Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Who Owns Fictional Characters?

Literary Agent Nathan Bransford had a very interesting You Tell Me today. In today's post, he brought up the news about how J.K. Rowling revealed in an interview that Dumbledore is gay. He also pointed out a follow-up article in the NY Times that essentially said that her revelation is irrelevant, because it's not very supported by her text (among other comments -- that's an interesting article that you should read before finishing this post).

Nathan then posited the question to his readers: who owns fictional characters? The author, the readers, or some combination? I think that Orson Scott Card said it best in his introduction to his 1991 edition of ENDER'S GAME:

"The story of ENDER'S GAME is not this book, though it has that title emblazoned on it. The story is one that you and I will construct together in your memory. If the story means anything to you at all, then when you remember it afterward, think of it, not as something I created, but rather as something that we made together."

I read that many years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. It bothers me a lot that Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay like she did, and I think readers are certainly free to interpret his character as asexual or however else they want to, as long as it is consistent with the (mostly scant) textual evidence regarding his sexuality.

Now, if Rowling had made this revelation in due course as part of one of her novels, that would have been a different matter. She's perfectly free to do whatever she likes with her characters in the context of her writing, and that's a license held exclusively by her as far as I'm concerned. If she had revealed him to be gay in the context of the story, I would have been fine with it, although admittedly I prefer the vision of him as a great wizard above sexual concerns, as the times article notes. But it would have been her choice, since it was her work.

I think it's rather cheap in general for authors to explain backstory outside of their actual novels. Certainly it's not a problem with minor details such as specific age, birthplace, etc, that just wouldn't come up in the story -- but anything that seemingly flies in the face of textual evidence, or comes as a shock, or even seems a stretch based on textual evidence (as this does) shouldn't be revealed outside the narrative, in my opinion.

This would be like if George Lucas had revealed in an interview that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father, after only making the original movie. How horrible would that have been? Certainly there was foreshadowing for that revelation, but if it had been revealed outside the narrative of the movies it would have seemingly lost all truth and meaning.

I believe that the author has the exclusive right to do anything they want with their worlds and characters, but only in the context of their narratives themselves. Once those pages are in the hands of the readers, the readers are going to make their own inferences and come to their own personal understanding, right or wrong. A later work can certainly cause readers to revise that personal understanding -- all the best sequels do this to some degree -- but this is expanding the story, not clarifying it in interviews or endnotes. At least, that's my take.

Halloween Trivia

I subscribe to a weekly newsletter called Geek Trivia, which is aimed at people in IT/Programming jobs, but which this week has a literary twist. Fires of the imagination is about the Mount Tambora eruption in 1815, and the famous horror novel that it indirectly inspired. Perfect for Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Editing by Spouses

As I mentioned almost a week ago, I've figured out the plot details for the next segment of my book. However, for whatever reason, I've started looking back at my prior content again. I'm just neurotic that way, when I (by nature) can't have a lot of feedback on my WIP. Fortunately, my wife is a terrific editor, and is looking at a lot of the content, so that really helps. She's catching up on her reading of the chapters, and making a good number of small suggestions as she goes.

Now, I know a lot of professionals in this business immediately scoff at writers who have their spouse, or some other close friend or family member, as the primary reader/first-editor of their work. I can certainly understand that point of view: if the person really cares for you, the first order of business should be bolstering your confidence, right? What sort of person would tell their spouse that their work sucked?

Point taken. However, a spouse with an eye for editing can definitely help fix awkward sentences, identify weak or pointless passages, and tell you what works for them and what doesn't quite come across. Rarely is a WIP all-good or all-bad. For me, having my wife point out what really worked for her, as well as all those things that didn't, is a huge help. The former does help my confidence, of course, which is something that every aspiring writer needs, and the latter helps me refine my work and keep my ego in check (haha). My wife is better-read than me, and has an even better understanding of certain aspects of style and grammar, so there's definitely things that I learn by working with her, too.

There are a number of published authors who I have heard use their spouses as early readers, in this very same manner. Stephen King's wife, who is quite a novelist herself, reputedly reviews his earlier drafts (or at least he mentioned that she did earlier into his career -- I presume that she still does). Orson Scott Card has talked several times about how his wife, who is not a writer so far as I know, reads and comments on everything he writes chapter-by-chapter as he writes it.

What is the difference between what these writers (and myself) are doing from what some aspiring writers do? Well, the spouse may be the first reader and editor, but they can't be the last. Critique Partners, Agents, Editors, and/or writer-friends should be the next step. Even if your spouse is brutally honest at all times (hopefully in a nice way), it pays to have someone else look at your ms before you start sending it off to decision-makers (or asking your agent to send it off if you are already agented). To most, this last part is probably just common sense, but I wanted to point out that having multiple critical readers is not incompatible with having great editing done by a spouse, first.

At some point in every writer's career, he/she will start valuing brutally-honest feedback far above compliments, and a spouse who's reasonably "in the know" about this profession should know to respect that. And how to couch that honesty so that it comes across as constructive.

The stats as of today:
-38,250 estimated words.
-45,523 actual words.
-Six-and-a-half fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (114 pages total).
-Eleven completed chapters in all (153 pages).

All About Commas

Thanks to Sean Ferrell for posting about this great resource on commas. Of particular note are the 10 Simple Rules for using commas. These rules were written with journalists in mind, but most are still fully applicable for novelists.

Things I learned:
- I wasn't aware of the "four words or more" part of rule #3.
- The "adjectives of equal rank" was an awesome clarifier with me in rule #5. Read the details on that rule for even better clarification -- the equal rank test that the professor suggests is wonderful. I had an intuitive understanding of this before, as most people probably do, but just relying on that was problematic when it came to looking closely at what were seemingly gray areas.
- Several aspects of rule #8 were a surprise to me, but they are not too relevant for most novels.
- Rule #10 was a surprise. I've seen that before, but had forgotten I could do that. I tend to just ignore that construction, a luxury not shared by journalists reporting on the verbatim speech of others. Interestingly, a very few exceptions to rule #10 exist, though they aren't mentioned on that site. For example: "Robert had had a chance to review the packet."
- Rule #9 actually is the only one that seems questionable to me when it comes to novelists. I know that journalists would write the following: "I live in Raleigh, NC, with my wife." Novelists, I've always though, should be writing: "I live in Raleigh, NC with my wife." Can anyone confirm that or tell me I'm wrong? I would like to know.

When I was in elementary and middle school, this sort of nit-picky punctuation seemed so boring to study. By high school, I knew I wanted to be a novelist, but everything was still so new that it was a real challenge to absorb it all -- and it still seemed quite dry. In college, I didn't study writing at all, unfortunately, so it's refreshing to see these grammatical rules again and realize that I'm now fascinated by them. Anything that helps make my prose more proper is of the highest order of interest these days!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Public Enemy #1: "There Was"

Just a brief note tonight. I've had several breakthroughs in my plotting, and finally have the next five or so chapters planned out to my satisfaction, which is a major relief. I haven't done much actual writing, but I've been going back through my existing content and have been making minor tweaks. I should be back on track with the actual writing soon, which will be something of a relief.

One thing I've been thinking about recently, however, is passivity. It's something endemic to much of my speech, unfortunately, so it's been a struggle to weed it out of my writing. I'm getting much better at that, and my most recent work is almost all active, both in a grammatical sense and a thematic sense. But going through even my earlier drafts of ALDEN RIDGE, it amazes me how much grammatical passivity was there.

One of the biggest ways in which I enact grammatical passivity is the phrase "there was" (or "there were" for plural). There was nothing there. There were only two cows within sight. There was only the sound of the crows in the trees. Searching for these little red flags has been a big help in weeding out grammatical passivity (though certainly many other forms were present as well). Many of those sentences can just be replaced one-to-one with more active forms, but some of them are also just too passive thematically as well, and so require a larger revision of the paragraph(s) surrounding the sentence at fault.

At any rate, it very much looks like I'm not going to be hitting even my revised goal of 140 revised pages by the end of October. Right now I'm hovering around 114, and I doubt I'll be writing 26 pages in the next six days. Hopefully I'll be able to hit 16 or 20, though, and I'll be pretty pleased with that.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Sunset Cove

I've been learning to use Carrara better, so here's a new image and an improved version of one of my older images. As I learn more about advanced shaders, I imagine I'll be revisiting Nightmare Wave, as well, to make the water in that one a lot more realistic.

Sunset Cove

My first sunset in Carrara. I wanted to do something with more dramatic lighting, and richer color than my last few Carrara images have had.

Water Tornado

I rendered a new version of this image, now that I've learned a few new techniques. Radial waves have been added in the water, and the spray has become a lot more realistic. In all, it's a lot more apparent what sorts of force the tornado is exerting on the scene now, I think.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Carrara, and Four New Art Pieces

I've had my eye on Carrara for some time now, but never had any incentive to move away from Bryce, a lower-end product that is currently made by the same company. Bryce may be lower-end, but it has landscape-creation tools that are simply unrivaled. Since that's always been my primary focus with my 3D art, it was the natural choice.

However, in the most recent version of Carrara, they've added a lot of features that let artists do some spectacular effects that simply aren't possible in Bryce, or else are very, very, hard. If you want to know what I mean, see below. Not a single one of these images could have been rendered easily in Bryce.

That said, I'll still be using Bryce for years to come, I'm sure. Certain effects, particularly the ones that are more surreal, just can't be duplicated in Carrara. But when I need advanced effects or ultra-realism or fine control, Carrara is definitely going to be my tool of choice from now on.

If you're interested in checking out Carrara for yourself, there's a 30-day trial of the old version 5 here, and they're running a special on the express version of the new version 6 here. If you join DAZ's platinum club, you can get Carrara Express for only $20 through the end of October.

Countryside Tornado

This was my second rendering in Carrara. There were a number of advanced effects in this program that I knew I just had to put to use, and a tornado seemed like the perfect outlet (I'm absolutely fascinated by tornadoes -- they've featured in my nightmares since I was a kid, and those were always some of my favorite dreams, though they are quite intense).

Of particular note is (obviously) the tornado itself, the dust around its base, the thickets of trees on the left and right of the screen, and the field of grass. None of those were effects that I've ever been able to accomplish with Bryce. It was this sort of thing, more than anything else, that led me to purchase Carrara.

This scene took me an unusually long amount of time to put together, because of all the complex elements, but I'm particularly pleased wit it. Seeing the tornado like that gives me chills, so I know I did it right.

Nightmare Wave

This rendering is another product of my nightmares (which, as I noted before, are intense, but in some ways enjoyable). Tornadoes are the biggest star in my nightmares, but tidal waves are definitely number two. In my dreams, the waves are often as massive as this -- not sure if that's realistic for most tsunamis, but I don't care. Often I'm on a pier or bridge like this when they hit, and I'm left scrambling up steep banks or buildings or something as the wave destroys everything below. There are usually loads of people around right before the wave comes, but as soon as the tide sucks out (as happens before a wave hits, I'm told) I find myself completely alone. Somehow, it seems more intimidating that way. This scene would be my perspective in one of the dreams in which I don't make it away in time, and am sucked out to sea. Usually I make it away, though.

Water Tornado

Once I did my first tornado in Carrara, I knew I had to try for another kind of tornado. In some ways, this tornado was much harder to design than the first, but I think it came out pretty well. I also did a lot of experimenting with water in this image. The spray effect around the tornado's base isn't as realistic as I would like, but it was my first try with particle effects like that. Again, something that is well beyond the reach of Bryce.

Foggy Cove

This was my first image in Carrara. I was mostly just playing around with the atmosphere, the water, the fog, the terrain shading, and the surface replicator tool (used for the forest). However, the end effect was pretty decent, so I decided to save it.

Revised Writing Goal

For the last month or so, my writing goal has been to complete 80 standard pages per month (20,000 words per month) at a rate not less than 4 pages per night on 20 nights out of the month. This rate served me well when I was doing a lot of revising/expanding, and I knew the scenes and material so well that there were few decision points -- every night, I could just sit down and write, and that would be it.

But now that I'm into my later chapters, there is more expanding/rewriting than there is revising, and that's really slowing me down. Moreover, it should slow me down. Some things just require a good amount of thought process. So, my new goal is going be to complete only 60 standard pages per month (15,000 words per month), at a rate not less than 4 pages per might on 15 nights out of the month. The rest of that time will be spent plotting, characterizing, mulling, and revising. It will be time well spent.

Also, some of it will be time spent on other things -- like relaxing, the holidays, that sort of thing. My stories are always in the back of my mind, being worked on, but really I can't spend every waking moment actively working on them. Hopefully that just makes me well-rounded, not a "bad" writer. I mean, I love writing, but that's not the only thing in my life. Some aspiring writers seem to have a rather limited way of looking at this particular subject.

I know that Stephen King reputedly used to write 3,000 words per day, and while I respect that he can do that, I don't think that will ever be my goal for several reasons. First, he's way more verbose than I am -- his books are long and include a lot of background detail that doesn't fit with my own writing style (though I enjoy reading him). Secondly, writing is his only job. Sure, if I someday make it big and can afford to quit my day job, then perhaps I'll write more like 8 pages every day. If my plotting and characterizing and musing can keep up.

If writing were my only job, I don't think it would be a stretch for me to finish two books a year. However, as it stands, my rate is more like a book every nine months (assuming I don't hit any snags). I've been trying to push it to four months, and that's just too aggressive. Since I'm so far in, I think I can still make it in five months total, but I'll just have to see how things go. I'm more concerned with doing things right than I am fast (and, come on, five months is still darn speedy, for most people).

On the plus side, I've been doing a lot of that musing and plotting and characterizing and revising for the past few days, and that's been going really well. I realized that I didn't like how one of my characters (Masa Uraya) was shaping up, so I've re-characterized him. I'm really happy with the result. Very soon, I should be ready to finish off chapter six, and move on with the next chapter. The next chapter is going to be all-new, and I have a feeling it's going to be a slow one because of its subject matter. At any rate, my prior goal served me well for the first part of this book, and my new goal should serve me well for the next leg of it.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

More New Art

Two more pieces that I've been working on.

Mountain Antennae

I've always had a fascination with the way that radio towers are placed atop hills and mountains in the Appalachian ranges, and this picture was an attempt to capture that. I think it turned out really well, especially with how the fog obscures the bases of the mountains.

Loss 2

This is a remake of perhaps my most popular image ever, Loss. The original version was done in Bryce 2.0, way back in 1998 when I was first learning how to do renderings. Unfortunately, since I lost the original scene file, I had to recreate this from scratch in order to get a higher-resolution version.

The original tree was pre-fab, which was why it was so low-resolution, but this one I created custom. Just getting the branches to look right took hours, and trying to come up with a comparable sunset in the newer version of Bryce also wasn't easy. In the end, I couldn't get the colors right in Bryce alone, so I had to do a lot of color correction in Photoshop (darkening the tree and its reflection, and increasing the saturation of the oranges and yellows). The effect of luminescence around the branches was also something that I needed Photoshop in order to accomplish.

Even with all this work, though, I'm not certain that I recaptured the feeling of the original. I think the clouds in the background still might not be as vivid, and the colors might not be quite right. But, in all, I think this was a successful revisit -- the water effects are particularly improved.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Steady Progress

Four pages again. I seem to be back in the swing of things, which is nice. I did my writing unusually early in the evening today, too.

The stats as of today:
-38,250 estimated words.
-45,255 actual words.
-Six-and-a-half fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (113.5 pages total).
-Eleven completed chapters in all (153 pages).

Computer Art Methods and Terminology, Demystified

This has been bugging me for a while. Back in June, I made a post about an art piece that was my longest render time ever. I've also mentioned the term "render time" several times since -- but I realized that I never defined this term, and that to people who aren't 3D artists or CAD designers, it's probably pretty unclear. For that matter, probably a lot of the terms I use in conjunction with my art are unclear. So here's a primer:

"Render time" doesn't have anything to do with how long it takes me to create an image. That's not something I really keep track of. Instead, the render time is how long it takes for my computer to generate the final, full-effects "snapshot" of the scene I've created. In other words, while the computer is rendering my image, I'm off doing something else. So a 35 hour render time is 35 straight hours where my computer is unusable, or at least very slow, because it's busy cranking out the pixels. If I had a faster computer, or used multiple computers to do the rendering together, it would take less time.

My part of the work all happens before that, and I work off of smaller, lower-quality preview images and partial-renderings. Essentially, my job is to size, position, and texture the terrains and objects, set up lighting and atmospherics, and position the virtual camera. Once I'm reasonably happy with my results, given the little previews, I set the program to "render to disk," and walk away.

If I'm doing actual object-modeling work, as well, that generally occurs in a program like Sketchup or Hexagon or Poser. When I have my model done, I then import it (in grouped pieces) into Bryce, and I texture it and render it there. Object-modeling work is tedious and not something I'm especially good at, however, so often I just use pre-fab components. Even when I use models that I didn't originally create, however, I put a lot of work into tweaking parts of them, and I usually have to break the model into individual slices that I can separately texture.

"Texturing" refers to applying some sort of material to objects. Basic objects are just rendered as flat gray -- it's the process of texturing that makes things look like sand, water, glass, leaves, snow, weeds, etc. I don't do any of my own texture-creation -- most 3D modelers don't, actually, since that's a completely different skill set (it involves photographing real materials and then carefully cropping them to a repeatable pattern). I use base textures from Bryce, texture sets that I've purchased from third-party texture authors, and textures that are free on the Internet (Mayang's Free Texture Library is a great resource).

But texturing isn't as simple as choosing from a palette and then walking away. Often you need to blend multiple textures together, or resize them for the proper scale/orientation of your model (this is difficult to explain, but it can be tricky), and also certain things like reflectivity, transparency, diffusion, ambiance, etc, need to be adjusted (or changed all together). Plus, the process of just selecting the right textures that will complement each other, and/or blend well is difficult in itself. Scenes that have a lot of organic textures (like landscapes) can take a fair amount of work to make look realistic (or properly surreal, if that's your goal).

You might be surprised by how different the same scene can look with different textures applied -- the same is true when it comes to lighting and atmospherics, actually. The right levels/colors/distributions/positioning of fog, haze, clouds (cumulus and stratus), stars, sun/moon, etc, can make a huge difference. As can such effects like volumetric atmosphere (which simulates particles all throughout the air at the density and reflectivity of my choosing), and a variety of other atmospheric tools.

One more clarification about object-modeling: that doesn't refer to trees or terrains in my case (most of the time). Some of my trees are pre-fab, but most are generated using algorithms built into Bryce. I set a variety of parameters (trunk size/angle/style, branch density/angle, leaf type/texture/color/distribution, etc), and that's that. All of my terrains start out by being generated via fractal algorithms (in either Terragen or Bryce, depending on which I'm using) because fractals are great for realistic terrains. Once I have the general shape of the terrain in place, I use a height-mapping tool to "paint" and thus raise and lower the terrain, add cracks and rivults, that sort of thing. In Bryce, I can also apply terrain-wide effects such as smoothing, erosion, spikes, etc. When I'm done with all that, the terrain is ready to be sized, positioned, and textured.

Hopefully this provides some insight into the process via which I produce most of my art (my abstract works are a completely different process and skill set, mostly just using Photoshop by itself, or in conjunction with programs like Apophysis). Working in a wide array of programs helps keep it interesting, though -- and when I'm a bit stagnant in one program, I can always switch tack and do something completely different in another program.

New Pieces

For the last few days, I've been going through another artistic binge, and these are some of the results. I think I have a few more pieces in me for this round, too, so expect to see those in the coming days or weeks. Just so long as it doesn't interfere with my writing, I'm happy to indulge my artistic impulse when it deigns to come around!

Desert Industry

This rendering came about when I realized that I hadn't done a close-up of a building in quite some time. And I don't think I've ever done a rendering from the roof of a building before. I started with these goals in mind, not sure what the rest of the landscape would look like, and then finally decided on desert. This provided an excellent opportunity to employ a volumetric sky, which is particularly vivid. I'm also rather pleased with the contrast between the different levels of sand throughout the background, and the plywood boards scattered throughout the wet sand in the lower left.

Industrial Fog

This rendering was actually a byproduct of working on my Desert Industry image. I was experimenting around with the top of the building, and wound up with this view of the striking tin knob that features in this image. Right away, I knew I had to make a rendering centered around that feature. This required a completely different sky from the other rendering, however, and I also needed to work in the fog effects (which I think came out particularly well on the lower-left). I also had to add the railing to this side of the building. The net effect is something that is more like a ship at sea than anything else, actually, which I really like.

Brain Stem

This is only my third rendering in Apophysis. It's not as vibrant as Flame Belt was, but I think there is some interesting form here. I had to do a LOT of post-processing work in Photoshop to cut out ancillary clutter (and to remove the entire cyan hue, incidentally), but I think the result was quite interesting.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Progress continues

Four pages today. I'm still in a section that is rather tricky to expand/revise, but I thought it went rather well. I didn't revise my content from yesterday yet, though. I'll have to revise that, plus tonight's content, this weekend. I have high hopes for this weekend being especially productive for writing.

The stats as of today:
-38,000 estimated words.
-44,805 actual words.
-Six-and-a-half fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (109.5 pages total).
-Eleven completed chapters in all (152 pages).

Chernobyl Countryside

My latest rendering. This is a rather dismal picture, but I enjoy a bit of desolation (in art) now and then. It seems fitting, with Halloween coming up. The towers pictured are actually all the #4 tower from Chernobyl. Also of note is the angle of the "camera" in this image. At least in the last four or five years, I haven't done many renderings that had the camera pointed upwards.

Art Show at Stephen Parrish's

The always-humorous Stephen Parrish (for some reason, I always have to give him some sort of title when I blog about him -- last time, it was "the indomitable." If you read his blog, perhaps you will see why he inspires this.) has taken it upon himself to do a showing of some of my art. Wow. I'm touched just that someone outside my immediate family would like my art that much, but some of his commentary is the sort of thing you don't expect to hear until your eulogy. I'm really blown away.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

At last, progress.

Four and a half pages today. Two pages of that was all-new content, and the rest was unusually heavy edits. I also revised the five pages I wrote last Thursday. Last Thursday! How has it been six days since I last wrote anything? Well, sometimes life, trips, and all that, just gets in the way. I was also fearing the revisions/expansions that I knew I would have to make with this scene (they were pretty deep), and I think that also helped to keep me away. But I think it turned out pretty well -- I'll feel better about this scene once I have a chance to revise it once more in the coming days. Hopefully tomorrow, as long as I can make myself come back and do some work again.

The stats as of today:
-37,500 estimated words.
-44,243 actual words.
-Six-and-a-half fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (105.5 pages total).
-Eleven completed chapters in all (150 pages).

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Further Website Updates

Well, I've been too tired the last few days to do any writing, so I've been getting some other things accomplished that I've been putting off. A number of the posts out of yesterday's plethora were ones that I've been meaning to make for a while, for instance, and today I've been twiddling with the look of the blog/website yet again.

This is always how it is for me with websites. Ever since I put up my first site in 1998, I've had the bug of continual upgrades. Usually there's just something that isn't quite right with whatever design I've put together, and it bugs me until I finally do something about it. Gradually, the design congeals into something I'm happy with. I'm glad that the UI design aspect is only a secondary part of my day job, or I'd probably go insane. Modeling business practices in code is much easier and faster (most of the time).

At any rate, I think the site is gradually hitting the level where it will be hard to make changes without making something worse (which is what usually makes me settle on a given design). I think the addition of the new header helps bring the whole design together, and the new selection of colors is a lot more striking. Also, I've switched to sans-serif fonts, since those are easier to read on-screen (serif fonts are easier to read on paper).

Anyway, I've been tired because I went out of town over the weekend, and then I had to get up early today for a monthly meeting of technology executives that I attend. Tomorrow I should be fully-rested, and I expect to get back on a proper writing schedule.

Robot Insurance

Useful for when that upcoming robotic insurrection finally happens. Any day now!

(As an aside, I've never seen Sam Waterston do humor before -- that makes it even funnier, for me. A couple of times, he almost smiles while delivering his lines.)

Monday, October 8, 2007

Write this... or that... or maybe...

I recently saw the link to this video over on Pub Rants, the blog of literary agent Kristen Nelson. I thought it was just too funny not to share.

Global Flag

The indomitable Stephen Parrish recently had an interesting post (originally by his brother) about the idea of a global flag. I had never really thought about this idea before, but since I'm more of a believer in globalism than nationalism, it is an idea that really resonates me. Evidently it also resonates with a number of other Americans. The basic idea seems to be that we would still display national pride, same as we display state pride in the US, but that we would place the global allegiance first -- same as we place the national allegiance first in the US.

I don't necessarily think that some sort of world hegemony is called for, but that's not really what this is about. You can't go to a university these days without hearing a lot about globalism, the global economy, et cetera, and I think that this rising global consciousness is a good thing. It isn't that we shouldn't have a sense of national identity, or be proud of where we come from (on a city, county, state, or national level) -- it's that we should also be conscious of our membership in the global community to which we belong, rather than thinking our hierarchy of citizenship ends at the federal level.

Also, this particular post of Stephen's included a link to this quiz that helps identify which American presidential candidates most match your views. I definitely learned something about many of the candidates from this quiz (I don't follow politics that closely), so I thought it was worth passing along.

Building an Elephant

Building an Elephant, by Sean Ferrell, has just recently come online at The Adirondack Review. This was the first piece of fiction I've read by Sean, though I have been keeping up with his blog for some time. Needless to say, I was really impressed by it -- hence this post.

First, my few small complaints. I felt like there was a pattern of occasional missing commas, which I suppose is a fairly minor grammatical quibble (and I have a tendency to use too many commas, so I have little room to talk). There were also a few cases where I would have liked to have a little more description of the emotion felt by the characters. "I felt happy about that" is perhaps the example that jumped out at me the most -- this really seems like a "show, don't tell" moment.

However, that's pretty much all I can say that is negative about this story, and that's really saying something (I'm very nit-picky, even with multi-published novelists). The ideas behind Building an Elephant are really what captured me most of all, though the voice is also quite strong, the writing is solid and efficient, and the descriptions are vivid. You can tell that this author knows what he is doing, in effect.

I don't want to spoil the plot, which is quite surprising given the opening, so I won't discuss the specifics here. Suffice it to say that Sean Ferrell isn't just bragging when he says that his work is cross-genre, and off the beaten path (in a good way). This is a science fiction story, but it doesn't really have the tone or feel of that genre (and I'm a fan of that genre, so I should know). The way that the science-fiction elements are described in this story felt more like magic realism to me, albeit with sci-fi elements in place of the magic.

I suppose my one other quibble would be that this story was rather guy-focused, with the girl next door being more the traditional "girl-next-door sex object" than a true character, but even this was handled in an adept, interesting way. This story is, at heart, a story about a teenage boy and his father, and I thought Sean very much captured the proper tone for that. The sci-fi elements are brilliantly woven in to this basic narrative fabric, and provide both world richness and interesting plot devices, while also raising a great many ancillary questions.

The greatest praise that I can give this or any story is that it made me think. I read this last night, and found myself thinking about the characters and world of this story as I went to sleep. Off and on today I've still been thinking about it, and thus was compelled to write this mini-review, which I don't normally do (actually, I don't think I've ever done this before). The sci-fi elements in some ways inhabit the edges of this story, but they were what made me think the most -- and the way in which they were presented (as just part of ordinary life, too "mundane" for much background explanation) is a big part of what made this such a compelling read. I wouldn't have ever thought of telling this story quite like this, but the story is definitely the better for it.

I don't feel there's any value in trying to give this some sort of arbitrary score or rating, so I'll just end on this note: go read it.

My sister

This article was recently in the paper at the university of my sister, Catherine. I had to take this opportunity to brag on her just a bit -- she's one heck of a classical singer (not to mention pianist). She's at UNC on a music scholarship, and was recently in her first opera there. She's done quite well in many state and regional completions over the years.

I remember when my wife and I first went to see Catherine sing when she was still in high school. She was singing "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" from Phantom of the Opera, and we were blown away. She was already a really accomplished pianist by that point, but none of the family had any inkling that she was such a good singer until then.

After that, she starred as Lily in her high school's production of the Broadway version of The Secret Garden (she was at Enloe, a huge music/drama school, so this was a really big deal). She sang The Prayer as a solo at my wedding, and later sung it in an incredible duet at Enloe that I still think is better than either of the Josh Groban versions (and yes, I am biased toward my sister, but am also a Josh Groban fan, so that's still saying something).

She's working on a degree in music now, doing ecumenical singing for her scholarship, and always working on various performances and competitions and such. Suffice it to say, I am really proud of her.

Catherine Park, a Kenan Voice Scholar, signs the acoustical curtain I-beam on Friday at the topping-off ceremony of the new Kenan Music Building.
Media Credit: DTH/Anthony Harris
Catherine Park, a Kenan Voice Scholar, signs the acoustical curtain I-beam on Friday at the topping-off ceremony of the new Kenan Music Building.

Amateur Lightsaber Duel

RVD2 is a 10-minute fan video of a light saber battle. Parts are a bit silly, others are a bit gritty, but overall I thought this was a really well-choreographed, well-thought-out action sequence. I'm surprised that some of the ideas presented here haven't been in the official Star Wars movies, actually. I don't generally go for this sort of thing, but someone showed me this one, and I thought it was too clever and good not to share.

Yankee or Dixie Quiz

I thought this was an interesting quiz, because it focuses on word and phrase usage in different parts of the US. See which parts of the country your own usage most agrees with -- most people are something of a mix. Personally, I was 63% Dixie, which sounds about right. How about you?

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Restarting page numbering in word

This question gets asked a lot, so I thought I'd answer it here: "How do I omit the page number from my title page (plus however many other Table of Contents / Epigraph pages, or whatever else you've stuck in up at the start), and then have it start at page 1 at the start of my first chapter?"

1. Start out with no page numbering at all.

2. At the top of the page that you want to start numbering from, do the following: under the Insert menu in Microsoft Word, choose Break, and then choose one of the "section break" types.

2.a. If you've already got a page break properly in place, choose "Continuous" to not mess that up.

2.b. If you want to insert a page break with your new section, choose "Next Page" to do so.

3. Make sure your cursor is still on that same page that you want to start the numbering from, and then once again go to the Insert menu. Choose Page Numbers, use whatever settings you like, and then choose Format on the Page Numbers popup. Under the Formatting popup, change the "Continue from previous section" radio button to say "Start at 1" instead.

This divides your document into two "sections," each of which can have independent page numbering. You can actually use this same technique to divide your document as many times as you want, and have all sorts of different page numbering schemes (such as no page numbering at the very start, then roman numerals for an Introduction, then regular Arabic numerals for the main content, and then lettering for appendixes).

But, for manuscripts, remember that you'll just want to keep it simple and just have the Arabic numerals for the main content, starting in your first chapter.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Passing 100 Revised/Expanded Pages!

Five pages tonight! At first I mostly did a lot of revising of older content, because I was starting a new scene with Lela, who I hadn't written for in a week or so, and I needed to get back into her head. But once I got back into her head, it went very quickly. It was hard to write her perspective at first, but during my last sequence of scenes with her, I finally found the method for it, and now it's really enjoyable.

A lot of tonight's content was actually brand-new, but since I also outright deleted a two-page scene that is now redundant and which was crappy in the first place, my net word count actually didn't increase that much. And, I'm actually happy about that, since I'm still in the revising/expanding stage of things. My goal of 80,000 estimated words was seeming too far off a few months ago, before I started this process (I thought I might run out of storyat 60,000 words or so), but now I'm legitimately concerned that the entire story might not fit in just 80,000 words.

I'm confident that it will work out, though, and actually it's a good feeling to have too much content. It makes it easy to justify dumping any marginal content -- every scene must count, since I only get so many. As long as I end up between 80,000 and 100,000 estimated words, I'll be happy, but I'm still going to do my best to make sure that each and every scene really counts -- see my earlier post from today for what I mean by that. So far, so good on that score!

It also strikes me that it is now day 4 out of 31 for this month, and I'm already 25% of the way to my monthly goal. It's particularly good to be ahead because I'm not going to have much chance to write for the next three days -- and some of the other weekends from this month are looking pretty doubtful, too. Family events have to take precedence, of course, so that just means that I'll be getting fewer weekdays off from writing this month. As long as I keep ahead of things over the next couple of weeks, I should be in good shape for hitting my goal of 160 total pages, though.

The stats as of today:
-37,000 estimated words.
-43,585 actual words.
-Six-and-a-portion fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (101 pages total).
-Eleven completed chapters in all (148 pages).

"Running Around"

I used to have a concept that I called "running around," which referred to scenes in books or movies that just had characters churning with no real purpose. The characters move from place A to B, or we see them do some activity, or they chat in a non-characterizing way -- something like that. At any rate, things are happening, but the story is not really progressing in any meaningful way.

I said I "used to have" this concept because I feel like it's a little bit too restrictive now. Sure, there are books and movies that have this problem, but they are comparably rare, because the conditions are rather specific. More recently, I've come up with a new way of thinking about the core issue to which I was reacting, and that is: to be really engaging, no scene can do just one thing.

In other words, a scene can't just be about plot movement and still be fascinating. Sure, if you watch a character working through a mystery or interviewing people, or going to lunch where a fateful event is going to happen, that moves the plot. But there has to be something else there, as well: characterization, "trenchant little insights" (as Anne Mini would say), some sort of ethical or emotional struggle, or tension feeding from sources other than just the current scene's activities. Or something else that intrigues the user or draws them along.

I don't think that every book has to use this approach to be publishable, an enjoyable read, a bestseller, or what have you. I'm simply pointing out that, to me, the very best books have a lot going on in pretty much every scene, multiple sources of tension and interest, and it's all woven together in an expert manner with solid writing. For example: THE DOOMSDAY BOOK has events going on in the past with Kivrin, the future with Mr. Dunworthy and the others, and multiple simultaneous mysteries; ENDER'S GAME has Ender's various struggles, many of which are co-mingled within the novel's timeline, and also has the related-but-separate storyline with Peter and Valentine; TWILIGHT has romance, supernatural events and revelations, as well as Bella's various ongoing life events; THE DARK IS RISING has Will's family and daily life alongside his quest for the signs, intermingled with the various things The Dark tries to do to thwart him, and the various things that Merriman and the others are doing to help him. And I presume I don't need to mention that the Harry Potter books are the same way.

All of these books are so significant, at least to me, partly because of how rich and varied they feel. There is always more than one thing going on, and always the tension of wanting to know about something else in the story while I'm reading whatever scene -- yet instead of distracting from the current scene, that desire enriches it. Somehow, books like this evoke the feeling that "anything can happen" better than any others.

I still thoroughly enjoy books like THE GOLDEN COMPASS, A THOUSAND WORDS FOR STRANGER, or I AM LEGEND which, to me, don't quite seem to have this level of interweaving, but their semi-linearity always leaves me wishing there had been a little more. Don't get me wrong -- each of the books I just mentioned are brilliant, have numerous surprises, and are among my favorites ever. However, none of these three reach the level of poignancy for me as the other books I mentioned, partly because all those twists and turns happen one at a time. Or, when events are happening in an interwoven manner, the interest-factor of one plot thread is overshadowing the others to the degree that the story feels more linear than it is.

Now, the qualifications (in the sense of limitations, not credentials), because, boy, does this post need them. If I haven't made this abundantly clear, this is all my opinion, and is also not meant to be taken as an insult to any of the books or writers on my second list. I picked from among my very favorite books for all the books mentioned in this post, and divided them into categories of those that can make my chest ache with simultaneous pain and pleasure to think of them (the first group), and those that I love, but which I didn't connect with on that same level (the second group).

If you disagree with me, or your list is reversed, don't let that detract from the core message here: this post is about writing, and I really do believe that having a very-interwoven plot, versus a slightly-more-linear one, is what differentiates the very best books from the "simply" great books. As a writer, moreso than as a reader, that's a very interesting prospect to ponder.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Finished with chapter 6!

Whew! I thought this was going to take me two sessions, but I managed to get it completed in one. Five and a half pages today! Sorry that this post is so short (as most of my posts have been of late), but all my writing energy has been going into my manuscript. I imagine most of my readers understand, since most of them are writers themselves. I'll try to have a more insightful post sometime soon, to break up the continual status updates.

The stats as of today:
-36,750 estimated words.
-43,331 actual words.
-Six fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (96 pages total).
-Eleven completed chapters in all (147 pages).

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Still working on that sixth chapter

Five full pages, today. I didn't get anything done yesterday because I was caught up in day-job work stuff. This looks like one of those weeks where being a CTO is going to bleed over into my writing time, but I'm going to try to keep to my writing schedule as best I can, regardless. Honestly, there's always something, so if I don't make time when things are busy, I'll never have time. Tonight was a good night, though -- tough scene to revise, and a lot of expansion was included, but I'm happy with the result. I'm hoping to finish up chapter six in one or two more sessions.

The stats as of today:
-36,500 estimated words.
-42,750 actual words.
-Five-and-a-half fully-revised-and-expanded chapters (90.5 pages total).
-Eleven completed chapters in all (146 pages).