Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lost and 24 Compared to Comics

Stumbled across this commentary on the television shows Lost and 24 . I agree more or less completely with all the points made.

Confession: my wife and I watch both of these shows. Further confession: I do so out of inertia more than anything else. Both of these series long ago jumped the shark.

My small contribution to the discussion is to compare these series to superhero comics.

Like an aging superhero comic book series, 24 simply ran out of new ideas for catastrophic crises and started to repeat itself. Unlike a superhero comic book, 24 doesn't have the option of staging an epic crossover with other titles to renew flagging interest, reimagining the powers of its protagonists, or dumping a retcon upon its viewers. All of these would violate the parameters of suspended disbelief that its audience has agreed to: violent torture will produce swift and viable intelligence, one guy can kill dozens of terrorists in a 24 hour period without ever being incarcerated or held for questioning for more than 20 minutes, you can drive all around a major metropolitan area without taking more than 15 minutes to get anywhere, and nobody functions worse on when sleep deprived.

24 is in the same boat as a venerable comic book character like Batman. It has to rely on two types of fans: those that have committed to watching/collecting the "character" regardless of who is writing or what the storylines are, and those who are new to the experience and the familiar plots. At the same time, the central conceits of the character have become creative straightjackets for the writers. You can't draw out storylines in 24 because everything has to take place in a frenetic rush as the clock ticks away. You can play up his gadgets or his detective skills, but these days you pretty much have to write Batman as a dark, terrifying hardass.

Unlike 24, Lost actually does employ comic-book inspired techniques such as retconning, time travel, alternate dimensions, body doubles, and paranormal powers to try and stay fresh. But it mixes this madness with an attempt to make us interested in the everyday lives of its characters, which becomes a bit confusing given that the characters are supposed to be normal people one second, supernatural candidates the next.

The biggest flaw with Lost is that the writers obviously never had a clear idea how their story was going to end when they started it, or even what the hell the story was about from one season to the next. It's like a comic that switches the creative team every year, changing the tone and style of the series.

Lost also makes two fundamental mistakes that a typical ongoing comic book series, at least a successful one, avoids. First, Lost very rarely answers any of the puzzles that it introduces. Second, it adds too many new characters and elevates them to major character status too quickly, diluting the focus on the characters that the audience has come to appreciate.

It's kind of amazing how Lost manages to rope in viewers, including me, by continuing to violate basic storytelling principles. On the one hand, I wouldn't watch the show with any regularity if my wife wasn't still interested in it. My main reaction now is amusement at the train wreck the plotline has become. On the other hand, I'm amazed at how fervently many fans seem to believe that there really is a point to the story or an upcoming conclusion that could possibly tie up all the loose ends that have been left dangling.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

My New Review Scale

For when I bother to take the time to review a book, I'm now trying to follow this scale, more or less.

An A is something very impressive, one of the better books that I've read.
A B is something that I enjoyed reading and think was well-crafted. Good but not great.
A C was mediocre and didn't impress me in any way. I may not have bothered to finish it.
A D is awful. I'd only review something like this if it has had success that seems unfathomable to me.
An F has no redeeming qualities and isn't worth a long review.

For works of speculative fiction, I'm looking at the following areas:
  • Setting: Depth, breadth, and imagination are the name of the game here. A good setting draws you into the world of the characters.
  • Characters: I'm one of those readers who needs to have at least one protagonist who is likable or whose actions can be explained by necessity. I hate antihero lead characters who show no qualms or suffering about the awful things that they do--some level of introspection is important. I also appreciate villains with some depth to them. And characters who are smart are much preferable to ones who just gut things out. Characters who change over time, either personally or in terms of their relationships, are also preferable. Just my taste.
  • Plot: I like to be able to follow the plot. If there are Byzantine twists involved, drawing my attention first here and then there, then the resolution needs to tie up all the major loose ends created by those twists. If the story is supposed to lead up to some big cosmic revelation at the end, it had better be impressive or astonishing in scope. Otherwise I just feel as though I've been jerked around. Nothing wrong with a solidly told story that builds logically and drives through to a conclusion that has real repercussions for the characters. A LOT of otherwise impressive speculative fiction falls down badly in this area. The number of long books I've read that just fizzle at the end with a confusing pastiche of imagery . . . ugh. I call it the 2001: A Space Odyssey factor. I do not enjoy spending a week or more with a book only to put it down at the end and say, "What the f**k?"
  • Language: Some writers just craft more evocative or beautiful sentences than others. Or they write dialogue that crackles right off the page. Either way, it stands out. And then there are writers with a solid plot and characters whose descriptions and dialogue are so laughably bad that they kill the sense of being immersed in the story by reminding me that I'm reading something written by a hack.
  • Cool Factor: Some ideas are just cooler than others. Has nothing to do with how scientifically or historically accurate or complex they are, everything to do with how clever and imaginative they are. It's very relative and it only feels cool the first time you encounter it. An example would be bullet-time from The Matrix. Cool the first time. Got old after that.
  • Big Ideas: A lot of speculative fiction addresses one or more big metaphysical concepts, issues such as life after death, the nature of intelligence, perception of time, and so forth. Trying to tackle a big idea deserves some credit in my book if it is handled in an interesting way.
For comics, I add the following criteria for Art:
  • Clarity: Can you understand what you're looking at? Can you follow the panel layout?
  • Detail: Can you tell one person from another without looking at their clothes?
  • Visual Style: Does the look of the artist's stand out in a good or bad way?

Review: Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon

Grade: B

This short (about 300 pages), sweet science fiction novel tells the story of a brand-new spaceship captain dealing with relationships and duty and the day-to-day practicalities of space travel and proving herself under fire. This novel reminds me of the old Heinlein "juvenile" sci-fi novels, and I mean that in a good way. Another comparison might be the military sci-fi of David Drake crossed with the more character driven s.f. of John Scalzi. Some who don't like the novel seem to have compared it unfavorably to David Weber's Honor Harrington or the Lois McMaster-Bujold's Miles Vorkasian, arguing that Moon's protagonist is a bit of a rip-off of those characters. Well, I haven't read either of those--I tried reading an Honor Harrington novel, but the telepathic pet cat was a major turn-off. :-)

Moon puts the young merchant captain Ky Vatta through a lot of challenges, all of which flow logically from one trial to the next. There are a lot of little detailed bits of business about the practical side of being a starship captain and dealing in cargo, all while avoiding a lot of heavy concepts in physics or anything wildly innovative in terms of tech or the planetary societies being described.

It that sense the novel is not as creative or imaginative as Counting Heads or Mainspring, but it does a better job of making me care about the characters and actually resolving the plot points that do arise in a straightforward manner without losing tension. I stayed up late trying to get to the end of this novel, because even after the major crisis was resolved, I was intrigued by how the fallout would affect the main character and set up the next storyline. That's the sign of a well-written book to me. One of the best touches is how the protagonist realizes that she's been incorrectly stereotyped by her family, but that there's not much she can do about it because they keep interpreting everything she does through the lens of their experiences with her as a child.

I've already checked out the next book in the series.

Quick Rundown
Setting: A Solid B. Nothing really original, but all the details seem to have been worked out and things function in a realistic manner.
Characters: B+ to an A. Plenty of likable characters (some people don't like the protagonist for reasons I can't quite follow--she acts more competently than most young people), some scum bags, some sitting on the fence. Motivations are typically explained and make sense.
Plot: A-. It isn't full of stunning twists or a tricky mystery, but it moves along nicely and I didn't find the specific events to be predictable once the ship got into real trouble. A plot I can follow and that meets my criteria for believability is a solid winner in my book.
Language: B. Nothing really fancy here, but no clunkers or failed attempts at "kewl" futuristic language or grammar.
Cool Factor: C. This all felt very comfortable and familiar. But no wow factor for me.
Big Ideas: C. Not really what this book is about. The biggest theme is coming of age.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Review: The Boys Vol 1-4 by Garth Ennis

Grade: D
I read these on someone else's recommendation: a librarian who went so far as to put them in my hands. He's had some good suggestions for other reads, so I went with this one and felt obligated to finish them. But I didn't take long doing it.

There's an interesting concept underlying the series, which is that a group of supposedly normal guys goes around keeping the superhuman jerks in line through nefarious means. The idea is that pretty much all the superhumans, at least the ones with public personas, are scumbags celebrities who abuse the puny humans around them without a second thought.

But that concept is buried under the sheer grossness that author Garth Ennis (whose last name, if there is any comedic justice in the world, must rhyme with "penis") can't seem to help indulging in. Calling his writing crass and juvenile is an understatement. Faces ripped off, multiple graphic and gross sex jokes played out in panels, people wallowing in their own shit, being urinated on, vomiting, and so forth. It's all there, more than once.

I get the impression that Ennis wants to come off as though he's poking fun at all the sick, twisted stuff that he writes about with comic glee, as though this is some sort of satire of a world brimming with demented sickos. To me, he comes across as a mentally disturbed writer with an obsession with bodily fluids and violence. Or possibly someone who fantasizes about being a superhero so he can have sex with rogue meteors and treat everyone around him like crap. Let's keep the radioactive spiders and power rings well away from Mr. Ennis, please.

Some of the plotlines, like the story of how the corporation Vought American became so influential through it's creation of superhumans, are pretty cool. Some might have been interesting if they hadn't gone so over the top. For example, a planned Russian coup involves keeping 150 superhumans cooped up in a warehouse until the big day when they will be set loose upon the city--except they're all unknowingly programmed to have their heads blow up on command. This would have been interesting with a dozen superhumans. But Ennis is like that guy from Spinal Tap--he just wants to keep turning the knob up to 11. He is the OverKiller.

Occasionally Ennis seems to be trying to slip a message about the corrupting nature of power and celebrity into these storylines, but it falls flat for many reasons.
  • His insights are not that original aside from the levels of depravity he associates with the supercharged Caligulas that he puts on the rosters of his thinly disguised mockeries of big name DC and Marvel group.
  • Even his big "shocker" reveals are pretty damn predictable. His Professor X knockoff is a pedophile who has abused all the members of his teams when they were children. Believe me, by the fourth volume in the series, I saw this coming very quickly.
  • We're supposed to empathize with the actions of a team of psychopaths going around blackmailing and killing superpowered sociopaths. Because their extreme violence and vigilantism is directed only at really awful people, it's okay. All publicly known superhumans (except ONE) are scum. It's not even a consistent premise, because the members of the Boys are all enhanced with the same formula that gives the superhumans their powers.
The underlying concept is interesting. It could have been handled much, much, much better, with better characters (there are exactly two likable characters in the whole series), more coherent plots, and without resorting to so much crude, endlessly repeated adolescent "humor."

Oh, and like a lot of Scottish comic book writers, Ennis seems to have a bug up his ass about the United States, though he also has characters claiming to love it in spite of its flaws. But just a suggestion: when you come from a small island that feels the need to draw extremely sharp distinctions between people of Scottish, English, and Welsh ancestry, it's a bit ridiculous to poke fun at Americans for celebrating their various hyphenated ancestries (Irish-American, Italian-Amerian, Mexican-American, etc) because "nobody wants to be like anybody else" or they're all searching for an identity because America has none.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Review: Counting Heads by David Marusek

Overall Grade: B+
The book jacket for this 2005 science fiction novel includes blurbs such as "One of my favorite books of last year in any category" by the New York Times and "The most exciting debut SF novel I've read since Neuromancer . . . one of the best novels, period," by Fantasy & Science Fiction, and "one of the best first novels of the decade so far" by Locus.

It's certainly a good novel in many ways, though it didn't leave me eager to pick it up every day and I thought it was really running out of gas by the end.

Setting: I'd give the book a B+ in this area. As noted under "Cool Factor," the setting is very creative, but I never had a strong feel for how everything held together. Marusek throws in clones, artificial intelligences, moderate transhumanism, and advanced biotech and nanotech without really explaining or showing how all of these elements could coexist. That is, he shows them coexisting, but there's a lot of smoke and mirrors involved. I have no real idea of the citizenship status of clones, or the artificial minds called mentars, or exactly how the majority of regular people manage to earn money, or even how people regard the very strict population controls (which seem to vary throughout the course of the book).

Most critically for me, Marusek presents a future North America that seems to have a draconian centralized security authority that can violate individual rights, yet seems to derive its powers from no clear source of political or economic power. There are just a lot of competing companies that apparently cooperate to create an oligarchy that then monitors their own actions and members? It just felt disjointed at a fundamental level without some sort of clarification.

Now, some people, including the ectastic reviewers, were probably thrilled that Marusek neatly avoided the traps of info-dumping and lecturing to the reader that plague so many novels of ideas. He really concentrates on the show not tell approach. But his ideas were too complex and his plot too meandering for me to get a good grasp of them as I read. I felt that very little was explored--as a reader I was shown many surfaces of the world but not the heart or machines that drove it. So it left me a bit flat. I give it a high B simply because Marusek has so many intriguing applications of technology to society.

Characters: The book gets a solid B in this category for me. Some of the characters have the potential to be quite interesting, but we never seem to spend enough time with them as the narrative flits around from person to person. Others seem to exist mostly to show that supposedly stereotyped people (clones, retroboys, etc.) can struggle against the expectations of their type. The author cleared cared about characters and characterization, but I didn't care about most of them as the book drew to a climax. Others may have been more annoyed by the lack of likable characters than I was. I just wanted more interesting or fully developed characters. But I credit Marusek for caring about them.

Part One of the book is stronger on characterization and could stand alone as a novella. Part Two was a mish-mash. Several key characters do change over the course of the story, which is good. But the changes they undergo don't really seem to have anything to do with the main plot that supposedly links them together, with the exception of the clone Mary.

Plot: This is a B-, based largely on how disappointing Part Two of the book was. The plot at the core of Part Two is exceedingly simple: a powerful woman has been assassinated and there are mysterious forces trying to kill the barely living remains of her sole daughter and heir. This is then cluttered by byzantine twists and turns, multiple point of view characters, a lot of deus ex machina episodes with super-powerful computers and hidden conspiracies, and a lack of specific information to pay us off for our attention to the twists and turns. It's either a Gordian knot that doesn't get cut, or else the villains and their motivations are so simple that those we are led to suspect by one character in the beginning are really behind it all for the simple motivation of profit.

By the end, the thing I expected to happen had happened, and I felt somewhat annoyed at the twists and turns we took to get to that predictable event because the length seemed to be made largely of detours intended to show off clever ideas for the setting, which while entertaining individually were often confusing when I took a step back to try to fit them into the setting as a whole.

Language: While I wasn't bowled over by Marusek's style or his turns of phrase, I thought he wrote well. I was impressed enough by the jargon he devised to describe his future to rate his use of language as an A. The book is loaded with evocative terms like seared and iterant and company names like E Pluribus that are both informative about their subjects and believable in their usage.

Cool Factor: The book gets an A or A+ in this regard for the sheer quantity of clever and weird ideas that are jammed in. Everything from security slugs that crawl around sampling skin cells to rectal plugs that monitor neural and physiological reactions to the orbital Skytel billboard originally created as an anti-terrorism device are simultaneously creepy and intriguing. There's a very gifted imagination at work here.

Big Ideas: I really could not find a Big Idea in the big bubbling stew of little ideas and events that Marusek cooked up. In Part One, the Big Idea seems to be that in the future we will give up our privacy in the name of security.

Overall Grade: B+, carried by the trifecta of language, cool factor and setting while being dragged down by the characters and plot. I would have given the novel an A-, but several times over the course of the last 100 pages I had to stop and decide if I wanted to finish the book or not, because the stretching out of the wandering main and sub-plot lines and the lack of connection to the constantly shifting multiple characters made it feel like a chore. I had no expectation of being surprised by the ending (and I wasn't), but I had hoped that it would prove more illuminating as to why many events were taking place, or that it would resolve more than it did.

In general, I think speculative fiction critics are most often impressed by complex, innovative settings that involve multiple plot threads and characters. They don't seem to care much if those characters are likable (or at least capable of being related to), if the plot twists show good pacing and structure, or if the setting makes the reader work too hard to get a grasp of it. I do care about those three things, so while I've read highly praised books that were superb in my view, quite often I find them disappointing as stories because they fall flat in those areas.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Merlin, Forum, Bloggus Spherus

Remember that Jorge Luis Borges short story, "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Terius?" It describes how the history and culture of another world slowly infiltrates itself our own via a set of mysterious entries in a particular edition of the Anglo-American Cyclopedia. (For more details, follow the link.)

I love the story. It's eerie, the idea of something subtly alien sneaking into the environment.

I had a similar experience today reading this post in my friend Aaron's blog. It references a person I've never heard of (Merlin Mann), who is apparently somewhat famous for writing fiction and a blog I've never read, being slammed by another anonymous person on a forum I don't read, defended by someone who worked writing columns I never heard of for another venue I don't use, only to have Mann himself post a rejoinder (which I had to read twice to follow) that I think he wrote, only to mock himself a bit in the process.

It was remarkably self-referential set of comments referring to a world that seems to exist parallel to the one I live in. I don't even know how someone would learn about the dispute. It was all very surreal.

Monday, February 8, 2010

New Iron Man Trailer Looks Good

See it here.

I also approve of the soundtrack choices.

Solitary Endeavors

So, in the interest of being honest with myself, I'd have to say that my difficulties in preparing mentally and emotionally for the inevitable rejections of the story submission/workshop process are closely tied to my current situation.
  • I've worked one month in the past six as a freelancer. (Even I didn't realize it was quite that bad until I looked back at it.)
  • I don't have a very active social life in Boise outside of my wife and kids. We live on a street where most of my neighbors are considerably older than me. A few have died since we moved in. (One of my friendly neighbors who had a similarly irregular work schedule got foreclosed on and moved out a couple months ago. I was bummed when my favorite checker at the grocery store had to retire for health reasons.) My kids don't attend the local schools because they qualified for a highly gifted program that requires me to drive them all the way across town each day. My kids don't even have a lot of friends, to be honest. My son's Asperger's makes social connections hard for him and my daughter, though happy and friendly, isn't interested in teams or organized activities. So I don't meet other parents with any regularity via the school side of things.
  • I spend most of my days from 9 am to 3 pm by myself or in the company of people I don't know and don't talk to (such as at the library).
  • I'm a little bit sick right now, though I don't feel awful (I will spare all but Aaron the details).
  • I've had roughly zero success cultivating a sense of membership and camaraderie in a few communities online.
So, already feeling a bit isolated and not feeling like as much of a contributor to the family as I want to be*, my writing assumes a greater significance than it would otherwise.

I find myself feeling that I should be able to fill my downtime with completed stories the way I would be completing freelance assignments. That's not the way it has worked out. When I do finish stories, I'm invested in them as a potential source of external validation and social contact to a greater degree than if I felt a sense of accomplishment in other areas.

So far, that's added up to more pressure than is healthy or enjoyable. Writing becomes unpaid and unrecognized work, work that by its nature is solitary. Making the time for it often leaves me feeling more isolated.

In summary, I currently live about as solitary a life as a married guy with kids living in the suburbs could. The writing process itself is solitary when it comes to creating my own imagined worlds and stories. When my efforts to reach out via my writing in a serious way get rebuffed or ignored, it feels like I wasted my time and it hurts more than it reasonably should.

Recognizing all this rationally is not the same as knowing how to cope with it emotionally. So I'm feeling down on writing because as I have currently constructed my view of it, it hasn't been meeting any of my needs. Hence my desire to reexamine and revise what writing means for me and what I want to gain from it. Maybe orienting it more toward being fun for myself isn't the right road. I don't know.

As far as the rest goes, I'm trying to build more connections. I volunteer at school every week. I've started going to the gym and playing pickup basketball a couple times a week. I'm clumsily trying to forge a few more friendships, with limited success. Hopefully the economy and publishing industry will actually improve enough to where I can get work and stop having contracts canceled on me just as I'm ready to begin them (twice in the last six months on that score).

* Yes, I do a lot around the house and with the kids and I still feel a need to at least qualify as a part-time wage earner. I don't know if this stems from having supported myself right out of college and having been the primary wage earner for years, or if it's tied up with being a guy raised in this culture, or both.

Only Connect (?)

In a recent email exchange with my good friend Aaron about the topic of writing, I expressed a loss of joy with the writing process and suggested that I needed to go back to my roots as a writer, the desire to entertain and delight myself (as well as exorcise certain creative impulses that plagued me with daydreams and other distractions until I set them to paper).

Aaron asked, quite reasonably, if the idea of writing for myself wasn't a bit disingenuous. Isn't the goal of writing to communicate?

That got me to thinking. I've always had a knack for communicating factual information and broad ideas. That skill carried me through school and has paid my bills (with varying degrees of success) in various nonfiction writing fields (technical writing, academic writing, educational writing) for many years now. My goal when I write such things is clearly to communicate, as well as earn a paycheck. Moreover, I tend to work fairly well with the restraints imposed upon me by my bosses and clients.

At the same time, in that form of writing I'm almost always one step removed from the actual audience for the writing. I deal with the editors and the clients and their guidelines, but I don't see the end-users or the teachers or the students and their reactions to the documentation, lesson plans, or textbooks. So I communicate, but I don't really concern myself so much with how well I connect, because the potential audience is so vast and diverse that it's inevitable that some will like it and some will not. It's all hypothetical in the end; I'm writing to the best of my ability to get paid. My satisfaction comes from doing the work on time and as well as I can.

There's another kind of writing that I do quite frequently that has no real audience other than myself. I get significant satisfaction out of writing for myself just to develop my thoughts on a given topic with greater clarity. It scratches an itch, so to speak, whether anybody else reads those ideas or not. This essay is an example of that sort of writing, which I don't expect to be read.

Stories are different. They're more personal and subjective. In my case, at least, I can't see writing stories as any sort of practical avenue toward making money. So the motivation for writing them has to come from within, from some desire to express a personal vision.

Because of this personal and somewhat intimate investment, when stories are rejected it is more confusing and painful. What began in my childhood as an effort to shield myself through imagination from a larger world that so often frightened, mocked, or rejected me becomes instead a gateway that so often leads those very same emotions right to my heart. And everything and everyone I consult tells me that the writing world is full of far more rejections than acceptance. I think the idea is that you do care, but you just expect to keep getting beaten up and turned down and learn to accept that as part of the process.

To make that equation work, the value I attach to any appreciation has to outweigh the negatives of confronting regular reminders of the reality that in fact, other people don't understand me, either through my own inability to express myself or through a simple lack of interest or empathy. I think I also have to believe that an audience exists of reasonable size, say a thousand or more people, that will appreciate my efforts. I just have no rational evidence or personal experience to base such a belief on.

The idea of being published just for the sake of being published used to drive me, but over time it has lost appeal. I'm already a published writer, just an obscure one.

Why would publishing a story and not caring deeply about its reception be any different than ghostwriting a chapter of a history book and never knowing what students think of it? The mental and emotional effort required to do the former, at least for me, is much greater than what it takes for the latter.

At this point I need to figure out if I have enough faith in my ability to connect and enough belief that those connections will be worth the effort involved to pursue writing and storytelling for other people.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Write What You Know(?)

Write what you know.

This is a pretty common aphorism among writers, particularly fiction authors and those in genres such as travel writing.

In the contexts where I've encountered it, this maxim seems to be further distilled into the idea that you should write from the perspective of what your personal experience has taught you about people, places, events, and activities.

I struggle with this tenet in all its literal manifestations. I haven't done a lot of things or been a lot of places; more specifically, I haven't done many wild or risky things or traveled to exotic and dangerous places. I'm not inclined by nature to start now. While over the course of my life I've always had a knack for being personable, over the last decade or so I've struggled to connect with other people beyond a very superficial level.

So to write what I know leaves me with what I have experienced. And I have some fundamental problems with the most literal and practical applications of that approach:
  1. I have been part of a lot of ill-timed, delusional, and broken relationships. I don't feel like writing in a direct way about any of them. Sometimes out of respect for a relationship that survived a rough patch, sometimes out of a respect for the privacy and implicit trust of those I once cared about, and sometimes because it is just too painful. I read authors like Michael Chabon and at the same time that I'm impressed and moved by the personal themes he puts upon the page, I can't imagine subjecting my own relationships to that same surgical scalpel and magnification.
  2. It's gotten to the point where I don't trust my memory, at least in terms of the sequencing of events during certain broad periods of my life. There are blocks of years in my twenties and thirties where I'm not certain of the order in which things happened, which plays hell with any pretense of assigning cause and effect. When I try to zoom in on specific events, I have trouble recalling many of the sensory details that seem to be the hallmark of writers who plumb their own lives for material. I become a cinematographer touching up a silent, black and white reel of my own past by dubbing in sound and painting in colors that seem appropriate. To be honest, this confuses me, and I feel like I might be able to improve the clarity of my recollections with some practice.
  3. It was recently suggested to me that I try writing a story of my own life as both a literary and a psychological exercise, then examine it to see how I would change it as an author. I think this is an interesting idea that has some merit. But after sitting down to give it a try, I realized that at this point I have no interest in the story of my own past. It seems very, very predictable in many ways. It also tends to depress me. Books and films like that don't interest me either, hence my constant love for genre fiction and lifelong disinterest in most "literary" slice of life novels and short stories.
Now, you could say that all fiction writers refine the broad strokes of their personal experience into essential truths that they incorporate into imagined people, place, and events. Yet when I read biographies or biographical essays of many writers, it's shocking how directly they transfer the details of their lives onto the page. And so often it is the details that ring true or false for readers and critics. So the act of distillation is harder to pull off than it seems, and is probably best left to more experienced writers who have already made their bones by pulling them free from their flesh and holding them up to the light.

Perhaps my biggest weaknesses as a writer are an unwillingness to offend or to suffer sufficiently for my art. But I also suspect that there's something more lurking around, a difficulty in translating my view of the world for other people, in my inept efforts to connect and communicate the personal.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

RPG Setting Construction

Reading this post on Aaron's blog (which linked to this post on game-designer Ken Hite's blog) got me thinking about presenting setting content in a game.

I've already toyed with the idea of combining generalized story hooks with every significant piece of campaign setting.

Now I'm thinking about the technique used in Weapons of the Gods by R. Sean Borgstrom, as described by Hite, where the key setting information is broken out in to separate Lore sheets that come with vignettes, mechanical benefits, and specific story hooks. The players have to purchase these Lore sheets with Destiny points.

I like this idea and the example I found in the free intro .pdf for the game that you can download from rpgnow.

It would be interesting to incorporate some of the same aspects into skills--for example, say a character could have a skill ranked from 1-5 in starship engineering. You could have several different chunks of flavor text, one for each broad level of skill (say ranks 1-2, 3-4, and 5 for three levels). The lower level descriptions are basic and to the point. The greater your knowledge, the more info about the starship systems is provided.

All of this would probably work better in a .pdf than in a printed book, I imagine. Some content might need to be presented in more than one location for ease of use.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Degrees of Obscurity

I was reading an essay in Wired Magazine where Clive Thompson was discussing the pitfalls of becoming too popular on a social networking site like Twitter. The gist of the argument was that once a certain threshold of ten thousand or so followers is reached, the two-way conversation and interactivity of the network ceases as participants begin to see themselves as anonymous faces in the crowd rather than active members of a community.

My first thought on reading this was to wonder how the people taking part could tell the difference between a virtual community of 1,000 and one of 10,0000 if a single person is generating the original content. Ie., person X tweets, audience member Y considers posting a reponse. Why would it matter to Y if there were 100 people reading Y's reply versus 10,000?

I get that in front of a real crowd, there would be some anxiety. But you don't have that visceral experience with the other followers.

The other thing that threw me was the idea that a virtual community of several thousand could have "intimate" connections with each other. What? That's ridiculous. At best that community can fragment into a few tight cliques of a hundred or so each who then interact with each other.

So perhaps my confusion comes mainly from the assertion that the relationships break down starting at 10,000 or so instead of breaking down at a much lower number, say 1,000.

The line that really jumped out at me in the essay was this one: "Meanwhile, if you have a hundred followers, you’re clearly just chatting with pals."

I read that and just blinked in amazement. If I chatted with all my pals, I could maybe get to 20.

Ironically, the whole point of the post was to celebrate the value of small group dynamics and relative obscurity, noting how they can inspire creativity, honesty, and meaningful conversations among members. It's just that what Clive Thompson considers small and what I consider small differ by an order of magnitude.

I guess I am dramatically obscure.

More and more, my interactions on the Internet leave me feeling isolated and small. I clearly had a kernel of this impression in me from the beginning, as seen from the title I chose.

I wonder if the first person who realized that all the stars in the night sky were suns with possible worlds orbiting them felt the same way.