Month: February 2018

Panther Time

I’m afraid I missed last week’s blog post because I was working on a short story that had a deadline. This week’s post is late for the same reason.

But I want to talk about Black Panther.

In case you haven’t heard, it’s really good.

The most substantive complaint I’ve read is that Martin Freeman’s American accent is pretty ropey — about as bad as Dick van Dyke’s Cockney accent, according to some. I have a tin ear for American accents, but it sounds fine to me: similar to Hugh Laurie’s in House, in fact. I had more trouble with Benedict Cumberbatch’s accent in Doctor Strange.

But I loved the tribal interactions, and the family relationships, and all the internal conflicts. This was a film about the past catching up with the present, and if the film has a flaw it is that T’Challa has too few faults. Perhaps there isn’t room for them in the story since Boseman’s king is mostly dealing with the consequences of others’ actions, but I hope the sequels will see T’Challa grow on a personal level a bit more.

There is too much wonder in this film to pick a favourite part, but I thought Shuri was a particularly good character. Actually, all the female characters were great: each was distinct, each had agency. They were presented as the backbone of Wakanda.

Highly recommended.

Wakanda forever!

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Language Awareness

People like their own words.

This is meant as a context essay, but might easily be a craft essay on this too: language is power, and one way for the oppressors to oppress is through the imposition of their own terms. There’s some good storytelling potential there.

But I am already digressing and I haven’t even started yet.

Let me begin in earnest by mentioning that I am British1, and I am sensitive about the (usually thoughtless) imposition of American spelling: I will always try to initialise my favourite conversations.

One of the things that first made me frustrated with Microsoft was that they produced a web browser with a “Favorites” menu, but then never localised it for British English. There were lots of reasons I probably wouldn’t have used Internet Explorer anyway, but the reason I chose not to was that ridiculous act of linguistic churlishness.

My point is that using words with others they don’t like or don’t recognise will give you problems.

The empathetic reason to do this is just to recognise the individuals you are addressing: tailor your speech to the audience in order to engage them more. This might include using audience-appropriate terms, but it probably doesn’t extend to mimicking their accent2 or “correcting” their speech. This isn’t political correctness, gone mad or otherwise: it’s acknowledging the personhood of your audience.

But the inverse is also true, in that minorities need to learn how to navigate the world they live in and adjust their language accordingly, not because their minority identity has no value but because there has to be some common vocabulary or there is no basis for conversation at all.

To use another example from my own experience, I am writing a lot of code in Ruby at the moment. Ruby is a dynamic object-oriented (OO) language (for the initiated, it’s a bit like Perl but with only one object model). OO languages need to set up new objects, what is often termed the constructor. Ruby’s constructor is called “initialize”.

So every now and then I will call it “initialise” and then spend ages trying to figure out why Ruby can’t find the class definition3.

Pick your words wisely, and be aware of the context.

[1] I hope this is not a surprise.

[2] unless you are Christian Bale doing your Batman Begins press tour.

[3] there is an irony here in that I used to really like the ‘z’ spelling of words like “initialise”

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Short Story Long

I write novels. That’s what I’ve been doing since 2004: it’s what my process has been optimised around since the beginning*.

When I tried to write short stories in the past I usually ended up with a novella. There always seems to be more detail, another twist, or some intricate sub-plot that needs to be added: something else that the story needs to make it perfect.

I have been trying to change that. Short stories have the benefit of less time investment so it is easier to try new things than with a full-blown novel. My experiments with structure in longer stories have generally gone pretty poorly, but putting things in unexpected sequence is a technique I can try in a short story and have a small enough arena to be able to keep it all straight.

The story I am working on now is such a structure idea: have a decision which defines the whole outcome of a situation, but follow both paths. Then for each decision within those alternatives, do the same. I envisaged it as a great binary tree of stories: some would inevitably be pruned as the protagonist made fatally bad choices, but you’d have a tree. It would be a bit like one of those choose-your-own-adventure stories, but rather than traversing a map of a dungeon you are navigating the possibility manifold for the story.

I can’t write that. It’s too complicated, and it’s one of those things where the structure idea is stronger than the stories that I could tell within that structure.

My story now is based on a simplified form of the structural idea. I finished the first draft a couple of weeks ago but reading it back it was clear that while the structure was interesting the story still wasn’t. The protagonist was not a sympathetic character, and the whole arc of the narrative was downward. There were some things I could do to make the story more engaging, like using repeat characters in different situations and having consistent names for things, but the mood was still joyless, the outcome unsatisfying.

This was where theme arrived to rescue me.

A theme is how you unify the story-telling around a concept, how you make the narrative cohere. Theme informs your choices when you are writing and editing. The current story didn’t have a theme.

Now it does, and it tells me everything about the story: the character’s arc, how she reacts at different stages of the story, and how to signal the character’s motivations. It’s really helped me a lot.

I will probably have to change her name, though.

Back to the word mines.

[*] “optimised” may be a strong word.

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February Things, 2018

January is the month when I finally got treatment for my serial cold and flu symptoms. It turns out that one cold is tiring, but having a cold all the damned time just wears you out.

January has therefore also been a month of recovery. But I got some things done too.

Three Things for January

I set these goals before I got treatment and did not take account of how drained I would still be even once I was less unwell. Even now I still feel like I am not firing on all cylinders, although at least my thinking is a bit clearer now and I have been able to do some light exercise.

  1. finish a short story – I finished the first draft of a short story and started editing it. Not where I wanted to be, but at least going in the right direction. The original intent was, in fact, to complete revision of the story but I am going to give myself half a mark here.
  2. revise Song – no work.
  3. re-engage with crit group – I have been talking to my rit group again, even if I haven’t done much actual crit with them this month.

I’m calling that 1½ / 3, which isn’t good enough when I am well but I am giving myself some slack for my recovery.

Three Things for 2018

Despite that lacklustre performance in January, have I made progress on my yearlry goals?

  1. finish A Turquoise Song – I’ve done nothing to advance this yet, so the April date I floated in the goal-setting post seems optimistic. I am not going to push this back yet, though.
  2. submit my work – a goal in two parts:
    1. submit Song once it is done
    2. complete and submit short stories

    I’ve done work towards completing more short stories, at least.

  3. produce Livia as an audiobook – no work yet. My voice is still wrong.

Tiny progress.

Next month will be better.

Three Things for February

What a glorious luxury, setting goals only a few days into the month!

  1. finish a short story
  2. revise Song – specifically:
    1. complete prologue rewrite
    2. revise two more chapters
  3. get back to doing actual crit work with the crit group
  4. exercise – as noted above, I have been able to do some light exercise but I need to get back to running again. Not far at first, but something involving significant cardiovascular stress.

This has felt like a long winter, so it’s time to re-energise my work again.

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