Setbacks

A glass of punch

I missed my post for today. I mean, I’m going to have a post today (at least if you are reading this), however, I did miss my 11:11 release time.

This isn’t a big problem. I mean, I’ll be hitting it tomorrow.

I also got up much, much later than usual. I guess it’s technically a setback. It’s because I had a very good night last night and didn’t want the night to end. It was brilliant.

So, technically a setback, but at the same time, that “setback” gave me a huge boost in terms of my mental state. That is something every single creative needs, and it will really help me for the next little while in terms of bringing energy to my creative work for the next while.

So, a setback? No, not at all.

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Stories and Culture

Three Warriors

Stories are shaped by the culture they come from. You can track changes in a society by looking at the changes in their stories. See what kind of person a culture casts as the hero of their stories and you will see what kind of values that culture holds.

Yes, there will be individual variation, but it will be limited.

Stories also shape culture. The stories a child experiences when they are young have a huge effect on their view of the world, what the consider to be positive values, negative values, all of that.

It’s a feedback loop, but one that changes over time. See, the stories you experience as a child may set your values, to a degree, but it’s not just the formal one. It’s not just the kids’ book with the boring, bland storyline. No, it’s the stories you hear in the schoolyard, the ones your friends tell around a campfire at night, the ones your parents don’t know you hear from them.

All those stories together shape you, and there are more stories than people think. We call some of those stories history, because that’s what history is, a series of stories that we think are true. In aggregate, those stories are maybe even more influential than the ones we think of as stories… although I could see arguing it either way.

The history ones are however fascinating, in that they shape how we see ourselves, the identities we establish for ourselves. There is one country where the story goes like this: “There were threats on every side, and we beat those threats back. Then we wrested control of our own destiny from our overseas masters at the point of a gun. After that we expanded by beating back the wilderness, killing the threats to us at gunpoint. Threats everywhere, but by being vigilant and strong we were able to defeat those threats and make this nation the greatest in the world.” Sure, that narrative is mostly lies, but then again, aren’t they all?

Very close, in fact sharing a border with that place is another country. The creation myth of this country is “We got here and made friends with the people who already lived here. We set up trade and built settlements. We expanded from that place, growing as we did. We were resolute when we were invaded, but never invaded anyone else. When we wanted independence we asked nicely and it was granted.” That narrative is also mostly lies, but then again, aren’t they all?

These two stories have established the character of these places, and most people buy into them. On a subconscious basis, we follow these narratives. Americans as a whole are brash, combative, loud, aggressive. That’s how they are seen around the world, and many of them take pride in that image.

Us Canadians on the other hand, we believe in the image that we are polite, friendly, inoffensive. We include people, we make peace with people. That’s our image around the world and we take pride in that image, at least many of us do.

I have known Americans who are the politest, friendliest, quietest people you could imagine. I have known Canadians who are intolerant assholes of epic proportions, who will fight someone before they say please, who would rather die than apologize.

In the end, the myths we create aren’t who we are, they are just the stories we tell, and any individual might be different than their stories, but we still tell the stories.

A common mistake writers make, especially in terms of fantasy and science fiction, is to make the people in their stories be their cultural myths. Have every person from this country be this way, every person from that country be that way. It’s a form of shorthand for world-building, and it’s boring.

Instead, try to think about the cultural myths in your own world, and then try to see how that idea could extend into your fantasy world. Maybe the society is known for strict ettiquette, but the character you just introduced is kind of rude, maybe they are polite, but they secretly long to just throw politeness and rules to the wind and be themself. Maybe a confrontational people has a character who’s scared of conflict, and that person might even be on the surface much like the cultural myth, but inside they are nothing like that, and maybe every person from that culture exists somewhere on the spectrum from beyond what is considered their cultural norm to the exact opposite.

You will build richer worlds that way.

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Television

Back to Back

I’m listening to this song right now and reflecting on the fact that I haven’t actually watched any TV this week. I don’t watch TV as a regular thing, but I do watch specific shows. The biggest thing I noticed is that I really don’t care that I haven’t seen any television. I haven’t watched those show I usually do, and yet I don’t care.

I have been reading a good book, that pretty much takes up my entertainment hours. There’s nothing on TV right now that I feel strongly enough that I want to watch it every week. It’s funny because we hit the golden age of television recently, and now it seems that we aren’t there anymore. I mean, There are still a few shows – when Game of Thrones comes back I will watch that, and I will give fear the walking dead another season to see if they maintain the amazing quality they had the last few seasons. The Walking Dead has turned to complete and total crap… there is no emotional impact anymore.

Arrow, once my favourite, has completely lost it. They did that a few seasons ago though.

The truth is that whether or not these shows were good, they don’t really add to my quality of life, which is why I don’t miss them. Now, I still watch TV shows for specific reasons. It’s because it’s a great method for learning about serialised storytelling. Mostly I write novels, although I do tend to release them on my website in serial form. I will be releasing the first novel of Jenny Dark that way as well (and for free on Amazon once I can make it permafree).

Anyway, that’s going to be the only reason I go back to television, but I will go back from time to time. Books are of course better for many aspects of improving my writing, but there are absolutely some elements of television that are great for learning.

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Horrible Villains

Lots of Turtles

I wrote the most horrifying character I’ve ever created recently. It’s a demon who is truly awful. I managed to disturb myself with this character.

The funny thing is she’s a minor character in my current WIP, and a minor character in the next novel and the next 4 planned novels.

She’s a thing of beauty. A villain who completely and totally embodies disgust. There’s a strong element of body horror, aberrant sexuality, degradation. It’s funny, because for the most part I have always favoured beautiful villains, but this character plays on the idea of beauty, the idea of sexuality. She’s someone I have a strong image of in my head. I know exactly what she looks like, how she sounds when she talks, what her home looks like… she’s a mix of imagery and personality from many people I have met in my life, many places I’ve been. No one person embodies all the traits she has, and I actually quite like some of the people who have contributed to her (hell, I’m one of them), but she’s got little tiny pieces that are negative traits, or even positive traits exaggerated to the point where they become negative.

She’s also the smartest character I’ve ever written. She might seem like she’s not all that bright on the surface, but everything this character does is calculated, planned, decades, maybe centuries in advance (she’s a demon remember? They live a damned long time).

I think she’s my favourite. Prior to inventing her, my favourite character was probably Mona from A Long Walk, but Maisie is much, much darker, and much more complex. Picturing her makes me feel a little bit nauseous, which just proves that I have a very clear image of her, that she feels real to me, solid, I know exactly what she is.

I can’t wait to introduce her to the world.

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Self Delusion is a Universal Constant

Gunman in Sillouhette.

I used to know someone who believed they were much more fit than I was. They believed that without working for it at all they were stronger, faster, more flexible. It was bizarre since I was able to run further, lift more, I stretched every day and was able to throw kicks above my own head (at the time I was doing a lot of Taekwondo) while they couldn’t kick above my shoulder. We were stretching one day and some mutual friends were observing. This person asked who was stretching further. Our friends said it was me, by a very large margin.

I was much, much more fit. Not a little, a huge amount.

This sounds very much like I’m picking on this person, but I’m not. It’s simply one of the best examples of what I want to talk about that I have available to me. I also want to talk about how to make this work in narrative, and how I’ve used it in things I’ve written.

So, I’m completely certain that I also have areas where I’m on the other side of this coin. Where I think I’m brilliant at something, much better than someone else, and I actually suck at it. Of course, I don’t know what these things are, because I’m inside my own head, so I can’t see it. I will never see it because that’s how this works. We are not able to see those things about ourselves. We also all have them, every single person.

In A Long Walk, I have two examples of it that I can think of. One is the villain, and it’s obvious when it happens. It’s near the end, you discover a huge gap between how he sees himself and how he appears to the outside. He’s descended into madness, he’s fallen apart completely and totally, but he still sees himself as he was before the world collapsed; when he was still a person who was together and reasonable. I think people see that in the story and see exactly what’s going on, and it feels real because they all know people like that.

The other time I use it is very subtle. My MC is actually a victim of this mindset. He insists on doing the hunting himself, he insists on taking shots that matter by himself. He’s a really terrible shot. Like, completely atrocious. He’s good at hand to hand, good with a sword, but he thinks that translates into being good with a gun or a bow. It doesn’t, he doesn’t have the time or the practice, and as a result, he blows it every time he tries to use that skill set.

I never actually draw attention to the fact that this is the case in the book, I never state that he has this belief about himself, I just have him be the one to try and take the shot.

To me, that’s a huge part of building character. I don’t mean the old saw about give characters contradictory motivations, that’s very basic and elementary stuff, I mean exploring their self-image and the impact that self-image has on the story. Remember, neither of my two examples above is ever challenged let alone overturned. We, the readers, get to see how wrong it is, but the characters never get to understand it. They are incapable of seeing it, at least where they are in their lives. Maybe over time, Jasper will discover that he’s a crap shot, and then maybe he will put in the time to get better. Robert is far, far too crazy to ever realise where he’s really at of course.

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Faux Morality and Character Development

A Hotel in Barcelona

I’ve been watching two of the three new superhero shows. Runaways and The Gifted. Both have interesting takes on morality, and one of them has made a fairly major misstep in that regard, while the other one has done a far better job.

So, Runaways. The morality is quite complex, the main characters are all the children of wealth and privilege. They are, for the most part, good people. Maybe a little bit entitled, but decent human beings. They discover that their parents are literally supervillains. Well, they haven’t hit the super bit yet, but still, they have discovered that their parents are murdering teenagers for some reason.

The characters are completely freaked out, trying to make excuses, find reasons, find ways to reconcile their inner morality, their preconceptions about their parents, and their new information. It’s really well done, even if some elements are… well, it’s a Hulu original. The budget reflects that.

The Gifted clearly has a larger budget. More sets, bigger name actors, hell, more actors. It’s clearly been made with a different process. It has a lot going for it, but it has some glaring failures. The episode I just watched had one of the biggest ones.

The show centres around The Mutant Underground. They are freedom fighters trying to overcome their government. There is a huge element of grey morality, the whole one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist deal. There is a lot around how you create enemies, on both sides (both sides make some serious missteps and set the other side more clearly in their stance).

So, what failed? There is a minor character, the handsome young rogue love interest of the teenage female lead. He’s discovered to have a checkered past. What kind of checkered past? Well, this young man who is currently a member of a terrorist organization, who is likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars, just like every other character in this group, if he’s ever found… well, he used to be a con man. Not a huge one, just some minor stuff. People freak out about this, he is at risk of losing his place in their (terrorist) organization. It’s completely unrealistic. Hell, there are characters committing much worse crimes in the episode. It’s like someone dumped a script from Seventh Heaven in the middle of this gritty, fairly realistic drama.

Not to say morality is wrong to include in your story. As I said, Runaways actually uses morals a lot. When the characters in Runaways find out about the misdeeds of their parents they freak out completely, but that makes sense. Morality has to make sense in the story, and it has to fit the story.

Actually, The Gifted has another example of morality just failing. A character makes a deal with a drug cartel, his assistance in exchange for information. The information is to free his girlfriend from prison. He does, then he goes to work for the cartel. His girlfriend finds out and freaks out. This doesn’t work for the characters or make any sense. Why would he not just say “Yeah, I have to do a bit of enforcer work for getting you out of prison?” to his girlfriend? It’s pretty clear she’d be mostly okay with it, having more of an issue with the fact that his ex runs the cartel than anything else.

Anyway, yeah, morality. Make it consistent for your characters, and make it make sense in world. People can tell if it’s tacked on.

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Metal and Horror

A Kickboxer in a Ravine.

I write a few genre’s, but horror is pretty heavily featured. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I also listen to a lot of darker, more intense music.

The themes covered in metal, in particular, tend to be heavier themes. There tends to be a lot of horror imagery as well. Ideas of pain, destruction, death, all of the staples of horror are featured heavily in metal.

Often when I write I go for trance, something that stays out of my way and gives me a beat to play along with the ideas in my head. However, sometimes I need something to inspire tone, to inspire mood. That often ends up being metal, since it’s so heavily involved with both the right sort of mood, the right sort of themes.

In fact, as I write this the video I’m watching seems to about a dead soldier returning to his home to greet his wife, not realising he’s dead. I mean, that’s about as clear an example as I can conjure up… and when I started I had no idea what the video was going to end up being.

Themes of sex and violence are so prevalent in metal as to be part of how you even identify that a video is metal… and the music that goes along with it matters too. It has to be intense, fast, hard, loud. That hardness inspires a lot of the details of what I write. I write about battles with demons, zombies, hell bleeding into our world.

The specific reason I hit a metal binge today is I was writing a major battle for my current WIP. The final conflict, a fist fight between a demon and a hero who is strong enough to give a demon a run for its money. The scene required violence, epic levels of violence. I had to bring it, and the music helped me to do so.

So, what do you listen to when you write? Leave a comment below, let’s start a discussion.

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Being Young and Certain

Picnic Table in Costa Rica

I heard a song a few minutes ago and it made me feel old. It wasn’t because I didn’t understand it, it’s because I did. It’s a song I would have listened to in my youth, even one I would have felt a kinship to.

The song is You Don’t Know by Kobra and the Lotus. It’s a good song. They have a good sound, hard and fast. It’s very epic metal, operatic vocals over pounding drums, screaming guitars. The thing is, it’s the lead singer going on about how the person she’s addressing doesn’t know what it’s like to be her.

Why did this make me feel old?

I remember when I thought this mattered. When I thought that the person not knowing my perspective mattered. Now I have a very weird perspective on this.

Nobody really knows anyone else’s perspective, nobody knows what the other person has been through, and nobody knows what their truth looks like. To tell the truth, it doesn’t matter. Two people can’t see each others truth, without some sort of external reference, and even then, probably not.

Also, you aren’t right. That’s okay, neither am I. Both of us have gotten details wrong, both at the time and, even more, in our memory.

I have far, far too much confirmation of this fact, so much that it makes me uncomfortable all the time.

It’s not just that the world isn’t what I think, or what you think, it’s that what we think we saw isn’t what happened. That’s a good starting point, assume that you just don’t know, that the other person probably saw something other than what you did, and that what they are reacting to is that thing.

This can be a problem though. If you are the only one taking this tack, and the people you are reacting to are acting with certainty, those people will railroad you, every time, and if you aren’t okay with being railroaded it becomes a challenge.

It gets even worse when you realise that every single argument has the same criteria. The least reasonable person wins.

So, what does this have to do with writing? A lot. If you want realism you have to realise these rules, and not make people bow to rational arguments, not make everyone remember the events as they happened. On the other hand, it can be so satisfying to have the protagonist be objectively right, and to have others (eventually) realise it. Sometimes it’s okay to do that, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen an emotional argument get settled that way.

For me, I try to write my characters as being as right as they can, but often that’s not all that right.

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NaNoWriMo – A Look Back

A Man on a Misty Road

This isn’t going to be one of those posts I’ve been doing, you know, a few words on NaNoWriMo and my progress. Instead, I’m going to talk about what I learned this time, what I think of NaNoWriMo as a whole, and some general thoughts.

Over the course of NaNoWriMo this year I finished the first draft of my fourth novel. Now, interestingly, I have some changes to make to it, but I don’t think there will be many story edits. I outlined the hell out of it, so I knew exactly what was going to happen in each chapter, what the arcs were, who the characters were going to be at the beginning and who they were going to be at the end. A few things changed during the story, but that was mostly events happening slightly sooner or later. I do mean slightly. The biggest shift was one chapter earlier or later.

This is a far cry from my last successful NaNoWriMo two years ago, where I actually reworked the novel from a single perspective to multiple perspectives, changed the ending to better reflect the characters I had built, and overall made the novel a completely different beast.

So, I guess my first lesson was that being a plotter is good. The writing didn’t lose anything, in fact, I think it gained something.

Most of my edits will be line edits, but there are going to be a lot of line edits. I will need to rework the language, the dialogue, the descriptions. All of that could be much better than it is right now, and it will be.

I’m also in a weird position. The book I just finished is technically a sequel. The first book isn’t written though. I put it on hold because of NaNoWriMo.

I also realised that I like to switch projects – one or two from a series, then move to something else. I can get back to it, and I have lots and lots of stuff planned for the world of the dead series, I have my Nic Styx series planned and I’m totally excited to work on that. I have a lot of stand-alone stuff as well. I’m also thinking about revisiting Spellcraft and Heavy Artillery – I have the planned structure and I’m at about a quarter of the way in. I’m thinking of releasing that as a series of shorter e-books, each one being basically a Novella. That way I can have frequent releases.

These are all thoughts that have come out of the NaNoWriMo process.

Some thoughts on it in general: There are a lot of writers out there, and I don’t know if it’s necessarily great for those of us in the business to have the market flooding with new stuff a few months after November every year. On the other hand, I think having more stories in the world is a good thing and I’m happy about it. I think the number of books for sale and the highly competitive market has more to do with Amazon than it does NaNoWriMo. Also, my first time doing it is what showed me I could finish a project on that scale. I would never have gone down this path without it.

If you are thinking of doing NaNoWriMo I recommend giving it a shot, see what kind of story you have inside you.

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NaNoWriMo Day 10 – Thoughts on AI in Science Fiction vs. Reality

Cascais, a Great Tourist Town in Portugal

I made my goal + a little bit today. It was good; I’m close to being back where I want to be regarding making it to 75k.

This post is inspired by a thread from one of the facebook groups I participate in, although I will be talking about a fair number of things that weren’t in the post.

AI is a staple of modern Science Fiction. This makes sense since AI is both strange and familiar enough to be compelling. The truth is though, very few people understand AI very well. They have it created as something like a Genie from folklore, or a super connected, super intelligent person.

AI could be much, much stranger than that.

Right now we “program” AI by giving some sort of learning algorithm a target and a massive amount of data as to what that target can look like. AlphaGo, we didn’t give it a bunch of decisions about how to play go, we told it what winning go looks like, what the rules are, then we told it to win go, and we let it play literally hundreds of millions of games.

AlphaGo has learned to play go through that process. It is the best go player in the world, and will probably be so forever. It will improve as the tech driving it improves, and it will improve exponentially.

This is a computer with a small fraction of the intelligence of a human. At this task, it is so much better than we are.

Self-driving cars are safer than humans. Right now. Not at some point in the future when they are allowed, no, at this moment there are autonomous vehicles in the world that drive better than you do.

We didn’t program them with rules, not the way we do something like Microsoft Excel or Pac-Man. No, we told them what good driving looked like, and we fed them data. There is some human intervention in their programming, at least right now. As time goes on that code will probably have a smaller and smaller footprint in the code base of the self-driving car. As that happens, the cars will become better drivers. Skynet can’t capture the potential strangeness at work here. Sure, the Terminator understood that AI will be smarter than we are, but it still made it look a lot like us, at least in the way it thought.

The Matrix was guilty of this too. The Wachowski’s wanted to machines to be using humanity for our processing capacity, not as a form of energy (because come on, we are a really bad energy storage medium). It was better, but it still made the machines somewhat more human in their core thought process.

A more interesting answer? They wanted to understand humanity, to really comprehend everything about us. This whole thing, it’s just a laboratory to study our response to stimulus. The Matrix as a social experiment. A war fought to figure us out.

AI could have a motivation that’s so alien to us that we don’t even recognise that such a motivation could exist. Hell, The Matrix could have started life as a time management system that was designed to get the maximum number of work hours out of each person, without any other parameters. It figured out a system that would allow us to work more total lifetime hours. Since it didn’t care about what we did, or if what we did produced anything in particular, so long as we were working, it decided to go with The Matrix.

That’s AI, at least amongst the realm of things that I can, just off the top of my head, think that AI might have as motivation for just that one scenario.

The realm of possible stories that can come out of this is nearly infinite. These creatures will have motivations we design, and we may not do a very good job designing their motivation.

I would love to see more Science Fiction out there with a more original take on AI, not just “they see humanity as a threat and want to destroy us.”

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