Wednesday, September 30, 2009

You Didn't Know It, But We Were Having a Race, and I Won

This is the sort of thing my kids say to each other, more or less, all the time. They are constantly staging races with each other over the silliest things.

Well, I am also susceptible to such foolishness. At the start of this month, I set myself the goal of posting more blog entries for the month of September than my friend Aaron (at Anecdotal Evidence). Aaron usually demolishes me with his profligacy. I did set myself a rule that the posts had to be legitimate by my own standards--that is, no less significant than anything else I have normally been posting about.

Of course, I didn't tell him about the contest, or he would have crushed me.

Victory is mine! (Of course, if Aaron attempts and succeeds at any similar blogging competition in the future, he will have stolen the idea from me.)

What A Strange Month

I started out this month with a lot of creative energy and several productive pursuits: writing for the novel, the drawing, getting ready for the egg parachute picnic, and so forth. I was also getting back into working out.

I'm ending it with the writing not going well, my drawing practice on hiatus for more than a week, a strained wrist that I'm now wearing a brace on (making it hard to draw and cutting off upper body weights entirely for the time being), and some allergies that have kicked my butt.

Not the arc I had envisioned at all. Frankly depressing if I dwell upon it, so I'm trying to renew my enthusiasm and rebuild my energy to at least get a few things moving again in addition to my involvement with the kids' school and their homework.

It's hard to evaluate at the moment because the last thing experienced tends to leave the strongest impression, but I'm pretty disappointed with the month at this stage.

Bionic Contact Lenses

This article in the Economist caught my eye. They've managed to put some incredibly tiny LEDs circuits into wearable contact lenses--well, at least one LED and they've tested them on rabbits. This could potentially allow for things like virtual heads up displays or true 3-D immersive environments (with a lens in each eye). The devices are powered by radiowaves transmitted from a small belt device.

The sci-fi part of me finds this cool. The practical part of me wonders if it's a good idea to have distractions like text or symbols floating on top of our field of vision. How much information can the mind process? There's already evidence that multitasking reduces efficiency by forcing the brain to switch from one mode of thinking to another.

Also, I suspect that soldiers equipped with this sort of thing will be one step closer to viewing combat as just a big video game.

Reviews: The January Dancer

The space opera novel The January Dancer is the first book I've read by Michael Flynn, who is better known for his Hugo-nominated novel Eifelheim. I picked it up on a whim from the new book shelves at a branch of my local library.

The dust jacket says that the novel evokes space opera classics such as E.E. Doc Smith and Cordwainer Smith. I'm not a Lensman fan, but the language that Flynn uses does remind me in a good way of Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Man, though Flynn's setting isn't quite as odd. I'm also reminded of Poul Anderson's Ensign Flandry books, though Flynn presents a purely human civilization.

The premise is straightforward enough: a tramp freighter captain stumbles across an ancient alien artifact with the power to bend minds. A motley crew of characters, none of whom are quite what they seem on the surface and each representing different interests (or rather, different interpretations of interest even when they nominally serve the same masters) each set out on separate journeys to track down that artifact. Eventually their narratives meet and are woven together.

The framing device for the novel is a harper meeting a mysterious scarred man in a bar and him telling her the story of the various events that took place as he understands them. Each chapter dealing with the main story that has happened is followed by a short interlude with the harper and the scarred man. These interludes deal very explicitly with the act of storytelling itself, bringing home to the reader the fact that they are seeing one interpretation of the events and that they are being told a story. Surprisingly, this "meta-narrative" did not ruin the sense of immersion in the setting or its characters for me. Rather, it added another story.

Though the plot at times becomes a bit convoluted, it holds together well enough. The ending of the novel feels somewhat rushed after the buildup, but I feel the story does stand on its own. On the whole I found the novel quite gripping and finished it in four days.

So what attracted me to the story?

Not precisely the setting, which while engaging is not crafted to hold up to intense scientific or logical scrutiny. There's no strong artificial intelligence here, no dramatic transhumanism, no post-scarcity nanotech based economy, though there are touches of all these technologies. You have robots and human laborers working in nearby places without any sense of why they coexist. Equally interesting is the fact that Flynn never seems concerned with explaining why you have spacefaring humans without all of these trappings. This, and the scope of the story, with its ancient artifacts and squabbling human successor states, is part of what gives The January Dancer a golden age sci-fi feel.

On the other hand, the setting holds up wonderfully to narrative and poetic scrutiny. I love the language that Flynn uses throughout the novel. His descriptions of people and places are excellent. He creates multiple dialects that all felt natural and believable to me, even when I sometimes struggled to parse them (the stranger dialects don't remain upon the scene for long, so this wasn't distracting). He sketches cultures with a deft and terse hand. And I've always liked the image of star travel as a form of riding "roads" or "currents" that connect different stars.

The characters of the Fudir, Little Hugh, Brigitte Ban, Greystroke, the scarred man, the harper, and others are interesting. No one is completely likable or unlikable.

All in all, it's a very artfully told story with a feel of fable or myth about it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Reviews: The Best American Comics 2008

I picked this up at the library over the weekend. It's an interesting collection with a very wide range of stories and artistic styles, none of which resemble contemporary superhero comics, which is refreshing. On the other hand, some the styles just didn't appeal to me. Another problem is that many of the stories here are excerpts, so just when they seem to be getting interesting, they end.

So it's best to think of this collection as a tasting sampler. That said, here are my favorite pieces:
  • Burden by Graham Annable. Clean, simple b/w cartooning with a strong sense of line backed by a spare story of seeming redemption with a powerful finale. Excellent.
  • The Salon, by Nick Bertozzi. A weird but strangely compelling story about a rather caricatured Picasso and an unnamed painter companion as they stumble across the principles of Cubism and perhaps track a string of murders committed by Gaugin. Be warned--more shots of Picasso's penis than is probably healthy to see.
  • Seven Sacks by Eleanor Davis. An odd moral fable about a ferryman and an unusual assortment of monsters told almost entirely with pictures. Fascinating stuff.
  • The Bloody Benders, by Nick Geary. Clean art style with a crispness and linearity reminiscent of some of David Macauley's work. An incomplete but interesting look into a real historical period.
  • Life is Hell, by Matt Groening. Classic, bizarre, messy art and humor from the creator of the Simpsons.
  • Gold Diggers of 1969 by Jaime Hernandez. Apparently this takes some his Love and Rockets characters back to an untold part of their childhood. I haven't read that work, but this was interesting and the art style is like an unusual take on Family Circus.
  • Berlin by Jason Lutes. Really liked the art in this strange historical pastiche of people in 1930 Berlin, though the story, as noted, is a work in progress and the excerpt doesn't really pull it all together.
  • George Sprott by Seth. I swear that when I first saw these panels I thought they had been drawn by Chris Ware, who actually did the next strip. A very odd story of a deceased host of a small television show about his exploits in the Far North as a younger man.
  • American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang. Good storytelling and crisp art that conveys emotion very nicely. Wish the excerpt was longer.
Most of the remaining pieces either had art styles that I didn't care for or stories that were just too disjointed and difficult to follow (which might have been the result of excerpting in some cases). An example of the former is Trouble by T. Edward Bak, and of the latter is Thanksgiving by Chris Ware (whose art is lovely but whose storytelling style nearly always leaves me unable to follow his layouts or narrative).

As the above comments probably indicate, this was a very quixotic anthology and a nice reflection of the diversity in contemporary American comics.

Writing Log: September 28, 2009

Today I rewrote a fairly recent short story called Faerie Circle. I started from scratch, starting the story in a different place and telling it with much more brevity. Right now it is about 2500 words, whereas my most recent draft was more like 4,250 words. Some polishing and I think I'll share it with others and then send it off.

I've been experiencing pain and some numbness in my right wrist for the past couple weeks. This has made it uncomfortable to type for long periods of time. So today I wrote most of the story out longhand and then transcribed it. Not that this helped a lot, but it was somewhat better.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Star Waiters

The weekend of kids wrapped up this morning when we went to the historic Egyptian theater (shown above) in downtown Boise to watch the short film Star Waiters (link goes to the full movie on YouTube).

This film was shot and produced locally by the Make-A-Wish Foundation and a lot of local film talent, including volunteers from Riverstone School, to fulfill the wish of local 6th grader Mitch Kohler.

The film is cute, not particularly great in terms of the acting or the satire, but I will say that both my elementary school age kids enjoyed it immensely. There were not a lot of people at this screening for the Idaho Independent Film Festival, but it was standing-room only at the original premiere, which took place back in May.

It was also amazing to see how many people it takes to put together a film that was shot in three days and then heavily edited in post-production to add sound (LucasFilm donated use of the official Star Wars music and sound-effects) and special effects. Very touching and a great display of what the community can do when it comes together.

So, much like the moon rock experience yesterday, this was much more fun than it would have been on my own. Now I'm tired and would like to spend some time simply reading. More chores ahead, however.

I Touched a Moon Rock

On a whim, and because my wife had reading and grading to do for school, I took the kids down to Julia Davis Park on Saturday, where an odd mix of vintage cars, Medieval folks from the SCA, a few military reenactors dressed in assorted WW II gear, and a touring NASA bus were all arrayed.

With all these things to do, the activity that my son was most interested in pursuing was getting on the NASA bus, where they had a couple very short video presentation, a real Moon rock that we could touch, and a little bit of NASA swag--including little pins in the shape of the first boot-print on the Moon.

So my daughter went and watched the various Renaissance duels while my son and I waited in the line for the NASA bus. For 1 and a half hours. In the sun. But he was willing to stick it out, and I was willing to stand there with him. Thankfully I had my iPod and he was able to play some videogames to keep himself entertained for a good bit.

I had a long and polite conversation with a conservative Christian who happened to like comic books and classic cartoons. (How did I know he was a conservative Christian? Because, like pretty much all conservative Christians I've ever met, he made sure to tell me at several points. This is apparently a rule.)

At last we made it into the thankfully air-conditioned bus for about 10 minutes of presentations that were fairly dull for me, to be honest. At that point my daughter had showed up and I let her get in line with us and go in, largely because I'd seen a good twenty kids appear at the last minute to join adults who had been waiting in line. This is one reason the line never seemed to move--groups of kids would just pop up and join the line. Frankly, it pissed me off, but after waiting so long, I wasn't going to stand on principle anymore and my daughter came in with us.

The Moon rock itself? It was a black, poorly lit sliver the size of my fingernail.

But I would do the whole thing over if asked, because my son was very excited by the tour itself and I was really proud of how well he was able to stay in the line with me without melting down or giving up. A case of the kids making the experience more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise.

Carnival with the Kids

On Friday, we attended our first Collister Carnival at the kid's elementary school. The children upheld the fine family tradition of winning a cake on the cake walk--got one in the first go 'round, in fact. This practice dates back to my sister and I cleaning up at cake walks during our early years.

My daughter won and was looking at a variety of cakes with sprinkles and gummy worms adorning them. I made it clear that her actual choices consisted of one of the chocolate cakes on display or the German chocolate brownies. When she tried to argue, I explained that (a) she could always do the cake walk again, but when you've got one cake on the line, you always go for chocolate first; and (b) if she got any other kind of cake, she would be carrying it around for the rest of the Carnival, because I wasn't going to take it back to the car for her.

We got chocolate. You have to teach these principles early.

The Carnival was fun overall. We know more parents now, so there were other adults to talk to, including a couple who also attended the University of Texas. And a group of kids who know me from volunteering gang-tackled me and dragged me off to a jail where I had to be ransomed. Then they tried to do it again, but we were out of tickets to redeem me because my daughter had lost one of the passes we bought. This leg to the spectacle of me carrying two elementary school boys and dragging several others because I couldn't afford the bail. My back is mostly recovered.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Future of Science Fiction Podcast

Listened to most of this recent podcast about science fiction on To the Best of Our Knowledge. It features interviews with George R. R. Martin and Ursula K. Le Guin about the nature of science fiction as well as an interview with the author of the definitive H.P. Lovecraft anthology.

I would not have necessarily chosen Martin and Le Guin for this topic, but they make interesting choices given that each one has published successful and award-winning fantasy and science fiction. Their perspectives are worth hearing. The interview with the Lovecraft scholar is also interesting.

Haven't actually heard the rest of the podcast yet, but looking forward to a chance to do so (my daughter is home sick from school today).

College & Pro Football

As the football season begins to gather steam, I've come to a few realizations:
  • It sucks living in this part of the country in terms of what sort of games get broadcast on the national channels (I don't have cable). For pro games, we're pretty much guaranteed to get horrendous NFC West games (nearly every team in that division sucks and I have no interest in any of them) or AFC West games (same problem unless you're a San Diego fan, and they are consumate choke artists in the playoffs). For college games, we continually get stuck with the PAC-10 even if there are Mountain West or WAC games I'd much rather see, (much less getting to see the decent marquee matchups nationwide). The PAC-10 is easily as overrated at the Big-10 and I have no emotional ties to any of them.
  • I don't enjoy watching Texas or Ohio State play big games anymore, because they make so many stupid mistakes and play so inconsistently. It's silly to get upset by their performances, but recognizing that just makes me realize that it's equally silly to get very excited by their wins. I hope they win, but I'm thinking of just not watching them play. They're both huge programs that spend immense amounts of money and land high-level recruits. They are basically mini-professional franchises and pretending that I'm watching college athletes seems increasingly hypocritical.
  • Still fun to watch Boise State, because I've seen a lot of the athletes and they are not any bigger than I am. The program also lacks the huge cash flow of the biggest state schools. On the other hand, it is frustrating that they no longer show the games on broadcast TV. BSU is too small to get major network airtime and too big to stay local, so all the games so far have been on one of the ESPN channels.
  • When basketball season starts, the disparity will be even bigger. They hardly ever show college basketball games on the network until January.

Writing Log & Weekend Wrap-up, Week 3

So this weekend I wrote down notes and ideas about different elements of the setting in a notebook while at home and at the university library. Wrote about 14 pages longhand. Just putting down key ideas, underlining the different terms or names that popped up, and riffing on whichever of those seemed to spark further ideas. Trying to map out the setting in some more detail. Going to mix in writeups on various characters as well.

From that I'm going to try to extract a story, the way I would search for a historical narrative or biography. Working out the plot first doesn't seem to work for me. Working out the characters first has more promise, but I in a setting like this I need to know enough about where the characters come from and what they are reacting against to make progress.

I'm also thinking of writing little vignettes here and there to try to keep getting my repetitions in on the actual prose front.

As for what I achieved in Week 3, I really have no idea on the time or the word count. Probably 1500 words total of actual story, pretty much none of it usable as such as this point. A lot more of setting. At this stage, just writing for myself and trying to figure out how to make a satisfying experience out of it. Not all that enjoyable.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Writing Log: 9-17-09

Tried again to begin the story at Chapter 1. Wrote for about an hour. 715 words.

Still not working very effectively. Running into a conundrum.

In my nonfiction writing, I have pretty clear goals and rules limiting what I can do. For my fiction writing, when I map things out that carefully, I start to lose interest in writing the story. When I don't map things out carefully, I go off on tangents.

Got to think things through a bit more. Might write out some short character biographies that I should have sketched out before. Look over the current outline a bit more, figure out a few more details about where the story is starting now.

Here's the crux of it: if I'm not getting paid, why write unless I enjoy the process of writing in some fashion? The more I try to professionalize my creative writing, the less enjoyable it becomes. Haven't found a good method yet.

Pulled all the "How to Write" guides off my bookshelf and stuck them out of the way. Going to try to figure out what works for me, if anything.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Writing Log: 9-16-09

Nothing today.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Writing Log: 9-15-09

Well, if anything, today was worse than yesterday. Wrote for a little over one hour, starting chapter 1 from scratch. Produced a whopping 676 words. Don't feel really great about them, either.

Two things have happened.

First, I decided that the setting that I was using wasn't quite cool or different enough. I've had some interesting concepts worked out for some time now and I thought that if I was going to write a novel, I should put those ideas to use. Who knows when someone else might incorporate really similar ideas into their own novel? (Don't laugh, it has happened to me before.)

This decision caused a ripple effect, distracting my attention from the story and making me uncertain about how to describe certain details of environment and place.

Second, I came to the realization that stuffing the Awakeners and the city-god Okanos into the first three chapters was overkill when they don't resurface in the story at all. At the same time, the Faerie are mentioned only third-hand, yet a Faerie artifact plays a key role in the ongoing story.

So it makes more sense to slot the Faerie into the scenes that once involved the Awakeners, so that the reader only has to grasp one new culture, not one and a half, and will learn something about a civilization and its magic that matter to the later events of the narrative.

Unfortunately, as I noted yesterday, this means blowing up several already completed chapters. That means that thus far this week has shown negative progress: I've actually dumped more words than I've written.

Possibly as fallout from this, my confidence in the story outline and the story itself has taken a hit. Maybe the smart approach is to try and write short stories, but I just don't think much of the short stories I've already written.

It all comes down to a continuing crisis of confidence combined an ability to come up with ideas that I have trouble applying. I want to write something that really interests me, something that I'm impressed I could come up with. And it's damned hard.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Drawing: Picture Plane Exercises

So, last night I finally got a chance to try some of the exercises that required me to use the viewfinder. These consisted of balancing the viewfinder on my left hand while tracing the edges of my hand with my right hand. Oh, and keeping one eye closed the entire time. I had an easier time closing my left eye and focusing with my right eye, for some reason. You also need to rest your hand on something comfortable.

I used a non-permanent black marker to trace my hand on the glass. The picture isn't bad, considering that it took me about five minutes to do. But the goal of the exercise is to help you draw a foreshortened viewpoint, and I didn't feel that this particular picture capture that at all--my middle and ring finger were actually bent, the glass pane balanced on my fingertips.

This one came out a little better.

The basic idea is that the glass sheet with the cross on it becomes a physical manifestation of the virtual picture plane that trained artists naturally project onto three-dimensional objects when trying to draw them in two dimensions. Using the viewfinder is all part of training the mind and eye to see with an artist's eye.

It was an interesting exercise. I have to say that it did give me a bit of a headache, but it allows for very quick drawing of the basic outline of a shape. I need to practice this a bit more before moving on to the next stage.

Bionicle Creations

My daughter has a lot of talent and imagination when it comes to building with Bionicles and LEGOs. She builds all the kits that she buys pretty much the day that she gets them, but after that she creates her own stuff, mixing and matching parts. Here is one of her recent creations, a guitar-playing alien.

And from the side:
One of the things I like best about this particular figure is that it can stand up on its own and it has multiple points of articulation in the legs and arms, which can be a little hard to see from the pictures. I've also seen a variation playing the flute.

Writing Log: 9-14-09

Well, today counts as an epic fail of sorts.

I spent most of the morning, roughly 9:30 to noon, working on a setting document establishing out and clarifying my most recent thoughts on the matter. It amounts to more than 2700 words so far, but it does not count toward my stated goal of writing narrative.

Then I switched over and spent two hours writing bits in chapters 1, 7, and 8, for a whopping total of 850 new words. Yes, even when I started writing the story I moved at the pace of molasses.

I really should have gotten the setting work done over the weekend, but once again the weekend was a forced march with little time or energy for creative pursuits. I've got to say it's an odd sensation to be looking forward to Monday. The fact that I continue to be fighting either a really bad case of allergies or a lingering cold doesn't help matters; my thinking feels fuzzy at the worst times.

I fell into an old trap today by getting caught up in thinking about the setting. The truth is that it is very hard for me to shift mental gears from setting mode to story mode, particularly when the setting ideas are fresh. The two modes play off of each other but often it takes a while for ideas to percolate and take coherent form.

The other big problem that surfaced today is that I think my current outline is simply trying to do TOO MUCH in the opening chapters. I have too many different cultures and elements appearing and having to be reconciled.

So I'm going to simplify and streamline. I'm getting rid of one of the three big cities that appears in the first part of the book, because while I think it is awesome, it adds too much ground to cover. I will think of a way to bring it into play, perhaps in the next novel. In getting rid the city, I'm also getting rid of the culture that spawned it, with the same caveat about hoping to reintroduce it later.

Unfortunately this decision means completely canning one chapter that's already been written and revising a big portion of a second and a little bit of a third. On the other hand, I won't be writing one or two other chapters. Got some outlining to do tonight.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

That Wacky Shakespeare

So today's Shakespeare quote from the little sidebar tool brings up one of those wacky Elizabethan ideas about the natural world:
"Sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like a toad, though ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in its head."
Apparently European folklore held that toads had jewels in their heads, the mysterious and fabulous toadstones, which could detect poison.

This makes me wonder how the heck toads managed to thrive without being harvested for their valuable gems.

Also interesting to note that amphibians world wide are dying off in large numbers for somewhat mysterious causes. Among those causes one leading suspect is toxic pollutants from human activity along with a thinning ozone layer. Amphibians seem to be particularly susceptible to the presence of a lot of toxins, acting akin to canaries in a coal mine.

So perhaps those toads had a gift for detecting poison after all!

Egg Parachutes

A couple weeks ago, I agreed to man a table at the student and parent picnic for the Highly Gifted classes in our school district. My idea was egg parachutes, as the picnic was being held in a park with a large tower--about two stories in height--from which the kids could drop their chutes.

I looked online for some instructions and got a mixed bag of results. Here's the system that I came up with:

  1. Cut out squares in various sizes from plastic trash bags to use as chute material. The smallest that I cut out were 10" x 10", the largest 30" x 30". Bigger chutes seem to work better from greater heights--from shorter heights they don't fill up quickly enough. Small chutes begin working quickly but don't slow the descent enough from big drops.
  2. Buy a roll of twine and cut the strings for the chutes from the twine. I also cut these in varying lengths. For a shorter distance like our tower drop, a shorter set of strings works best--it unfolds most quickly and allows the chutes to unfurl.
  3. Attach each of the strings to the corners of each chute using tape. I found that clear duct tape worked much better than masking or scotch tape.
  4. Attach the other ends of the strings to paper clips.
  5. Take a small Dixie cup and punch four holes around the perimeter. Snap the paper clips into the holes--this lets you change chutes or attach more than one chute to a Dixie cup. You put the egg in the Dixie Cup, which acts as a little gondola.

Put your eggs in small Ziploc bags! This helps cut down on the mess.

This system worked well. If I had to do it again, I would pre-assemble more of the parts--chutes of different sizes, pre-cut strings with paperclips attached--and have the kids do the taping and prep for the cups. I'd also remind my wife to bring the camera so she could take some pictures.

We went through four dozen eggs, all the duct tape and other chute materials, so I think it was a success and interesting to do.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Drawing: Equipment Assembled

Well, I was finally able to put together the tools I need to continue with the drawing exercises in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

I needed to make:
  • Two different 8" x 10" frames out of black cardboard, with inserts cut to specific dimensions
  • A transparent glass or thick plastic sheet 8" x 10" divided into four equal quadrants by two permanent black lines, like a crosshairs
This was a lot harder than it sounds. Couldn't find black cardboard and had to use black foam core poster board, which is a pain to cut. Also, marking on a black surface to note the cutting lines doesn't work, so I had to mark the lines with an Exacto knife and hope I was right. Experimented with a couple glass sheets that did not hold up until I broke down and bought a cheap 8 x 10 picture frame and removed the glass.

Here's the final result:

I put masking tape along the edge of the glass for safety reasons.

Here's what it looked like clipped to one of the frames for close up work:

And here's what it looks like viewing something at a distance:

Using the viewfinder is supposed to help train your eyes to see contours and lines more carefully, which also helps with depth perception. I'll soon see how well it works for me!

Squirrel Baby Funeral

Last week while we were walking the dog, my daughter found a very tiny, hairless, dead baby squirrel lying beneath a tree. It's eyes were not fully open yet, like a baby mouse.

She wanted to take it home and I thought that was rather gross, given that her first thought was to perhaps dissect it. But she cleverly asked her mom and got permission before the two of us could talk it over. She scooped up the squirrel with a shovel, put it in a shoebox, and brought it home.

Quickly her empathetic side emerged and she decided to have a funeral for the baby squirrel. First she built it a coffin (which was for display--the coffin was not actually buried with the squirrel).

Then she made a headstone for the squirrel:
This is the shot of the squirrel's final resting place in our backyard:

Friday, September 11, 2009

Writing Summary: Week Two

Wrote for total of roughly 16.5 hours in Week 2, writing on five days. Wrote for 15.25 hours in Week 1, writing on all seven days.

My total wordcount at the end of Week 1 was roughly 13,000 words.

My total at the end of Week 2 is roughly 27,000 words, for a net weekly gain of 14,000 words and a similar rate of productivity in terms of words per hour.

Since I've exceeded my targets of writing for 15 hours and producing 10,000 words for the week, I'm going to take the weekend off from writing chapters to recharge my creative batteries. I expect to do some drawing and to probably sketch out some ideas for what I want to start writing on Monday. (Oh, and I'll be reading a friend's manuscript.) Ideally by Monday I'll be itching to get started again.

I've also reorganized all the chapters in Scrivener. Right now it looks like the total will be 20 chapters for Part I. Shorter chapters are coming in at around 3,000 words and longer ones at closer to 5,000 words, for a rough average of 4,000 words per chapter. That puts me at an estimated wordcount for Part I of 80,000 words, give or take, which is significantly more than I first anticipated. Hopefully this is all the result of recognizing how things need to be fleshed out and explored rather than simple writing bloat.

Anyway, at my current pace it's conceivable that I might have Part I done by the original ideal goal of October 9th (50K + words in four weeks!), but I doubt that everything will fall into place to make that happen. I'll just keep plugging away one day and one week at a time and logging my progress.

Writing Log: 9-11-09

Blew a rare chance to get a really early start today but recovered well enough to get about 4 hours of writing in, starting in earnest around 10 am.

Did a little tidying up at the end of what is now Chapter 9. Roughly 300 words and the first draft of this chapter is mostly complete. First part of chapter now split into its own chapter. Each one is a bit shorter than average right now.

Then wrote the first draft of Chapter 17(!) That's right, I jumped ahead eight chapters to write a scene that I felt ready to write. The rough draft of this chapter is done and it is roughly 3410 words, for a daily total of about 3700 words.

No real new observations on the writing process for today.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Writing Log: 9-10-09

Late start today after some morning commitments and grocery shopping. Started around noon, wrote for about 2.5 hours.

Worked on Chapter 4, Scene 4. Wrote 2500 new words for the chapter. Left a couple blank spots where transitions need to be written. Might split this into two shorter chapters.

Definitely need to map out the revised plan of chapters this weekend instead of discussing them in the now-outdated chapter/scene format. At last count I think I had basically doubled the original 9 chapter plan to 18 chapters of shorter average length. My original plan for Part II had about 25 chapters. Hopefully that does not double to 50 when I start writing. That still wouldn't be out of bounds for a lot of paperback fantasy and science fiction novels, however, as it would equate to about 725 pages or so and a lot of novels seem to come in at well over 600. It would just take a lot longer to write.

(I'm not even thinking about the issue of selling the manuscript at this stage, just finishing one that I'm happy with.)

It is definitely easiest for me to write dialogue and hardest for me to write descriptions of places, with action scenes falling somewhere in between. (I don't find action scenes that hard to write to my own satisfaction, but I think I tend to make them too long for other folks, so they take more editing.) I can't say at this point how well the internal dialogue of my characters is working.

I wonder if there is a market for people writing really, really long screenplays or graphic novel scripts with a lot of talking. Maybe audio plays? :-)

Consortium Setting: The Cicada Queens

So reading my friend Aaron's sci-fi post and reading over comments on my Hornets No More post, I got to thinking about bugs and science fiction.

After a few moments grimacing over the memories of the Starship Troopers movie, I recalled one of the alien species in my Consortium Sci-Fi Setting (which I had originally planned to pitch as a possible RPG setting to game designer Chad Underkoffler, with the idea of self-publishing it as a .pdf, but which has been back-burnered as I try to hammer out the Illyria novel manuscript).

The Cicada Queens are the biotechnological remnants of an ancient civilization, one of several that flourished and disappeared long before the rise of the current collection of sapient starfaring species. Vaguely insectoid, they got their name from the fact that they are divided into a number of Nests ruled by distinctive Queens with their own agendas and from the fact that they lay dormant for tens of thousands of years.

No one is sure exactly what they were intended for, though the general consensus is that they were weapons of war. Other scholars argue that the Cicada Queens were meant as caretakers and possibly even curators of the cultural artifacts of their dead civilization, whether to preserve them for the possible return of their creators or to keep them from falling into the hands of younger civilizations not yet ready for the terrible knowledge.

The Cicada Queens are smart, but they are also programmed with a certain set of guidelines that act as a code of honor and conduct. For example, they will not destroy natural biological habitats, such as planets, that house no sentient life, but they will demolish huge artificial structures housing millions of beings. They use technology that in some cases in far in advance of what the current civilizations can muster, but much of their most advanced technology relies upon access to a high-tech data network and energy infrastructure that simply doesn't exist any longer. So for the most part they make do with "crude" equipment that is cutting edge by the standards of their opponents.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Drawing: "Contour Drawing"

Okay, I have to confess that this was the first of the drawing exercises that completely lost me. All right, the second, both of which came today.

In this particular exercise, you have to squeeze up your non-drawing hand to create a lot of lines on your palm. Then you take a pencil and, WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE PENCIL OR PAPER, try to sketch the contours of the lines on the palm of your hand for five minutes.

It really wasn't clear to me whether your pencil is supposed to leave the paper as you draw or if it should stay in contact both times. I tried it both ways, and keeping the pencil in constant contact seemed to produce a better result.

Yeah, it's pretty underwhelming, isn't it? The process is supposed to free up your Right Brain from Left Brain constraints. Now, I liked the upside-down drawing. That was interesting. So was drawing my own hand and the self-portrait and the drawing from memory. All challenging stuff.

This activity was really, really boring for me. I struggled both times to make it through the entire five minutes. I didn't feel anxious or frozen while drawing. I just ran out of lines on my hand that I felt interested in drawing after several minutes. I don't mind the resulting scrawl, but it doesn't move me in any particular way.

The earlier activity today involved drawing your "childhood landscape," defined as the picture that you drew over and over again as a kid in early elementary school. My wife recalled a couple such drawings. Most of the ones in the book had a house in them: hers didn't because she moved around a lot.

I cannot recall any sort of landscape that I drew with any kind of regularity or that would begin to come back to me in the form of remembered details after I started. I tried but to no avail--I was clearly just making a childlike drawing of the house I lived in on White Sands Missile Range as a kid, not tapping into any recalled symbols. Anyway, the result did not represent what it was supposed to, so I didn't post it here.

Betty Edwards says that about 10% of her adult students fail to recall anything when they attempt this exercise. So I guess I'm special!

All in all, a bit frustrating today, but some setbacks are to be expected along the way.

Shakespeare Quote

I liked the Shakespeare quote that appeared in the little quote box in the sidebar of my blog today.

See first that the design is wise and just: that ascertained, pursue it resolutely; do not for one repulse forego the purpose that you resolved to effect.

This kind of sums up how I'm trying to approach my writing at the moment.

Writing Log: 9-9-09

Started writing around 9:30 am today.

Worked on Chapter 1, Scene 2 (wrote about 1750 words)

Moved on to Chapter 4, Scene 2, got about 1250 words written for that.

Total writing for the day: roughly 3,000 new words in 3 hours 15 minutes.

I think I ended at a decent point. Need to brainstorm about the current scene outlines a little tonight to be sure that I have some fresh ideas to write about tomorrow. I think the process of getting the basic action and dialogue down and then going back over it to expand or refine the descriptive details of place has been working pretty well so far.

This weekend I think I may update some of the document Notes in Scrivener for each chapter. My goal is not to write for the chapters or scenes themselves, but to come up with ideas and think through some scenes so that I can start with renewed enthusiasm on Monday. Five straight days of steady writing makes for good progress but I don't want to burn myself out. Wanting to get going at the start of each day's writing session is a big part of making the process successful.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Writing Log: 9-8-09

Started writing at 10 am

Really heavily revised Chapter 1. (Reader friends are undoubtedly rolling their eyes, but really, I'm making progress and have other chapters written this time!) Much, much happier with it now. I think I've fit in a lot of backstory and character stuff in a fairly interesting and amusing way. Well, at least I amuse myself.

(Today I read the entire first chapter out loud, making some corrections and modifications as I went, trying to get the cadence and the timing of the language and dialogue right. I haven't done that for a long time. Fortunately I was alone, so it didn't feel quite as silly. But a useful exercise.)

Then chapter 2 should start the ball rolling a bit faster with the action and plot.

Moved a big chunk of text out of chapter 1 into Chapter 2. Wrote roughly 4,200 new words for Chapter 1, completing the Ch. 1 first draft. Got notes down for Chapter 5.

Wrote for four hours today. Even though I'm getting an unpleasant head cold of some sort, today was a good writing experience. Lost track of time, forgot to eat, felt quite involved in the process.

(Another thing I did last night and this morning was jot down some ideas for specific bits of dialogue or description as they came to me, always with an eye to where they would fit into the narrative structure. I didn't use all of them, but just the act of doing that helped prime the creative pump, as it were.)

Drawing: Upside-Down 2 9-7-09

Here is my next attempt at reproducing a line drawing freehand by both viewing and drawing the picture upside down.

The original, a German knight on horseback, upside-down:

My version, upside-down:

The original, right side up:

My version, right side up:
So, I had trouble with the lance--drawing straight lines is not a talent of mine--and I got the rider's left foot out of proportion to the frame. And I didn't get the horse muzzle quite right.

But again, I'm just starting the program and I'm pleased so far with my progress. It can be kind of relaxing to sit and try to follow the flow of the lines. The last two drawings I found myself looking at the negative space for the first time ever to help direct how I would position various parts of the drawing. That was kind of cool.

My ultimate goal, other than learning a new skill and fulfilling a lifelong dream of being able to draw with some limited ability, is to be able to sketch some of the characters, creatures, costumes, and cities of my various fantasy and sci-fi settings. Being able to do that with some facility would make me very happy.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Writing Log: 9-7-09

Started Writing at 10 AM

Began with some additions to the text of Chapter 3. 360 new words. [Still need to describe the desert itself with greater skill.]

Then expanded on some of the descriptive material in Chapter 1, Scene one. 300 new words.

(It has been very helpful to have all the reference books I've collected at my side during this whole process. In the past I've spent too much time trying to decide certain details BEFORE I began to write, which made the reference material both distracting and burdensome, something I used to put off writing as much as to help me with the process.

What I'm finding now is that once the framework of a scene is established, it's helpful to go back to the reference material to flesh out or improve some of the sparser or less effective descriptions.

For example, I have three different books, two in color with lovely plates, detailing Arms and Armor. In this instance I created a composite influenced by the lamellar armor of Mongolian horse archers, the gaudy decorations of the German Landsknecht mercenary bands, and the beekeeping outfit I borrowed from my neighbor.

On an earlier day I used an illustrated historical reference on cities to combine certain elements of Carthaginian cities with those of early Islamic cities in North Africa to help me describe a street scene and some architecture.)

Moved on to Chapter 4, Section 1. Wrote 1775 new words for that section (which is now its own chapter), completing the first draft of it.

Totals for the day: wrote for 3 hours spread across two different stretches. (Including a slight interruption to deal with a disconnected hose that partially flooded the utility room.)

Wrote 2,435 new words today. Satisfied with the effort and productivity.

Drawing: Upside-Down 9-7-09

So the next assignment in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain was to draw a freehand copy of this Picasso sketch. The trick was, you had to look at the sketch upside down and copy it upside down.

Here is my version.

I got the proportions of the head wrong and stretched out the torso longer than it was supposed to be. You can see this a bit clearer if I turn both images right side up. I also got the hands smaller than in the original, but frankly I think the hands look like crap in the original drawing. (I've never been a Picasso fan.)

It was an interesting process designed to force you to look very carefully at the lines of the drawing rather than using your preconceived ideas of what certain objects should look like. I'm supposed to do at least one more upside-down drawing before moving on to the next lesson. Hopefully I will do a better job noting some of the proportions and such on my next attempt. As you can see, I really punted on the proportions of the guy's head. I did better than I expected however.

(Oh, if I haven't mentioned it before, Blogger's tools for uploading and laying out photos suck.)

Review: A Whole New Mind

In an earlier post I referred to this book as helping inspire me to start practicing the lessons in a drawing book that I've had for some time.

I liked A Whole New Mind so much that after reading it I decided to put it on my Amazon wish list.

Daniel Pink's overall premise is that we as individuals and a society need to embrace our right-brain thought processes--those that involve creativity, intuitive, human interaction, and seeing the whole rather than analyzing the parts--more fully. He makes two key arguments:
  • Right-brain thinking is a key to success in the jobs that will be in demand in our future.
  • Developing a suite of right-brain oriented Talents will help us reconnect with our fundamental human natures and enjoy a richer life experience.
On the job front, Pink argues that Abundance, Asia, and Automation have combined to undermine the dominance of analytical left-brain thinking skills in the American job market. To summarize these points:
  • Abundance Makes Design More Important: In Japan, Western Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States, the average person has access to an abundance of relatively inexpensive goods of fairly equal quality. In this type of market, creative and innovative design is what stands out. What tends to separate even high-tech gadgets is not so much their physical capabilities but the design of their interfaces, the style of their appearance, and the ergonomics of their use. Well-designed goods are more popular than ever.
  • Asia and Outsourcing Makes Cultural Familiarity and the Human Touch More Important: Many jobs, even those in previously high-paying white-collar fields such as accounting, computer programming, and even legal research, are being outsourced to Asia. The jobs with the greatest security are those that involve an understanding of American culture and the ability to have successful hands-on interactions with people, such as teaching, nursing, designing, trial lawyers, family physicians, and so forth.
  • Automation Makes Creative Problem-Solving and Big-Picture Thinking More Important: Software already exists that can carry out linear thinking tasking at high speed with great efficiency. For example, you have computers that beat the best humans at chess. But by definition these machines cannot think outside of the box. The ability to look at the whole and intuit valuable relationships within it, or to draw solutions from one field of endeavor and apply them to another, is going to be very valuable in the years ahead.
He boils this down to asking yourself the questions: Can someone overseas do my job cheaper? Can a computer do it faster? Is what I'm offering in demand in an age of abundance?

Pink then identifies six key senses that are tied to right-brain thinking:
  • Design: Create objects and experiences that are both functional and beautiful.
  • Story: Communicate information in the form of a persuasive narrative that engages people and helps them retain your message.
  • Symphony: Synthesize the parts into a whole and combine seemingly unrelated parts to form entirely new mental and physical constructs.
  • Empathy: Strive to understand what makes other people act as they do, build relationships with others based on trust and emotional connection, and care for others.
  • Play: Mix humor and games into your life and work, to enjoy the physical and mental benefits of laughter and creativity.
  • Meaning: Look beyond your material acquisitions to seek a greater purpose and strive for spiritual fulfillment.
Pink spends a chapter going into greater detail about each of these senses, sprinkling in various examples of how they are being applied in daily life around the world. Each chapter includes a Portfolio of activities and resources that Pink encourages people to experiment with to help develop the sense in question.

For example, I'm taking up drawing to pursue my sense of Symphony. I'm also planning to read a bit on how metaphors influence our thinking. For Story, my efforts to write a novel fit nicely. I try to embrace Play during the week by playing with my son and other elementary school kids in the morning before school starts and by shooting baskets in the afternoons before I pick them up. My wife and I also play some board games together once a week or so. I experimented a bit with Design by hosting an Egg Parachute table at the Highly Gifted picnic a couple weeks ago, testing various chute models by dropping eggs off the roof and various other buildings. I like to think that Empathy is already something that is a strong suit for me, and I try to embrace it in various ways each day, mostly by trying to figure out why my kids do what they do. :-)

Meaning is trickier. My wife has asked me to do some exercises so that we can talk about some ideas and I'm trying to find time to fit those in.

It's hard to balance all of this stuff on anything like a regular basis. I think shooting for 3 out of 6 is pretty good at any given time, but maybe I'm just lazy!

Anyway, a good book and one I highly recommend.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Writing Log: 9-6-09

Another busy day with a lot going on; tough to find time to write.

Got a brief chance to write from 5:45 to 6:15

Went back to the start of Chapter 1, revised opening paragraph and expanded on first scene with a few details that had occurred to me earlier. Added 275 new words.

To be honest, just pretty tired today. A good day overall, but I've got a bit of a headache with a shift in the weather.

Might end up deciding that having one day off from writing is not a bad thing as long as I THINK about some of the writing issues. Giving the subconscious some time to process information can be useful. I'll just have to see how the next week goes.

Hornets No More

Well, last night I went out and eliminated this summer's hornet scourge once and for all.

The first photo shows me wearing my neighbor's beekeeping outfit, some beat-up hiking boots, and a pair of old gloves.

The suit was a little tight but visibility through the mesh was surprisingly good. I felt ready for action, as the second photo demonstrates.

Lisa got the action shot of me on the ladder about to spray the nest by getting much closer than I thought was wise. I put the ladder in place earlier and clamped a worklight to it by running an extension cord up the yard to the house. It was nice and cool last night and there was little hornet activity even with the light shining up from below the nest.

This is what the hornet's nest looked like after I sprayed the hell out of it, no doubt using about double the amount necessary.

This morning I went out to check the nest for activity. Nada. So I carefully cut it down and packed it into a cardboard box with foam peanuts surrounding it. I also scooped up twenty or thirty dead hornets from the grass and packed them into some Ziploc bags.

Hopefully my son's teacher will let me bring the nest to school so that the kids can see it. Then we'll cut it open. I figure as long as I bring some plastic gloves for the kids, handling the nest should be safe (I don't want any residual poison to give someone a rash).

You can't pass up the opportunity for science.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Weekly Writing Roundup

Well, the first week of writing has gone pretty well.

By my rough count, tallying up the times noted in the daily logs, I wrote for about 15.25 hours.

The net word count total for the week (i.e., the words that are still on the page after revisions, not the number of new words I wrote each day) came to 12,987 words.

Frankly, that's better than I expected, especially for the first week. Putting it into perspective, the monthly writing word count goal for National Novel Writing Month (which unfortunately takes place in November, a terrible time for me to write due to holidays, birthdays, and all the time the kids have off from school) is 50,000 words. Four weeks at this pace would put me over that goal.

Now, when I've tried my hand at NaNoWriMo, I've never felt that the manuscript I produced was very consistent and I've never been able to build off of it toward a finished novel. I hope that I come out of this effort with more confidence in the results.

I've got to say that taking the time to outline each chapter and the key scenes in each chapter, particularly thinking about what I wanted each scene to achieve in terms of developing character, setting, and plot, has been very helpful. I have enough options so that if I get stuck I can jump to something else. For me that's been very helpful.

Also helpful has been trying to follow the advice for quitting just before you are finished with all the writing you wanted to do. That way you start the next writing session with some goals already in mind.

Looking at the overall productivity and the time spent writing, I'm thinking of setting a daily goal of three hours of writing for Monday through Friday when I don't have a freelance contract. On some days, such as when I volunteer or go the grocery store, that will be a bit more challenging to achieve. But it should still be doable, especially if I'm able to get some writing done at one of the library locations.

Anyway, if I can hit that time goal and a minimum word count goal of 10,000 words, I think I can safely take the weekend off from writing and use that time to work on pondering some of the writing issues that arise, as well as for drawing.

Writing Log: 9-5-09

Well, it's Saturday, so it is a bit harder to find time to write on the weekend with the kids around and chores to do.

But my wife was gracious enough to give me a chance to get some time in as evening approached.

Started Writing at 5 pm
Returned to Chapter 4, Scene 1 and continued to build upon it. Rewrote several sections in addition to writing new material. Got 1,000 new words in. Wrote for one hour and 15 minutes.

So far the writing seems to be going fairly well. Chapters 2 and 3 are mostly done. Chapter 4 is about 2/3 done and Chapter 1 is maybe halfway finished. Of course I plan to go back through everything one more time to look at the language and particularly the descriptions of place.

It is looking like I won't be adding as many new chapters as it seemed at first blush. Now I'm guessing that the total will go from 9 chapters to perhaps 15.

Hornet Update

Some of you may recall that I have a hornet problem. This seems to have resisted earlier spraying attempts using one of those cans that shoots a pressurized spray from 20 feet away. My next serious thought was to apply fire to the situation. Tim Taylor would have been proud. But I needed the hornets to all be inside the nest at night, which requires some cool weather to may sure they go inside (instead of resting on the outside) and settle down.

So, after pricing out the cost of buying or renting a weed burner and going over several plans as to how to go about firebombing the big hornet nest, I find that the weather tonight is finally going to be relatively cool.

And after the heartfelt protests of my wife, I've decided to go another route. (She isn't concerned so much for my safety as she is afraid of burning the house down. She's got a bad personal history with fire and nearby buildings--and no, I'm not implying that she's a closet arsonist or pyromaniac.)

I bought a can of this expanding foam-wasp killing spray that is supposed to seal the holes in and out of the nest and harden to create a poisonous barrier. A Tomb of Hornet Doom, if you will.

The problem is that you've got to use this stuff at fairly close range to be effective.

So today I went out in a t-shirt and flip-flops, watched the nest for signs of activity, and then proceeded to use a pair of loppers to cut off a lot of branches surrounding the nest, pausing each time to see if anything came boiling out.

One branch actually brushed the nest, causing my testicles to climb physically back into my body as I waited for stinging hell to be unleashed. But everything was fine. Either all the hornets are out and about wreaking havoc, or my prior two poison-spraying efforts have taken a greater toll than previously suspected and the hornets assaulting my neighbor's bees and grapes are coming from somewhere else.

I've borrowed said neighbor's bee-keeping outfit, which I plan to don this evening so that I can climb a ladder, get up close and personal to the nest, and spray the ever-loving-crap out of it with this foam stuff. I'm prepared to use the entire contents.

So I will try to post another update tomorrow, hopefully with some pictures.

Dog Owners and the Death of Civility

As I get older, I'm not sure whether I like dogs less than I used to--I certainly dislike small, yippy dogs more than I used to, as well as dogs barking in the night.

But I think the truth is that I like dog owners less than ever.

This morning, I was walking down to the track by the nearby high school to get a little running in. In front of me on the sidewalk were a gray-haired woman and her big black Labrador. They were occupying the entire sidewalk and moving slowly, so I stepped into the street to pass them while picking a song from my iPod.

I noticed something out of the corner of my eye and stopped. The woman and the dog had both stopped walking as I passed, the dog turning to face me with a wagging tail. I looked at the woman and she smiled at me. So I slowly held out my hand below the height of the dog's muzzle, palm down, so that it could get a sniff of me from a safe distance.

The dog barked--not a friendly bark--and the tail wagging stopped immediately. I don't know if the dog lunged forward or jumped back, because I jumped back myself. The dog was on a leash, but it if had wanted to bowl the owner over it could have. It seemed content to simply growl.

I looked at the woman in surprise and she said, "She's never done that before."

(Note: In my experience, this sort of statement is a flat-out lie 99% of the time. "My kid has never hit anybody before." "I've never gotten a speeding ticket before." Because let's face it, most of these behaviors are repeat affairs, and after an event has happened once, by definition, then IT HAS HAPPENED BEFORE.)

I blinked at her. I suppose I was expecting, I don't know, an apology or a sign of contrition that, after receiving her blessing, I had put my hand within a few inches of the muzzle of a dog that was now growling at me.

Here's the thing: it doesn't matter if she knew her dog would do that. It did it. I don't expect a grandiose mea culpa. I wasn't in great distress. But a polite, "Oh, I'm sorry," or even a stern reprimand of the dog, "Stop that!" would have been suitable.

Instead, she squinted at me and said, "I wonder why she did that?" The full-on implication being, "What did YOU do to provoke my dog? Are you a bad person? Abuse any animals lately? Hands smelling of fresh blood?"

The obvious and factually accurate rejoinder that popped into my head, "Well, she's a bitch," just froze on my tongue. Too early in the morning to teach manners to a woman old enough to be my mother. I just shook my head and kept walking.

And no joke, as I write this, I see my neighbor's ancient dog, who is routinely allowed to wander freely in spite of having been hit by a car TWICE during his lifetime, limping into my side yard to crap on my lawn.


And these same sorts of people blame video games and Hollywood for the destruction of civility in our society.

The Gods of the Illyria Setting

Had a bit of an epiphany the other day on how to organize and refer to the various godlike beings of Illyria.

In the Eucumene, people worship spirit beings descended from dead intelligent beings (mostly hominids, with possibly a few dragon-spirits thrown in for fear factor). These beings are called The Gods Beyond. They are organized into Hosts, ideological factions with sometimes conflicting philosophies. The general rule of the Eucumene is that these factions should coexist, with certain behaviors banned by all factions. Regular Synods are held to re-evaluate the list of proscribed behaviors and to invoke Inquisitions on those who step too far out of line. Heretics are punished by having their bodies slain and their souls bound into the forms of crippled Mules. To everyone outside the Eucumene, the Gods Beyond are daemons. Inside the Eucumene, they are angels. The souls of the dead are collected by the Gods Beyond, where they serve as spiritual fuel or as recruits for the Hosts. The goal of the devout is to become an angel after death. Some of the Hosts believe in a power higher than themselves, but there is no evidence that it exists.

In the Awakened Cities, people worship gods that they have created by building massive symbolic cities who come to life via sacred architecture, geomancy, and human sacrifice. Think of them as spiritual supercomputers. Each City is founded according to certain precepts that guide the formation of its personality and thought processes. Huge Necropolises house the faithful dead, whose souls feed the City-Gods and form part of the gestalt that is its personality. Each City-God has various incarnations within its own realm. Their power is tied to their physical form, and they can't co-exist too close to one another because they draw on the same ley lines within the Earth and cause interference with each other. The people of the cities are called the Awakeners. Those endowed with part of the City-God's awareness and power are known generally as Avatars.

In the Dominions, civilization was founded by Elder Dragons. The "good" Dragons are called The Gods Above. Younger Dragons are divided into those who are being watched and tested to earn the right to reproduce and those who have undergone neutering to be removed from the testing process. The "evil" Dragons are cthonic beings who dwell deep in the waters or beneath the earth, known as the Serpents. Collectively, the High Church of the Dominions espouses belief in the divine Trinity of surviving Elder Dragons. Each of the three Dominions--Samar, Cortado, and Tilan--favors a different member of the Trinity. There are also a lot of Mystery Cults devoted to the worship and teachings of "lesser" Dragons, including those Elder Dragons who were defeated by the Trinity long ago. In the Dominions, ghosts and spirits are things to be bound into service or destroyed out of mercy.

In Illyria, the Old Religion worships a kind of cthonic fungi, known as The Gods Below, that consumes the bodies and part of the souls of the dead, sometimes resurrecting their flesh in the form of ghouls imbued with fragments of their souls. The priests of the Old Religion are essentially a variation on vampires. It's like Aztec practices crossed with Druidism; a kind of crazed pro-ecology philosophy that believes in maintaining equilibrium and culling the herd of humanity to ensure that it does not upset the balance.

The Faeries are basically hominids with the innate power to communicate with and control certain spirits and strange organic technologies (the Low Faerie) left behind by a dead race. Their magic disrupts order. Though the High Faerie begin life as the most human of the godlike beings, the use of their powers and their alien environment inevitably drives them mad. They live by oaths and arcane rules in part because they need to have some sort of structure to interact with each other and to stay sane.

So, in the current storyline, readers will encounter the Awakened Cities, the Dominions, Illyria, and get various significant references to the Faeries and a few asides about the Eucumene. The main focus will be on the Dominions and Illyria.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Writing Log: 9-4-09

[Dropped off kids, gassed up car, got some art supplies, set up irrigation water, went over some setting notes, wrote up some other blog entries]

Started Writing at 10:45 am

Finished first draft of Chapter 3, Scene 1 (now its own short chapter of just under 3,000 words). Wrote 1200 words for that.

I incorporated bits and pieces of scenes 2 and 3 into this scene, spread some other bits elsewhere, and am just leaving some stuff out for the time being, uncertain of how necessary it will be to add in. As a result, this chapter is shorter than expected at this stage, but I think it achieves the goals I had set forth for all three sections.

Continued writing with Chapter 4, Scene 1. Moved some material originally planned for Chapter 4 scene 2 up to the opening of this chapter to provide more descriptive color and set a mood. Wrote 1570 words for this.

Daily total was about 3 hours writing total and 2770 words.

What the ?

This morning driving back from the kid's school I saw a car with a weird goat-horned silhouette emblazoned on its rear window, flanked by the words DEMON HUNTER. Then there was a quote that said, "Hell Hath No Fear At All". Or something like that.

Then I noticed that the license plate read DMNHNTR.

This baffled me at first. Was the driver secretly one of those demon-hunting guys like on the tv show Supernatural? But I just assumed it was some weird Christian evangelical thing.

I was right! There's a Christian rock band called Demon Hunter based out of Washington state. The guy driving this car was either their biggest fan or worked for them, though I thought it had an Idaho license plate.

The demon logo on their web site (check out the t-shirt) also matches what was on the car.

So, uh, yeah, these guys seem pretty whacked out. Hey, they have enthusiasm.

But the kicker?

All this defiant, demon-slaying imagery and verbiage was plastered to the back of a banana-yellow Scion. That's right. Take a vow to slay the demons plaguing this world and you too can drive a car that looks like it was built by Fisher-Price for toddlers.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Drawing: My Left Hand, 9-3-09

This is the last of the preliminary sketches that I am supposed to make following the directions in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I just sat there and sketched my left hand in the living room while everyone else watched television.

I need to get some supplies before I move on to the next steps, so I don't know if I will do that tomorrow or if there will be a delay before I attempt some more drawings.

I should say thanks to my friend Aaron for bolstering my courage in showing my very amateurish efforts at art by tossing up a kajillion clay figure creations in the past month, some of which are quite nice, others of which are very whimsical, and a few of which only their mother could love. You only learn by trying.

Writing Log: 9-3-09

(Got a very late start today. L needed to use my computer to work at home for a bit and I had to mow the lawn. But otherwise I just procrastinated.)

Started writing at 11:30 am

Finished first draft of chapter 2, Section 3 (which is going to be its own chapter at this point). 1180 words

Got most of the way through first draft of Chapter 3, section 1 (also likely to be a short chapter). 1785 words.

Wrote for roughly 2.5 hours overall.

All in all, another productive day. Lots of dialogue in these two chapters. Got mixed responses on my dialogue at the workshop. Not sure if it bogs down the pace too much or not. But I like it, so for now it stays.

I've noticed that aside from specific, very colorful descriptions of people and places that pop into my head and get written down quickly, for the most part I write out the dialogue and/or action for any given scene with little regard to the physical surroundings.

I expect to go back over the first draft and add in bits of description to flesh out the full environment that the characters are operating in.

I'm pretty happy with the style and imagery of those color descriptions, but less comfortable with how well I describe the look of more generic places. I think that as a person I really just do not notice a lot of mundane physical stuff in my own environment and I don't actually know a lot of the words that people use for different types of clothing and architecture. I suppose I notice things mainly when they are unusual or I'm consciously trying to relax and just soak in my surroundings. Otherwise I'm either watching people or lost in my own little world. I've tried to collect some useful references, but it is too tiring and distracting to keep checking these as I write. So I hope to go over the rough draft with this sort of thing in mind.

Second Drawing: Portrait from Memory 9-2-09

The next assignment was to draw a person from memory, without any references. Since my son struggled to see my wife's face, I thought I'd test how well I could remember and draw his face. I didn't spend quite as much time on this drawing as on the previous one. I also made the terrible mistake of trying to draw an open-mouthed smile without a real clue of how to do it.

So my son does not look as bizarre as I drew him here. I did manage to make him look happier than I made myself look, however. I think even the eyes look a little happy--I tried to visualize the muscles in the eyebrows and around the eyes that contract when a person is really smiling.

Remember that these are the preliminary drawings made without getting any instruction or practice from the book. I guess that's pretty obvious.

Updated the picture after I realized that the nose was not showing up at all on screen. Darkened the lines, rescanned, re-uploaded. Not a well-drawn nose, but at least it's there.

Review: Letter to a Christian Nation

I recently finished reading the short book (under 100 pages) Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris. This is basically an attack on the core beliefs of fundamentalist Christians, which Harris defines as those who, "at a minimum":
  • Believe that the Bible is, literally, the inspired word of God
  • Only those who accept the divinity of Jesus Christ will experience salvation after death
You can probably add to this, as a subset of those beliefs (perhaps required by the bit about reading the Bible as holy truth):
  • The belief that the Rapture is coming and that it will be a Good Thing
  • The belief that evolution is wrong and that the world is only a few thousand years old
I'm a secular humanist and casual atheist (insofar as I don't spend much time thinking about or attacking organized religion and I have some leanings toward the Gaea Hypothesis) who lives in a part of the country with a lot of serious Mormons and a fair number of serious evangelical Christians. My neighborhood in particular has a lot of evangelical types in it.

So it was unexpectedly satisfying to read through Harris's common-sense dissection of many basic fundamentalist Christian beliefs. These are things that I just can't say openly in my daily surroundings without attracting a lot of grief. I can't imagine an evangelical Christian who would approve of this book or read it with an open mind, even though it is written in the form of an extended letter to American fundamentalist Christians.

Some of the main points that Harris tries to make include:
  • The fact that Americans are more religious than members of other developed nations is probably tied to our failing proficiency at science;
  • Accepting an idea like the Rapture undermines efforts to build for the future by promoting the concept that the end of the world will be great;
  • The Bible is full of inconsistencies;
  • The Bible supports many morally repugnant concepts, such as slavery;
  • There is nothing written in the Bible that demonstrates any hint of omniscience or great knowledge about the future or how the natural world works in general--everything in the Bible is compatible with a 1st century AD viewpoint on the world;
  • The Bible spends an awful lot of words describing how to properly keep slaves and sacrifice various animals;
  • Christians who preach abstinence are more concerned about preventing sex than about preventing teen pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases, to the extent that they will oppose measures (such as condom use) that could limit pregnancies and disease while allowing sex;
  • In defense of stem cell research: "Anyone who feels that the interests of a blastocyst just might supersede the interests of a child with a spinal cord injury has had his moral sense blinded by religious metaphysics."
  • There is overwhelming evidence that terrible things happen to good or innocent people on a daily basis around the world, with no evidence of divine intervention to prevent these events from taking place, yet people presume that God is merciful or that terrible events befall people who deserve them;
  • Conflict between people with opposing fundamentalist religious beliefs contributes mightily to bloodshed, bigotry, and civil strife in all regions of the world;
  • There is overwhelming evidence to support the theory of evolution, while creationism is a joke. Intelligent design presumes by default that the designer must be God, which does not follow from its own arguments. At the same time, there is far more evidence of random, unintelligent design in living beings.
  • If acolytes of intelligent design presume the need for a creator, then who or what created God? The argument becomes endlessly recursive.
In general, there was far more in this book that I agreed with than disagreed with. I'm not bothered by liberal or moderate Christians (I'm married to a liberal Christian), even if I don't fully understand their beliefs. And I know some nice people who are evangelicals. None of them seem to have much intellectual curiosity, and they invariably support not-so-nice evangelical preachers, pundits and politicians because of their ideology.

I don't believe that religion should be abolished, as Harris pushes for. I think spirituality can do good for a lot of people. But any time you interpret a text literally and pass moral judgments based upon it, I think you're in trouble. I do believe that religious zealotry has done and continues to do more harm to humanity throughout history than all the other evils we've managed to devise.