Month: February 2013

Snow Crash Discussion

I have been enjoying making notes on Snow Crash. I am not as far through as I had hoped, but part of this is figuring out how quickly I can do this kind of analysis. Of course, I was still working on typo and consistency edits for Bluehammer until a couple of days ago so that was occupying a lot of my time.

Despite that, I wanted to post about what I have read so far and to give a root location for others to make their observations.

Spoiler warning: I’m going to be talking about character and plot elements now.

I have notes on 21 of the 71 chapters. I have been trying to collect the same information that I use for chapter notes when I am writing: start point, characters, action, and end point, as well as some location information. Oh, and the page number. I will put this into an outline when it’s done.

Reading this book again, I am reminded of how effortless the storytelling seems.

The analytical questions I had were about structural nodes in the story, chapter linkage, and chapter purpose. I’m not going to address the structure and linkage questions yet, but I have been very struck by how each chapter has multiple roles within the storytelling: in chapter 11, for example, the MC Hiro Protagonist* has a sword fight with another patron of The Black Sun, a virtual bar. In this short sequence, we learn that Hiro knows how to use a sword, that he is a consummate coder, and that his boast of being the greatest the greatest living swordfighter is whimsical but not unfounded.

It’s also very notable to me that characters and concepts are introduced lightly in earlier chapters so that they are familiar when they are used. For example, the presence of bouncers in The Black Sun is mentioned in passing in chapter 7, but they swing into action without further introduction in chapter 9.

To combine these two observations, chapter 21 is important from a plot point of view (it is when the extent of the mafia’s interest in YT is revealed) but it is also loaded with elements that become important later: YT’s mother’s job, Uncle Enzo’s skills from Vietnam, the safety features of a Kourier’s uniform, and the common reason why Kouriers and special forces in Vietnam don’t wear helmets.

Anyway, that’s all I have to say for now.

How is your reading coming along?

[*] one of the great names in literature.

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The Near Future Is Now

We live in the future, and there’s nothing we can do about.

I’ve mentioned it before, and now Charlie Brooker has noticed it too.

So, what is your favourite way the world (or, more precisely human civilisation) will end?

The most in vogue apocalypse scenario at the moment is zombies, which have the joyful attribute of being vanishingly unlikely (at least, the classic risen dead version thereof) – something drug- or illness-induced might be more plausible but I still think that a zombie apocalypse is pretty implausible.

The “rise of the machines” scenario alluded to in Brooker’s piece is more likely, although not so much the Terminator-like hostile AI so much as the poorly-implemented autonomous robot. That is, we are more likely to be destroyed by hordes of relatively dumb robots than any globe-spanning AI.

Another pretty plausible scenario is the “grey goo” apocalypse, when self-replicating nanobots consume the world in an orgy of unbridled resource consumption even more destructive than that of humanity.

Global warming, of course, is a imminent and plausible threat – and this is where the specific target of human civilisation is most relevant: life on Earth will probably survive anything but the most runaway greenhouse effect (ie when Earth tends towards Venus) since the planet is actually moving towards a hothouse environment closer to what it was like during the Cretaceous, but complex human civilisation may not survive massive desertification of agricultural land.

So, what do you think? How are we doomed?

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Typos Begone!

Also, I finished typo edits on Bluehammer on the bus this morning, so the book now has no errors in it at all.


Actually, what I have now is a complete set of narrative arcs in a manuscript about 136k long. There are still some significant timing issues between the narrative arcs, some terminological inconsistencies (for example I need to get rid of uses of words like “day” or “night” in the sense of the sleep/wake cycle), and the linkage between chapters is weak.

But this is getting better. It will be ready for first human read soon.

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The Point of Point of View, part 1

How do you choose the point of view for your stories?

Point of view is one of those decisions about a story which sometimes isn’t a decision at all – the idea comes to you as a voice telling their story and you have to use first person to capture that, for example.

But point of view (or POV) is a feature of the story, like tense, which you have to stick with throughout the writing or the book will be very hard to read. There are books I’ve encountered where a single unexpected POV change jumps me out of the story, forcing me to stop to figure out what just happened, and where I never pick the book up again. So, when you pick your POV, be consistent with it.

There are three basic POV choices:

  1. first person – “I did this”
  2. second person – “you did that”
  3. third person – “he did the other thing”

Each of these has variations, advantages and disadvantages. In this post I am going to look at first and second person.

First person

This is where the story is told from the perspective of a particular character within the story. It’s great for quickly gaining sympathy from the reader for a character, and also for expressing a story in a particular voice.

The biggest problem with first person, and also one of its greatest opportunities, is information hiding: because we are seeing the story told from one character’s POV, things that the character does not know about cannot be relayed to the reader.

This manifests in my writing as meetings: the MC gets pulled in to discussions with other characters nominally to keep the MC up to date, but practically to present information to the reader. This amounts to info dump by dialogue, also known as the handy idiot technique, which can at times be unavoidable but if it’s happening a lot and the reader actually does need to know this stuff in order to understand the story, then I would that is a tell-tale sign that your POV may not fit the story.

Another issue is in presenting what the character already knows, such as physical appearance or features of the the world which are normal to the character but extraordinary compared to our world. Unless the narrator is aware of the audience, explanations of the mechanics of the world often seem out of place.

The opportunity with information hiding is that you have available the concept of the unreliable narrator: the person telling the story has something to hide, or has an unusual perspective, which makes the narrative more interesting. However, it is dangerous to use information hiding to spring surprises on the reader – deus ex machina turns of plot are not satisfying however they are presented.

Another issue with first person is that it gives the narrator plot immunity, especially when combined with past tense: if someone is telling the story in the past tense from a personal perspective, you would expect that they have survived the events told. The exception here is if the story is presented as a memoir – the diary of the doomed explorer, for example – but even there the narrator needs to make it to the end of the book.

Second person

Of all of the points of view available to the writer, second person is the one which most needs a definite decision to use.

I haven’t encountered second person much in novels. As I mentioned when discussing Charles Stross’ work, his novels Halting State and Rule 34 are written in second person because they are meant to recall the style of text adventure games (Zork, Collossal Cave, Snowball – the Infocom and Level 9 games, basically). Those were written in second person because you were being told what was going on around you in the game, and then you gave commands which the computer would apply to the game’s state.

The basic disadvantage of this POV is that it is unfamiliar and jarring. When I started reading both of Stross’s novels in this style, it took me a few pages to get used to it.

However, if you have a particular stylistic point to make, second person can be effective, especially when combined with present tense to invoke a sense of immediacy.

Next time, I will look at third person and switching point of view.

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On Reading

You may notice that I’ve added a new page on the Writer’s Book Club. That’s going to be the landing page for this endeavour, a way to collect the posts about it as they occur.

How are you doing with your book reading?

I like Snow Crash – it’s an enjoyable book. The problem I find in using it as the subject of a critical reading exercise is that I find myself getting sucked into the story rather than maintaining the level of detachment required to make critical observations.

That being said, I am currently working on chapter 15 of 71. On the output side, I am closing in on the end of typo edits on Bluehammer so with any luck I will be able to concentrate more on the reading in a couple of days. Well, that and more mundane projects too I suppose*.

Here are some helpful resources in the meantime.

I hope you are enjoying Snow Crash too, or whatever it is that you are reading at the moment.

[*] yay, taxes!

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Children’s Theatre

We are very lucky in Portland to have a strong cultural base, including a number of children’s theatre companies. Yesterday I had the pleasure of accompanying my son to a performance of Seussical at the Northwest Children’s Theater*. It was enormous fun, with a splendid cast making the characters of Dr Seuss’ stories come to life.

This is the second time I have been to this theatre. We went to a production based on Richard Scarry’s books about Busytown last year. That was also an enjoyable show, but it was less engaging than Seussical.

Comparing children’s authors and the worlds they create is a faintly ridiculous endeavour. It’s like James Bond or Doctor Who or Star Trek: the one you grew up with is usually your favourite**. I’m of an age to have been exposed to both Scarry’s and Seuss’ work when I was in the target audience, but I actually only encountered Dr Seuss when I was a child. Hence when I say that I prefer Dr Seuss, that may be a function of my childhood experiences at least as much as any rational assessment.

Having said that… I much prefer the work of Dr Seuss to that of Richard Scarry. They are quite different – Scarry’s drawings are pleasing, and the silliness is amusing on first reading, but Dr Seuss has characters we learn about through the stories and stories that stick with you. Just because of story and character Dr Seuss’ books stand up to repeated readings a lot better than Richard Scarry’s, and Dr Seuss has the playful use of language on top of that as well.

The theatrical productions reflect the source material as you would expect, and so the Busytown story took Richard Scarry’s characters and needed a novel story to weave them into a narrative, whereas Suessical took one of Dr Seuss’ stories and added other elements to it. The origins of these two musicals is different: Seussical started as a Broadway production, whereas the Busytown one had its premier with the NWCT run last year, but still – as a storyteller myself, it seemed pretty clear that the narrative of Seussical was a lot easier to synthesise from the original work than for Busytown.

But the NWCT is terrific, and if you have an opportunity to take a child along to one of their productions, I would highly recommend it.

[*] I’m British so I spell theatre with the ‘e’ at the end, and that is quite a common spelling in the US when discussing live acting performances. The NWCT spells the word with the ‘r’ at the end, hence the mismatch of spellings in this paragraph.

[**] although not always. By this rule of thumb I ought to like Roger Moore a lot more than I do, but I much prefer Sean Connery’s films. Of course, Daniel Craig is better than both of them.

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Spunk and Bite

Spunk and Bite by the excellently-named Arthur Plotnik was recommended to me by Marcia Riefer Johnston, the author of a forthcoming book on writing style called “Word Up!”. I had the privilege of browsing a pre-pub version of her book, and I reasoned that anyone who wrote so lucidly on matters of style must have good insight on other books addressing the subject. She said to me that Spunk and Bite is intended as a companion to Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.

Marcia’s recommendation was well made – this is a splendid book. If Strunk & White offer absolute statements, Spunk and Bite counsels moderation: where the Elements of Style will ban a construction, Plotnik will demonstrate its use and the risks of over-use.

This is a book about style, about making your work stand out from others you are competing against with a distinctive voice and fresh writing. There are examples aplenty (both of the good and the bad) and even short exercises to stimulate the little grey cells. There are – amongst other things – discussions of adverbs, neologisms, verbing of nouns (and nouning of verbs), finding new uses for old words, learning the proper names for things (including some useful pointers to reference books) and the creative use of lists.

Overall, this is a highly refreshing book and I am very grateful for the recommendation from Marcia. I am very much looking forward to reading Word Up! in full.

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Writer’s Book Club February 2013: Snow Crash

The first book for the Writer’s Book Club* is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

The goal of this book club is to read the book not just to enjoy it, but to analyse it for the storytelling techniques used.

My (over-ambitious) reading plan for this first book is to look for story structure: inciting incident, turning point, crisis, and so on. Part of this will entail making the kind of chapter notes that I write for a draft: characters involved, location, starting conditions, ending conditions.

I am also going to be looking for chapter linkage and purpose – how does the narrative bridge from one point of view to the next? What is the question left unanswered at the end of each chapter which drives us to turn the page? How does this chapter contribute to the plot?

That last question is one of the reasons that I wanted to start with Snow Crash, in fact: it is for the most part pure story. I enjoy much of Neal Stephenson’s work but many of the longer novels are rather heavy on the discursive content and not so focussed on a driving story. The other large part in my choice is that it is a multi-viewpoint story, and so relevant to some of my own travails.

What do you think you will look for in your reading?

Update: I should also have mentioned that I will be posting a discussion post in a couple of weeks. Next book will be in a month.

[*] if you have a better name, I would love to hear it.

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A New Year, A New Small Animal

Happy lunar New Year! Welcome to the Year of the Snake.

On Sunday, my family and I visited the Chinese New Year festivities at the Lan Shu Chinese Garden in Portland’s Chinatown. It was an interesting cultural experience which reminded me of many things about writing in general but about writing different cultures especially.

Use All the Senses

It’s very easy to get fixated on what things look like, but I noted several things which would have heightened any description of an unfamiliar festival:

  • it was cold – sunny and bright, but there was a chill that snuck into the bones through optimistically thin-soled shoes. It made the dancers shiver waiting to perform and the watchers huddle together.
  • it was loud – there were gongs and drums during the dances, and the ruffle of rushing water over waterfalls.
  • it was smelly – it was a large crowd, and so there were odd smells. It was an unfamiliar culture, and so there were strange and delicate smells.

Talk Small

There were so many tiny details of the culture on display which I had never thought of but which help define the ancient traditions at least as much as the gross achievements: don’t describe the Great Wall, but talk about the shapes of the inlaid stones in the pathways and the way the moss nestles between them; speak of the mighty palaces, but also talk about a small pagoda with a false gallery giving the impression of greater size.

People Are Weird

Everybody has curious traditions and beliefs which colour how they live their lives. Red is a lucky colour so you see a lot of that in the Chinese New Year; the lion dances are supposed to chase away the bad luck of the old year and clear the way for new prosperity. Use those traditions in other-worldly settings, or invent your own strange ideas.

Engage the Emotions

Stories have themes and so do cultures. Chinese culture seems concerned with subtlety and refinement, so you have the fine art of brush calligraphy, or the subtle strategies of Go. The feeling the Lan Shu Garden is one of peace and contemplation, a rare commodity even in as laid-back a city as Portland is.

Use Your Own Reactions

You have reactions to the cultural experiences on offer – the cadences of unfamiliar music may seem squeaky or too solemn to enjoy; the art may seem too dark or garish to appreciate; and so on. Different perspectives present different contrasts.

This particular technique of using contrast with the familiar to emphasise the alienness of the new culture only really works if the observer is not from that culture, of course.

Go On, Get Out

The lesson for me is to go and experience new things to help inform the work. It’s a jolt to the mind.

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Writerly Clubs

Book Club for Writers

Further to my rather off-handed suggestion for a book club for writers at the end of my post about critical reading, have been thinking about the logistics of how such a thing would work.

First of all, an in-person book club is pretty much out of the question for me: there are already book clubs and writers groups that I don’t go to for lack of time; I don’t want another. So, this has to be an online endeavour. Fortunately, there is a handy location right here to coordinate discussion.

With that in mind, here’s the initial plan:

  1. on the second Wednesday of each month, I will post here to say what the book is to read.
  2. discussion can start immediately, but I will post an analysis post a week or so later. So we’ll have a week or so to read the book, and then three weeks to talk about it.
  3. somewhere in there I will solicit ideas for books to read. These can be SF, fantasy, mainstream, horror – anything, really, although I may draw the line at romance. I am going to have a bias towards books that I already know, and towards books which are accessible rather than challenging to read.

Truth to tell, this may be better suited to a discussion board or even a mailing list, but this is how we’ll start.

If you are interested, then chip in on the announcement post next week.

Fiasco for Writers

In the wake of the Fiasco post, it has become apparent that I’m going to have to play this game with some writers.

As with most tabletop roleplaying games, Fiasco plays best face-to-face but finding the time to do that seems fraught with uncertainty. I’m thinking that a Google hangout might work. Here’s my thinking:

  1. distribute the playset to the players.
  2. setup a shared document for common information: setup notes, dice, player dice pools, etc.
  3. keep the shared document current as we go
  4. consider recording the hangout.
  5. first session will mostly be about the game, but I can see doing a follow up session to play again but focussing on story mechanics.

Any other thoughts on useful tools for this? I will experiment offline with the hangout and see how effective that is.

Let me know if you are interested in the comments.

I’m looking forward to both of these!

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