Month: January 2013

Iain Banks

I once owned an Audi TT, a lovely little four wheel drive sports car which I justified to myself by using a variant of what I call the Banks Defence.

This rhetorical device was invented by Iain Banks, a Scottish author who was at the time living in the Highlands of that beautiful but unforgiving country. The Highlands does get a fair bit of snow, and so it is prudent to have a four wheel drive vehicle. Unfortunately Mr Banks does not like Land Rovers or SUVs (a dislike shared by many in Britain) so he refused to buy such. Fortunately, Porsche make a four wheel drive version of their sports car and so he bought one of those.

My own use of the Banks Defence was that in my four wheel drive sports car I would be able to go up to the mountain to play in the snow, something which I did exactly once in the four years I owned it.

This bit of rather specious logic endeared Mr Banks to me. It is almost a mere bonus that he is a fine and imaginative writer. He is also one of only two authors for whom I will wait for the UK paperback editions of a novel before buying.

As published in Britain, there are two Iain Banks: Iain Banks the mainstream novellist, and Iain M Banks the science fiction author (I have not noticed this false dichotomy continuing in the US). The science fiction tends toward the space operatic, often following the Culture and involving large scale, muscular technology, although there are elements of the fantastic in the mainstream novels. The difference really tends to be one of scale: a Culture novel will typically span huge volumes of space, where even the most science fictional of the mainstream novels are more intimate in their focus: an M novel might involve galactic scale travel and the fate of an entire civilisation, while a non-M novel may follow one personal story through difficult and even unreal circumstance.

There are Banks books which I dislike or consider not worth bothering with, but there are far more that I consider to be very fine works and which I have reread a number of times. Below is a selection of his books, in no particular order.

The Wasp Factory – his first published novel, and a benchmark for horribleness even to this day. Often given as a must-read book on lists of such things, it is exquisitely written. Will I ever read it again? Probably not – but I will also never look at small animals in quite the same way again either.

Consider Phlebas – the first of the Culture novels. His science fiction generally tends to be less horrific than his mainstream work, although this book has its moments.

Raw Spirit – Banks is to a certain extent a professional Scot, and this is a book about his odyssey to taste as many whiskies as he could – Scotch to the largest part, but also touching on the whiskies of Japan and Canada, for example. It’s a memoir by way of a quest.

Against A Dark Background – dark it certainly is: this could conceivably be set in the same Universe as the Culture but for reasons made clear in the telling such an encounter seems highly unlikely. It’s a grand romp which turns sour at the end but it’s well-turned science fiction.

The Crow Road – one of the best opening lines I’ve come across (“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”), but this story of a young man trying to figure out his place in the world while uncovering dark family secrets is very enjoyable.

The Player of Games – I mentioned this in the context of fictional games, but I like this book a lot and enjoy the evocation of a society disjoint from the Culture.

Transition – already discussed when talking about multiverses. Complex and confusing, but there’s great reward in figuring out the story.

I should also mention The Bridge, which many people who I respect consider to be his best book but which I found very disappointing. Worth reading once, but not one I am likely to ever pick up again.

The Banks books I would recommend against bothering with are:

A Song of Stone – akin to The Road in that it is unremittingly miserable, but without the leavening of a pleasant or admirable narrator.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale – not in itself a bad book, but covers a lot of the same ground as The Business and even Whit, but not as well.

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Fiasco

Imagine being in a Coen brothers film – not just acting in one, but discovering what the story is as you go. This what Fiasco is all about.

It’s a GM-less roleplaying game, a game about improvising stories from solid foundations. There is a nominal victory mechanic, but it is a game which is a lot more about the journey than the destination.

And there is an awful lot in Fiasco which is of value to writers.

The game is structured around a setting, and the relationships between characters in that setting. This single shift in focus is one of the most powerful things about Fiasco when compared with more traditional RPGs: the things which drive stories are the relationships between the characters rather than the characters themselves. The way to play Fiasco is to invent the simplest thing that could work*, and then elaborate on it while bouncing ideas off other players.

Lesson one, then: build relationships between characters before you define your characters.

The narrative drive of the game is a small set of needs and objects – only a very few per game, rather than a hotchpotch of narrative elements which might confuse the story and the player.

Lesson two: shorten the list of narrative drivers.

A game of Fiasco starts by picking a play set, a collection of story and setting elements which the players use to shape the story. The game comes with four, and there are many more play sets available on the publisher’s web site. Or if the players have their own ideas then they can write their own play set before they start.

Lesson three: you only need enough setting information to understand the story.

Fiasco play itself consists of a series of scenes, focussed in turn on each player’s character. The mechanics of the game are such that on your turn you get to either pick the setup for the scene (establish) or choose the outcome (resolve). But you have very few scenes to tell your character’s part of the story – you get four in the whole game.

Lesson four: get to the point.

These lessons are not appropriate for every story that you tell, but for certain kinds of stories they are very helpful. The writer behind the TV show Leverage has used Fiasco in his story development sessions (he appears in the Tabletop episode linked below), and there is a worked example in the Fiasco Companion of a London gangland story treatment which demonstrates how effective Fiasco can be as a seed for interesting stories.

The only problem I have now is that if I watch a Coen brothers film I find myself analysing it in terms of the Fiasco structure – Burn After Reading especially seemed to conform to it.

A couple of episodes of Tabletop were dedicated to playing through a Fiasco game, and are highly recommended if you want to get a feel for how the game works:

But Fiasco is great. It’s some of the most fun I have had playing a game.

[*] compare with agile software development also, although I am not going to pursue that further here.

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Persistence and the Muse

Writers write.

It’s a simple, even trite, phrase but it relates a basic truth: a writer makes words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into stories (substitute stanzas and poems for paragraphs and stories respectively if you are of a more poetic bent). A writer who is not performing that act of serial creation, who is not working with their words and the other raw stuff of their art, risks at some point not being a writer any more.

Every writer – every person – has moods, times when something that must be done is easier or harder. There are parts of every task which are dull, or arduous, or scary. Writing, like anything else worthwhile, is work and that work takes persistence. Not writing today because of a family emergency or because the opium hangover is particularly bad is of course fine, unavoidable even, but if the work remains undone because there is always a crisis or always a substance-abuse-related malady then that suggests the author is lacking persistence*.

My favourite quote relating to this requirement for persistence was written about fencing:

The hardest thing about fencing is not to fence when you feel like it, but to fence when you do not.

– Nick Evangelista, “The Art and Science of Fencing”

One of the great benefits of NaNoWriMo is to force you to make words even when you do not necessarily feel like it. During November, the nascent writer is introduced to the regular practice of being in front of a writing device of some kind, and of having a firm requirement that a certain number of words must be fed to that writing device before walking away from it.

This is the basic point of my goal to establish a daily writing practice – not so much that I write every day, but that I get in the habit of being ready to write every day: that I work with my words all the time.

At the moment my writing time is occupied with reading my manuscript. That’s all right – it is still part of my writing practice. I keep on having ideas about the story and about other stories because I am in touch with the characters and setting. I am ready for when the ideas come.

And when they do, I write them down.

Because writers write.

[*] it may not be a lack of persistence, of course – it may be that there is simply no way to fit writing into an already over-crowded life. If that’s the case then, well, I don’t know what to say. Maybe you should stick to the squirrel farming. I am sure you will be good at it. Probably best not describe yourself as a writer, though.

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Bluehammer: The Readening

I started reading the enormous manuscript of doom last week. and so far it has been an edifying experience.

One of the reasons this manuscript is so large is because it includes two versions of some scenes: one from this bash at finishing the story, and one from an earlier draft. I am quite gratified that for the most part the newer versions are better – this is partly a function of the more recent writing fitting the changing conception of the story more closely, but also the character and plot elements are usually introduced more effectively.

My biggest concern at the moment is the pace of the reading. I opened this manuscript six days ago, and I am still only a third of the way through it. I have found that other writing-related things have intruded on the reading time, but with being so large the manuscript is also quite unwieldy which makes it less conducive to being read.

Anyway, we’ll see if the pace picks up – I want to get a plan for this book sorted out.

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The Next Big Thing

The excellent Laura Stanfill tagged me for The Next Big Thing, a very interesting questionnaire about what you’re working on.

I am working on two things at the moment. I have decided to pick the one which is closest to being publishable.

The Next Big Thing

The rules:

  1. Give credit to the person who tagged you. 
  2. Explain the rules.
  3. Answer the ten questions about your current WIP. 
  4. Tag five other writers to participate.

1. What is the working title of your book?

A Turquoise Song. This has been the title from the beginning, although I am currently splitting the book in two so I will have to come up with a new name for the second half at some point.

2. Where did the idea come from for your book?

I was resting after a yoga session once and I dreamed of turquoise notes wending their way through the air. I knew almost immediately that it was about synaesthesia (a neurological condition where the senses are cross-connected) and the core relationship between Ghen and Ariel emerged very early, but it took a long time to figure out the story.

What made the story into something other than just a pretty title was moving the book from the present day into the future: having synaesthesia be an asset when working with artificial minds was a powerful insight, which did not work in the present (and I tried).

3. What genre does the book fall under?

Science fiction, specifically near future SF since it is set about 75 years hence.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters for the movie rendition?

The two most central characters are Ghen Wishart, a synaesthete and repairer of AIs, and Ariel McKenzie, his protegé.

John Cusack could play Ghen, although he might be a little old for the role now. Gethin Anthony, who plays Renly Baratheon in Game of Thrones, has the right look and is about the right age.

Mia Wasikowska as she appears in Alice in Wonderland would be good as Ariel.

5. What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

A synaesthetic repairer of AIs helps a deranged police robot and uncovers a world-changing conspiracy.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My original plan was to self-publish this one and then seek representation for the other book I am working on (called Bluehammer), but I think I am going to seek representation for this novel too.

7. How long did it take you to finish the first draft of your manuscript?

The writing took thirty days – I wrote the draft during NaNoWriMo 2011. The final validated word count was a bit more than 80,000 words. However, this idea came to me in 2005 and I spent some time before the writing on figuring out the setting and the plot.

I’ve just finished re-outlining the story from the first half into a full length novel.

8. What other books would you compare this book to within your genre?

Halting State and Rule 34 by Charles Stross for the near-future setting. There are also singularity elements to it which give another strand of comparison to Stross’s writing.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I have been fascinated by synaesthesia for a long time – it’s an extraordinary neurological condition, where every case is different: some people see sounds, others can taste colours, and so on. Having synaesthetes being uniquely qualified to repair artificial consciousnesses seemed like an interesting way of bringing the condition to the fore.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

It is very firmly set in Portland, which is where I live. One of the most entertaining things about the drafting process was coming up with ways in which Portland and Oregon might have changed in 75 years.

Time to play tag:

As Laura mentioned in her tagging of me, my blog is fairly new and I am new to the whole idea of writing community outside of NaNoWriMo. I’m going to tag a couple of authors that I know from Portland NaNoWriMo who I don’t think have done this questionnaire before: Gregory S. Lamb and Cathy Danielson.

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Outlining

I’ve been talking about outlining with respect to A Turquoise Song, and I will undoubtedly mention it again relating to other work. But what is an outline, how do you get one, and what is it for?

First of all, I have not historically been much of an outliner – I’ve always dived into a story with not much more than a few chapter summaries and a couple of character sketches. This means that my process has been a kind of guided discovery writing, with plot details and twists occurring on the spur of the moment or developing during the draft.

The problem with this process is that it is monstrously inefficient: consider Bluehammer, the NaNovel I have just started reading the manuscript of – I am fairly sure I have the narrative arcs set in this latest version but I’ve been working on this story for seven years, on and off. If I ever want to make some kind of meaningful career out of being a novellist, I have to be more efficient in producing finished novels, and outlining in some more thorough form is going to be a part of that. My suspicion is that if I had outlined the Kissiltur story from the outset, I might have had a completed book years ago.

Anyway, more of what I have learned later.

What is an outline?

An outline is a summary of a story, as it is going to be told. It can be more or less detailed – the chapter summaries I mentioned above are a form of outline, albeit a high level one. Some people outline down to the scene level, some even to the paragraph (Mary Robinette Kowal has discussed her exceptionally detailed outlining approach).

Another outlining process which can be driven to arbitrary levels of detail is the snowflake method may be for you.

How do you get an outline?

The snowflake method is based on a pretty common problem-solving strategy of divide and conquer: have a start point and and end point, and break down the journey from one to the other into smaller and smaller pieces until you can see how each step can be made. If you’re outlining up front, then this is a reasonable way to determine the details of the story: define the starting and ending conditions for each block of narrative, and then break that box down into smaller boxes which link together to form the story.

This has been part of what I have been doing with Song, but a larger part has been about capturing the story as it is already written. My process has been using Scrivener, and the steps I follow are:

  1. make a folder for each chapter as written
  2. add files to each folder to capture the scenes within each chapter

For Song, I have been trying to take the first half of the original manuscript and turn it into a complete story. I mentioned what I have been doing with index cards to figure out the plot elements. So, I have additional steps:

  1. make plot point files for each of the plot cards
  2. push those plot point files into the chapter folder where that plot point should be revealed to the reader
  3. add scene files to explicate the plot

I used a similar process for laying out the new plot for Bluehammer before November.

What is an outline for?

An outline is useful in both writing your book and selling it once it’s done.

If you have an outline, you can debug the story before you write yourself into a corner.

Now, stories do change in the telling – it may well be that the outline you wrote will not survive contact with the characters and the plot twists and turns like a carbon snake emerging from an acid-oxidised beaker of sugar*, but the outline still gives you a map and at least you can take comfort from the fact that the story makes sense before you start.

When it comes to selling your book, I understand that it is quite common for agents and editors to ask for an outline to see if the story is interesting. It will also likely help in distilling the story down to synopsis and pitch length – these are not steps I have yet taken, so this is based on the many writers I have read who have made this observation.

Do you need an outline?

Yes.

The fear is that by outlining the story, you will kill the creative impulse – that if you are writing to an outline, the writing itself will be no fun. That has not been my experience.

On the contrary, I find the writing is more fun, because I am not afraid of writing myself into a corner or of running out of plot. The very worst experiences I have had in writing have been when I have not known what to write because I didn’t put enough thought into the plot before I started.

And I would venture the writing an outline before you write the story is a more pleasant experience. I’ve been inserting plot into old stories for most of the last six months – I’d much rather be writing new story in an outline than trying to mesh new plot into existing (non-)structure. I am not the only person to have made this journey (especially see thing #8).

Tools

  1. most word processors have some kind of outlining mode
  2. mind mapping is another good way to capture an outline
  3. use the index cards to break down chapters into scenes and then play with them on a large surface

But outlining helps me more than it gets in the way, and is helping me make the best of my writing time. Maybe it will help you too.

[*] this was always one of my favourite demonstrations in A-level chemistry: sugar + concentrated sulphuric acid = six foot long carbon foam snake. That and thermite, of course.

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Song and Dance

I’ve been working on the outline for A Turquoise Song for a few weeks now, and tomorrow I can start reading the manuscript of Bluehammer. I had originally planned to have the outline for Song wrapped up by now.

So what have I got?

Well, I have a plot which I didn’t have three weeks ago, and an ending. I have a bad guy, and a justification for having ninjas in the story. I also have a new string to my process bow* with the index card technique and those kinds of tricks are always worth learning.

What I don’t have is a completed outline, although I have made good progress on making one: the plot is laid out in chapter headings, and the scenes just need to be broken down.

I am therefore going to hold off on reading Bluehammer until the Song outline is at least filled in. It won’t be as polished as originally hoped, but taking a break while I rummage around in Kissiltur instead will probably help me come back fresh in a few weeks.

How are your writing goals proceeding?

Update – I got the outline to a stage where I can put it down for a bit, so I will be starting to read Bluehammer on time after all.

[*] I always wondered what kind of bow it was that had more than one string.

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Made-up Games

I love games. I love board games (except Monopoly – even Candyland has a point), and card games, and computer games, and of course roleplaying games. I love the challenge and the social aspect, the physical artifacts and the mechanics.

There is an aspect of games which I find particularly edifying, however: games that appear in – or which are themselves a form of – fiction.

I’m not really talking here about artifices such as The Running Man or The Hunger Games – those are competitions, intended to entertain while they reinforce the status quo within their settings. They are not games which could be played by a fan, at least not more than once.

Probably the most famous game invented for a story is Quidditch, the wizarding world’s spectator sport in the Harry Potter books. It is a constant motif throughout all of the school-set books, and is played by fans in the real world also.

Unfortunately it is a ridiculous game, with an unbalanced mechanic devised to confer an unjustified special status on a single player – consider that the Seeker’s capture of the Golden Snitch is likely to invalidate all of the goal scoring and defensive work of every single player on (or rather above) the field. This inadequacy in the structure of Quidditch is examined in some detail in the fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (which I would recommend reading anyway).

A more satisfying example is Thud, the board game of trolls and dwarves in Terry Pratchett’s epnoymous novel. It is a playable and interesting game. Sets are available – indeed, I have one myself – and you can play it online as well. The most pleasing aspect of it for me is that the game is both used as a plot element, and as a metaphor for dwarf/troll relations over the many centuries since the original Battle of Koom Valley.

In the same vein is ochmir, a board game described in two books by Mary Gentle, Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light. The game is a metaphor for the political system of the Orthean Southlands in those novels. It is almost, but not quite, described to a playable degree in an appendix to those books and it has been a long term project for me to make a set. The basic mechanic is interesting and diverting to play, but I still haven’t made an entirely satisfactory set of pieces.

The game Azad from Iain M Banks’ The Player of Games is both satisfying and frustrating: satisfying because of its place in the narrative, but frustrating because there is nowhere near enough information to actually play it. The whole novel is littered with examples of games alluded to but not fully disclosed, but Azad is the main event – a game which underpins the social structure of an entire interstellar empire, where your ability in play is used to determine your status within that empire. It is described impressionistically rather than mechanically, and I suppose game boards which entirely fill a room would be difficult to make anyway.

In The Game-Players of Titan by Philip K Dick, the game Bluff plays a central role in both social organisation of human and alien society, but also in the plot as the final turn of the story is centred around a crucial round of the game. It’s a dense piece of writing that still rattles around in my head more than thirty years since reading it.

A game I have heard about from friends but whose source work I have never read is The Glass Bead Game, from the last novel by Hermann Hesse. From the Wikipedia entry the game itself is apparently barely described, but there are still efforts to play the game.

Which brings me, I suppose inevitably, to Mornington Crescent.

This game has been played for many years on the Radio 4 panel game I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, but it also has a rich history on the Internet. I have been operating an MC server or three since May 2000, and mine was the fifth server that I know of. The game is concerned with moving around the London Underground map (usually, anyway) in an attempt to reach the station Mornington Crescent (again, usually) making use of such manouevres as straddles, shunts, striles, knip, and blocks. The joke at the time was that Mornington Crescent was permanently closed for repairs, although it finally reopened for passenger traffic again in 1998.

The final rung on this ladder of gamic reality is Nomic. This is a game, or more generally a class of games, where changing the rules is a move. It was conceived by an academic called Peter Suber as a model for legislative democracies, and was popularised by Douglas Hofstadter in his Scientific American column Metamagical Themas.

Its form on the Internet is less austere than the original academic model, with different games taking their own themes as the basis for play – winning the game is often at least as much about winning the sub-games as it is about contorting the rules in a way to make yourself the winner.

For myself, I have observed several Nomics but only played in one: Mornington Nomic, an effort to construct a playable Mornington Crescent ruleset. Although now moribund, its terminal state is still interesting and instructive.

One day I will make a computer board for one or more of those ruleset variants. One day.

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