Monday, October 29, 2012

Preflight Check List for Story Submissions

With the gestation period over along with more revisions than I care to think about, the short story I'm working on is nearing the launch pad. The intent for this story is to target Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of Amercia (SFWA) approved markets. My motive beyond creating an interesting piece of fiction is to sell my first story to a fixed set of target markets that satisfy the SFWA entry requirement for a membership as an Associate Member. The long term goal is to become an Active Member, but that requires selling three short story or one novel to qualifying markets. So it's one step at a time for now.

In the past, I did manage to sell a story to the now defunct Golden Visions Magazine, but it was not an approved market nor did the pay rate qualify as an SFWA sale. So now I'm working on polishing my latest piece. A logical question anyone in my position will raise is to ponder when the story ready to submit.

Due to the subjective nature involved in assessing artistic creations, a concrete set of checklist items would be impossible. I suspect most people end up creating their own set of pre-submission guidelines built from experience. So with that said, the following lists most of the major guidelines I currently follow:

  • Proofread for spelling issues and grammatical mistakes.
  • Read the story aloud to determine if it sounds smooth the ear.
  • Verify the story uses proper story telling mechanics readers expect for the genre.
  • Have others read the story and listen to their feedback.
  • Have a different story ready and waiting in final-copy state before submitting.

The initial points are obvious while the last is something I hadn't really considered until I found advice indicating some editors will ask for additional stories. Time is our enemy if we have nothing prepared because the editor might forget who we are before we have something new ready to submit. In the end, when preparing to submit a story to publishers, going through a preflight checklist does has value.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Creativity and Emotional Stability

Does creativity sometimes dwindle or stall after a burst of expressive activity? In my case, I believe it does. Allow me to iterate in more detail. Forgive me if I ramble or fail to write in an elegant manner because I'm at low tide with my mental ability to express my thoughts.

Like the tide, my emotions rise and fall. I have days when I'm upbeat. My creativity flows like a monsoon rain and I experience forward momentum toward my goal. And there are days when I feel down. It's as if I'm trapped inside of an indestructible sphere made of unobtainum where problems become exponentially more difficult. A brick wall would be a welcome sight because you can walk around it, climb over it, or dig under it. And if all else fails, you blow the darned thing up and work your way through the rubble.

I've been around long enough to know emotional state is a cyclic, with the peak and trough metrics varying from person to person. In my case, the emotionally draining feelings are associated with a number of stresses including tensions from being unemployed, a fear about making ruinous choices as well as simple fatigue. The little worries add up for brief periods of time and erode away at my state of well being. To counterbalance, creative expressions allow me to experience the excitement of discovery. It's the temporary feel-good fix I seek through artistic creations such as writing fiction or consuming hours to fabricate a light and shadows interpretation of Space Invaders. What it boils down to is that I think most actions have a reaction. But before I expand upon the physics analogy, I'll take a detour to delve into the topic of willpower.

There are a number of people who laugh or belittle someone who admits to feeling depression. They'll waste no time in calling out a lack of confidence or insufficient willpower to suppress negative feelings. To give a concrete example, a number of years ago I helped an acquaintance of mine who was the sole proprietor of a business. My acquaintance, a recovering drug addict, struggled to create a business from a starting point of nothing in regards to finances. He teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and had no one to help him. At the time, I was in a dire financial situation too with a negative bank balance for several months at one point. But I stepped up the plate and volunteered three hours of time every weeknight to help out with tasks around his shop so that he wouldn't end up on the street. While I worked around the shop, he noticed my mood swings and had taken to lecturing me about my lack of willpower. But shortly thereafter, I discovered he was abusing chemical substances and purchasing female companionship. To some extent, I felt he was being hypocritical by highlighting my weakness while making it appear that through willpower, he had beaten his own demons. Furthermore, declaring willpower as the only key element involved minimizes the complexity emotional states. Willpower is critical, but it's not the only iron in the fire.

Personally, I believe our environment has an impact as does our body and brain chemistry. Even the activities we participate influences our state of mind. The latter statement is deeply intertwined with my initial analogy of emotions sharing similarities to a tide. Through observation, I've noticed that when I go through bursts of creativity, I have a crash shortly thereafter. My brain feels like it has used up its cache of feel good dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. A period of lethargy follows. Nothing feels right. Only after a state of lethargic dormancy does the spark of creativity return.

I believe creative people have a tendency to become addicted to the peak part of the emotional rise and fall cycle. The lows become that much more pronounced as a result. We feel drained and emotionless without the thrill of discovery or creation. Considering myself creative, whether anyone agrees or not, I revel in the upswing but haven't learned how to appreciate the down times for what they are, the bodies need to take a break and recover.

I've been working on modulating these conditions by establishing what I hope are healthy routines and actions. A balanced diet with focus on foods good for the brain like salmon, blue berries, greens and even treats like dark chocolate. For the chocolate, I consume the bars with eighty-eight percent cocoa to keep sugar intake low. Exercise comes into play too. The gym costs too much but I can do push ups, sit ups and other forms of working out in my living room. Playing a game called “Bejeweled” has made me feel more mentally energetic by working out my sense of spatial relationships. And for hand-eye coordination, I try to create physical manifestations of art rather than focusing strictly on writing fiction. That's why I mentioned creating an interpretation of Space Invaders through light and shadows. Armed with acetate sheets, graph paper, an X-ACTO knife, tape and a light source, it forces me to work on my dexterity to control the blade while I cut out images to cast shadows. Not to mention trying to find creative ways to light the scene. Unique? Groundbreaking? Of interest to anyone else? Not likely, but all of these actions exercise the different parts of my brain. And if I didn't do these, I wonder how powerful the depression might become? I do what it takes to move forward, even if there are days where it feels like one step forward and two backward. And as I'm fond of saying, in the end, it's about the journey.

On a side note, I'm about to start reading "Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament" by Kay Redfield Jamison. Focused on creativity and mood disorders, the author discusses results from her studies, research and work as a clinical psychologist. Don't expect a self-help book as it appears to be a presentation of information about her real-world analysis of the topic. While I don't know what I'll gain from reading the book, it seem worthy of a side detour if only to understand why I feel the rise and fall of emotional state.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Understanding our Characters

When it comes to fabricating personality traits for a fictional character, the more insight we gain into how our creations think internally, the more believable their actions become.

In my case, imagining myself in someone else's shoes and viewing the world through their unique perspective isn't always easy. Time to blue sky.

Be forewarned, I'm only describing the problem and several angles I investigated while searching for an approach to aid in my creation of believable characters. Frequently, I'll travel down the wrong path and reach a roadblock while trying to hammer out a technique for solving a problem in a specific domain. Today was one of those detour days.

A few months ago, I picked up an assortment of books about character design. The books provided insight about traits associated with the beliefs a person values. The material offered an overview of how traits fit together based on the priorities a person views as important but it wasn't something I could easily leverage in a dynamic manner. One thing I haven't done is seek out an assortment of psychology articles and reference books about personality traits. I'll save that for when I feel like roaming about in a bookstore on a rainy day.

Since I'm seeking out a way to explore personality traits in a non-static manner, I decided to look for online character generators. Google turned up a number of web pages offering online generators for creating a minimal set of characteristics. One example is a young adult character generator that creates three basic traits along with a brief description of a major experience for a male or female adolescent. Helpful, but it doesn't provide the depth of complexity I'm seeking to use for a brainstorm seeding mechanism. After storing the YA generator link deep underground in my squirrel nut vault, I moved on.

Finally, I thought about personality tests. These types of test provide a broader range of detail about a person's values and beliefs. So off I ran to take a number of personality tests to see if any would provide the useful tidbits of information I was seeking. Two hours later, I found a personality test which produced a summary with sufficient detail. Additionally, the questions provided enough complexity to serve double duty by forcing me to understand how the character would view specific problems. It's a useful analysis tool but the results are tied to a user's email. If I happened to be a sneaky person, I'd simply create a temporary email to associate with each Frankenstein's monster I'm constructing. Ah, but for good or bad, I have a conscience and it doesn't feel appropriate. Sigh.

I'll continue to investigate avenues. Hopefully I can locate an anonymous test that provides a similar set of results to use as an incubator for building a unique character. In the grand scheme of things, it's about the journey. And along the way, I'll take the wrong path more often than not. Wrong paths occasionally lead us to solutions we might not have considered otherwise.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Curiosity Trap

While this post isn't directly related to fiction writing, I think it's something other bloggers might benefit from knowing beforehand.

Recently, I've been posting unique articles on my blog with the intent of building a social circle of people interested in fiction writing. To determine whether or not I'm reaching an audience, I monitor the amount of traffic visiting my blog.

The first thing I notice from the statistics is that the volume of traffic is nothing to write home to mom about. No surprise there. Next, I look at the geographic analysis of where traffic is coming from. The bulk is form the US. Again no surprise. With the exception of one country, the remaining percentages of traffic from outside the country are relatively small. Accounting for twenty-five percent of my total traffic, the second largest source of traffic is from Russia. “Hey, international traffic”, I'm thinking, “Cool!” But why would a blog about writing be of interest in this scenario? The blog is written in English and the primary topic won't be of great interest to most people so why would there be such a large percentage of visitors from Russia?

Giving in to my curiosity, I took a closer look at the sites sending traffic. My expression of “Cool!” quickly became “Ugh!” The referring sites are the last thing I want to write home to mom about. Yep, you guessed it, they were serving up pornography content.

So I asked myself the next logical question, why would a site about writing fiction be on the receiving end of traffic from sites containing pornography? What it boils down to is a spammer trick. They create phantom traffic to attract others to their own site. They run a script to simulate a visit to a blogger's website, placing the spammer's URL in the logs. And from there, it provides confirmation to the old saying, “Curiosity killed the cat.” Live and learn.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Usage of Profanity in Fiction Dialogue

While writing a rough draft for my latest piece, I created a scene where one of the main characters expressed anger through swearing. Because it was a first draft, I placed my emphasis on writing down the principle ideas, not on producing readable prose. I could address my concerns later during the revision phase.

To provide contextual background to my situation, the usage of dialogue in fiction is one of many aspects I'm struggling to refine. Well okay, refine is a weasel word. Overhaul fits better. Stilted and frequently reminiscent of my own patterns, my dialogues communicate the basics but lack a natural flow. Fluidity and effectiveness aside, one of several thought provoking aspects relates to the usage of profanity within dialogue. When is it appropriate, if at all?

A number of factors come into play. The scene, the intended atmosphere of the piece as well as the target audience all play a role in making a choice to use or avoid profanity. Considering the diversity in beliefs involved with writing fiction, I wanted to know what others thought. Examining the opinion of others helps build a deeper understanding of current social beliefs.

Shifting into squirrel mode, I scurried off to the web to seek out a few acorns, er opinions, from other writers. Typical of the web, a sea of diverse and conflicting arguments surfaced. Several authors presented well thought out arguments supporting their belief while others adopted an "anything goes" stance. In the end, poking around on the web provided an enjoyable jaunt through the minefield of current thinking.

Time to come back to reality outside of the web. With the rough draft complete, I took time to think and decided to rewrite the specific scene without profanity. Expressing the character's anger in other ways felt appropriate.

While I'm not adverse to using profanity, especially in rough drafts, I think I can find creative ways to express emotionally charged dialogue through action and pacing. Abiding by the mantra of "show, don't tell" works well in scenarios where profanity might serve as a crutch.

Simply stated, I prefer to limit the usage of profanity-laden dialogue when possible. It has its place but too much usage waters down the impact. Not to mention how using it strictly for shock value feels lazy. In the end, it's about choosing the right words based off the circumstances at hand.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Interesting Tools of the Writing Trade

For the last two weeks, I've been shaping my latest work of fiction. The story, a short science fiction piece, somewhat like myself, contains about 3000 words. I managed to bang out the rough draft in an afternoon. After letting it sit for a day without thinking about it, I began the editing process. It took the remainder of the two weeks to clean up the stream of consciousness wording to yield a readable first revision. The resultant draft still contains a number of tired phrases that need to be replaced with far more imaginative wording. The second revision will address replacing "old and busted" with "new hotness".

During the revision phase, I was amazed at the number of interconnections my mind established between different points in the story. Sometimes I'd think of an idea only to discard it because it didn't mesh well with the underlying theme. At other times, a new idea would pop into my head and I'd wonder, “Why didn't I think of that before?” The creative process truly is amazing; and sometimes an unpredictable thing. I found myself crawling out of bed in the middle of night more than a few times. Shivering in the cold, I'd scribble out a thought on a marker board so that I would remember it in the morning. And I'm glad I dealt with the shivering because many of the small tweaks added to the depth of the story.

I'm adapting my writing strategies as a result and will fallback to using a trick I'd leveraged in the past, keeping a voice recorder beside the bed. Decidedly old school, my recorder is an ancient micro-cassette.

The pesky thing makes me sound like I'm inhaling helium, but it gets the job done. Sure, I could try and use digital voice recorder software on my smart phone, but then I'd have to keep my reading glasses beside the bed (something I don't want to do). Not only that, but I'd have more steps to go through starting up the recorder. With the old school recorder, it's a matter of pressing one button. In the middle of the night, fumbling for a single button is about all I care to manage (in the context of recorders leastwise).

On the subject of speaking, text to speech programs are another useful addition to the toolbox. Listening to our stories when they are read out loud helps identify sentences or words which don't flow smoothly with the surrounding content. While text to speech sometimes fail to pronounce the accentuated points properly, it doesn't lessen its ability to identify troublesome sounding sentences or words. The first time I tried a reader on one of my stories, it helped identify two issues I'd missed while doing a quick read through. There are a number of options, but I'm currently using the free trial (limited functionality) copy of Natural Reader. A number of readers exist including web-based services so find something you like and try it.

Another tool I'm making use of is a service called Google Drive. For collaborating with other online, I find it to be invaluable. Not does it provide document storage and editing capabilities, but adds the ability to look back through revision histories of a document and restore to previous points. As a software developer, I've learned to appreciate revision control. Another nice feature is the ability to allow others granular access to a document. You can control individual access rights per document. The attributes can be configured for read only, commenting allowed or edit capabilities. Definitely a tool worth looking into if you want to share documents with others easily.

Thinking about how to track submissions, Duotrope comes to mind. It's a site that provides detailed information about publishers, the markets they serve, response times to submissions as well as other useful features like an online database to help you track your own story submissions. I've also heard about a site called Ralan but I haven't looked into it yet since Duotrope has worked nicely in my scenario.

While some might not consider a journal notebook as a sexy tool, it does provide wonderful insight into our thoughts as well as provide a form of long term memory reinforcement. We frequently move from idea to idea and in the process, tend to lose track of things quickly. A journal allows the recording of thoughts at given moment. It's a state of mind snapshot. We can come back and revisit these snapshots over and over until a memory is set or we can peer back in time to see a picture of our past.

Does anyone else have interesting or unusual tools, techniques or practices you use to aid in the writing of stories?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Science Fiction Anthologies With Essays

Several weeks ago I created a post talking about useful books focused on writing short stories and novels. Today, I'd like to talk about "fiction readers".

Fiction readers are books that present fiction stories along with an associated essay about the story content. I find this type of analysis insightful for a number of reasons. For one thing, it highlights key points in the stories, providing details such as why the author decided to make use of a technique or style. In essence, the essays are providing a study guide.

While browsing through the precious few used book stores we have in the area, one of my main targets I keep an eye out for is the reader-style book for science fiction works. I've managed to find three and a half titles while hunting through the stacks. I'll explain the half title shortly.

The first work I encountered was "Cosmic Critiques" by Martin GreenBerg and Isaac Asimov. Published in 1990, it provides 10 short stories along with several pages of commentary about each piece.

The next to turn up during my spelunking was "Those Who Can - A Science Fiction Reader" by Robin Scott Wilson. The book is separated into chapters focused on the following aspects of story telling: plot, character, setting, theme, point of view and style. Chapters contain anywhere from three to five short stories with associated commentary from the story author discussing the specific technique.

"Science Fiction 101" by Robert Silverberg nearly slipped by my greedy paws because it was misplaced in an unexpected section of the bookstore when I stumbled across it. The content contains a series of short stories with write ups about points of interest from the authors.

And now for the one-half book I mentioned. Nebula Awards Showcase 2004 edited by Vonda McIntyre. Typically, non-analytical anthologies contain details about the author and where their stories have been published. But with this particular volume, the write-ups contained varied topics such as concerns experienced while writing. The write-ups proved to be a selling point in my case. It was the essay associated with the first story, "Bronte's Egg" by Richard Chwedyk that served as the baited hook I couldn't resist taking a bite out of. I rather liked reading his commentary about thoughts and concerns he had while writing the piece. I don't know if any of the other books in this series provide the varied commentary though.

I'll continue to update the post with other links to anthologies I know exist in the wild but aren't part of my library as of yet. Hopefully, the small list I've provide proves useful and entertaining to others. Note: I'm providing links to the books as a courtesy.

Summary listing:

Cosmic Critiques by Martin GreenBerg and Isaac Asimov

Those Who Can - A Science Fiction Reader by Robin Scott Wilson

Science Fiction 101 by Robert Silverberg

Nebula Awards Showcase 2004 edited by Vonda McIntyre

Paragons: Twelve Master Science Fiction Writers Ply Their Crafts by Robin Wilson

Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts by Heather Masri

Do you know of any books covering story telling mechanics for specific science fiction works that I don't have listed here? Please add a comment and I'll try to include the work in the list.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

When Ideas Attack

Browsing through the news is one of the habits I use for stimulating ideas to write about. Traditional news sites provide a lens through which I can observe the behavior of individuals in solitary and social settings. Reality, sometimes stranger than fiction, is a wonderful hotbed for ideas.

After perusing the global news, my fascination with fantasy draws me to sites focused on science. Sites like Nature, Discovery and ScienceDaily provide a plethora of interesting developments happening in the scientific community. Topics such as “How much does a shadow weigh?” provide fabulous fodder for thought generating experiments.

Recently, an article with an interesting title caught my attention, “Unique Ancient Spider Attack Preserved in Amber”. Spider? Attack? Amber? Thinking in a neo-Spielbergesque manner, I sensed an idea in the making so I took a peek. The article, brief in details, talked about researchers examining a spider and wasp trapped within amber resin. Interesting, but not mind bending. But then one of the paragraphs triggered my spider sense:

"This was a male wasp that suddenly found itself trapped in a spider web. This was the wasp's worst nightmare, and it never ended. The wasp was watching the spider just as it was about to be attacked, when tree resin flowed over and captured both of them."

The author's projection of human attributes upon the wasp diverting my attention from the article toward thoughts of a wasp having a nightmare. Interesting. Similar questions surfaced in my mind too. I'd found myself several weeks earlier pondering whether insects sleep or simply go into a quiescent state. Notice the trend? Oh anthropomorphism, how you've piqued my curiosity.

After completing the article, I browsed through the comment section because the observations from readers are usually as interesting as the source material. Not to mention funny. Needless to say, I wasn't disappointed. One of the first comments had me smiling right out of the gate,

“Wonder which is worse... Being hungry and looking at a meal that is just out of reach for a 100 million years, or looking at something that wants to eat you for a 100 million years?”

Oy! Fear and hunger are sensations we understand all too well. Talk about giving human traits to the play embedded in amber! I read on until I found this comment which had me rolling with laughter,

“ close..........almost hungry”

I immediately envisioned reaching for something delicious like a biscuit only to find myself frozen for all of eternity with said delicious biscuit out of reach from my greedy little paws. Comment after comment, the spider became more and more human as did the wasp.

Humor aside, the common thread of anthropomorphism captured my attention. I found myself unable to escape my curiosity about why we use anthropomorphism to help us identify with non-human entities.

A deep analysis of the issue would consume considerable time so I decided to do what any self respecting person with a short attention span would do, I surfed... briefly. Several noteworthy points gelled during my frenzy of surfing. For instance, when we give human traits to a non-human object, it takes ownership of attributes such as morality and responsibility. Both are important from a fiction writer's perspective because they provide the building blocks for constructing good stories.

Ah, but unlike for the fly and wasp who are eternally trapped in amber, my time is limited so I had to cut short my research. For me, the take away fact is that human characteristics and behaviors sit at the core of any good story. Ultimately, we find a way to take center stage even if only through the placement of our attributes upon the world around us. And for those of us who are writers, it provides a wonderful tool to exploit for providing enjoyment to an audience.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Locked and Loaded with Art in the Sights

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that 'when some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others' values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected.'

And what is to become of art which challenges us to view our beliefs in non-traditional ways? Are we so weak in our faith that conflicting expressions from another can shake our beliefs?

Expression of viewpoint through art, how I would miss you so if you became an unintended victim to collateral damage from good intent.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Impact of Body Language

Looking at numerous public comments about the recent debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, it's interesting to see how the focus settled on smirks and smiles.

While body language does play an important role, focusing on physical expressions over subject matter feels problematic to me when the discussion is about ideology. We reflect numerous signals about our state of being at a given moment through body language. But it is far too easy to assume meaning or motivations behind why a person is giving off specific signs. Sometimes our environment, our health or a myriad of other stimuli can impact what we show to others. Taking an objective stance and listening to the facts presented should not be diminished in importance. I'm not saying we should ignore body language, but we should take the entire situation into consideration rather than focusing on only certain elements.

And before anyone cries liberal grousing (I'm a mutt dog mixture of conservative and liberal beliefs), take a look at the initial paragraph from this link describing the 1960's debate between Richard Nixon and Robert Kennedy.

The first paragraph talks about how Richard Nixon injured himself prior to the debate, his physical stance altered to minimize the pain by favoring the injury. His stance had a larger impact that he anticipated. After the debate, a poll of the television audience indicated John Kennedy won by a significant margin while a poll of the radio audience indicated the Richard Nixon won by a significant margin. The subject material appears to have taken a back seat to body language for the television audience. Interesting.

Whether or not you favored Paul Ryan or Joe Biden (Nixon or Kennedy for the 60's debate), these types of events show how much we focus on body language.

I let political hoopla pull me off tangent again from fiction writing. Sigh! Such is life. But hey, being aware of current events is important to writing. We need to stay in touch with current events and concerns of society because it allows us to address important topics through our fiction.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

One Way to Combat the Urge to Hurry

Browsing at a used bookstore last night, I came across an useful discussion. The book, entitled 'Creativity', had a quote from a prolific inventor named Jacob Rabinow. focused on the topic of creativity. The book didn't resonate with my needs on the most part due to a feeling of ambiguity. With more than a few statements mentioning difficult to classifying or identifying characteristics of creativity, it felt like far too many weasel words were present. But one quote hit a home run because it talked about a concrete situation, one Jacob Rabinow used on a regular basis.

The issue related to time constraints, pressure and how to tame the urge to hurry. The author said when he faced this situation, he imagined himself in jail with a long-term sentence like 20 years. With the thought that he is confined in a cell with nothing else to do, why should he hurry. He takes his time and thinks his way through the problem because now, he in his mind, has nothing else to occupy his time so he may as well come up with an interesting and well thought out solution.

He further went on to say this proved useful in the work place where people were focused on forcing others to meet deadlines. He tuned out the artificial pressure. If a task took two days instead of the one planned, so be it. In the end, the only thing he focused on was the solution. The net result is a far better solution than one butchered together with the sole intent of meeting an artificial deadline. While I'm sure this may lead to the occasional conflict, I think focusing on the true goal of the solution is important and effective.

I immediately felt an appreciation for this approach and will try to integrate it into my writing habits. It does require the ability to imagine or visualize well but I think both of these traits are something fiction writers possess.

And considering this is a problem I face frequently, it has interesting potential considering I am rather energetic. Energy is not a bad thing but it can work against you when you are trying to sit still and concentrate. I don't know about other people, but I find it hard to sit still at times. Now days, they'd call it ADD and probably try to stuff me full of some Ritalin substitute. But I've never been a fan of chemicals as they seem to mess up my body chemistry more than anything else. Visualization or mental techniques on the other hand, use a method that does not introduce something chemical into my body. Far less invasive in my opinion and much easier to introduce. And if it doesn't work, no ramp down period is required to ween your body off a substance.

I love insightful revelations like these. Hearing how others confront and overcome a problem in unique ways allows incorporation of additional techniques into my own toolbox. While I don't know if it will help, I'm certainly willing to give it a try.

Friday, October 12, 2012

One Economic Principle To Rule Them All

The following article link about 3D printing DRM, while obvious in its bias, touches upon a relevant topic of intellectual property rights.

When it comes to innovation, I wonder, who is best served when segments of society focus on limiting usage of fledgling technologies. What happens when a technology with the potential to promote creative productivity has artificial limitations placed upon it to limit functionality available to the mainstream consumer? Remember DAT? Save for the technically savvy, I suspect the answer from most is no.

Fundamentally, the DAT issue is not the best example but simply one that came to mind so I will drop it. Not to mention that it likely violates one or more proper debate principles too so away it goes. Hopefully I haven't tainted the article by mentioning it. Hey, it's an opinion piece so even if I did, live with it. :D

Oddly, what inspired me to create this post was a comment from one of my FB acquaintances who talked about the skirmish going on in America between the political parties. I could feel the “My party will save this country” sentiment pouring forth. They feel strongly enough about something to take action so it's a positive thing regardless of whether or not I agree with the values and beliefs they are promoting. So as Bruce Cambell would say, “Groovy!” Equally, it motivated me to speak up with what I view as a rebuttal, even if it's not directly related. Whether or not I achieved anything is up for debate in itself but at least I'm speaking my mind.

To summarize my intended point, I believe our resources are better spent enabling creativity rather than focusing primarily on construction of legislation to limit or hobble the ability to innovate.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

I Know It When I See It

Ever heard the saying, "It's like pron, I know it when I see it"? Replace the term pron with most any other topic and it likely still applies to our ability to recognize something without explicitly going through a set of steps used for classification. At least consciously, we don't always think about a concrete set of rules to apply when we are categorize something. Yet we are still able to recognize something as falling within a given domain. We also use this same technique to decide whether we like or dislike something. Thinking about this has coaxed me into discussing a related hurdle I am struggling with.

Whether it's through creation of art or attempts at solving life's little (or sometimes not so little) problems, each of us possesses a unique style we leverage in the process. The final expression, the result of our effort, will resonate with the attributes of the underlying methodology we used to solve a challenge. Deeply intertwined within the solution is a signature which provides clues to our way of thinking.

In regards to my personal approach to any form of problem solving, I've always reveled in complexity. When faced with a problem, it is not uncommon for me to take a long and twisted path to reach the goal. For that matter, this post is a perfect example. Where a few words would suffice, I write an entire manifesto. Leopards like their spots it would seem.

I haven't unraveled the reason why I employ such a strategy of creating overly complex solutions as of yet. Suffice to say I recognize this fact. The attribute is both a strength and a weakness. Lacking in efficiency, it takes longer to provide a solution using this approach. At the same time, unusual solutions emerge, albeit not always the most elegant.

When it comes to authoring fiction, I do not separate this technique from my writing style. Perhaps during the initial rough draft, it is the one point where I possess anything remotely similar to a minimalist approach. But as I revise, the urge to introduce layers of complexity is something I crave. Like a salmon returning to spawn, the urge enforces itself like a primordial directive.

Adding complexity through my approach of incremental revisions, I succumb to insecurities. Am I destroying the essence of the raw idea, creating a heavy handed outcome? If so, how do I alter a deeply ingrained strategy used throughout my life. I've been a problem solver from the early days. After the initial exchange between the subconsciousness and conscious barrier in my mind where a core idea surfaces through an aha moment, the mind drops into problem solving mode. Examine, decompose into constituents then reassemble and decorate in the desired manner. Ascertaining whether or not the final result is appealing is a culmination of recognizing what adds or detracts to a story as well as understanding the different elements of story telling and when to use them. Nonetheless, it feels as if the earlier step of gauging whether or not the incremental changes are leading in the right direction is critical challenge I face at this stage.

I suspect that not only do I need to focus on the study of writing techniques, but I need to address a deficiency in recognizing subtle elements which add impact to a story. In other words, I need improve my reading skills by analyzing and assessing a variety of literature. This, of course, being more than reading with the intent of deconstructing passages to understand what makes them tick. It also means reading fiction, non-fiction, classics and modern texts. While I have been reading daily, I haven't stepped outside the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy. Something I will clearly need to change if I want to continue improving my writing abilities.

I realize this unlikely to be a revelation to others, but hopefully, it will enable me to take step forward in my evolution towards becoming an author who contributes works of literary value.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Beauty in Elegance

Recently while researching a topic for a fiction story I had one of those moments where I looked at something and felt a level of awe. Sort of like a puff of opium for the mind. The pure elegance of what I was looking at blew me away. Now before you start visualizing some dirty old man ogling a sexy girl sunning on the beach in thong, let me quickly dispel that thought. Too bad though, I wouldn't mind such a thing but what I'm talking about has nothing to do with sex, dating or anything else along those lines. But at the same time, it is deeply intertwined with the basic building blocks of life. Most people would give a hoot about what I was looking at. Not that it wasn't something new to me either. But the way I look at it today as opposed to the way I looked at it in the past is completely different. What is it and why is that? Well, let's jump into the why is that question first.

Life experiences change us that way. As a young child, we start out seeing the world around as something full of nooks and crannies to explore with our mind. But that quality is usually stamped out of us quickly, be it by some sub par teacher who raps us on the head for being a useless daydreamer (after all, there was no mouse behind that piano), or playground bullies as well as the people in our social circles who don't know how to cope with life. The whole lot of them usually make a train wreck of things in their wake. And our imagination is one of the first to be a casualty of the war society wages upon its inhabitants. We began to lose that sense of wonder and start to see things in a more concrete manner. Daydreamers are no good for a business ya know. Objects around us become facts and figures. Simply things to memorize, regurgitate for tests and then forget.

Ah, but it doesn't always remain in such a state. Even when there's a boss browbeating us for being slow or we are exposed to acquaintances who sometimes belittle people around because it's a tool they understand, well, we can still find ways to put those bad feelings aside and learn to enjoy our surroundings again. A youthful mindset won't handle everything, that I understand. But looking at things in the way we did as a child can breath new life into our tired lives.

Now let's look at the what is it. Be prepared to be disappointed. So what was I looking at that inspired me so? Something rather plain but filled with numerous patterns - a diagram of the three prime / five prime backbone to a strand of DNA along with the four bases that form the pairs between. Yeah, I know, who cares. But seeing the flexible functionality yet beautiful architecture of this is hard to describe. Realizing a whole set of machinery is at work here, measuring, stripping, snipping and repairing makes me feel a bit like a kid. Did I have some sort of revelation or Epiphany? Nope. My mind is simply looking at things in different way than it did during the beat-down phase of the early public school educational years. Fortunately it seems the child-like excitable sense of wonder is still there.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Stress vs Creativity

I've noticed an interesting connection between stress and creativity. Without a proper balance of the former, the latter seems to languish. Keep in mind, everyone's situations are different. When I talk about stress, I'm referring to healthy change rather than toxic situations such as living through war.

When insufficient stress of the correct type fails to happen, we frequently fall into a routine. When our environment is static, many of us tend not to seek change out to some extent. And with too little stress, things go stagnant. The mind has less to stimulate it because of the common routine is less likely to provide unusual problems for the mind to ponder over.

The issue, at least for myself, is finding the correct balance point. How does one find the right kind of stress as well as modulate the levels properly? As with anything in life, some things are not so simple to control.

For the scenario of too much stress, a person can confront the issues to seek out resolutions to calm the chaos. For unmanageable situations, we can try to find a way to extract ourselves from overly tense situations. Of course, neither of these options are easy. And I wouldn't say they are the only options. They are simply the first that come to mind.

At the other extreme, an absence of stress is easier to deal with. Not that increasing harmful stress is desirable. Rather, it's the act of placing ourselves in new situations where we face a healthy level of uncertainty and new environmental conditions to deal with. When we encounter changes in our environment, we begin to think differently. We have to let our conscious and unconscious minds do what they do naturally, tackle problem solving. It's during those phases when I find creative ideas begin to pop into my head. Things I might not have though of without the uncertainty.

Allow me to provide an example of too little stress which was a lack of change in disguise. Feeling drained and empty last fall, I ended up by chance being invited to attend a motivational seminar in LA. I accepted to opportunity even though I had some nervousness about the situation for a number of reasons that are unimportant to this topic. The fact was, it made me somewhat apprehensive. But once I began the trip, I noticed an immediate change. I started seeing new things all around me. Whether it was the trees lit up with shocking bright neon at the airport or the funky sign on a shop that used a massive old rusty saw blade with huge jagged teeth, it stimulated my imagination. New thoughts flooded into my head. Best of all, the levels of stress weren't enough to trigger a fight or flight mode. In the end, I felt recharged. Partially because of the motivational seminar and partially because of the change in environment.

For a more recent example, I have a short-term opportunity to take a break from my typical software related jobs. I'd like to take the opportunity. But it's not as simple as saying yes and jumping in. The job is not local and the income won't cover my expenses which would include an apartment rental as well as figuring out how to handle my monthly mortgage on the house. And even if I am able to orchestrate the common way to cover a house mortgage while I'm gone, the complication of providing care for my massive garden still exists. Then there's the time frame which is extremely accelerated for reasons which are unimportant to this post. The problems add up quickly making it a stressful situation. A wrong choice could mean the loss of my house due to depleted financial resources. Considering I've been paying on the mortgage for many years, it would be quite painful and leave me in a bad situation especially when I reach a much older age. Sleep is a fleeting thing as I try to figure out how to handle the situations. And then there's my first stage interview today for a possible job contract. Oy! Yes, having an interview is good but it is stressful especially when you don't have a job currently. Employers are usually far more picky when someone they interview doesn't have a job, at least from my experience. But through all of this, the one thing that has improved is my creativity. I find bursts of unique thoughts surfacing. I created a rough draft for a new fiction story several days ago. The ideas surfaced much easier than usual due to the fact my mind is looking at new potentials.

I've side tracked about stress so let me bring the post back to the other half, creativity. If during the course of your days, you start feeling non-creative or artistically drained, find a new place to go. Take a stroll through an art museum you've never been in before. Look for a new route to take on your drive home or accept offers to do new and different things with friends. Sure, some choices won't always go the way we hope. But even that provides us with material to stimulate our mind. Working our way through difficult situations is the stuff interesting stories are made of. So take some chances. Get out there and experience the world.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Strong Emotions and Writing

As a fiction author, one of many issues I've thought about relates to how others perceive more than the words of what we write. If we create something toxic, psychotic or touching upon taboos with the intent of stirring strong emotion in the reader, there's always a potential people will react negatively. And if we have contact with readers through book signings or other interactions, then their view of our personal character can also come into play in a concrete way.

When we write, we draw from what we know through experience. Delving into dark areas has the potential to change people's view of us as individuals after they read the materials. I've been thinking about this issue myself after writing a rough draft that used sexual tensions and abnormal behaviors as a focal point. While I don't know how people will react, it stands to reason opinions of my personal character will change as a result. For would-be writers like myself who don't yet possesses sufficient skill to remove their presence from the writing and enable the willing suspension of disbelief in the audience, the readers might view the content as an extension of the author's personality rather than as a story about fictional characters.

As with any form of art, there is always risk of alienating people when we express our views. It comes down to toughening up our skin for potential backlash to controversial materials. Accepting the fact people will be angry is inevitable. Go ahead a write what your conscious and subconscious mind communicates to you so long as it isn't intended to target others for hate crimes. Don't focus upon how others will react unless personal safety for those involved becomes a risk. Instead think about what it is you want to say with your story. Anything else would be a compromise an author should never make because of social pressure.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Fear, It's What's For Breakfast

Sometimes the greatest opportunities in life are shrouded in fear. Sure, a few of you might be extreme sports enthusiasts who know no fear. But that's not me and I think it isn't most folks. Otherwise we wouldn't have fiction filled with people struggling to tackle challenges. Life would be simple. See something interesting and do it. It's not quite the case though.

I grew up on a farm, isolated from society and in an atypical dysfunctional family. Any family members reading this, please don't take offense but everyone is a mess when you get down to it. No family is or ever will be perfect. Nor should they be because that in part, defines who we are by forcing us to struggle. But as with anything, there must be a balance. Not everything helps us build our character. Some aspects will instill so much fear in us, we become paralyzed and our growth stunted.

It's the paralysis scenario I'm facing. I have an opportunity to experience through a different perspective for a brief period of time. It would mean a big change in my standard approach to life. The problem is that my mind fights the change because of how dramatic it is. It is full of risk. I could lose my house, all my net worth and what little stability I have managed to build up over the course of years.

But to not take the opportunity, I risk drifting back into more of the mundane and never breaking out enough to achieve my true goal of becoming an accomplished author. How does one conquer the gut wrenching fear? I'm talking about the type of fear that keeps you from sleeping at night. The type of fear that makes you see the potential pitfalls in everything. Even fight with people, most likely to relieve the building stress.

Even at the age of 50, facing the problems in life is no easier than was when I was 18. The problems I had then were different to some extent, mostly social or judgment related initially. But over time, I've become more outgoing and social. I've learned to handle responsibility better. Yet I still have my rabbit-like fears. Sigh. Nonetheless, if life was easy, it would be boring. Time to see if I can figure out how to embrace change.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Two Steps Forward, Two Back

When writing a story, there are times when I realize it simply isn't working. It's usually quite evident. There's no sense of excitement or the characters feel lifeless. It then leads me to ponder at what point I should decide to abandon a story or continue grinding away trying to improve it.

As an aspiring author, I realize many of my shortcomings when it comes to writing given my current skills. I do realize everything improves with considerable effort, practice and a strong degree of persistence. But as of current, my work leaves much to be desired. I struggle with creating action scenes and fluid dialogue. On the positive side, at times it does feel like some of my settings are fairly lush and have the potential to stimulate the imagination of the reader. There is much to learn and I'm sure even what I consider reasonable now will seem like hack writing later on. But at point is the exercise of rewriting the story akin to pouring water down a gopher hole, a pointless exercise?

Sure, a good author can rescue nearly anything. But I'm still a struggling writer. And asking others doesn't always help. I've been to writing groups and have asked such questions. Most people are egotistical, probably out of need to survive in such a dog eat dog environment. The responses given usually imply this or that is effortless. Discarding a story is something they do with ease and know exactly when it is no longer helping them grow. Wonderful. I wonder why they aren't on the best sellers list yet?

Well, I guess I'll have to use my best judgement. The way I see it, giving up too soon is no better than rewriting endlessly. Neither situation is beneficial in the long run. One must struggle for a reasonable period of time. But if no progress is being made, it's time to take a new approach. It's just a matter of deciding when that point of diminishing returns has been met. While it's not a concrete answer, the best I can do is monitor my progress and archive the story if it feels like progress is stalled.

Spring Cleaning

Prepare for a long winded post which meanders a wee bit. Forgive me if the text isn't as coherent as the thoughts in my mind. :)

For those of us who collect or tinker with things, ever notice how our living space become cluttered with the passage of time? Have you also noticed that the more cluttered things are, the more problematic it is for new things to enter into your life? At least that's how it works for me. Of course, for those of you who live a spartan or nomadic lifestyle, prepare to laugh. :)

Okay, time to clarify. When we have a house or apartment where odds and ends have accumulated, our living area becomes more than just crowded. The accumulation is sort of a slow process. We have things we don't want to throw out maybe because it's broken but not beyond repair. So we store it with the intent to get to fix it later. And the next thing you know, you haven't touched it for the last ten years. Yet it's constantly underfoot and we're tripping over it. Or maybe we want to create “something” with a series of other “somethings”. But the problem is, those “somethings” began to pile up here, there and everywhere.

Let's say something interesting comes along, an opportunity to try something new with your life. Guess what? All that clutter can rear up like a dragon and say, “NONE SHALL PASS!” And we all know how hard it is to slay dragons. Now if only I could get to that suit of armor I stashed behind the heap of widgets and thingamajigs. Well, you get the picture. Too many things can burden us down. And that's what has happened to me. I'm now struggling being weighed down with too many possessions and distraction. I need to focus on what's important and eliminate possessions and reduce distraction that sidetrack me from achieving my goals. In other words, I need some spring house cleaning.
Last year, I went through the process of identifying my major goals. I narrowed it down to four long term goals and half a dozen short term goals. Assessing my progress over the year, I did well with the short term goals. I marched through them successfully. But at the same time, I lost focus to some extent by dabbling with at least one distraction. While the dabbling was entertaining, it consumed resources, including finances and time. Mind you, I'm not saying these types of things are always a waste. To the contrary, my lifestyle has always embraced dabbling as a way of learning. I try things, gain some experience and then move on to the next thing. But as I march my way ever-closer to being classified as a senior citizen, I've discovered there are certain areas of interest are not fleeting – those being my major goals. I've also realized, contrary to how it felt when I was young, the time I have left isn't infinite. Simply dabbling for an experience no longer benefits me in the same way it did during my youth. It proves more prudent to strip away the unnecessary and focus on what's important, otherwise I risk the chance of diluting myself so much that I never achieve my major goals.

Over the course of the year it became evident four major goals was still too many so I trimmed it down to two goals. One of the goals focuses on becoming an accomplished and recognized author. My other goal relates to finding a partner. Both goals are reasonable in my opinion and potentially achievable if I adjust my priorities accordingly.

Ah, but I still haven't talked about the major driving force that motivated me to write this post. Oh well, that's a post for another time.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Run, Robot, Run

Using terminology author Anne Lamott coined, I just finished writing a really "sh!tty first draft" for a SF short story idea I've been kicking around in my head for a while. Alas, the darned thing reads like a Dick and Jane reading primer:

See robot, See robot run. Run, robot, run.

For that matter, it probably has more holes in it than a slice of Swiss cheese does. Plot holes that is.

Ah, but unlike Anne Lamott with her first drafts, turning mine into a diamond is questionable even with tons of pressure and eons of time. :))

Regardless, now I need to set the story aside for a few days to let my mind clear. Then I'll tackle the editing process. Purging the “primer” feeling will be a challenge. Red marks galore I fear. The old saying, nothing comes easy is oh so fitting.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Ever Growing Library

Like many would-be SF authors, I have a large number of books I use for such things as inspiration. Dig back through the stacks and you'll find books covering topics like the atmospheric makeup of Venus. General chemistry too along with materials about existentialism.

I also have a large assortment of "How to" books focused on the subject of writing fiction. Whether it's setting, dialogue or viewpoint, I have a book discussing the concepts involved. Some of the books standout more so than others. While I haven't read any of these books in their entirety, I have consumed entire chapters. Your mileage will vary, but here are a few that I've found valuable:

Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight. The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass. Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway The Making of a Story by Alice LaPlante The Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells by Ben Bova

There are other books I'm still waiting to acquire through the used book store market, one being "Novelist's Boot Camp: 101 Ways to Take Your Book From Boring to Bestseller" by Todd A. Stone. Being a cheapskate due to a temporary stint of unemployment means I only buy used books.

But how-to books aren't my only source of reading material. A good assortment of SF is invaluable when it comes to obtaining ideas. I take a fancy to short stories due to the time commitment and the ability to expose myself to many different ideas as well as varying writing styles. If a story turns out to be a clinker, no big deal. It's only a half an hour time investment typically. And even clinkers give us value in ways. It gives us the opportunity to explore what we don't like. It's not a given that something don't enjoy is poorly written. In some cases it's presented in a different style we simply don't care for. So there's still something of value to take away from reading a broad assortment of tales. For that matter, my dated collection of "Analog" and "Science Fiction and Fantasy" still has literary value even if not all the stories aged well. It's fun to pick up an edition of "Analog" from 1981 and take a browse through to see what was hot at the time. But talk about sneeze-inducing potential.

Overall, I don't regret having purchased most of the books I have. Some of the unlisted books I have in my library only cover one or two topics that caught my eye initially. As a result, they may eventually find their way back to the used bookstores if I run out of space. But for now, having plenty of books at my fingertips is more than compensates for the space they take up.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Wind Up the Imagination

I've made it habit of late to read every day. One, maybe two short stories typically. At other times, I'll dive into a novel consuming maybe upwards of 40 or 50 pages. A steady diet of words. Why? Well, it gives birth to ideas.

In the past, I've observed how traveling to different places leads to a well spring of new ideas and thoughts. But when you're unemployed, traveling is not always high on the priority list of life due to the cost and time involved. Money is never overflowing from the cup even when I work. Don't get me wrong, I make a good income when I do have contracts. But when you work at something your heart doesn't really care for, well, it shows. Still, the bills have to be paid.

Ah, but I've derailed the topic. Reading as it turns out, is another way of cultivating new ideas without the expense of traveling. A good fiction novel, especially SF or fantasy, can place you alternate worlds where the abnormal is normal. Nothing new to anyone here. We all know how a good story can carry us away. But it's that very jarring of thoughts that triggers my own creativity. So, I happily consume as much as I can while still managing my daily requirements of searching for work and writing my own fiction.