Month: August 2013

Summer Reading

Being unplugged for part of the summer has given me some chances to catch up with my reading, in particular two of the latest paperbacks from a couple of my favourite authors*

The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

This is the latest book in the Laundry Files, which follow the adventures of Bob Howard, a once-lowly civil servant in a secret British organisation which protects the world (but particularly the British parts of it) against the incursions of monsters from beyond our dimension. The modern Mythos setting would appeal to me anyway, but Stross’s background in technology and the way that feeds into the structure of the stories makes the whole thing irresistible.

This story sees Howard being granted – or rather having foisted upon him – some management responsibility. He is a reluctant but loyal manager, and the interaction between him and those he is responsible for is highly entertaining. The existential threat is suitably menacing too, especially the mask it wears, and the conclusion is satisfying.

One thing about Howard the character – he is a reluctant hero, but a competent one: when action needs to be taken then he takes it. He makes mistakes but he owns them and deals with the consequences. This is one of my best models for an active protagonist.

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Before Pratchett made his name with the Discworld books, he tried writing some science fiction. Two of those books were published: Strata and The Dark Side of the Sun. They’re not generally well regarded, although I quite enjoyed them. Once the Discworld books took off like Errol the swamp dragon after an especially carbon-rich breakfast, Sir Terry put the science fiction book ideas to one side.

But one idea in particular kept nagging at him and he decided recently that it was time to have another go. However, he was also very conscious that he had spent something north of thirty years writing fantasy books and was therefore perhaps not best placed to write a science fiction novel, so he enlisted the aid of Stephen Baxter who does know a thing or two about science fiction.

The Long Earth is the result.

And a curiously bloodless result it is too.

To be clear, it’s a pleasant enough read. I didn’t feel bored so much as unengaged – the characters were well-defined but unmotivated (like the pioneers – it was never clear to me why they wanted to leave their lives that included indoor plumbing for an uncertain home in another universe) and although the travelogue was interesting there didn’t really seem to be a story, as such. The humour seemed a bit stuck on after the fact, also.

Still, as a first book for a new writing team it was pretty good – not as good as Good Omens**, but pretty good. I am hoping that the next volume (The Long War, out in hardback now) is a bit more of an actual story rather an extended source book for a fascinating new setting.

[*] although not all of the paperbacks – I read Pratchett’s main sequence Discworld books and Iain Banks in UK paperback which I usually pick up on my trips back to Britain, but I haven’t been back since the end of 2010 so I’m a little behind there.

[**] written by Sir Terry with the sainted Neil Gaiman.

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Sequence diagrams

If you’re writing anything where the order of finely tuned events is important, then sequence diagrams might help you sort out the story.

I’ve written before about state diagrams. Sequence diagrams are another useful notation which I learned from software development. The origin of the notation is in telecomms and signal handling, where you need to make sure that messages are going to reach their target in the right order – or indeed that messages turning up in the wrong order will be handled gracefully.

A sequence diagram is a set of parallel lines representing entities, with arrows drawn between the lines representing messages and interactions.

In most of the software I’ve worked on, the messages are assumed to be passed instantly*. However, in fiction this may not be appropriate.

Let’s say that there are two friends who are separated and start sending messages to each other. Anna just wants to talk to her friend, but Hosni has something important he needs to tell Anna.

Anna and Hosni communicate when their messages are instantaneous

Anna and Hosni communicate when their messages are instantaneous

In this diagram, time goes down the page and the arrows indicate the direction and the content of the message. The dotted vertical lines – termed lifelines – represent the friends who are communicating.

Here, Anna is informed in a timely manner of the danger because the messages are being passed instantly.

But what if our friends are sending letters, and it takes a week for a letter to travel from one to the other? (note that I have shifted the labels to prevent the text being overrun by diagonal lines)

Anna and Hosni communicate when there is significant transmission lag in their messages

Anna and Hosni communicate when there is significant transmission lag in their messages

In this diagram, the message arrows are angled downwards to indicate that time passes during the transit of the message, which means that messages can be sent before another one has been received – there is a lot of potential for information to cross over between the two. Hosni sends his note about the plants at the same time as before, but Anna starts seeing evidence of the problem before Hosni’s message reaches her. That big “X” is called a destruction mark, and indicates the end of a lifeline.

Not a happy ending, although a better story.

As with state diagrams, sequence diagrams are not useful all the time but can help in thinking about tricky narratives where you are trying to ensure that things not only happen in the right order but that they can happen in the required order.

[*] I use sequence diagrams for modelling real-time and interactive systems rather than line protocol design.

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Agility part three: More burndown tips

Burndown charts are one of those things that evolve over time, in accord with their agile origins. Here are some more ideas from my practice with them.

(previous posts on this topic: part 1, and part 2)

The example sheet is for the first portion of the period after Lughnasadh.

Tip 1: Pick a sprint length that fits the timing

The proper way to use agile processes is to pick a release schedule and define a regular sprint length to match that.

My release schedule is built around the six-weekly progress posts that I put up on or about the Wiccan sabbat dates*. I tried making a burndown chart for a six week sprint but it was unmanageable, hence my choice of two three week sprints to cover reach release period.

However, the next sabbat date is Mabon, the autumnal equinox, on about 21-Sep-2013. That’s seven weeks after Lughnasadh, so I have three sprints in this release:

  • #1 – 29-Jul to 18-Aug
  • #2 – 19-Aug to 01-Sep
  • #3 – 02-Sep to 15-Sep

The Mabon sprints will then start on 16-Sep-2013, with the next goals post in the first sprint of that release. Either Mabon or Samhain (the Halloween update) will have three sprints in it too.

Tip 2: Track time off as a task

Do you work every day? Do you ever take time off?

Burndowns are built around an assumption that you have a standard amount of time available each day to do productive work**, but there may be variations within a sprint. If you lose an afternoon to a training session, then you should put that in as a task. Similarly, if you take a day off treat that as a scheduled task.

For my writing, I have found that summer activities have often made weekends unproductive so it is best to just assume that I won’t write on those days – hence in the example I have an “unproductive weekends” task to account for trips away.

Tip 3: Colour code distinct areas

This is a spreadsheet trick rather than being just for burndowns, but I like to add a bit of colour to a sheet to make it easier to navigate.

In the attached sheet I use colour to mark the headings – loading is static across a sprint and is green, while task totals/percentages are turquoise. I’ve also added an orange background on weekend days.

Tip 4: automate the repetitive bits

Burndown tracking works best when it is frictionless. The intent is to only have to change the numbers associated with tasks you’ve made progress on.

In my first agile post, I mentioned the benefit of using a spreadsheet to do the adding up. A spreadsheet can also be used to automate other things. In the example, the following components are driven by formulae:

  • the copying of time remaining for tasks which have not been touched on a particular day. This is a date-based formula which looks at today’s date and the column heading date, inserting a value in the cell only if the column date is in the past and if there is time remaining on the task.
  • available load. There is a cluster of parameter values in the top right: days, days per week, and weeks. These are used to calculate the “Loading” row, which makes changing sprint lengths a lot less painful.
  • all the adding up. Task estimate total and percentage of load are all added up with a formula. Note that I have these as header columns which makes sense for a personal tracking chart. Things get more complicated for team projects**.

Tip 5: Record the original estimate

The initial estimate for a task is something I included in the examples in my first agile post but for some reason omitted in the actual burndown charts I made. I put initial estimates into the first day’s work instead, which was bad because the values were going to be immediately mutated by that first day’s activity.

You need to keep the original estimate for review purposes if nothing else.

Tip 6: Plan and review

You’ll see on the example sheet that there is a task for sprint planning. This is time for figuring out what the sprint goals are, and what is achievable in the time available.

I also have a cell set aside for a narrative summary of the goals, and for a review of how things went in the last sprint: did I actually get done what I thought I would? Why not?

This review is where the original estimate comes in – I can compare how long a task actually took with how long I thought it would take beforehand. In this way, I can improve my estimates by learning how long things really take rather than just using a generic estimate.

Tip 7: Keep an open mind

The most important tip in all of this is that these are observations based on my experience of using burndown charts, and what works for me. Your mileage will undoubtedly vary, so be alert to what will work for you.

So… what does work for you?

[*] not because I am a Wiccan but because it’s a nice periodicity.

[**] in a work context, there is also an assumption that not every hour at your job is productive. Between meetings, lunch breaks, and administrative tasks the usual productive time assumed for a day is six hours. I’ve set my daily load available for writing at two hours.

[***] you would usually add an assignment column so you know who is supposed to be working on something, so loading for an individual is only for those tasks that are theirs. You can into all sorts of interesting charts showing current load, load history, and so on – I used to have a colleague who was especially ingenious at coming up with new visualisations to show us how overloaded we were.

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Questions, part 3: Scope and Urgency

This is the third in a series of posts about questions in storytelling. The first part raised the idea that questions make stories, and the second talked about the subject of the questions. This time I will write about the scope and urgency of the questions.

Micro, Peri, Tele, or Omni?

How broad are the implications of a question? A question of who stole a bag could be quickly resolved if the theft was only there to introduce a new character, whereas the central question of a mystery (who are the Purple Balaclavas?) may not be resolved until the end of the story.

I think of questions as being small, medium or large scale, although these categories are not fixed – a large scale question may turn out to be trivial, or a tiny question could have tremendous implications (“but for a pin the war was lost”, as it were).

The scale of a question as it is initially framed is relative to the scale and subject of the story. Consider the question of what happened to the professor’s car.

  • this is a large scale question if the story is about the professor herself or one of her close acquaintances. It could be the trigger for the plot (the professor is on the bus and witnesses a murder) or a situational change that forces character’s together (the professor starts getting lifts from her lodger which changes their relationship).
  • it is a small scale question if the story is of world-spanning proportions but can still be crucial in advancing the story. If the professor finds herself on the London Underground during the alien invasion because she does not have her car, then she can be instrumental in repelling the invaders.

Do It Now! No, Wait…

How quickly do you answer the questions raised? Do you answer them all? (no, actually, as Anthony Lee Collins commented last time – it is a really good idea to not answer all the questions. Questions unanswered will keep the story in the reader’s head)

In my view, the urgency of an answer is proportional to the scale of the question.

An entire plot can revolve around finding the answer to a question. Here the question will often be left unanswered until the climax, but an eventual answer will be expected (and if there’s no answer? Well, readerly scorn may await).

Having a number of medium-scale questions scattered through the story and then resolved occasionally is a good way to assure the reader that you the storyteller can be trusted to answer some of the questions you are asking.

Vary the pace of answering questions to build suspense.

How To Ask

A truly fundamental question is one of survival: will the character live through an encounter? The emotional investment of the reader will depend on how central the character is and how much actual jeopardy the character appears to be in.

This question of loss or damage can be mediated into less crucial things such as money, limbs, possessions, or social standing – if a point of view character dies that is (usually) the end of their story but if a character loses face or an important item then that generates more plot elements.

There again, maiming or killing off an important character can act as a stark signal to the reader that every encounter can be deadly.

You may be familiar with the concept of “jinxing it”: remarking on how light the traffic is before finding yourself in a three mile tailback, or making an observation about not having been injured in a while before spraining your ankle*. This is of course just the perverse pattern recognition of our brains seeking cause where none exists, but it’s a great mechanism to use in stories.

And finally, we have the concept of the cliffhanger: an unresolved situation with the protagonist in more or less jeopardy. Classically, this would be at the end of an episode of a continuing story, but the same basic approach applies to the ends of books, chapters, or scenes: why should the reader keep reading?

Truly, it is the question that drives us.

The Next Question

This concept of asking questions to drive reader interest is as close as I get at this point to a theory of storytelling. It is applicable most immediately to my roleplaying scenario development, but I bear it in mind when doing outlines for stories and of course edits of a completed draft.

What questions do you want to see answered?

[*] quite unusually badly, as it happens. It’s still weak nearly five weeks later.

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2013 Goals Post: Lughnasadh Edition

It’s always hard for me to keep writing over the summer, and this year has been no exception as I noted at the end of the last update.

So the general theme this time is that I’ve made progress on my writing goals, but not quite as much as I would have liked.

1. Finish Bluehammer

Last action: fix the outline.

I still think about this book, but I have done no further work on it.

  1. typo/consistency edit
  2. improve outline
  3. make the text match the outline
  4. hone the text
  5. make submission materials

Next action: fix the outline.

Since the second draft of Song is taking longer than planned, any new work on this book will not be until October, which is getting perilously close to November.

The real question about this is whether I can retain the story structure I have at the moment.

2. Execute the Song plan

Last action: finalise the outline.

I still need to finish the outline for the last two acts of the book, but I have been writing against the outline for the earlier sections which has certainly demonstrated that the more detailed outline is a useful tool for me.

Last action: rewrite.

I started the rewrite on my writing weekend, although I wrote about a third of what I had hoped. Part of it was distraction, but I mostly just had trouble in getting the words out.

The word count on the second draft currently stands at about 14k, which is a long way from where I want to be but I’ve been writing more consistently in the last couple of weeks which is something. Putting the story in first person does seem to be helping, also.

  1. To outline what I have
  2. To expand the outline of the first half into a complete story
  3. To work on that outline until the story is good.
  4. To plug in text I can use from Song 2011 – this is no longer a meaningful goal since I need to rewrite everything.
  5. To rewrite to match the outline.
  6. Make submission materials – synopsis, pitch, hook, and all of that.

Next action: complete the outline.

I will finish this task as the writing catches up with the outline state.

Next action: rewrite.

My intent was to have the second draft done by the end of July. Early September seems more likely at this point.

3. Submit one novel.

Last action: finish a novel

My best hope here is still Song.

Last action: to find some markets

No work on this.

I do not expect to actually submit a novel until next year, though. Trying to be heard in December is impossible.

4. Start looking for an agent.

Last action: research agents who represent science fiction.

No work on this.

5. Establish a daily writing practice.

Last action: use burndown chart to maintain focus.

Burndown charts are at their best when tracking many small tasks. In situations where there is a higher load available (ie where the effective working day is more like six hours than the two I am allocating to my writing) the rule of thumb is that a single task should take no more than two days.

My writing burndown has a lot of tasks on it which are quite big. That is, at this point I have two tasks for each act of the book: one for outline, one for word generation. This is problematic because my burndown activity is so small – I knock one number down each day and rarely finish a task.

So although the burndown chart is still helping, I may need to think a bit more about how I task out the writing in order to harness the great benefit of this tool, which is the constant hit of finishing things.

Next action: reconsider how to tracking writing tasks for big slabs of work.

Next action: keep writing.

A New Dawn

Last action: run at least one session.

I’ve run three now. The story is on hiatus while I do summer things, but the seeds have been planted and my friends have said they enjoyed the setting and the mystery. Equally, I am constantly surprised by what my friends choose to do in the situations I present.

The biggest challenge here continues to be to keep the story under control. My natural tendency is to add more and more to a story, but I have tight time constraints on both prep and play so I need to keep things as simple as I can while still telling the story. Even though I am not a short story writer, this is what I imagine writing short stories would mostly be about for me too.

But, a good start.

For this next six week period, I have to prep for the next run of sessions in late August and September. There is certainly no shortage of ideas.

Next action: prep for next run of sessions.

I also have a camping trip with my kids planned for later in August, and I would like to have a bit of material to run for them too. That is also superhero stuff, although not in the same setting as A New Dawn.

Next action: write kid supers material.

Blog

Dropping the blog posting schedule to once a week has helped a lot over the last few weeks – it has meant that the time I have for writing has been spent more on the book than on posting here. I am planning on getting back to the full schedule in September, when the blog will be a year old.

Next action: plan blog posts for reversion to full schedule.

Overall

Summer has been just as disrupted as I expected, but I have kept writing in the face of it, much to my delight.

Just keep writing.

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