Sunday, July 31, 2005

Real-Life Emergency: Search and Rescue

As most of you know, I'm a pilot and if you've read my profile, you also know that I'm a lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol, the auxillary of the U.S. Air Force. One of our primary missions is search and rescue, both of missing aircraft and of missing persons, such as hikers who get lost in the desert. We have other missions (disaster surveillance and relief, blood transport, counter-drug missions, and homeland security missions, among others), but our primary reason for existence is search and rescue. It's a mission we hope we don't have to perform, but one for which we train for ceaselessly (in fact, there was a training exercise scheduled this weekend that was cancelled due to weather). After the hurricanes in Florida last year, it was the Civil Air Patrol who surveyed the damage, pointed rescuers to those in trouble, and shuttled blood and supplies into areas that couldn't be reached from the ground. We're just average Joes and Janes. But we've got an important job.

Yesterday afternoon around 1:30 PM local time we received a "mayday" call from a small aircraft, followed by its Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) beacon shortly thereafter. This isn't a drill. Right now there is a plane down in the desert somewhere in the area of Casa Grande, AZ, so most of the CAP units in the area have been activated. It's monsoon season here in Arizona, though. Last night we had a huge and violent thunderstorm roll into the area, which grounded all of our aircraft. We resumed the search at 7:00 AM this morning, but so far haven't found the aircraft or its pilot. We don't know what kind of aircraft or how many people were on board, nor do we even know if they survived the crash. What we do know is that they spent last night in a ferocious thunderstorm, probably injured. With each hour the odds of survival start to go down. We are literally racing against the clock. If the aircraft was flying VFR (visual flight rules), then he was not required to file a flight plan, so we have nothing more than the ELT signal to go on. Unfortunately, the ELT batteries won't last forever. The fact that we haven't heard anything on the radio since the mayday call means that either the aircraft communication system is non-functional -- or there's no one on board able to operate it. Hopefully, if the pilot and passengers (if any) survived the crash, then they stayed with the aircraft. If it is reasonably intact, it can provide some shelter. In a way, the storms may help, since most survivors of small plane crashes die from exposure rather than their injuries. The rain brought the temperature down fromt he 120 F it has been and may also give them some water. Not only that, though, a human is almost impossible to spot from 500'. Staying with the aircraft (or car, if you become lost on the ground), dramatically improves your chances of being found. The pilot had time to send out a mayday, so engine failure seems likely. We all train to make power-off emergency landings, and the desert out near Casa Grande is nice and flat. They've got a chance. But it's been 24 hours since the crash now. We need to find them soon. The hardest thing for SAR pilots to deal with is to learn that victims survived the crash, but died a few hours later. They could have been saved if we were just a bit faster.

The biggest problem we are running into is lack of staff. CAP is an all-volunteer organization. Our members donate their time and effort to learn how to perform our various missions. You don't have to be a pilot -- in fact, we are most desperate for mission base teams, communications operators, and visual scanners to fly on board our search craft. We need these much more than we need pilots, actually, although we can always use more. We also need ground teams to operate direction finding equipment and get help to the survivors. CAP has an active cadet program as well, for kids aged 12-18. The cadets learn about aerospace and related fields, but they can also become qualified in some areas of emergency services.

We need your help. We don't need your money. We don't need donations. We need people who want to make a difference in the community. We need people who want to save lives. I hope you'll consider contacting your local Civil Air Patrol squadron and find out how you can get involved. You can go to the national CAP home page,, and find out where to go. Please feel free to ask me any questions as well.

The pilot and passengers on this aircraft may not make it. With more personnel, we could find them a lot faster. We need you.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Art of Storytelling

Recently, I had the opportunity to teach a class on storytelling at the community college where my wife works. The education department was offering the course, although it was cross-listed with the humanities program. Due to some family constraints, I wasn't able to teach it this semester, which was a bit of a bummer -- it would have been a great class to teach!

The course is focused mostly on oral storytelling, but of course, the elements of the Story form are the same whether in written fiction or in oral form. To a certain extent, oral storytelling is becoming a lost art. We don't often sit around the campfire (or wherever) and just tell stories anymore.* Certainly we listen to, read, and watch stories all the time, but there is something magical about a tale told live, using only the power of the speaker's voice and gestures to convey it. The requirement to hold the listeners' attention without using all the flash and bang of Hollywood forces you to boil the story down to its most essential elements and then infuse them with drama in every word. A reader may be willing to sit for five or six hours and read a book, but no listener will sit for that long listening to a story.

Oral storytelling is fiction honed to finest, sharpest edge. If you can maintain the level of conflict, suspense, and drama needed to tell a good story orally, think of what you will be able to do on the written page! I strongly recommend that every fiction writer learn the craft of oral storytelling. Your writing will only improve as you gain mastery of this ancient art.

*Roleplaying games are, I believe, the exception to this statement. In some sense, RPG's are the descendents of telling stories around the fire. A true roleplaying game is an interactive story written collaboratively in real time by the game master and the players. Too many of these games end up being "roll-playing," focusing more on dice and tables than on telling a good story, but if done right, the story trumps all and dice aren't even needed. How many players would willingly sacrifice their character just to further a dramatic scene? Not many, but on the occasions when it has happened, it resulted in some of the most memorable tales I have ever run across.

Friday, July 29, 2005

The Unlikeable Protagonist, Revisited

Don Maass (a top literary agent, for those just joining us) has an interesting take on the unlikaeable protagonist (which he refers to as the "dark protagonist"). Maass, like many others apparently, can't stand to read a story with an unlikeable protagonist. He says that writers who produce tales with a dark protagonist are really not doing much more than performing self therapy -- the writer himself is usually the one who is actually struggling with a personal (and usually career-based) crisis. Maass says that inevitably at some point in the story he will put the book down because he just can't tolerate the protagonist's unrelenting misery.

I've heard this from other writers that I respect, and they usually end the discussion there. Maass carries the discussion one step further, however. He points to a number of very successful novels that do in fact have a dark protagonist. Why, then, do these books work when so many others fail? The answer lies in the fact that while in these stories the protagonist does have it bad, he's aware of that fact from the beginning -- and more importantly, he's trying to make it better. We all can sympathize with a person who is trying hard to make his life better, even if he isn't succeeding very well. This sympathy with the character, as I've noted before, is the single most important emotion we can engender in story telling. Most of the other plot issues -- conflict, suspense, tension, etc. -- depend on the reader first caring what happens to the protagonist. I think that there is a limit to our tolerance of reading about someone's miserable life, however. Yes, we want the protagonist to succeed, so we cheer him on. But if we start to believe he's never going to turn himself around, then at some point we quit the book in disgust.

So overall, maybe this is the problem with the story I wrote that features an unlikeable protagonist. His life isn't miserable, but the character does push everyone away, refusing to become close to anyone. It's his way of dealing with a personal tragedy (he inadvertently caused an accident that killed a large number of people). If Maass is to be believed, however, the reason the story doesn't work is because he's not trying to work his way through his problems. He's satisfied ("happy" wouldn't be the right word) with the way he is, and it is only external events that make him realize he's wrong. I could tell the story from the point of view of another character who is likeable, but he doesn't have as much at stake, so I'm not sure he can keep the interest in the main character going. It would be an interesting experiment to try, though!

Thursday, July 28, 2005


We returned safely from our great California journey (six hours across I-10 from Phoenix to L.A.), and waiting for me at home was my copy of this month's Locus magazine. For those that don't know, Locus is the closest thing there is to a trade journal for science fiction and fantasy writers. It consists mostly of reviews and announcements of what books have been bought by publishers in the past month, with an interview or two thrown in for good measure.

This is actually the second time that I've subscribed to Locus. I subscribed a few years ago after having the magazine recommended by the instructor of a Gotham Writers' Workshop course I took. I have a great deal of respect for her opinion (she was a past president of Science Fiction Writers of America), so decided to give it a whirl. After months of thumbing through the magazine idly, reading an occasional interview, I didn't bother to renew my subscription, as I wasn't really doing much with the magazine.

A few months ago, I began reading the blogs of past Clarion students, and noted that a number of Clarion instructors have also recommended Locus. I got the impression that these instructors considered reading Locus to be part of the "business side of SF writing," but I never found anyone who mentioned just why their instructors recommended the magazine. If any of those Clarion grads read this, by any chance, I'd be very interested in hearing the specifics of what your instructors had to say about the magazine.

Failing that input, here's my best guess as to the usefulness of the magazine. Your mileage may vary, and given my earlier experience with the magazine, I'm almost certainly missing something important.

  • Interviews: Any time an author is willing to share his or her approach to writing, I think there is value in reading it. That said, I find the interviews to be somewhat amateurish, not much more than raw transcripts. I would have liked to have seen some probing questions asked of the people interviewed, so that we can get a deeper insight into their perspective. Currently there are any number of writing magazines out there that seem to do a better job in this regard.
  • Book reviews: It's definitely worth seeing what Locus' reviewer staff thinks about a book, however, I am strongly against writing to the preference of any one reviewer or group of reviewers. I didn't find the reviews to be terribly in-depth or instructive from the standpoint of a developing writer -- there's not much to take home here from a craft point of view. On the other hand, Locus reviews do seem to place the books they review within the context of the much larger body of established SF, so there is value in seeing where the different genres and writing styles fit in the overall picture.
  • Books/magazines published: I'm left scratching my head over this one. My first impression was that other than the joy of seeing your name in print, who cares? I've been trying to figure out the usefulness of this section -- which takes up a significant fraction of the magazine -- and the only thing I can figure is that it serves writers in the same way that the Wall Street Journal serves stockbrokers. The raw numbers themselves aren't terribly interesting or even useful. But if you look at the overall trends, there may be some information there that you can use. For example, if you see that a certain publisher has been buying a lot of a particular kind of fantasy lately, that may be a clue to a receptive market for your story if you have (or can produce) what they are buying. On the other hand, if you see a lot of the same kinds of books being bought by a number of different publishers, maybe that's your clue to an area where you could try something new, something that might let you stand out from the crowd. It makes for dreadfully tedious reading, however.
  • Author news: I thnk this section is more relevant if you are actually aquainted with the authors mentioned, although I was pleased to see information about some of my favorite SF authors published. I was also pleased to see a photo and names of the Clarion East class of 2005, so I'm hoping a search of the blogosphere will unearth some of their blogs of their experiences.
  • Poll/survey results: This particular issue had the results of the annual Locus reader poll, which is used to hand out awards. While they seem to be trying to establish their credibility relative to the Hugo and Nebula awards, I think there is one major difference that is being glossed over. Readers of Locus are almost exclusively writers of SF, not readers of SF, as is the case with these other awards. While I certainly value the respect of my peers (more than many people who know me realize), I think ultimately it is the SF fan base who controls our lives and we should therefore value above all others.

So, ultimately, I thnk there is value in Locus, but that value has to be mined from its pages. It would be nice if Locus could present all this detail with commentary and interpretation (again, the Wall Street Journal makes a fine analogy), but that may be a bit much to expect from a limited budget. Maybe someday I'll be curious and knowledgeable enough to offer that kind analysis column to Locus on a monthly basis. That, however, is a very long time away.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Using the "Universal Channel"

I've been in Pasadena,* CA, since Saturday doing a teacher-training workshop for the educational outreach program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL asked me to develop a series of technology-based activities related to Mars robotics, which would be linked from the back of a poster on the subject that was (and still is -- it's not finished, as I understand it) under development. The head of Mars Education and Outreach asked if I would be willing to train these teachers using these activities, since I'm one of only a few people in the NASA education "establishment" that actually understands and applies good educational theory to the products I develop. (Kind of sad, isn't it?) When I was developing these activities, I decided that too many robotics-based activities rely on the expensive electronic robotics kits, so I set out to find a low-tech way to teach the same concepts. You can judge my success for yourself by heading over to the Mars Education site.

The culminating activity of these lessons has the students (or the teachers, in the case) participate in a competition to develop a simulated "Mars mission" using these low-tech materials. The rules of the competition are fun and challenging (launch a payload to hit a 1-meter target, five meters away; travel to a site two meters away; retrieve a "rock sample" and return it to the lander; and finally launch the sample back to the original launch site), but the activity itself isn't really the point of this essay. After spending two and a half hours developing their mission plan by applying what they learned over the past two days, each team presented their design to the head of NASA's Mars Exploration Program and his deputy. Yep, the head guys themselves judged the science and engineering the teachers had learned and decided which of their designs would get the nod as the winner. You can imagine the excitment -- and the pressure -- when the teachers found that out. I'm pleased to say that all the teams did extrememly well, and even the VIPs said it was a tough decision. These teachers had no engineering background at all, but really had a good time learning. It was fun to watch the lights come on in their eyes when they realized that not only had they really learned something fun and interesting during the workshop, but they could apply it in a high-level way. (Of course, having the head of the Mars program see the effect of the educational programs I've designed didn't hurt my career, either.)

What I find interesting and relevant to writing though is this: I think the reason the judges picked the winner they did was because the winning team presented a solid, cohesive "story" about their design, from launch to recovery. Most of the other teams talked about the various components of their design in isolation, but never really tied it all together into a cohesive whole. As I mentioned, all of the designs were good. Any of them could have accomplished the "mission." The winning team's presentation was compelling precisely because in was organized in a way that was easily accessible to their audience. This is another example of what I've referred to in previous essays as the "Universal Channel" that writers (and presenters, evidently) can use to tap directly into the human psyche. The team's presentation wasn't a story in the sense that they began with "Once upon a time," but it did have all the elements of plot, theme, message, and even character. Like all good writing, they cut out the extraneous issues that didn't further their plot or convey their message. The "characters" were carefully-chosen major subsystems of their spacecraft. By showing how these characters interacted to advance the plot, they made a very convincing case, something you might think would be difficult considering one of the major characters was a Big Mac box!

Learning the techniques of fiction isn't just important for us writers. It can be a powerful tool for anyone who wants to educate or illuminate his or her audience on a particular subject. Short of the much less pleasant psychological devices of torture and brainwashing (which I don't recommend, by the way), I can't think of any psychological mechanism more powerful than story for changing the outlook and perspective of your auience. When you write your fiction, don't write cotton candy stories, fun as that may be sometimes. Figure out how you want your reader to change as a result of your tale, and then write the stories that will accomplish that change.

It's as important in fiction as it is in education.

*Actually, only a tiny corner of one parking lot of JPL is in Pasadena. All of the rest of the lab is in La Canada-Flintridge, yet the whole lab has a Pasadena address. Go figure.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Stakes, Well Done

Maass says, and I agree, that one of the most devastating tests you can give your fiction is the "So what?" test. Suppose your protagonist fails in her appointed task. So what? If you can't answer this fundamental question in a satisfying way, then probably the stakes in your story are not high enough. As I alluded to in earlier entries, this is something I tend to have problems with. I like science fiction primarily because I want to live in the worlds described. I'm fascinated by the things to see and do that are described in the story. I wonder what the daily lives of that world's denizens are like, and am enthralled to see their lives played out. The level of conflict in this over-simplified view, however, is very, very low. Stories without conflict are travelogs. Some people like 'em, most people don't. More pragmatically, you'll have a devil of a time selling a fictional travelog to a magazine or publishing house.* Conflict, it's been said, is the engine that drives all good stories. As writers, we need to keep this in mind at all times. It's important, though, that the conflict matter. Otherwise, you'll fail the "So what?" test.

So how can we raise the stakes in the story? Maass recommends the writer consider two separate types of stakes. The first type is "public stakes." Public stakes are what society as a whole has to lose or gain as a result of the story. I think when most of us think of "raising the stakes" in a novel, this is what we think of. Public stakes can range from catching the killer to saving the town to saving the world. The other type of stakes is "personal stakes." This is what the character stands to lose or gain as a result of the story. The trick here is making the personal stakes something that we can relate to and sympathize with. Interestingly, Maass feels that "life or death of the character" is no longer high personal stakes because readers have seen life or death siuations so many times. I'm not sure I agree with this statement, because if the reader cares for the character and isn't at all sure he or she will survive (and that's the key part, I think), then these stakes can be meaningful. Certainly saving ones child or winning the girl are personal stakes we can all relate to, but I agree with Maass that the best way to raise the personal stakes is for the reader to identify with and genuinely care about the protagonist. We see tragedies on the news every day. If we truly felt for the victims of those tragedies with the same intensity we feel for our close friends and family, we'd simply go mad. (Come to think of it, there's a germ of a story there...) For our own psychological well-being, we shut down our emotions somewhat when it comes to strangers. If, on the other hand, the reader truly cares about the protagonist, then even less Earth-shattering stakes become important. We want Harry Potter to be able to go to Hogwarts, so we become anxious when his muggle relatives interfere. There are millions of very bright, friendly children in the world who don't get the education they deserve. We don't become anxious for their well-being, however, because we don't know them personally. It's just too abstract. Save the Children and similar organizations are well aware of this phenomenon; that's why they send you a picture and letters from the child you are "supporting." As I understand it, the money you send does not go directly into that child's hands, but instead goes into the general fund. This fund is then used to improve the welfare of all the children in the village, not just one lucky child. But by allowing people to get to know one child and maintaining the tacit illusion that they are supporting that particular child themselves, people are more likely to continue to donate. You can use this same psychological effect in your stories.

Personally, I think personal stakes are far, far more important that public stakes. Maass seems to rate them pretty much equally, and I can see that maybe including both will make a strong character story even stronger (see my entry on MICE for more on types of stories). So, put both types of stakes into your story, but whatever else you do, make maximum use of personal stakes. As I've said before, I have trouble truly hurting my characters, so this is advice I'll be focusing on as well.

*Here again, though, you can sell to game publishers, as this is often exactly the kind of material they are looking for.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Tony Blair, Leader of the Free World?

... yeah, okay, maybe not.

With apologies to our British friends, I've always considered Tony Blair to be something of Bush's toady and not much else*. I should immediately admit that I don't routinely keep up with politics in the U.K., other than knowing that British opinion of their leader is as divided as American opinion is of ours. Nevertheless, I always got the impression that Blair was basically blindly following Bush's lead without much question.

Since the London bombings, however, Blair has surprised me. If you'll recall, during the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, both Kerry and Bush prided themselves on making statements like, "We're going to kill the terrorists." As if that would solve the problem. I'm sorry to be the one to break the news to you boys, but these guys are blowing themselves up. They really don't mind being killed. Even if we somehow managed to kill all of the current generation of terrorists, more would spring up to take their place, if for no other reason than to avenge their friends and family members who were killed. This is how grudge wars that last for centuries begin. The cowboy gunslinger approach to international affairs rarely accomplishes anything positive. As I've said before, politically, I'm a moderate independent. I more or less detested both candidates in the last election, so I have no problem ragging on both of them.

This time, however, Blair has taken what I consider the most constructive and effective approach to curbing terrorism that I have seen yet. Blair, like most thinking human beings, has realized that 99% of Muslims are not terrorists any more than 99% of Christians are (The goal of the small percentage who killed people by blowing up clinics was, as I understand it, to protect the sanctity of life. Who says irony is the exclusive province of literature!). He has taken what I like to think of as the sociological approach to ending terrorism. The vast majority of the Muslim community abhors these acts of violence. Blair has asked the respected leaders of the Muslim community to step up and work to end the appeal of extremism to their young. That's a powerful idea. You see, the most powerful force known to man is not the hydrogen bomb.

It's peer pressure.

Look at tobacco use. Smoking is an unhealthy, smelly, polluting habit, and all of us -- even smokers -- know that. But in the movies, we saw people we admire smoking. It looked cool (or so they say; I always thought they looked geeky), so people wanted to emulate it. We are winning the war against underage smoking, not because of "tougher legislation that sends a strong message" but by simply making smoking uncool in today's culture. And how, you might ask, did we accomplish the change from "cool" to "uncool"? Through the movies and through literature. These are the two most direct paths to lasting social change. Sure, you can achieve social change at gunpoint, but it's not lasting change. In fact, obstinate as people are, you may actually strengthed the old ways, even if they do go underground. On the other hand, rebellions and entirely new ways of thinking have come about on a large and lasting scale by simply writing a fiction story, accessible to the public-at-large, that espouses a given viewpoint. This has been going on for over 3000 years.

And that is the power of what we do. Sure, all of us write "light" stories that are just meant to be fun. But our stories also have the chance to literally change the world, for better or worse. It's worth keeping in mind. Blair has finally realized the true power behind social change. Maybe he should take the next step and hire a few fiction writers to help him out over there at 10 Downing Street!

*At the moment, I don't think there is a leader of the free world. Bush isn't the leader any more than a schoolyard bully is the leader of the playground. I just wish at least one of the world's heads of state would take a stand on clear thinking and common sense instead of ideology. Blair, to his credit, has at least made a step in that direction.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Drawing from Life: Story Analysis

Yesterday I posted a description of a real-life event that I felt illustrated how you can show dramatic tension in a story. While the events that are reported really happened, the way in which I reported them was important. Whether or not the subject of a story is true is really irrelevant to good storytelling. I don't know if anyone actually reads my musings here, but on the off chance someone does, I figured I'd give you a day to think about the story before I comment on it. Today, I'd like to explain what I was trying to accomplish with the story craft-wise. I don't know how successful I was (it was just a first draft, after all -- I didn't even have time for any edits), but hopefully I can explain and make my point.

First of all, take a look at the pacing in the story. At the beginning, everything is moving along fairly slowly and smoothly. You'll notice that the sentences are longer and use words like "carefully," "double checked," and "thoroughly." All of these are intended to convey the feeling of slow, deliberate movement. What I'm trying to do is establish the norm. If you aren't a pilot, you've got no way of knowing that the frantic events at the end aren't routine events. So, just as with Dibell's "Rule of Three" that I mentioned a few days ago, we have to establish the norm before we can shatter it. As the story progresses, notice how the pace picks up. Paragraphs become shorter. Sentences become fragmentary, and there are more of them. By the time of the actual landing, I'm down to three-word phrases fired one after the other. Not only am I trying to build the dramatic tension, I'm also trying to convey the rush of scenery that races past your window as you bring a plane in for landing. Even if your airspeed doesn't change, things seem to move much faster the closer you get to the ground. Note also that you never actually see the touchdown itself. Having (hopefully) built the tension in the reader's mind, there's nothing I could write that can be as dramatic as his own imagination. Did he make it? Did he run off the runway? The tension at this point should be at its absolute maximum, and I want to hold it for as long as I can. There is some white space to separate the next paragraph, and then I return immediately to the slower pacing structure (longer sentences, etc.). The fact that things are now moving slowly tells you that we're safe and everything is okay. Not coincidentally, that's also how the pilot feels when he's taxiing off the runway. There's a feeling of relief (even in the most experienced pilots) and release of tension. Hopefully that came across in the writing as well.

Second of all, note the breaks for dialog versus description. Now, normally in the stories I write, I include a lot more dialog than this. I'm of the opinion that, in general, dialog conveys the story much better than description. But read the description carefully. Even when there is no dialog, I'm communicating what I'm thinking and feeling, all the while trying to build the tension as things start to break down after the winds kick in. I'm not just describing my surroundings. Also, aviation radio transmissions are very hard to follow in print because they are so full of jargon (in order to keep transmissions brief). I wanted to include enough dialog to add an authentic feeling of actually being in the cockpit with me, but I didn't want to overwhelm my non-pilot readers. As I've said in other essays, though, I didn't put the dialog in just to serve this one mechanical purpose, I tried to make sure that it earned its place in the story. In each of the three main dialog sections, I'm trying to convey a specific mood. The first shows a professional, safe, and careful pilot. Again, we're trying to establish a norm, to show that the pilot (that's me, in case you've lost track) is not a reckless screw-up. The second is intended to reveal my surprise at the realization I'm in trouble, yet still struggling to keep things regular. The final dialog piece is intended to show that we're okay and even the controllers acknowledge that it was a tough landing that came out okay. That further adds to the sense of relief at the end of the story.

See if you can find the foreshadowing that set up the events to come. The student pilot who extended his downwind, for example, becomes a clue as to what has happened to the winds. But this clue doesn't fall into place until later in the story; you aren't aware of its import until it is important. It also allowed the pilot to be rattled enough so that when the real tension starts, it's run up that much more in a believable way. Same idea with the suddenly-deserted traffic pattern -- not much is made of the fact initially, but it becomes increasingly clear that this is major sign something's wrong. The wind shear that hit on the balked approach (the one I waved off) was designed to show that the situation I hit on the next go-around could have potentially fatal effects. It also increases the tension by showing why I was forced to land much faster than I really felt I could control. Again, the tension increases.

Finally, the ending (no pun intended). I sum up my feelings at the end and make a point of showing the confidence I had gained as a result of the adventure. Remember, your characters need to change in some way as a result of the story, or it's not a story. The final sentence acknowledges this change, but reinforces the relief at being home and simultaneously reminds us of the tension we felt during the story (in hopes the story will stick in their minds even after they are finished reading).

I hope that this insight into my thought processes is useful. A story should speak for itself; it shouldn't need explaining. But I thought that if I gave you a "peek at the man behind the curtain" it might be informative. At the very least, I find that metacognition (thinking about thinking) on my own writing process helps me to refine it for the next time, so I think it's a worthwhile exercise!

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Drawing from Life: Dramatic Tension

I've mentioned before that a writer needs to be a keen observer of the world around him so that he can translate his experiences and observations into stories. One of the more difficult things to do, however, is to find the real-life sources of dramatic tension that are so necessary for good stories. Yesterday I received some of that in spades, so I thought I'd record what happened here as an example.

I am a private pilot. I fly little Cessna 152 (2 seat) and 172SP (4 seat, more power) high-wing airplanes. Because I only fly about twice a month, I'm a pretty good pilot, but I'm not a Great Pilot (although I know from experience that when I fly every week I'm a very good pilot. Being something of a perfectionist when it comes to flying helps a lot). I normally fly the 152 just because it's cheaper and usually it's just me in the aircraft, but I try to stay current in the larger 172 in case I need to take my family somewhere. In order to stay current (for rental purposes, not FAA purposes), you can't go more than 60 days without flying that model aircraft. My 60 days would have run out today, so it was important that I go out and log some time in the aircraft.

I showed up at the airport, signed for the aircraft, and walked out onto the flight line to start the pre-flight inspection. The plane was only 30 hours away from its next required overhaul, so I took my time with the inspection, double-checking to make sure everything was as it should be. Being a fuel-injected aircraft, the systems on the 172 are quite a bit more complicated (and the instruments are in different locations) than the 152, so I made sure I went through the checklist very thoroughly. There was no wind at all, and since it was still very early in the morning, the temperature was only up to about 97 F. A perfect day to grab some landing practice in the traffic pattern.

I checked the field's weather on the radio (it's called ATIS -- Automated Terminal Information System) one last time, and once I was sure I had my ducks in a row, I called Ground Control and asked for clearance to taxi to the active runway. I was cleared to the runway I had used throughout most of my flight training, so I counted that a fortuitous sign. I was still not completely comfortable with the aircraft as I taxied to the runway -- recall I hadn't flown this plane in two months -- but things were coming together. I simply had to consciously make sure I was doing everything right, whereas in the 152 the procedures are almost instinctive to me. Engine run-up went fine, though I noticed the heat was making the engine run a little rough at idle (higher temperatures mean the air is less dense, so has less oxygen in it for the engine to burn). Not a problem, really, so long as it didn't completely quit when I chopped the power at landing. While it coughed a little, it didn't look like it was going to let me down, so I switched over to Tower to let them know I was ready to go.

"Glendale Tower, Cessna 35389, number one at Alpha One, closed traffic."

"Cessna Three Eight Niner, position and hold runway 1, traffic is a Cessna Skylane remaining in the pattern."

"Position and hold, traffic in sight, Cessna 389."

Hmm, I thought. A lot of traffic in the pattern today. Mostly students, probably, so I'd better keep a close eye out -- students do really dumb things sometimes.

"Cessna 389, cleared for takeoff, right closed traffic approved."

"Cleared for takeoff, right closed traffic, Cessna 389."

I made a last check of the instruments, smoothly pushed the throttle all the way in, and roared down the runway. Now, the 172SP has a lot more power than the 152, so she was wanting to leap into the sky. I held her nose down until we accelerated to 55 knots, then rotated back and we soared skyward. I saw the Skylane ahead of me turn right into the next leg of the pattern, so I knew I was clear. There were seven aircraft a pattern normally designed to accomodate four, so the Tower controller was extremely busy. My first time around the traffic pattern I had to stretch out my downwind leg so that a student who was on a too-long final approach could get his act together. This put me too high and too far out when I made my turn to the base leg. I came around for my own final approach, put the flaps down, checked my airspeed and engine RPM, and made a smooth, but slightly left of centerline landing. Not too shabby, but the next one needs to be better, I thought.

I taxied back to the runway (I don't generally do touch and go's because I like to have time to think about and critique my performance. It also lets me get some takeoff practice as well.) and got ready for takeoff again. Wind was still calm, the wind sock was completely flat. That student had thrown off my routine a bit, so I was concentrating on keeping my head together. I took off, and as I passed the tower on the downwind leg, I realized that there was no one in the pattern. I had heard some calls from pilots saying they were departing for Goodyear (a nearby airfield), but didn't think much about it. All of the sudden, I was alone in the air. That's odd, I thought. I didn't carry this to its logical conclusion because I was still concentrating on getting back into my routine with this unfamiliar and overpowered aircraft.

I turned onto the final approach path, dropped the flaps, and BAM! I hit a sink that put me in a 750 feet per minute descent -- and I was only 500 feet off the ground. As my stomach crawled back out of my throat, another gust of wind knocked me hard from the right side, blowing me way over to the left side of the airfield. At this point, I knew something was wrong, but I didn't yet know what.

I didn't even consider trying to salvage the landing. I was in trouble, and I knew it. I quickly called Tower and let them know I was going to wave off the landing and go around, while at the same time, I gave the engine full power and started taking the flaps out. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind not to just yank the flaps up. At my low airspeed and in what I was suspecting was a rapid wind shift, I'd stall the plane and fall out of the sky. The plane was struggling to get back in the air. I needed airspeed, and I needed altitude, and I needed it right then. The mental fortitude to force myself to slowly bring the flaps up one notch at a time came from nothing but rigorous and repeated training in simulated go-arounds during flight school.

When I finally got the flaps up, I was halfway across the runway and back up to about 500' above the ground. I was okay, the plane was back in a flying configuration, and we were gaining altitude rapidly. I called Tower and asked for the current winds, which the radio was still labelling "calm". There was a pause before the controller got back to me.

"Ummm. Cessna 389, winds are now 090 at 12."

What??? "Cessna 35389, roger the winds." Jimminy H. Christmas on a popsicle stick...

Now I knew I was really in trouble. The plane was stable, I had plenty of gas, but I'd never tried to land this thing in a 12-knot crosswind blowing almost 90 degrees to the runway. 15 knots was the strongest crosswind even the professional test pilots had ever tried to face in this plane. Not only would the winds be slamming me to the left the instant I made that turn to final, but I also would have essentially no headwind to slow the plane down as I tried to put it on the ground. Added to all was the fact that I was still not comfortable with the plane and wasn't at all sure my skills were up to the challenge. I briefly considered going to look for another place to land the sucker, but with no car at the other airport and no way to get home, that would be problematic at best. As I turned downwind, I started putting together a plan, knowing that with the winds shifting as rapidly as they were, there was a very good chance I was about to become an FAA statistic. Briefly, I regreted going flying in shorts, wishing desperately I had on my fireproof Nomex flight suit.

I stretched out my downwind leg, so that I would have plenty of time to get my head together on the approach. It occurred to me that student pilot may also have been in trouble, and his instructor had him extend just to help him get the plane on the ground. I now realized that's probably why they had called it a day. The controller, who was now aware of the winds, was giving updates to the aircraft coming in from other places -- most of them decided to seek greener pastures. I began to wish I had woken my wife up to tell her I was leaving, just in case I didn't make it down. I had a perfectly healthy aircraft with a full tank of gas. Unless I totally bombed it at the very end (which was where the landing would be most difficult anyway, unfortunately), I could always wave off and go somewhere else. If the sink didn't hit me at the wrong moment. If I didn't get blown off the runway before I was slow enough to stop. If I didn't simply do something stupid and screw up royally.

The pucker factor was rather high at this point.

I made the turn to base, the last one before heading onto the final approach. The wind was banging me all over the sky. All along the downwind leg, I had been mentally reviewing crosswind landing techniques -- something we don't get much opportunity to practice here in Arizona. Crap! I forgot to check in with Tower on downwind -- I don't have clearance to land yet! Not only that, the controller thinks I'm going to taxi back to the runway when/if I get down. I got on the radio and called, "Cessna 389, this will be a full stop and back to parking, sir."

"Cessna 389, roger, thank you. Cleared to land."

It's going to be a full stop all right. But how hard of a stop? Okay, so here's the plan: We'll use only one notch of flaps and land hot. Too slow with only 10 degrees of flaps and we'll stall. Faster means less blowing off the runway. Less flaps means an easier go-around if I need it. I hope the gear on this bird can take this. I hope I have enough runway. I hope ...

I turned to the final approach path and tried to get lined up on the runway. A "slightly left of centerline" landing this time would likely be fatal. Wings rocked into the wind, rudder forcing the nose back straight. I made continuous adjustments to keep myself on centerline. So far, so good ... Because I was in a cross-controlled "slip" (rudder one direction, wings the other), I was dropping like a stone. Not only that, if my airspeed dropped too much, the resulting cross-controlled stall would put me in a spin even the professionals couldn't recover from. I gave it extra power in case I hit that downdraft again. I glanced at the airspeed indicator. Bloody hell! 100 knots! I can't do that! I'll crumple this thing like aluminum foil!

I backed off on the power and resisted the urge to raise the nose, which would have caused me to stall and end my little adventure in a river bed a mile short of the runway. The airspeed dropped to 80 knots, about 20 knots faster than I usually land, but within parameters. You can do this, Kilo. Just stay with it.

200 feet. 100 feet. Still lined up. 50 feet. Start the flare, bring the nose up. Land on just the right wheel. Here we go...

Right main down. Bring the left down! Get the nose down! Easy, easy, gentle corrections. Too much correction now will kill you... Damn, we're fast! Three wheels down, easy on the brakes! There goes midfield, running out of runway...

"Cessna 389, turn left at Alpha Seven, taxi to the ramp, monitor Ground."

"Left at Alpha Seven, taxi to the ramp and monitor Ground, thank you very much, sir. Cessna 389."

"Cessna Three Eight Niner -- nice job."

My legs were shaking so badly as I taxied back to parking that I could barely steer (you steer a plane with your feet when on the ground). I pulled into the parking spot, shut the engine down, and just sat in the cockpit for a moment. I'd stretched my flying ability today, something I wouldn't normally do intentionally. Could I do it again if I had to? Yeah, I think I could.

But not today.


I'm not saying you should become a pilot just so you can get your heart beating faster every now and again, although if you write science fiction, I can't think of a better way to get a feel for real space flight. But have you ever been in an auto accident? Or better yet, narrowly missed being in an auto accident? What were you feeling at the time? Write it down! These kinds of experiences are gold for writers, right along with feelings of unrequited love, the death of a loved one, and thrill of winning first place in a marathon. If you want your characters to feel the raw emotion, it's absolutely critical that you be able to feel it yourself first.

Your characters will hate you. Your reader will love you.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Promising Premises

I'm now a couple of chapters into Don Maass' book, Writing the Breakout Novel. I had intentions of writing on my observations for a few days now, but more important topics have presented themselves. The first chapter in Maass' book is on premise. In many ways, this is related to Ansen Dibell's test for a good story idea. Maass advises that you make sure your premise meets four tests:

  • Plausibility: Could the story have happened to any of us?
  • Inherent Conflict: Is there conflict inherent in the setting itself, or in the characters?
  • Originality: Does the premise explore a new perspective on an old story?
  • Gut Emotional Appeal: Does the story have a strong emotional appeal that reaches the reader at a deep level?

While Maass doesn't assign any extra weight to one of these criteria over another, I think that of these four, the idea of inherent conflict is the most important. Too often we think up interesting settings, and fascinating characters, and then try to think of some way we can put them in conflict with each other. That approach can work. But if there is conflict inherent in your situation before you even start "casting" the roles, then the conflict will drive the plot much more naturally than having that conflict superimposed upon the situation.

Plausibility is a given. While you can subject your character to a series of very unlikely events and make a decent story out of it, a lot of times the story becomes farce rather than drama. That's perfectly okay if that's what you're shooting for, but you need to be cognizant of it. If, on the other hand, you are trying for drama or serious action, you can easily shake your reader out of his "willing suspension of disbelief." As I mentioned in the entry on War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise's character has both the best and the worst luck of any character I've run across. What are the odds of escaping an alien invasion only to have an airliner drop on your head? It's just too much of a stretch, and it seriously weakens the story.

Originality is a tough one. It's a fact that pretty much every story there is to tell has already been told in one form or another. That's why Maass recommends (and I agree) that instead of looking for totally new ideas -- a probably fruitless search, but hey, you never know -- look instead for an angle on a situation that no one has explored before. There are no hard and fast rules for this; it's one of those "it comes to you or it doesn't" kind of things. There's nothing but your own creativity here, folks.

And finally, gut emotional appeal speaks to my theory that you have to exploit the connection to your readers' psychology to really tell a good story. At some point, I'm going to formalize this theory and write an essay on it, but it's still not quite to the point where I can explain it in a self-consistent way. If I can finally work through this idea, I think there might be a few small nuggets of gold for all of us there. We'll see. Of course, it could also turn out to be just like my overall impression of Maass' book so far: "Well, duh." But I don't mean that in a disparaging way. I think a lot of things that Maass points are things that we as writers instinctively know. But actually having them pointed out in a direct way is a very useful reminder, so that we make sure each story we tell is as powerful as it can be.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Lord, One to Beam Up

James Montgomery Doohan
3 March 1920 - 20 July 2005

In case you hadn't heard, James Doohan, the actor who played Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott on Star Trek, died yesterday morning from pneumonia. He was 85 years old, which surprised the hell out of me. My grandmother, who died a couple of years ago, was born in the same year, yet he was in far, far better shape. Must have been all that scotch. Scotty was probably my favorite character in any of the various incarnations for Star Trek (though I really didn't like his appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation -- it was as though he was playing a caricature of himself). Kirk was too pompous for his own good. Spock was okay, but it's hard to feel for someone who doesn't feel. Scotty, on the other hand, was a character in every sense of the word. He was always my favorite character on the show, the one I most identified with. While it may be true that Doohan was never able to get away from the role of Scotty in his acting career, in truth, he didn't need to. He was like someone who played the best department store Santa you've ever seen. You didn't want him to play anything else.

In reading the obituaries and tributes to him, I learned some things I didn't know. For example, he hit the beaches of Normandy in World War II and lost a finger in the process (you'd never know it from the series or movies). He didn't like Bill Shatner, but while I didn't know that, it really didn't come as a surprise. No one liked Bill Shatner. I still don't. Captain Kirk was moderately okay sometimes, but the actor himself just grated on my nerves. His latest line of commercials are simply pathetic.

But Doohan had class. He knew he had been permanently type-cast, so he made up his mind to have fun with it. And have fun he did. I respect that a great deal. You know the man had a great life when you consider that his youngest son was born in 2000. You go, Scotty!

What was the appeal of Star Trek? Many people wiser than I have asked that question. I think that, more than anything else, Star Trek was the first television series that offered a complete world to the viewer, instead of isolated stories that could have taken place anywhere. People saw a place where they wished they could actually live, so they formed communities to live out that dream. It wasn't the series itself, I don't think. It was the sense of community among the fans that fueled the phenomenon. While this kind of community is somewhat rare in written fiction, it does occur. I think Anne Rice's vampire novels are the best example of this. Even Harry Potter doesn't have a large a cult following. I think this stresses to us as writers the importance of a solid, believable background for the worlds we create. Can you tell a good story without a fully-developed background? Sure you can. But you can tell a much more powerful story if you take the time to create a world that your readers would like to explore themselves one day.

Warp speed, Scotty. You will be missed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Turning Point

I arrived at an interesting realization yesterday evening. It was one of those moments when you suddenly stop, look around, and light dawns on you that totally changes your worldview. I need to give you a little background here. Typically, once I put the baby to bed (around 7 PM), my wife and I log on to one of the massively multiplayer online (MMO) games that we play. We've played these games for three or four years now, starting with the launch of Anarchy Online and with the exception of Everquest and its sequels and The Matrix Online, I think I can say without exaggeration we have played or beta-tested just about every MMO that has ever been created. We're currently playing City of Heroes and Guild Wars, for those who are interested in that trivia. It's good escapist fun and a great chance to reconnect with old friends from college and grad school. I "see" them every couple of days, so it has really served to keep us all in touch. It's one of the things my wife and I have in common, so it's a great way to spend time with her as well.

My wife has been teaching her astronomy class four nights a week this summer, so the impetus to log on hasn't been as strong lately, but I've still been playing. Last night, however, I realized that I was more interested in reading and thinking about writing than I was in playing a game. This is more significant than it might appear. Anne Perry, a historical mystery writer, wrote that she is often asked, "Should I become a writer?" Her response has always been that if anything she could say had the possibility of changing your mind about being a writer, then no, you shouldn't be one. Her point is that if you aren't driven by a need to write, then you have no chance to make it in this business. I've heard numerous other authors express similar sentiments.

Frankly, I don't buy it, and I never have.

I don't feel the burning need to write. I don't feel that it is healthy to neglect your family, friends, and the rest of your life in order to write -- even though I have heard writers I respect say exactly that. Balance is important in all things, and writing is no exception. To this point, I've dismissed these statements of the obsessive-compulsive theory of writing. Surely they don't really believe that, and even if they do, I believe they're wrong.

But last night it occurred to me that maybe there is another way to look at it. I still don't need to write. Maybe that's because writing is my job and not something special I do on the side, I don't know. It occurs to me, however, that maybe the required mental state is not being obsessively driven, but instead for writing to be something you actually enjoy -- enjoy as much as playing games, or watching football, or whatever your favorite form of entertainment might be. I've always looked at writing as working. Enjoyable work, granted, but work nonetheless. Could it be that the motivation -- the drive -- that all these authors say is critical to success could arise from the simple enjoyment of writing? It would seem to have essentially the same effect, but is, in my opinion, a much healthier outlook.

There are those who will say that everyone gets bored with their hobbies or their jobs at some point. If enjoyment was all that was keeping you writing, how do you keep writing when that pleasure is absent? We used to say in the Navy, "If you aren't having fun, you aren't doing it right." The corollary of that is that if you aren't having fun, do it differently until you are. Writing has endless, endless challenges, so I think there is enough to keep anyone interested for many, many years, provided they can stay out of the proverbial rut. On the other hand, if writing truly isn't enjoyable for you anymore, stop writing. I've never understood the tales of the "artists" who absolutely hate what they are doing, yet feel "driven" to do it anyway. That makes no sense whatsoever.

Does the fact that I write because I enjoy it mean that I have less dedication than those who are "driven" by a need to write? I don't think so, though I suspect those writers would strongly disagree with me. My understanding of psychology tells me that it is much more difficult to be creative when you are stressed, angry, or depressed. I would contend that he who can write because he enjoys it will write better fiction than one who "struggles for his art."

Time will tell, I suppose.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Death of the Midlist

I finished Ansen Dibell's book on plot last night (the last chapter was on non-plot methods of storytelling, something I've almost never enjoyed, but that's for another essay). I had read an interview with Don Maass, a literary agent of some regard, in The Writer magazine. I was impressed by the interview, so I picked up a copy of his book, Writing the Breakout Novel. His writing style is a bit ... breathless ... but there's no denying he has some high-powered clients who have made some high-powered sales. I'm always interested in the opinions of editors and reputable agents, so I think this book will be worthwhile.

While I've only read the first two chapters, so far there's nothing earthshaking in the book. What he does do is inspire you not to be lazy, to make conflict on every page, characters with depth (which he defines -- a very useful thing), etc. He doesn't give any magic formula, and that's good, because my bogus alarm would have gone off if he had. He does provide some useful advice on what he looks for in a book, however.

One thing he does mention, though, is something I've suspected but never really had confirmed: If you want to be a career fiction writer, it's not good enough just to get published. In today's world, it's not even good enough to be midlist. In fact, writing a poor-selling novel can be worse than not selling a novel at all, since you may kill your chance of ever selling a book again. Maass points out that you can't blame it on uncooperative publishers who don't promote your book. He says that book tours and such account for perhaps 2000-3000 sales, total. That's a tiny, tiny fraction of what you need to sell to make it as author. All of the rest of those sales, Maass says, come from word of mouth. Someone reads your book, gets excited, and tells his friend, "Here you've got to read this!" So, according to Maass, the "secret" of writing the breakout novel is writing a story that will get the reader excited enough to tell a friend.

Well, yeah.

But Maass makes his point with an enthusiasm that makes this rather obvious statement worth reading. What I find most interesting about Maass' book so far is that he unapologetically raises the bar. It's bloody, bloody hard to get published -- but just getting published isn't good enough. You will get little to no support from your publisher in generating sales for your book -- but that means that the element for success lies 100% with you and your writing. You don't need luck, and you don't need connections, Maass says. You need to be able to write well. So, what seems like a statement of gloom and doom is turned into one of optimism. He's definitely a "glass half full" kind of guy.

In truth, I like to be challenged. I don't want it to be easy; I want to accomplish something hard. Financial rewards have never been my goal (or else I wouldn't be considering leaving a $50k/year paying gig), but the acclaim and repect of my peers is something I value. I want the publishing challenge to be hard, so I find that I'm drawn to Maass' attitude. Of course, if I didn't really believe deep down that I've got the talent, I'd be scared witless, but I really do believe I can pull this off. I've gotten some good comments from some respected professionals. My fiction writing skill is not there yet. But I think the raw talent is there, I just need to get it trained, refined, and honed to the sharpness needed to succeed. If Maass' book serves as nothing more than a motivational kick in the pants, I think it's worth the cost of admission.

I'll let you know.

Monday, July 18, 2005

War of the Worlds

I tried unsuccessfully to write this without major spoilers, but I don't don't think I'm revealing too much. If you've read the book, seen the original version of the movie, or heard the (in)famous radio play, there definitely won't be anything new here. The movie is fairly true to the original, overall. The one big change they made (the origin of the alien war machines) I didn't like at all, since it didn't seem to make any sense. (I'll have to let you wonder about that comment -- see the film.) Other than that, the movie is a decently faithful rendition of the tale, told from the perspective of one New Yorker during the attack.

This blog entry is not really a review a of the movie, though. I am almost finished with Dibell's plot book, and one of the closing chapters is on pacing. Dibell makes the comment that a fiction story should take time to reflect during the story, to vary the pace somewhat during the course of the tale. She refers to a tale that is nothing but Big Scenes (action or otherwise) as a "string of pearls" -- lots of connected bumps, but not a smoothly-flowing narrative. The movie version of War of the Worlds is, in many ways, a lot like Dibell's string of pearls. I do realize that this was, to a certain extent, Spielberg's intent. The movie moves forward at an incredible pace from one disaster scene to the next. Some of the disasters that befall the protagonist (Tom Cruise) are pretty unlikely -- he has both the phenomenal bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time over and the almost Jedi-like senses to allow him to escape disaster. There really is very, very little in the way of character development in the movie -- again, not Spielberg's goal, but in my opinion that makes for a less satisfying tale. Spielberg also plants a number of scenes in the movie that serve no purpose other than to explain and prepare for something that will happen later in the film. I'm going to have to talk about some specifics here, but it's not much of a spoiler. In the opening of the film, Cruise's character is a dock worker who seems to have an incredibly good eye for operating a crane. Shortly after he drops a huge crate onto a rail car, there is a somewhat gratuitous scene with the foreman, who is trying to get Cruise to work an extra shift (he says "half of Korea is coming into port" which is pretty dumb, considering the movie takes place in New York). The foreman says he needs Cruise because he's the only one who can unload 40 crates in an hour. You're left scratching your head as to the purpose of this scene (Cruise more or less ignores the foreman through the whole scene, so it's hard to see the importance). I assume, though, that this is establishing Cruise's character's almost supernatural reflexes that get him out of trouble. Another useless scene has the aliens leaving their ship to investigate a basement in which Cruise and family happen to be hiding. The aliens aren't scouting, they're just poking around looking at trinkets. In no other case do the aliens leave their ships, and why would they bother with a basement in a rural house if they wanted to? It turns out that in order for the ending to make sense, we need to see what a healthy alien looks like. At the end, you see a dying alien who is obviously sick -- but you wouldn't know what he was supposed to look like if you hadn't seen a healthy one 30 minutes before. There are other examples, but this gives you the idea. The family relationships that supposedly form the subplot aren't very well developed. It almost seems like an afterthought to the horror of being invaded. There are a number inconsistencies in the plot (if the aliens planned this extermination millions of years ago, why wait until the place is overrun with humans to mount the effort?), but they don't end up being really important to the overall goal of the movie -- lots and lots of blowing things up.

Planting hints to make a later scene make sense is absolutely necessary in our writing. Readers will cry foul almost immediately if you pull something out of a hat at the last minute. But when you are placing those hints, don't make the hints the purpose of the scene! Work them into the narrative as secondary details. Make sure the scene carries its own weight first, then add the foreshadowing. As an action flick, War of the Worlds works. My wife, who didn't know the story, was jumping and tense through many parts of the movie. Spielberg's version definitely moves -- continuously, quickly. If that was his goal, he definitely succeeded. But even my wife, who enjoyed the film, said that there really wasn't much plot to it at all. That makes for a cotton candy story: Great as going down, but forgotten within minutes when it is finished.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Random Story Idea Generators

I am somewhat ambivalent about systems to generate story ideas at random. I have tried it, but the results were somewhat mixed. I had a set of Native American "Sacred Path Cards" (I have no real clue as to authenticity of these cards, but given my brief exposure to working on the local Navaho reservation, I have my doubts). I drew one card at random ("Counting Coup," I believe it was), looked up the meaning of the card, and came up with a story based around that concept. It was an interesting exercise, but I can't say as the story really thrilled me. I did write a complete story, and it certainly had a message that was related to the card, but it was nowhere near one of my better stories. I've seen other idea generators based on the same principle. If you want to try it for yourself, you can go to this link and use an applet based on the site's "Archetype Cards." The cards, by the way, are beautiful, so there may be some inspiration there just in that.

I'm certain that cards and other gimmicks can generate an idea for a story. The story I wrote certainly shows that. So from that standpoint, if you're really stuck for something to write about, maybe they might get the creative juices flowing. On the other hand, I have a couple of problems with this method. First of all, any plot needs to have some kind of logical consistency. Holly Lisle has recommended drawing a random map for your story's world and then trying to explain all the squiggles in a logical manner. I think that works well for background (which is inherently non-story), but I don't think it works so well when you're trying to tie random plot elements together. Anything which doesn't directly advance the story, must be cut out. The odds of one of these random plot elements surviving that test is fairly small. Secondly -- and more importantly -- however, as I've said in previous entries, if you personally don't have a stake in the story as a writer, your readers aren't going to have a stake in it either. It is very difficult to have a personal stake in a random plot.

In general, I think as long you don't force yourself to stick with the idea and plot elements generated by these systems, you're probably okay. They might even be useful. You may start a story based on these cards (or whatever device you are using), but end up branching off into a tale you really care about. That's great, just remember to go back and chop the extra stuff that no longer fits. My experience has been, though, that if a writer is observing the world around him, then ideas are a dime a dozen. The cards may be another source of inspiration, and that's fine. But just don't forsake the real world around you for inspiration as well.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Harry Potter Day

Today is, of course, the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth Harry Potter book (just in case there is anyone in the Western world who doesn't know that already). I find it endlessly fascinating that this afternoon and evening, tens of millions of children, teenagers, and adults will be curled up on the couch doing exactly the same thing -- reading the same fiction book. That is a seriously powerful event. Other than the Bible, I can't think of a single work of literature that can make the same claim. How did Rowling do it? I've read the first four books (I got bogged down in the fifth and never finished it -- I'm told the first half drags, but the rest is better), and they are good. But they aren't the best books I've ever read. What is the source of the phenomenon? This is not an idle question. As writers, we should be striving for the kind of impact that Rowling has achieved with every tale we tell.

My best guess as to the reason for Harry's appeal is that he is a truly sympathetic character. Everyone has felt abused to some lesser or greater extent in their lives. Harry has been abused (far worse than any of us will be), and yet isn't bitter about at all. He's still a basically good and nice kid. And we respect that about him. We care about him almost immediately. When it turns out that he could be the most powerful wizard of his age -- if only he could overcome his disadvantaged background -- we cheer for him even more. And the final twist that keeps us turning the page is that there is obviously a lot about Harry that we don't know -- and neither do the characters. How did he defeat Voldemort as a baby (we have some hints now, but we don't know)? What were his parents like, why were they special? The mysteries, revealed piece at a time, draw us into the story and keep us there. Rowling, as I understand it, was not a professional writer. I don't know if she ever studied writing or if her grasp of all this is just instinct. She certainly wrote the right book at the right time in society, but to dismiss her success as simple luck would be completely wrong. There's a lot to learn here. We should all take a serious study of the phenomenon.

Friday, July 15, 2005

The Rule of Three

I have been continuing to read Ansen Dibell's plot book and have found more gems in it. One of those is her "Rule of Three."* The idea is that you should employ a plot element three times to show its importance in the story. She explains this using the analogy of electric shock treatments. Suppose you receive an electric shock every time a bell rings. The first time the shock happens, you are so surprised that you don't really have a chance to notice the bell at all before its over. The second time it happens, you may start to nervoudly realize that the bell and shock are tied together and aren't just a coincidence. By the third time the bell rings, you're already tensed up and panicked before the shock even takes place. You can use this device to build suspense in your story. By setting up an important situation and having the character fail, you've delivered the equivalent of the first electric shock to the reader. But it won't be until the third time that the situation presents itself that your reader will be genuinely tense and concerned. As she puts it, once is an incident, twice is a pattern. On the third try, the reader knows what is at stake and can appreciate the character's effort when he breaks the pattern to finially succeed.

While I don't believe that you must follow this formula exactly, I think the principle that it embodies is quite sound. I don't think you need exactly three incidents, nor do I think Dibell is saying that the incidents must be identical. I think there should be a clear connection between the incidents, however, and I could be persuaded that three is the minimum number of occurrences that necesary to trigger the psychological response. My problem is that, like many beginning fiction writers, I have a hard time truly hurting the characters I like. I have a tendency to put them in situations where they have to struggle and the outcome is always in doubt, but they never really fail at the task. For example, I wrote a YA story in which the protagonist has a crush on a boy in her habitat. The boy is nice to her, but doesn't show her any romantic interest beyond friendship. This disappoints the protagonist, and she has to deal with those feelings. If I really wanted to hurt her, though, I should have the boy say or do something that is unintentionally cruel to her. It's important to the story that the reader like this boy, so he couldn't do anything intentionally mean (since I'd then have to explain the change of heart in both characters), but there's nothing stopping me from having him make her life difficult without meaning to. Even that level of hurt is pretty mild (though not, of course, for a teenager). One of the things I will have to work on is finding ways to have the plot hurt my characters while still being consistent with the overall theme of the story.

* A totally unrelated side note here. I recognize that proper grammer says that punctuation should be inside the quotation marks. I can't stand this. I mean, I have a totally irrational, unrelenting hatred for this convention. It looks completely wrong, and I would argue that it's logically wrong as well. In the above case, "Rule of Three" is string that represents a single concept. It's a word in its own right. Because it is a word, it doesn't make sense to include punctuation as part of the word itself. In dialogue, the character is expressing a complete thought in his sentence, so it makes total sense to include the punctuation inside the quotes. Who do we petition to change the rules of grammar? Is there a committee somewhere hiding in the shadows that we can entreat?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

On the Internet, No One Knows You're a Dog

Like most people, I have friends and relatives who find (or are emailed) things on the Internet, which they then mail to everyone they know. Most of the time, these things are harmless, if somewhat annoying. For example, several years ago someone sent around a message saying that "if you forward this message to ten of your friends, the Taco Bell dog will dance across your screen." Umm. Right. A text message simply can't do that, but very few people seem to understand just what email really is and how it works. If they saw it on the net and it looks semi-official, it must be true, right?

Some of these things are just sad. I have received several emails wondering what time will be the best time to watch Mars when "it's as big as the full moon." Ooooo-kay. First of all, Mars is about twice the size of the Moon, so if it appears to be as big as the full moon, then it must be about 500,000 miles away. A body of this mass at this distance would cause tides sufficient to wipe out civilization as we know it. And not only that, how are you going to get Mars to leave its orbit in the first place? In reality, most people just don't have much of a clue about just how big the Solar System is. If our education system is failing to teach these things, maybe it's time for science fiction writers to step up to the plate. I think this may be one underlying reason why I tend to write hard SF instead of space opera.

But the emails that are going around have recently gotten quite a bit scarier. I was recently forwarded one that basically says we should happily throw away our civil rights in order to "win the war on terror"* and that all Muslims are terrorists and should be eradicated. The writer wrote in much more reasonable terms than that, of course, but this was essentially the message. I've seen other emails talking about how the media is conspiring to hide the fact that there are tens of thousands of fully-trained Iraqi policemen right now, something that is patently false (check the reports of the US military commanders in Iraq). Now ordinarily, I just ignore these things. The writer has an axe to grind and is more than willing to play fast and loose with the facts, so I'm not inclined to worry about any of the points made (some of which may even be good, some not). What scares me is that the people forwarding these messages blindly accept the statements as fact, even though some of those "facts" are flat-out wrong and others ignore the larger context of the situation. I would like to think that educated, thinking adults would think about these posts and see them for what they are, but if it came over the net, it must be true, right? Just like Mars is going to be as big as the full moon. When I saw that the message had been forwarded to some very impressionable teenagers that I know of, I finally had to write back and say something. The writers of those posts are 100% entitled to their opinion. As Beatrice Hall said (paraphrasing Voltaire), "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The flip side of that is that we also have a responsiblity to make sure that our children are critical, discerning thinkers who can analyze a situation -- or Internet posting -- and come to their own logical and rational conclusions about it, distinguishing facts from spin. Our own government, unfortunately, isn't helping things much, as they have publicly stated they have no problem using propaganda on our people to sway public opinion.

What does this have to do with writing? A lot, actually. Science fiction, as I alluded to above, is uniquely positioned to teach children (and adults) about the real world in an entertaining format. Our stories should make people think. They should understand the advantages and the limitations of technology. But most of all, science fiction gives the reader a chance to explore a "what-if" world where the events of today can be carried to their logical conclusions -- a powerful way to teach about the world. While we all enjoy reading "fluff" stories, I think the most powerful stories have always been those the make us realize something about our own world that maybe we hadn't thought about before. I've mentioned this aspect of writing before, but I think now more than ever we writers need to take up the tools of our trade and get to work on meaningful stories that can illuminate the people of our country and the world.

There may not be a world to write about much longer if we don't.

*We have a "war on terror" only the same sense that we have a "war on crime" or a "war on drugs." Sorry, folks, but you are never going to stop crime (and terrorists are criminals, not soldiers -- let's not dignify them by referring to them as "soldiers," "insurgents," or "enemy combatants"). You sure as heck can and should fight it with everything you've got, but it's not a "war" in the literal sense of the word. This is why I cringe everytime I hear someone say that the powers we are granting the government are temporary. If the war never ends, then they are permanent, folks.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Mirrors and Echos

I read an interesting chapter on using mirror events and repetition in plotting in Ansen Dibell's book last night . Now, this doesn't mean the literal repeating of words, it means having events in the plot that subtly echo events that have happened previously in the story. A mirror event is essentially the same thing, but echos the opposite of the previous events. She uses the example of the second movie of the "classic" Star Wars trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, as an example. I'm sure I'm not going to remember all of the parallels she mentioned in this example, but I'll try to give you a few. As most of you undoubtedly know, the movie has two plotlines going on simultaneously: the Luke/Yoda line and the Han/Leia line. Lucas uses mirrors and echos to tie the two plotlines together.

  • The movie begins with Luke being nearly frozen to death. The movie ends with Han being frozen into a death-like state. Han rescues Luke from freezing by use of a lightsaber; in the next movie, Luke rescues Han in the same way.
  • The Han/Leia storyline is an external struggle against the forces of evil. The Luke/Yoda storyline is an internal exploration of the same issues.
  • Luke fights the phantom Vader in the cave on Dagobah. Because he wins the battle, he loses ("Vader" turns out to be Luke). At the end of the movie, he battles the real Vader. Because he loses the battle, he wins (he escapes Vader's clutches).
  • Han undergos physical pain and suffering under Vader's torture. Luke undergos physical pain and exhaustion under Yoda's training. The former is intended to tear the hero down; the latter is intended to build him up.
  • The Han/Leia storyline contains a major revelation ("I love you!" "I know."); Luke's storyline does as well ("Luke, I'm your father.").
  • The Han/Leia storyline shows Leia discovering a part of her internal makeup she never knew (she can love a rogue like Han); Luke discovers his deep internal connection to the Force.

There were a lot more, some striking, like the first one mentioned here, and others that were more obvious. What I found appealing about this chapter is that I feel this can help me take my storytelling to the next level. Sure, you can recount the events of the story in fascinating dialogue, great action, beautiful wordsmithing, etc. and tell a really good story. But there are a number of ways you can tell those events, and if you can tap into the reader's psyche by subtly arranging scenes that use mirrors and echos, you can make your fiction even more powerful. There is a huge element of craft here that I find extrememly appealing. I think this is the kind of thing that separates out the pros from the campfire storytellers. I've never consciously thought about this type of thing, and I really think this is the type of thing I need to know to consistently write good fiction, rather than just trusting to instinct as I have to this point.

Fascinating stuff!

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Happy Anniversary, Baby, Got You On My Mind

(10 points to whomever can identify the source of the title of this post...)

Today is my anniversary; my wife and I have been married eight years. We've had ups and downs (mostly ups), and we've both grown and changed a lot over the past several years, but I'm still as crazy about her as the day we got married. Sound sappy? Perhaps, but it's true nonetheless. We've come through a lot together, from grad school (and the torture of an astronomy qualifying exam), to a cross-country move, to new jobs for both of us. She now has a simply outstanding job teaching community college, and she loves it. Even I have to admit, it's very close to the perfect job. She loves what she does, loves the people she works with, loves the hours she works and the environment in which she does it, and she gets pretty darn incredible pay and benefits to do it. And not only that, she's good at what she does -- really good. She's achieved what most people just dream of. You have to have a lot respect for that.

We have two great kids, one from my first marriage (whom she adopted when we got married) and one after a long struggle and a lot of modern technology. Both of our kids are smart, funny, personable, and have just enough rugged individualism to both be exasperating beyond belief and to make me secretly just a bit proud of them. We're really lucky, so here's to a lot more great years!

I'd like to link to an article I was pointed to by Cat Rambo, one of the current Clarion West students. This article really spoke to me. The Meaning of Life, a book by Bradley Trevor Greive, had a similar profound effect on me. The latter is what finally convinced me that I needed to look into writing full time; the former has strongly reaffirmed that belief. Many thanks to Cat for pointing that article out!

In other news, I flew myself to my Civil Air Patrol meeting last night and got re-certified in the Cessna 152. What a sweet plane. It's not terribly reliable (in fact I had a minor engine problem during the flight), but the simplicitly of the aircraft, small size, and low rental cost are perfect for a solo pilot. I wish we could afford for me to fly more, but at least I'm able to keep my currency up by flying to CAP meetings twice a month. In other CAP news, I am currently our squadron's Emergency Services Officer and now may end up also becoming our Communications Officer -- an assignment with a great deal of irony, as will be evident to those that know me.

And last, but not least, I've jumped on the bandwagon and taken the "Which Science Fiction Writer Are You?" test. Here are the results:

I am:
Arthur C. Clarke
Well known for nonfiction science writing and for early promotion of the effort toward space travel, his fiction was often grand and visionary.

Which science fiction writer are you?

Oddly enough, I find this to be pretty much dead-on. Not that my writing style is anything like Clarke's, but our point of view towards science fiction is certainly similar. Clarke was an engineer as well as a writer, so I can readily identify with him. Robert Heinlein (also an engineer) is probably my favorite SF author of all time, but I have to agree that the subject matter of my writing is a lot closer to the hard SF of Clarke than it is to the sociological commentary of Heinlein (though there is certainly an element of that in my work ).

Enjoy the day, I know I am!

Monday, July 11, 2005

To Laptop or Not To Laptop

I was reading some of the past Clarion blogs, and noted with interest that some of the "Names" who have instructed there still write in longhand on a pad of paper and then transfer it to computer later. I strongly suspect that this is because these folks starting writing before the advent of the word processor, and no one in his right mind tries to write a first draft on a manual typewriter. At the time I pretty much shrugged it off as an eccentricity. I know when I was writing papers in grad school, I could hit an exact page count on any topic just by writing on the computer and watching how close I was to the end of the page. One draft and some edits and I had a darn good paper. Of course, sometimes I would cut and paste whole sections around in that edit session, so major changes were often made -- but that's the power of the modern word processor. Outlining? Whassat? Never heard of it. :) All of the stories I've written so far were created on my laptop, as well. I have a Toshiba Portege Tablet PC that I really love. The screen rotates and snaps flat over the keyboard so that you can write on it with a special pen. The screen is about the size of a piece of notebook paper, so its the perfect size. Very versatile. Reading eBooks on the machine is a joy. There is a thumb switch on the side of the screen that turns pages (some eBooks have even gotten clever and added a "page turning" animation to complete the illusion). I bought the souped-up version with a 2 GHz processor and 2 GB of memory -- laptops are notoriously difficult to upgrade, so you need to get the best one you can when you purchase. I sold over $3000 worth of junk on eBay, so that financed the purchase of the machine quite handily.

There are some pretty serious disadvantages to using a laptop, though. First of all, even though this is one of the lightest machines on the market (it doesn't even have an internal CD-ROM drive), it's still a lot heavier than a pad of paper or even a hardback book. While that's not a problem in laptop mode at a desk, it does get a bit fatiguing in tablet mode (since you have to cradle it in one arm). Like most laptops, the machine gets pretty hot on the bottom. I've had red marks left on my legs that made it look like I'd been sunburned in a very odd pattern. Yes, you can buy thermal mats, but that's something else that has to be lugged around. Battery power is another issue. I currently only get about an hour and half or at best two hours out of my battery. I should note that with my failing eyes, I really need the bright paper-white screen, so it drains the battery a lot faster than it would for someone who can live with power save mode. I have a second battery, but again, that's something else to tote around. In the case of my tablet PC, the handwriting recognition is fast (faster than a Palm Pilot), but it's still not up to regular handwriting speed, so that gets cumbersome.

As far as versatility goes, though, you can't beat it. It's every bit as powerful as a desktop machine (I've even got a great nVidia graphics card in it for games), yet it has the flexibility to be taken anywhere and used almost anywhere. There are some intangibles that speak against it, however. One of the things that attracts me to writing freelance is the ability to work anywhere. No more being cooped up in my office, I can sit outside, or gaze at the swimming pool, or head to a coffee shop (even though I don't drink coffee, it's an interesting place to be). As I've mentioned before, writers need to be able to go out and observe the world. This is critical to good writing. Staying cooped up at home at a desk is not much better than being cooped up in an office. Given this, however, the laptop becomes a real liability. First and foremost, there's the power issue. The battery is finite, so your writing session is as well. And I don't want to think about corrupted drafts when the machine suddenly goes into hibernation when it loses power. The weight, while not terrible, is not inconsequential. Also, you have to get all your gear together when you go out -- it's not as easy as picking up a pad and a pen. With paper and pen you can literally write anywhere, even if you only have small snatches of time. If I'm waiting to get a haircut, there's not really time for the machine to boot up, open up your file, and get started writing before your turn comes up. And what do you do with the machine while you're getting your hair cut? That's the other big factor: You have to be concerned about someone stealing the machine. Not so with a nondescript pad of paper. The disadvantage to paper, of course, is that you're going to have to type everything into the computer at some point, so you've just added time to the writing process that wouldn't have been there otherwise. Not only that, I think I grip pens too tightly, because I always find my hand hurts a lot sooner than when I'm just typing.

Given all of the above arguments, I am persuaded that the luxury of being able to write anywhere, anytime outweighs the disadvantage of having to type in the first draft of the story. I figure I'm going to be re-reading the story over and over while I make edits anyway, a fresh reading while typing will help me to notice problems that I might have missed otherwise. Sort of like reading the story aloud, as has been recommended by a number of authors. I have some hardbound lab notebooks (the pages can't be removed) that I think might just be perfect for the task, so I think I'll give that a whirl. I'd be interested in other opinions and experiences -- I may end up changing my mind as I get busier!

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Cross-Genre Writing

A while back I mentioned that a successful science fiction author generally has a hard time selling books in any other category. The assumption seems to be that people don't generally read much outside of their chosen primary genre, so an author's fans won't look for him in any other section, and fans of the other genre don't know the author as an established writer. I'd like to think that readers are not quite so narrow-minded -- at worst, the author should be no worse off than a new writer would be in the other genre -- but I can certainly see publishers taking this attitude. Look at television and movies, for example. How often does anything truly new and unique come out of Hollywood? Every once and a while, you'll find something new, but once that new show or film has proven its success (Survivor on TV and the current rush of comic book movies in film, for example), then for a year or more, you see nothing but a raging torrent of copycat productions. Producers have to invest a lot of money into these shows, so very few seem to be willing to risk money on anything that hasn't already been tried and proven.

Publishing houses, I can imagine, work much the same way and for the same reasons. Publishing is not quite as chancy as filmmaking, but there is significant risk involved. As understanding as I am about their need to make a profit (if they don't make a profit, they won't pay us writers to create new works), I still find myself wondering why more companies aren't willing to take a chance on cross-genre authors. After all, they are certainly no worse than first-novel authors, and unlike the newbies, they've proven they can make sales. If the risks are high with new talent, aren't they somewhat lower with existing talent? Or is it that the reason new talent is published at all is that they are hoping for the next Harry Potter?

I've recently had some ideas for some stories outside of science fiction. I've also been told that I have a talent for writing young adult (YA) stories (which isn't too surprising, considering my education background). But if I write a successful YA novel, will I be disdained in the adult SF realm? I have seen ruminations that I will. And not only that, I'm also planning on writing non-fiction articles to help pay the bills. I don't think this will "ghetto-ize" me as much as writing YA fiction, but the effect is still there.

I could write under a pseudonym, of course, but should I achieve fame and fortune, I'd really rather do it under my own name. I realize there is a long and honored tradition of writing under a pseudonym, and I've heard from Harlan Ellison that if your first three novels tank, you've got no choice but to start over with a new name anyway. Still, the idea just leaves a bad taste in my mouth...

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Free Speech

For the past two years, my birthday gift has been a piece of art photography that features my wife and daughter in a nude full-length pose. It's not a portrait, necessarily; in fact, their faces don't even have to show at all. The point is to chronicle the growth of our family through art. The photographer is very good. We just got back this evening from our annual session, so I'll be interested to see how this year's pictures turn out.

At the session, Kate, the photographer, told us something that absolutely horrified us. Apparently her boss at her day job called her into his office this past week and forced her to take down the website for her photography business. His reason? In some of the photos, the subject is obviously nude (although in none of the photos do any "naughty bits" show, not that it matters). He particularly objected to a beautiful picture of a pregnant mom-to-be. I wish the site were still up so I could link to it, but it was an incredible piece of art. Her boss' comment was, "I can't believe you'd put anything that ugly on the web." His reasoning for making her take the website down was that she is "a representative of the company, even when she is off work." Now all of this is just blatently illegal. The site is not being hosted by the company, nor is the company mentioned in any way. Her company is a very large multi-national corporation that seems to think that they own her, body and soul, 24 hours a day. A lot of companies recently have been pushing to be able to dictate their off-duty employees' actions. And they are getting away with it, because people like Kate can't afford the time or the money or the lost income (if fired) to take these corporate taskmasters to court. Even though this is a very clear violation of her First Amendment rights, they can afford much more high-powered lawyers than she could ever hope to. Something is wrong in our country when corporations have that much power. The sad thing is that it's these same corporations who are financing our current government officials (of both parties), so they really do have the power to get their way.

There's also something wrong with a society that fears the unclothed human body. There is no sin in being nude, nor is the human body -- in all its shapes, sizes, and colors -- something to be reviled. I especially don't understand the religious fundamentalists (I am very religious, but am frankly embarassed by the intolerance spread by many so-called religious people) fear of nudity. After all, if Adam and Eve wore clothes because they sinned and were ashamed to face God, shouldn't we all attend church naked now that we've been forgiven? But even if someone disagrees with me on the subject -- which is his or her absolute right -- they don't have the right to tell someone else how to believe or how to act. We make a lot out of the fact that we look down upon and fear the theocracy of Iran. Aren't we turning into the very same thing?