and then other chemicals in the small intestine) and get absorbed into my blood stream over the next 24 hours.
  • I did complicated electrical things on my computer again, which resulted in this blog post.
Sounds better than "woke up, looked at the clock, got up, checked the internet, showered, cooked, ate, and wrote a blog post", doesn't it? And that doesn't even begin to get into what I'm doing for the rest of my day… Go science!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Things I'm Thankful For

Tomorrow is American Thanksgiving, and while I'm Canadian and therefore celebrated Thanksgiving over a month ago, I didn't post about what I was thankful for. So I'm going to do that now and not worry too much about "selling out" to American culture.

I am thankful for good writers and the way they pull me into a story so deeply I want to do nothing but read.

I am thankful for a day job that's both fun and a living wage.

I am thankful for the internet writing community, and especially for the supportive people I've met in it, who keep me positive and sane and energized.

I am thankful for editors who improve my writing, even if I never am after I get drafts back.

I am thankful for good television and good movies, and sometimes for the bad stuff too, when they teach me how not to tell stories.

I am thankful for knowing who I am and being able to be myself on a daily basis.

I am thankful for my family, for too many things to list. I am thankful for my friends, for the same.

I am thankful for junk food and comfort food, for being there when I need it (and sometimes when I don't).

What are you thankful for this year?

Monday, November 22, 2010

How Science Fiction is Like Jazz

A couple weeks ago, Hannah Bowman posted an essay about improvisation in music and how it relates to pantsing manuscripts*. It's a good metaphor and definitely worth checking out, but the reason I mention it is that Hannah inspired me to revisit my own music-writing analogy and I wanted to give context.

It occurred to me a while back that two great, influential, highly creative forms of expression arose at about the same time in the 20th century—jazz and science fiction. They both took off rapidly, though I think one's much cooler than the other these days from a general cultural standpoint. Personally, I love them equally.

The first jazz recordings are Dixieland, from 1917, but Dixie was around for at least a decade or so before that. It's a very raw form of jazz, with every instrument playing a different melody, and it was criticized then (and now) for being a lot of noise. Of course, Dixieland and jazz didn't come out of a vacuum. There's evidence that cakewalk music, blues and proto-blues, ragtime, New Orleans funeral bands, and some other types of music I'm forgetting and am too lazy to look up, all contributed to it.

Unlike jazz, science fiction started in the middle of the 19th century with Verne and Wells and Doyle, but again there were precursors. Lots of 'em. In some ways, the genre sprang up fully formed with its creative applications and extrapolations of technology, its tropes, its social commentary and escapism, but the early work is slower, more Victorian, and is thus somewhat heavy-handed and purple. The early SF writers were figuring it out as they went along, just as the Dixieland bands were.

And then the 1920s hit, with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Paul Whiteman, the Chicago jazz club scene, and hot jazz. Jazz was loudly slammed in the media (still just a lot of noise) but it was beginning to be recognized and cool. We start to get more definite melodies and lead instruments. We start to get vocals and scat singing. Jazz becomes much more recognizable, and people start to dance to it.

At the same time, we began to see pulp magazines and science fiction began to take a recognizable shape. There began to be a little more variation in the stories told, a little more exploration and genuine science. Sci-fi readership began to grow.

From the late '20s through to the early '40s, the dance bands really, really came into the fore, thanks in large part to the Great Depression. They were one of the major forms of entertainment for the masses, with radio shows, touring bands, and dance halls in every major city. Hot jazz had become swing. There was much more formula and structure, with every song following the pattern of melody-secondary melody-solos-melody. Even the solos were scripted. And for the first time, a lot of the musicians were white and the music was reaching a white audience. (Also, the tunes are just plain fun.)

As Wikipedia says: "In the 1920s and 30s writers entirely unconnected with science fiction were exploring new ways of telling a story and new ways of treating time, space and experience in the narrative form." More people were playing with the ideas, seeing what was possible. The big name authors (Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl…) began to take the stage, just as big name musicians began to rise in the swing bands (Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie). Science fiction fandom arose.

After the swing era, jazz started fragmenting. Bebop was the first "subgenre" to spin off. It was meant to be listened to, not danced to, and was faster, more complicated, and more challenging for the musicians and audience. Then the jazz singers largely shifted into a) movie musicals b) pop songs c) both. And then a bunch of crazy musicians like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and Bill Haley showed up, writing horrible music that was "noise" and degenerate and was going to poison the minds of children.**

Then over a 40-year period came modal jazz, free jazz, Latin jazz, post bop, soul jazz, jazz fusion, jazz funk, and experimental jazz. This is about where the timelines of jazz and SF start deviating, because science fiction's expansion into multiple subgenres doesn't line up neatly with the jazz subgenres. And jazz is almost entirely intellectual these days, while science fiction is still growing in popularity. I won't be surprised if there's a bebop-like backlash to that popularity, because there is already a faction of people claiming there isn't enough science and drive for social change in science fiction and SF writers need to return to their pulp roots.*** Cyberpunk was like that when it first appeared, but we're due for another game-changer. It's been 30 years.

Personally, I'm a huge swing fan and a great believer in science fiction as entertainment first, intellectual second. I don't mind thinking about what I read, but the science and commentary had better support the story or form the background for it. But I also like the freneticness of bebop and cyberpunk, the simplicity of hot jazz and Golden Age, the charm of Dixieland and Victorian SF. I have no jazz comparisons for space opera or military SF, but on occasion I like those too.

How does the analogy hold up in your eyes? Are there similarities I've missed? Differences? And which types of jazz and SF do you like?

* a.k.a. writing without much of a plot outline
** Also, jive dancing is a direct descendant of swing dancing.
*** Okay, the science thing might be true. Depends on how you define hard SF, I think.

Friday, November 19, 2010

I Went to Deathly Hallows

And as a result, I slept through the morning and now don't have time (or quite enough coherence) to write an actual blog post. But I enjoyed the movie and it snowed very briefly yesterday, so that's all good. See you back here Monday!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Alien Guest Post and European Video

I have another post up at Science in My Fiction today, so there isn't going to be a long, intelligent one up here as well. I'm saving up my brains for Wednesday, when there'll be a rant, of sorts. Hopefully. Maybe.

I should mention that the SciInMyFi post is a reworked version of something I posted on this blog back in January. I … may have lost track of time. But the new version is much, much better than the original, so that's good, right?

But because I'm loathe to post anything that doesn't have some new content… a video! Of European history! I didn't realize there were so many states in central Europe back in the day.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Appropriate Levels of Research

I've been researching my new WIP lately, and this has naturally led to me thinking about researching novels in general. How much research is enough? How much knowledge of a particular subject does an author need in order for their book to be realistic? When is it acceptable to fudge facts or make things up entirely?

I'm of the opinion that the answer depends on how important the subject is to the story. There's a sliding scale. On one end are the subjects that you absolutely need to know to write the story, and on the other end are the fun details that most people who aren't experts or nerds won't even notice you got wrong.

The Sliding Scale of Research

  1. The book can't be written without an in-depth knowledge of bananas. Assuming the book is fiction, you don't have to get a Ph.D in bananaology to write it, but reading a couple books on the evolution, economy, diseases, and harvesting of bananas will be necessary. You may want to talk to a bananaology or a banana farmer too.
  2. One of the characters knows an awful lot about bananas without being a bananaologist. Again, reading a book or two is a good idea. Holding a banana tasting party may or may not be going too far. It depends on how much of a connoisseur your character is.
  3. The book is set somewhere there are banana trees. You occasionally make references to the number of leaves, the amount of fruit, and possibly a secondary or minor character works as a banana picker. You'll need to know the growth cycle of the tree so that it's not producing fruit at the wrong time of year, and you'll need to know what it takes to harvest bananas. A couple magazine articles might be all you need.
  4. One of your characters eats a banana. You need to know what a banana looks like, and you need to know how it tastes. The simplest solution is to go to a grocery store and buy one, then eat it.
  5. The book is set in a fantasy world where bananas don't exist, but something very like them does. Again, you need to know the look and feel and taste of a banana, but only so you can mess around with them for your fantasy fruit.
For the previous WIP, I spent a fair bit of time researching electricity. I didn't read physics papers or talk to a physicist, since the book's fantasy and I'm allowed to be not exact, for the sake of the story. I did, however, look into how much electricity it would take to kill someone, and what electrical burns look like. I also looked into energy weapons, space drives, forcefields, hydroponics, and the Great Depression (though admittedly not much on that one). I have online Mandarin and Japanese dictionaries bookmarked, and I spent a couple hours looking at Chinese and Japanese art styles. I still need to find somebody with a Tesla coil, and I need to schedule a meeting with the local police department. That last one is insanely important, but since the police bits aren't finalized, I don't have all my questions yet so am putting it off.

For the current WIP, I've been reading up on gnosticism because it's heavily going to influence the world-building and climax. I'll need to read various mythologies as well, starting with Trickster myths and then heading into anything that has a secondary world. Beyond that, I think pretty much everything is fudgeable because magic isn't real and the settings I've picked are either mundane towns or magical communities. It's modern day, so my characters have cell phones, cars, coffee shops, airplanes, and the like. I may have to look into blade weapons, though. I don't know yet.

What have you researched? For the book you're working on, what do you still need to? What's the most glaring lack of research you've encountered?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Placeholder Post, More or Less

I am a list-maker. Even though I generally remember everything I need to buy or do, I still make lists because I've forgotten a key ingredient or action until it's too late. So I list.

Today's list is:

  • continue with my research into gnosticism
  • take a look at some short stories Dad sent me
  • house-keeping stuff
  • finish watching Supernatural
  • get groceries
  • possibly rearrange some things in my desk area
It's not a writing day, obviously. Unless I get massively inspired, it won't be. The research and short stories have to take priority, because the library wants the books soon and Dad wants my thoughts. Fortunately, this all counts as being productive and the gnosticism ties directly into the new WIP, so yay. 

In other news, I've now read 52 books so far this year, not including the two I reread. This is the most books I've ever read in a year (yes, I've been making lists for this, too), and I'm rather proud. It's barely even November!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Music! or Why I Write in Silence

I love music. If I hadn't had an epiphany after Grade 10 that I didn't want to go pro, I'd probably be playing jazz trumpet somewhere right now. Some day I'd love to have time to join an amateur symphony or big band, because creating music is such a joy, especially when you play brass. You get all these great lines and solos…

I've read a number of things recently, on blogs and on Twitter, that got me thinking, "I should write a music post". Last night was kind of the clincher—I copied my baroque trumpet, renaissance, and medieval music CDs onto my laptop because for some reason I've had this computer for a year and haven't done that yet. Don't worry, it was only seven discs.

I love music for several reasons. Anything that falls under the colloquial meaning of "classical music" (Baroque through 20th Century) has all these harmonies and interwoven melodies, and there is absolutely nothing better for portraying emotions. The final movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 is the purest joy I've ever heard. The second movement of Vivaldi's Winter has no rivals for sadness. There are unconstrained parties, passionate romance, character sketches, and fantastic dance music. In addition, Handel's Fireworks Music, Mozart's piano sonatas, and Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier make excellent background music for editing and studying. (I love pre-Baroque music because I can hear how it evolved into the later stuff, and there are some pretty catchy tunes.)

Jazz is dance music and singing music. I love everything from dixieland through bebop, and a smattering of later pieces though most house jazz, cool jazz, and acid jazz leaves me cold. I go for the classic stuff. They knew how to write melodies you could dance to back then, and melodies that would follow you home. They knew how to write lyrics, too, and how to sing. My favourite vocalists are Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby. The most romantic songs I know are all jazz standards, like "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "You're the Top". I can't listen to jazz without dancing or humming along.

Early rock (1950s and 1960s) is just fun. A lot of the songs are covers of jazz standards or blues songs, and even when they're not, the lyrics are enjoyable and the music has a beat. Early rock is all about dancing. My favourite bands are the Beatles and Rolling Stones, though they're by no means the only artists from the era in my collection. I'm also a fan of Chuck Berry and Joni Mitchell.

Classic rock and heavy metal are for lip syncing and playing air guitar. Sorry, but it's true. There's so much enthusiasm and so much LOUD that again, I can't help it. I sing along. I act it out. Classic rock is housecleaning music. Again, the Beatles and Stones are at the top of my list, but I've got soft spots for Creedance Clearwater Revival, Deep Purple, and Queen. "Hotel California" is genius.

The 1980s are by and large a guilty pleasure, as is ABBA. There's so much cheese, so much glam, so much synthesizer and drum machine… What's not to love? I like early Madonna. I love Springsteen. I mostly have the greatest hits of everyone else, and seriously need to own some Bowie. But again, it's fun, it's danceable, and yes, I sing along. (It's not blackmail material if I openly admit it.) Then there's Leonard Cohen and Neil Diamond, who I guess are really 70s through 90s…

I don't have much knowledge about the 1990s, apart from the odd Top 40/Greatest Hit that made it through my social obliviousness and imprinted. So yeah, that includes Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls. But not much, I swear! My favourite 1990s group (who're still producing, by the way) is the Barenaked Ladies. There's such whimsy and Canadianness and … difference to their music. I love their sound. (There's also Great Big Sea.)

I'm not going to go into folk music too much, except to say that if it's Celtic or British or comes from those traditions, I am so there, and if my mom listened to it while I was growing up, those artists are in my collection too.

You'll have noticed a trend by now. I go for the music I can sing and dance to, and I go for sounds, melodies, and harmonies. This is why I only put music on when I'm not writing, because if I have both going at the same time, the music's going to win.  Power to everyone who can listen and write at the same time, but they're not me. It doesn't matter if it's Mozart or Philip Glass or Buddy Holly. My brain is going to fix itself on the music to the detriment of everything else. (I had to stop writing this blog to listen to those jazz videos I linked to.)

Sadly, I don't know very many people who share the same level of music geekery. I love recommending pieces and I love talking music theory and music history. I think sometimes I scare people, actually. Anyone out there who's the same? Anyone have favourite bands or composers to share? Anyone who also can't write with music on? Anyone want to explain how they can write with music? Let's get some discussion going!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Writing Other Genres

As I'm stumped again for a topic, I'm going back to another question posed to me on Twitter.* I'm expanding it slightly to give it more scope: "Can writing in one genre or medium help you or allow you to write in others?"

Yes and no. And bear in mind these are the words on an unpublished (and some would say inexperienced as a result) writer, and may therefore be entirely wrong and ignorant. If they are, please don't yell too loudly.

Writing in one genre will help you improve your writing, which in theory will allow you to do better when trying out different genres. You'll be better at dialogue, plot structure, pacing, description… and that will aid you. It can't not.

However, there's a limit to how much developing skills in, for a random example, urban fantasy, will help you if you decide to write a different genre. High fantasy, science fiction, and mystery are probably all fairly simple segues because the world building, the pacing, and the imagination are similar. Possibly also romance. But literary fiction? Memoirs? Political commentary? Those require vastly different techniques and approaches to what constitutes "book" and "research" and there's only so much writing knowledge that will carry over.** And someone who's really good at writing pop history will probably struggle with romance, at least initially.

And that's just if we stay with prose. Would writing prose help you write a stage play, a screenplay, or poetry? Again, with the plays I think there'll be a bit of crossover with characterization, but they're much more dialogue focussed and they have to keep the audience's attention, so writers really have to think about every line. It's a very different technique. And poetry's also difficult to do well. I can't even begin to talk about how different poetry is.

Can a poet write prose? Yes. Of course. It's been done. Can a playwright write prose? Again, of course they can, and do. And prose writers write plays and poems all the time. But it's going to take them a bit of work to do it well, unless they're a verified literary genius, and they'll likely get as much help from reading their second genre as they'll get from having written in their first. I also suspect that approaching prose from a play background will yield sparser, tighter stories, and a poetry background will yield more lyrical prose.

This is not to say that prose writers don't cross over, or that they don't do it well. Nora Roberts is a shining example. Janet Evanovich has an urban fantasy out. Everyone seems to be trying their hand at young adult and picture books. And I know of midlist authors who are old hands at both fiction and non-fiction. I think once you reach a certain level of skill, you can write just about any genre/medium you want and do well at it. Certainly, if you reach a certain level of fame, you can write anything you want to and no one will stop you because the books will still sell.

This is also not to say that writers shouldn't muck about in other genres. Each genre has different techniques which will carry over to all the others, and you'll improve as a writer by learning them. But should you try to excel at everything? In my view (and it's just my view), you'll probably be mediocre in everything. Better to specialize in one or two forms or genres, and you can dabble later once you've proven yourself.

So could I sit down and write a screenplay or a book of poems or a memoir? Yes. Would it be anywhere near publishable? No. I'm too new, too raw, and in the case of the memoir, too boring. Can you do all that? Of course, and power to you!

* By @worldofhiglet, again.
** I can see exceptions in people who've done intensive writing courses (BFA, MFA) in literary fiction or creative non-fiction, chose to write urban fantasy instead, and then decide to go back to their roots.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Plot Problems in Castle

For the last year, my guilty pleasure TV has been Castle. For those of you who don't know, it's a police comedy-drama set in New York, about a snarky female homicide detective, Becket, and the easily distracted writer, Castle, who tags along on her cases for "research". It's light and goofy and plays fast and loose with forensics and police procedure, but I'm okay with that because it's fun. And it stars Nathan Fillion, of Firefly fame.

But. I've watched the show from its beginning and I've noticed this pattern with the B-plots that's really starting to bug me. See, Castle has a teenage daughter, Alexis. She's smart, pretty, outgoing, community active, and is involved in all kinds of extracurriculars. She's also grounded and take-charge, which comes from Castle's parenting techniques and from having to parent Castle in his more distracted moments. This saves her from being a Mary Sue, though it's still close sometimes.

The vast majority of B-plots focus on Alexis, and Castle's worries about whatever her activity du jour is. While this is cute and sweet, it's done enough that it's getting cloying, and, to top it off, the writers keep tying the Alexis stuff in with the homicide of the day. The case is about a stalker? Alexis gets a boyfriend for Castle to get paranoid about. The victim is a pop singer? She just happens to be Alexis' favourite. The case is about an actor, like it was on Monday? Alexis tries out for Grease. However, with a few exceptions where Alexis will provide fuel for Castle's eleventh hour realization, the B-plots never have an impact on the A-plot.

That's bad writing in my books. I may be fairly new to this writing thing, but I feel like two intertwined plots should have some kind of impact on each other at worst, and parallel each other to provide a deeper meaning at best. CSI does this pretty well, or did while I was watching it with any consistency. Supernatural does this well, with the B-plot normally being about family or the series arc, keeping the themes of the show alive. Even Bones has its moments with B-plots focusing around important issues like racism or battered women, though most of the time they're relationship plots that add comic relief.

Another bit of bad writing in Castle? I'm getting peeved that, while Alexis is doing all these cool activities, we never get any of them carried over to other episodes. If she becomes, say, the editor of her school paper, are we ever going to see her working on an issue at home, or going to interview someone? No. If she gets into painting, are we going to see her painting after that one episode? No, she's have conveniently decided not to pursue it as a hobby. And she's dating now, but we've only seen the guy once, and whatever happened to the guy she was with for the season premiere?

I actually watch Castle for the bad writing. And the one-liners. And the romantic tension between Becket and Castle. And Nathan Fillion. Like I said, it's a total guilty pleasure show. One hundred percent. So obviously I don't really mind the flaws, but I'm definitely aware of them and I want the writers to step up to the plate and try to blend the plots better. There's part of me that wants the Alexis plot to result in her being kidnapped or otherwise threatened by the criminal of the day. I think not only would that be one of the best written episodes, but it would also force the cast to act to a higher level. That can never be a bad thing.