About Writers, blogging, Research, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Hurricane Irma, Muse of the Moment

Well, my lady and I survived the pre-hurricane madness, long gas lines, depleted grocery stores, near-apoplectic news readers ūüôā
Now, we’re hunkering down in Naples, Florida amidst enough supplies to restart civilization, got good books for when the power goes out & we have friendly, helpful neighbors. We may be better off now than before Irma appeared.

We’ll huddle in a candle-lit interior room away from windows with the cat & inevitable litter box while Irma blows past Sunday. Later, there’ll be no power. (Been here, done it) That’s when the neighbors will come out because without A/C, why not? People sharing a disaster are not shy. We all know exactly what’s on the other’s mind. “Good to see you. Are you OK? Need anything? Wow, look at this mess.”

Now is a time to observe human nature. The place will get cleaned up, people will return to their individual lives. But for the moment, we can relate to our neighbors, family and friends on a level of shared concern. It’s a teaching moment for writers.

In your own life, what event has been a teaching moment?

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About Writers, blogging, Research, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Here A.I. Comes, The Artificial Part, Anyway

Enjoying science fiction sometimes allows you to watch the future arrive. Artificial intelligence will soon happen. Robots have begun to replace human workers and they will assume roles as autonomous decision makers. Legal rights and protections between us and them will have to be worked out. We are about to decide who “us” is.

Yesterday, Mika Koverola posted on the Facebook group, SciFi Fandom,
“I‚Äôm conducting research into the connection between ‘science fiction hobbyism’ and people‚Äôs attitudes towards robots as a part of my PhD at Helsinki University. …. Please take my Science Fiction and Robots survey (https://tinyurl.com/SciFiRobots) and help science by spending approximately 45 minutes telling about your views on science fiction, robotics and ethical choices.”

A survey on how I feel about A.I. robots? Help science? How could I say no?
Mika’s questions explored my feelings towards A.I robots. How much do I trust companies that make them? Who do I think is responsible if they harm humans? Will it distress me if they make medical decisions contrary to the wishes of the patient? What are my reactions to people having sex with robots? The usual.

It struck me that if we give robots the right to tell us what to do, we surrender control to whoever controls the robots. Of course, the only way we would give rights to robots is if we assume A.I. is like us. When people talk about “true” A.I., the underlying assumption is that artificial intelligence confers personhood. Put another way, intelligence, even if artificial, is assumed to equal humanity.

Really? Is intelligence really our criteria for who we are? Or is it an awareness of something and we are that something?

What do you think we are?

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About Writers, Research, Uncategorized, writing technique

Challenging Moments

We all have those challenging moments when life changes in that moment. One might think writers relish writing about their own intense moments. It is, after all, when life shows us our limits and opportunities. Many great fictional characters are forged in the fire of ¬†intense personal experience. But writing honestly is difficult when it’s personal.
So, let’s do something difficult. Use the comments section to describe a moment when your life did or could have drastically changed. I’ll start:

¬†+++When World War II ended, Mom married a soldier. Like most men who spent years killing people, he had PTSD. We called it a bad temper. The soldier taught me honesty, pride in independence, the value of hard work and he occasionally beat Mom unconscious. I vividly remember standing with my own head scarcely above the man’s knee, looking down at my mother lying on the floor. I feared him until I was a teen and pointed a shotgun at him. “If you ever hit my mother again, I will kill you. I’m sixteen. They will put me in a home for juvenile delinquents. But I will get out when I’m eighteen and you will be dead.” The shotgun was loaded, the safety was off and my finger felt the trigger. If he had risen from the kitchen table, I would have shot him.

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Research, world-building, writing technique

So You Want To Build A World

‚ÄúYou see, to be quite frank Kevin, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect. It tbpolaroidwas a bit of a botch job you see. We only had seven days to make it. And that‚Äôs where this comes in. This is the only map of all the holes. Well, why repair them? Why not use ‚Äėem to get stinking rich?‚ÄĚ

–Randall from Time Bandit

 

So you want to build a world, eh? Are you ready to be God? Because that’s what you’re doing. Creating a world, populated with millions of beings. They’re your responsibility now. What happens to them‚ÄĒwell, that’s on you, isn’t it? And more than that, you owe it to your readers to create a functional world, an elegant mechanism guided by a clear plan and exquisite craftsmanship, a Swiss watch kind of a world.

Or‚ÄĒmaybe not.

I know. A lot of writers LOVE world building. They revel in creating dossiers, elaborate histories, mythologies‚ÄĒeven whole languages. It’s part of the fun. And backstory can certainly add depth and richness to a narrative, making it more believable, more real, more engaging.

But how much is really necessary? All fiction writing is world building. You set the stage, you paint the backdrops, you provide the props. You populate that world with living, breathing people, give them history, put flesh on those dry paper bones so that they rise up off the page. And no matter how closely your fictional environs hew to the real, recognizable world, it is new. You built it.

Of course, mostly when writers talk about world building, they mean a different world, and more often than not, they mean speculative fiction. I’m including fantasy under that label, as well as science fiction. Fantasy, of course, is replete with maps and legends. Sci-Fi is lousy with parallel histories (what if the Dutch empire never fell?) and distant planets where the not-quite humans behave in curiously human-like ways.

It’s tempting to want to create full and complex histories for your worlds, those impeccable mechanisms, but how much of that is really necessary? Elaborate backstory may engage you, the author, but how much does the reader really want? Or need?

Generally, it’s the small details that grab our attention and lock us in. When Robert Heinlein, in Beyond This Horizon, wrote the famous sentence “The door dilated,” the intention was to inform the reader‚ÄĒin a casual, unobtrusive way‚ÄĒthat we were in a future world. The door opens like the dilating iris of an eye, and no one comments on it or wonders at it, because it is not, in this fictional world, remarkable. It’s rather a joke these days‚ÄĒbecause honestly, what a ridiculously elaborate way of opening a door‚ÄĒbut that tiny sentence accomplishes a lot, and does it with panache.

And that’s admirable. I’m not opposed‚ÄĒat all!‚ÄĒto complex¬†writing, but the ability to draw a reader in with an elegant, concise bit of description (three words!) is something we can all envy.

I’d like to hear about any examples of world building that you found particularly effective and inventive and memorable. I’ll start with a few of mine:

In Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delany, the novel’s most prominent alien species doesn’t just enjoy food at mealtimes, they also enjoy licking small rocks. Rocks are served with meals, and the natives savor the taste of different minerals. The novel’s human protagonists also take part in rock licking, because it’s polite. Stars in my Pocket is a big, complex novel with scads of world building‚ÄĒbut it’s this one detail in particular that remains with me, even decades later. It wasn’t important to the plot at all, but that single, concise detail locked me in. I knew I was in another world.

(This example also highlights another important point: don’t neglect the mundane things of life. Food is primary to all life as we know it, but all-too-many science fiction writers reduce food-of-the-future to cubes of protein-rich gelatin or synthetic versions of chicken curry and sweet-and-sour shrimp. Dull. Unless your world is a grim dystopia where dull food symbolizes the dreariness of life, have some fun. Eating is too sensual and visceral an experience to be wasted on drab victuals.)

Another example of notable and elegant world building: in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly, characters speak English, of course¬†(it’s American television, after all)¬†but they are always dropping in bits of¬†Mandarin. It’s never explained, never even really commented on. Everybody just knows a lot of ¬†Mandarin, particularly swear words. All of which suggests‚ÄĒsimply, elegantly‚ÄĒthat the political landscape of the Earth has changed a lot. (There are websites out there dedicated to translating the Mandarin bits of Firefly, much of which is hilariously weird and inappropriate, from “Filthy fornicators of livestock!” to “Stupid inbred stack of meat.”)

If I’m making any kind of an argument here (and that’s certainly arguable), it’s that less really can be more when it comes to world building. You don’t need to provide a treasure trove of details, just a few that sing out to the reader. They’ll fill in the rest with their vivid imaginations. And you don’t need to work out everything to be convincing. We live in a world where we frequently experience confusion and uncertainty. If you really think the world is a rational, well-ordered place, I’d suggest that maybe you aren’t paying enough attention. It’s comforting, I suppose, to believe that some kind of higher order underlies the fabric of creation, but‚ÄĒrules of physics and mathematics and biology aside‚ÄĒthere isn’t a whole lot of empirical evidence to support that belief. Your world might be more believable if it mimics this uncertainty, if everything doesn’t fit together just so. The universe, as Time Bandits tells us, is a bit of a botch job. And God (god? who?) is, undeniably, inscrutable. Since you are God now, I invite you to follow his (her?) example. Nobody likes a¬†tight-assed, control freak deity. Let your world breath a little.

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Research

The Yellow Kid Rides Again?

In reply to Old Spice: Fictional characters, and their influence on humans. (With considerable assistance from Wikipedia.)

These are my opinions and not necessarily the politics of this site.

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The Yellow Kid.¬†Looks like he’s left off with the Propecia. Behind him, immigrants being railroaded to wheresoever. Is that Ivanka and hubby being dragged behind?

I find many parallels between the so-called Orange One (I see his thatch as more yellow than orange) to The Yellow Kid of Sunday supplement fame. The Yellow Kid was, from what I glean, a harmless sort, but other details are amusingly relevant to Our Golden-Shower-of-Propecia-Encouraged-Hair Leader.

A bit of background:

The Yellow Kid¬†was the name of an American comic-strip¬†character that ran from 1895 to 1898 in¬†Joseph Pulitzer‘s¬†New York World, and later¬†William Randolph Hearst‘s¬†New York Journal. Created and drawn by¬†Richard F. Outcault, it was one of the first Sunday supplement comic strips in an American newspaper.

He was a bald (having to do, it has been suggested, with the prevalent lice of his milieu) barefoot boy who wore an oversized yellow nightshirt (Trump with his really long tie? And I’m sure I’ve seen him in a bright yellow tie, marvelous-marvelous) and hung around in a¬†slum¬†(with Trump, a moral slum) typical of certain areas in late 19th-century New York City. Yellow’s Alley was filled with equally odd characters. (Trump‚Äôs soonalasto-be-cabinet, and his staff.) He¬†habitually spoke in a ragged, peculiar¬†slang. (Sounds on the money to me.)

Yellow journalism: 

The two newspapers which ran The Yellow Kid quickly became known as the¬†yellow kid papers. This was contracted to the¬†yellow papers¬†and the term¬†yellow kid journalism¬†was at last shortened to¬†yellow journalism, describing the two newspapers’ editorial practices of taking – sometimes even fictionalized (ROFL) – sensationalism and profit as their priorities.

Merchandising: 

The Yellow Kid’s image appeared on mass market retail objects such as billboards, buttons, cigarette packs, cigars, cracker tins, ladies’ fans, matchbooks, postcards, chewing gum cards, toys, whiskey and many other products. (Steaks, golf clubs, universities?)

He was the first to demonstrate that a comic strip character could be merchandised profitably. (I’m not so sure about¬†the steaks, but certainly politically.)

Historians attribute The Yellow Kid success to the fact that he was a children‚Äôs character marketed as an anti-establishment symbol packaged for mass consumption. (Anti-Washington gull – not to be confused with gall, though that applies also –¬†marketed to the simple-minded.)

Outcault having been lured to the Journal, the strip continued to be drawn for the World by another artist. Pulitzer and Hearst both fought to give their competing Yellow Kids more and more page space. The Battle of the Yellow Kids represented a trend in the decline of journalistic integrity (decline of journalistic integrity. Check.), of which both the World and the Journal had been guilty for years.

One vocal critic, New York Press editor Ervin Wardman, had tried many times to pin a name on the papers’ sensationalistic, exaggerated, ill-researched, and often untrue reporting, calling it new journalism and nude journalism. With the epic battle of the comic strips, he had a name that stuck: Yellow-Kid Journalism, which was eventually shortened to Yellow Journalism.

From now on I call DJT The Yellow Kid. (Carl calls him Mango Mussolini.) I like that one too. Us flotsam from the sixties might enjoy: Not-So-Mellow-Yellow.

Donovan’s lyric with revisions (I don’t think he would object):

I’m just mad about Bannon,¬†Bannon’s mad about me. I’m just mad about Bannon. He’s just mad about me, the¬†not-so-mellow-yellow (Quite rightly!) tremendously smart fellow. (That I be!)

I’ve decided that my verse needs some thought. It’s too much like the rabble-rouser stuff I put into Sly’s mouth. I’m laying it aside for now. I do get carried away with myself at times.

 

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Research

GMTA

GMTA is ‘Netspeak for “Great Minds Think Alike.” There are umpteen great minds recognized on the ‘Net. Many of these GMs are not writers and can sometimes give us a story idea we might not think of.

Robert Oppenheimer, for example, once answered a student at Rochester University who asked whether the bomb exploded at Alamogordo was the first one to be detonated, “Well ‚ÄĒ yes. In modern times, of course.” How can a sci-fi writer not wonder about that other detonation? There is a story here!

Or if you prefer to write fantasy, try thinking, “Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.” -Tupac Shakur.

A fight scene might benefit by holding in mind the thought, “They’ve got us surrounded again, the poor bastards.” -Creighton W. Abrams, Battle of the Bulge.

Need a cast of characters? Start with, “A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure.” -Charlie Chaplin

Sometimes, a good idea is right in front of you. “I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called Mother and Child Reunion. It’s chicken and eggs. And I said, I gotta use that one.” -Paul Simon

And here’s an idea for a short horror story. “Sometimes when you’re burying a guy alive, for a moment or two you start feeling sorry for him. And then it passes and you keep on shoveling.” – George Carlin.

Where do your story ideas come from?

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