Archive for January, 2012

A Tour of the Binder

I’m nearing the end of my third month as a pleased Scrivener customer.  Starting our current novel project in Scrivener started as a test of just what the software can do, but it’s now my go-to tool for just about any kind of writing.  For anyone who is still considering whether Scrivener is the right tool for them, I thought I’d give a quick tour of our Binder.  Within Scrivener, this is the navigation tool around the project, so what you see here is our novel project, though with lots of the folders collapsed, because, ya know, it is still a work in progress and I’m not doing this to give away too many secrets.

1. Outline.  Nested folders are helping us keep track of our chapters and sort them into acts.  We’re going for a modified three-act structure, treating the second act as its own three acts.  I suppose this is actually a five-act structure, but one things I’ve learned from writing is that the number of acts has nothing to do with the actual number of acts.

2. Manuscript.  Yes, we’re keeping this separate from the Outline.  In the end the outline is going to be a nice first draft outline with a lot of our notes in place, but where we can collapse it completely out of the way.  Odd choice?  Perhaps.  One that’s working well for us?  Very much so.  Except when I accidentally start first drafting a chapter in the outline.  Oops.  Within the manuscript the labeling tools in Scrivener allow us to keep visual track of the act structure (the pink tab in the upper right of the card), and who the point of view character is for each chapter.  This gives us a fantastic visual hint as to who we haven’t used in awhile.  The built-in suggested labels are for things like “To Do” or “Revised Draft” but customization within Scrivener is the strength of the tool.  It’s all built around users working the way they want to work in the project.  Right now we care a lot more about the POV of a chapter than the draft status.

 3. Characters.  Everyone who shows up on screen more than twice, and several who only show up once.  I typically keep this folder open so I can look up a character name spelling (I’m bad at names, and that actually extends into my writing) or quickly throw a character file in when I create someone on the fly.

4. Random Scenes. These are scenes between characters that my wife enjoys writing.  They’re good character building exercises, and when I see one I really like, I’ll start massaging the story towards putting in at least some paragraphs.

5. Places.  This lets us drill down into our hypothetical world.  Lots of maps I made, lots of maps I found, photos of real buildings that show up in the story, descriptions of fake places.

6. History and World Bible.  These are getting used a little less than I intended, but they’re the background of our world.  I just opened them while drafting this post, and really am ashamed how little I’ve used them.

7. Side Stories.  My wife has the Random Scenes, I have the Side Stories.  She’s fleshing out characters, I’m fleshing out the world.  I hope they end up being used somewhere, but that’s going to be a very late decision in the process.

8. Critiques.  This is where I love Scrivener.  These are the critiques from our alpha readers at the Cat Vacuuming Society of Northern Virginia, typed live as given into this folder where we can easily review them when it comes time for edits.  Losing critiques is one of my worst writing habits, so having them tied into the project is a life saver.

9. Research.  Largely imported Wikipedia pages and other websites that include era slang and some real world people we’ve based fictional people on.

10. Trash.  Absolutely filled with unnamed blank files that I created with a stray click.  Oops.  Not cleared because I’m always paranoid I dropped something useful in there by mistake.  Actually, while putting this together, I found one of my wife’s random scenes landed in there, and has now been rescued.

Without Scrivener, this would all be an awkwardly nested series of folders filled with Word documents.  Several of these files might not even exist.  Scrivener makes it easy as hell to drag in any and all research I want, and wrangles it all very well, even when I find images that are several thousand pixels on a side and want just the highest resolution possible.  It’s a sickness, I know.

Is this the best way to use the product?  I can absolutely say: yes it is.  Because it’s working for us.  I’ve come across many writing toys in the past, things that I can play with for a while, but don’t actual conform to the way I write, and don’t allow for the organic growth that our Scrivener project has undergone.  This is how I know that Scrivener is legitimately a writing tool, because it can be used whatever way works best for the writer.  Is it right for you?  I can’t say.  I just hope that by showing how we’ve put together our project, you might see something of the tool and how it might help your writing.

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If I Ran Television

There’s a lot of mission creep on various television networks.  Largely the networks that have some grounding in documentary television.  Discovery, Science, History, all of these are being taken over by programming that belongs…frankly elsewhere.  So here’s my proposal:

First we need two more networks.  First would be called PPA, standing for Picking, Pawning, and Auctioning.  This would be the new home of American Pickers, Picker Sisters, Pawn Stars, Cajun Pawn Stars, Oddities, Auction Hunters, Auction Kings, Pawn Kings, American Pawn Oddities, Polynesian Pawn Stars, Auction Kings, Pawn Pickers, and Auction Pawners.  I’m sure any of these titles not currently in production will be by the end of the year.  The second new network would be called WTF, and would focus on shows that look at small subcultures within the United States that really have nothing to do with History.  Swamp Loggers, Axe Men, Axe Loggers, Swamp People, Axe People, Gold Rush, Swamp Rush, Log Rushers, and the show with Larry The Cable Guy.

I’m alright with these shows existing.  I’d probably watch a lot of PPA, and WTF is necessary for providing The Soup with enough material every week.

Ancient Aliens should move from History to a network whose mission statement it matches.  Syfy.  Or, perhaps, we need a new network called BS (Believing Stuff) which would be the home of Ancient Aliens, Ghost Hunters, and the new Yeti show on Animal Planet.  Firefly should also be on Syfy, not Science, ideally with marathon showings at least once a month and new episodes filmed during breaks in Castle filming.  An Idiot Abroad, fantastic television, should be on Travel.  I’m okay with all three shows being on television, even Ancient Aliens, a show I have a lot of fun being angry at.  Just not on the channels currently showing them.

All of these moves would allow channels to get back to their focus.  Discovery could be more about nature and documentaries, Science could be more about, uh, science, and History could be more about Nazis.

I look forward to these changes being made.  Anyone wishing to pay me for these ideas is more than welcome to do so.

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Flash fiction: I’m Worried

This is for Chuck Wendig’s present tense flash fiction challenge, itself a response to io9’s 10 Writing “Rules” We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break.  This is about breaking rule 9: no Present Tense.  Go read up on the other 9 to decide which ones you may want to break.  Since I know I have a certain number of female readers, may I especially suggest #7.  And I think I just also broke #1, since this is a prologue to the short story.

I’m Worried

DL Thurston

I’m worried.  Still no word from Dwayne.  We sent him out with our lunch order half an hour ago.  The restaurant is right across the street.  Or, it was right across the street.  Now, I’m not so sure.  The fog has rolled in even further, a thick curtain across the world.  Three hours ago it was clear.  Two hours ago we couldn’t see the airport.  Now, we can’t see the restaurant.  Or even the street.  The world out the window is our building, the smoking deck, then just a light gray nothing.  I wouldn’t normally be worried, I’ve seen fog before.  But not like this fog.  It’s different somehow.  Something about the total opacity.  The world doesn’t fade into it, it comes to an abrupt stop.

And I’m worried.

“When did you last get an email?” Nancy asks over the cubicle wall.  She can see the fog, too.

“Ten minutes ago.”

“Not from inside the building.”

I pull out my Blackberry and scroll.  Typically email would flow in from customers.  Today?  There’s an email outlining the company’s “shelter in place” policy, another reminding us that performance reviews are due, three emails spaced fifteen minutes apart about my mailbox being over size limit.  Ah, there.  “8:14 this morning.”  That’s nearly four hours ago.  I look out the window again.  Is it closer now?  There’s a railing along the edge of the smoking deck. I count the posts.  Five.  Ten.  Fifteen.  Eighteen.  I can see eighteen of them.  I’ve tried calling my wife.  Did she just have her phone off?  I don’t have reception now, or I’d try again.

“Where the hell is he, I’m starving?” asks Paul.  He’s from deeper in the cubicle farm.  He can’t see the window from there.  I hear him now whistle, “there goes my ten dollars.”

Five.  Ten.  Fourteen.  The edge of the fog now touches the building near accounts receivable.  There’s a scream from down the hall.  I leave my cube.  I get away from the window.  My mind dances.  My legs pump.  I don’t know what the fog is, but I don’t want to find out.  Heads pop out of cubicles as I run past.  They ask where I’m going.  I don’t stop.  Now is not the time to stop.  Someone runs from the other direction.  Fool.  He’s going the wrong way.  The path through the cubicles is a maze, but I’m the rat.  I know where the cheese is.  When taupe carpeted walls block my path, I turn left.  When cream cinder blocks rear up, I turn right.  Ahead is the glass front door.

Beyond is the fog.  I stop.  My heart continues.  It pounds and aches in my chest.  My wife’s office building is in that direction.  Vaguely, somewhere.  Still no reception.  There’s an emergency exit to the right.  I run.  Screams come from all directions now.  Panic.  More runners in the cubicle halls.  One runs into me, knocks me over.  He’s coming from the direction I’m heading.  I pull myself up.  I have to see for myself.  The door is wide open, and a smell rolls in.  It’s not the fresh sting of ozone after a rain.  This smells like striking a match.

“No way out,” someone says.  “No way out.”

The fog is darker now.  It pours in through the emergency door.  It slips through the walls like they aren’t there.  I can see it over the cubicles to my right and left.  I know it’s behind me.  The smell is everywhere.  Prayers.  Crying.  Screaming.  People react differently in a moment of crisis.  My mind blanks entirely.  A calm clarity.  Hands tug at me, try to pull me back.  I shake them off.  Whatever the fog is, it is not going to stop now.  It’s at my toes.  It licks my nose.

I step forward.

I am no longer worried.

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Babbling About a Setting

I’m aware that grocery stores must go out of business, but I’ve never seen one do so.  Now the Bloom near my house is closing down.  This is the Bloom that we anxiously waited for the first few months, that saved our sanity during a massive snow storm when we discovered it was in walking distance, even when roads were ice slicked and lined with snowplow berms.  It doesn’t surprise me that it failed.  For those not in the Bloom footprint, I heard it best described as a perfect 75% scale model of a real grocery store.  Too often I went there in a hurry, giving it a chance because it was the closest option, and not found what I wanted.  The day that I bought banana extract instead of butter (it’s an easy mistake, both words start with b, are about the same length, and include yellow things on their boxes) I discovered that the Bloom only carried vanilla and almond extract.  After a point I learned it would be faster, on average, to drive twice as far to Giant than being disappointed in the Bloom’s offerings.

Last night I went there to return a movie to the Redbox, and Bloom nearly failed me again.  It never occurred to me that a Redbox might be full, but this one was.  I needed to rent a new movie before it would let me return my old one.  The parking lot was just as full.  Even panicked pre-snowfall or last-minute Thanksgiving day shopping never filled that parking lot.  Really, the last time I saw it full was that first week when the Bloom was shiny and new, and shoppers hadn’t yet learned the disappointment of its stock.

I went in.  I’d fought for a parking space, might as well use it for a few moments longer.  Produced department shelves blocked the barren section off from customers.  I’m not sure exactly when the store got its last delivery of produce.  The closing announcement came two weeks ago, and the last day is still two weeks ahead.  The only fruit that remained were a few oranges and an odd dragon fruit, something I’d never seen stocked in the store before yesterday.  To the right, the deli stood with a similar lack of stock.  There was still an attendant there, ready to slice away fresh cold cuts, but the only two offerings were half of a massive turkey breast, and a ham.

The aisles were full of people, and more than that, carts.  These were serious shoppers, the same people who come to grocery stores with their coupons organized in massive three-ring binders, knowing just which store could get them an extra ten cents off their bag of chips, an extra quarter off their sodas, they’d be damned before they left a shopping cart only half full.  This led to aisles being impassable as customers refused to acknowledge their fellows in their fervor to get Oreos at going out of business prices.

The shelves were barren.  The top shelf on each aisle was long evacuated.  Product couldn’t fill the remaining shelves, so cereal boxes that would typically stand shoulder-to-shoulder now sat a half-inch apart, exposing the black shelves and backs, standing in sharp relief from the bright product packaging.  And still people pushed and maneuvered, picking the shelves emptier and emptier.  I don’t know how much stock remains in the back room, but I can’t imagine the store can keep this pace for long, especially as it’s only select locations completely shuttering, the rest will become Food Lions.  The store ran with that it had, eating itself alive, emptying its back rooms of non-perishables for one last orgy of consumerism.

Perhaps if the store had always done this sort of business, it wouldn’t have died.  But that would require being something else than a mimicry of a grocery store.  Especially existing less than a mile from a Giant, Safeway, and Harris Teeter.  Two miles from an H-Mart and a Shoppers.  Something had to give, and it should be no surprise it was the store with the least impressive stock.  I don’t know what could move in there.  The space has demonstrated that it can’t support a typical grocery store.  Perhaps a more specialized store, perhaps something more like a bodega, or perhaps a drug store.  It would even be a fine place for an independent hardware store, if such a thing was still economically feasible inside the DC Beltway.

I may take one more trip, just to see how far things get, just to look at the bones of a decaying grocery.  If nothing else, I found the scenery fascinating.  There was a frantic energy to both the customers and the staff that I’ve never seen before.  Perhaps I hit the height of the chaos, perhaps there’s still more to come.

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Not Sweating the Apple EULA

It’s the big new news in the overlap between self publishing and eReaders.  Apple has opened up a new product called iBooks Author, available free for any users of the Mac operating system, that allows content creators to generate books with a more interactive element to them.  However, the software comes with an EULA (end user licensing agreement, all that legalese that you click that you read without actually reading) that is concerning many self publishers.  Specifically this gem:

B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:

(i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;

(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.

It’s point B(ii) that is raising hackles as it creates a dedicated distribution channel for anything created in iBooks Author.  This doesn’t really concern me, genre fiction writer who has dabbled in some self ePublication, for a few reasons:

1) You Will Not (Yet) Use iBooks Author

If you’re reading this blog, the odds are you’re a fellow genre fiction traveler.  At this point in time, iBooks Author isn’t really for us.  The intended audience of this program are those creating text books, as this is part of Apple’s push to become a bigger player in that market.  And it’s a push that makes some business sense.  Kindle failed to take off as a textbook replacement, in spite of their efforts, because people want their textbooks to be in color more so than probably any other kind of book.  Kindle Fire now provides color, but it’s playing catch up with the iPad, which has already established as the tool schools are turning to when experimenting with providing students with new technology.  Getting into the distribution of textbooks by helping publishers add interactivity to their titles is the next logical step.

This isn’t to say that someone won’t play around with iBooks Author for their fiction, try to generate some interactivity, but the templates for doing so are lacking right now.  It’s a early release product and still lacking in several ways.  Perhaps one day it will be more a product for those looking beyond the world of text books, but that is solely the market Apple is going for right now.

2) Welcome to the App Store

This type of distribution exclusivity is the standard model that Apple has operated under since the creation of the App Store.  In the end, the books that are generated with iBooks Author, due to the interactivity and other included functionality, act as an amalgam of a book and an app.  Here’s the similar section from the license agreement for anyone looking to generate an app for iOS (please note, this is meant to be demonstrative and may not be the most recent version of this text):

7.3 No Other Distribution Authorized Under this Agreement
Except for the distribution of freely available Licensed Applications and the distribution of Applications for use on Registered Devices as set forth in Sections 7.1 and 7.2 above, no other distribution of programs or applications developed using the Apple Software is authorized or permitted hereunder. In the absence of a separate agreement with Apple, You agree not todistribute Your Application to third parties via other distribution methods or to enable or permitothers to do so

That’s it, that’s the way Apple handles things: by controlling the means of distribution.  Some have pointed at the text in the iBooks EULA “Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution,” but again this is merely business as usual for a company that has long exercised control over what apps may and may not go live in their store.  What this isn’t is a copyright grab.  You still own your content, Apple merely locks down the channels of distribution for that content when generated in their software for their hardware.  If Apple was interested in exercising copyright control, Angry Birds wouldn’t be available on every mobile OS under the sun.

I understand there’s concerns about Apple potentially censoring content, an issue that the App development community has dealt with almost since the beginning.  That will require, unfortunately, a wait and see approach, to determine just how open Apple will be with their determinations of what to distribute or not distribute.  However, the exclusive distribution cause in and of itself doesn’t concern me because…

3) Apple is Stating the Obvious

iBooks Author lets you generate an iBook.  This is an exclusive and proprietary eReader format that can be viewed only through the iBooks app available only for iOS products.  Apple controls the iBooks store, the iBooks application, and the hardware.  Even if the EULA didn’t state that they were the sole means of distribution…they’re the sole means of distribution.  That you are tied to the iBooks store and Apple to distribute the end product of your Author session isn’t so much a factor of the EULA as a factor of the

Again, this is the lesson of the App Store.  Apple wants to control the means of distribution so they can exert, among other things, quality control over the process and products.  Yes, it’s very true that quality is not the only control that Apple has exerted in the past, and I can’t help but wonder if they’ll attempt any sort of editorial control over the content they distribute.  Look, if you’re a fiction writer looking to get your book into the iTunes store, you still have the same option as before: Smashwords.  They’ll process it, they’ll do the leg work, and your book will end up in the iBooks store.  Without having to go through Author.  Without having to go through the EULA.

I’m not going to sit here and be a pure Apple apologist.  Their black box app approval system does leave room for concern as people start to self publish through the iBooks Author.  However, I do believe the furor over the distribution exclusivity agreement is misguided.  It’s simply a new wave of potential content creators discovering what those always working in the App Store have always known: Apple wants to control how products that end up on their Hardware get there, and wants a piece of the action if there is money involved.  This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an eBook distributor wanting exclusive distribution rights from self publishing authors.  It’s the same thing that Kindle is asking for those who want to join the lending library.  While this isn’t directly a response to that, it’s someone offering a new item (interactivity vs the pool of money for the lending library) in exchange for asking for exclusivity.

Let’s wrap this up, because this has turned into a longer post than I anticipated.  Look, I’m not a lawyer, what I’m gathering about the EULA and what it does and doesn’t say I’m gathering from my amateur research around the internet.  I understand people have different interpretations and concerns, but we’ve also seen for years the difference Apple creates between exclusive distribution of a particular port vs exclusive distribution of an idea.  The iBooks Author will just be a tool, like the iOS Dev Kit, for porting a concept to iOS devices.  Whether it will eventually be a viable tool for the novel writer is yet to be seen, but probably is at least one generation of the tool away.  Until then, just do your research.  Learn about what the EULA says, not just what people say it says.  This applies for iBooks Author, and really for anything in life.  Be an informed consumer and user, that’s really the lesson here.

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The Civil War

I was 11 years old when The Civil War started.  Not the war itself, clearly, but the PBS documentary that first ran in 1990, starting just over a week after my 11th birthday.  I was aware of it, my middle school band even played a simple arrangement of Ashoken Farewell at our holiday concert that year, but I was too young for 10 hour epic PBS documentaries, no matter how well produced or acclaimed they were.  It just wasn’t right for my attention span.

It’s been just over 21 years now since that original broadcast.  It’s rerun on PBS numerous times since then, especially during pledge drives, had VHS and DVD releases, and landed on Netflix streaming.  It wasn’t until recently that the series actually interested me, not until I got to work on a novel set in and around the era of the American Civil War.  Researching still isn’t something I’m entirely comfortable with, but I’ve become engrossed by the era.  Even though the war in our book happens very differently, it’s important to know what happened in the real war, what was going on outside the battlefields, how life was led.  And that’s why we added The Civil War to our streaming queue and started watching it.

I’m not going to get obsessed by the Civil War.  I’m not going to devote my life to it.  When this novel is over and the next one travels west with the railroad, I’ll probably step away from the battlefields of the east.  But I’d like to say…I understand it now.  I can understand why people devote so much time to this war, so much fascination, just what it is about this conflict that draws so much more of the American imagination than any war either before or since.  It’s odd that it took so long.  I was born abroad, but since returning to the states as an infant I’ve never lived outside the Confederacy.  Virginia, Alabama, Texas, back to Virginia, college in North Carolina, it’s always been right there at my doorstep, but it’s just a period that I never devoted much thought to.

My wife and I watch the show oddly.  We’ve been doing some research, looking up those real life characters who are hanging out in the background of our novel.  They’re never active in the plot itself, but they influenced it with their earlier actions.  Yesterday we actually exchanged a high-five when two of them, Richard Gatling and John Ericsson, showed up on-screen, both in photographs we immediately recognized.  The documentary almost turns the war into a spectator sport for us, as we identify by photos those who were crazy sons of bitches, who were the heroes, and who were the villains, all from our understanding of the war coming into this project, and from our research.  When Ericsson is described as cantankerous we actually laugh, as we cast him as the emotional, and even occasionally cruel, inventor.  Largely because Gatling looks too much like Santa to comfortably vilify.  Seriously, that’s him to the right.  Ho ho ho, little Susie, if you’re really good I may bring you a machine gun for Christmas.

We laughed at what was almost a running gag early in the war, Northern generals being traded in and out of their commands.

And then the fighting starts.

We’re almost experiencing the war as it was lived.  I suppose that was the intent of the documentary.  Go into the war expecting it to be a quick and easy affair, until the fighting actually starts.  It’s odd.  I know the statistics.  Right around 2% of the population of the United States was killed in the conflict, the equivalent of 6.25 million people today.  It’s a staggering number.  Perhaps too staggering.  It takes the individual fights, the isolated battles, for those numbers to make any sense.  It takes the slaughter at Shiloh.  And then I realize that I can understand those who obsess with the war, who get drawn into its history and want to learn more, but not those who glorify it.

We’re three hours, two episodes, in.  It makes interesting viewing while I’m writing, though it does force me to put aside the story at times.  It also has me looking around the Northern Virginia area, where we’re lousy with Civil War history.  There’s a minor battle site within walking distance of my house, and Manassas is only a half hour’s drive away.  I’ve never been to these sites, but I’ll probably start when the weather warms.  Especially to see those parts of the war that are the same between established history and our book’s timeline.

Damn that war.

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A Writer Reviews: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Before I start talking about this in terms of writing and character development, I’m going to say if you’ve only seen Dr. Horrible online, through Netflix, on iTunes, anything like that…track down the DVD.  Commentary, The Musical is a full length…well, musical commentary track that is value added and then some.

I’ve been meaning to talk about Dr. Horrible in one of these Writer Reviews bits.  I always figured when I did I would explore the nature of the protagonist and antagonist versus the hero and villain of the story.  That’s legitimately interesting with Dr. Horrible, which does the villain-as-protagonist twist that was later the heart of Despicable Me and Megamind, but without taking the villain-becomes-hero redemption route.  Instead, Dr. Horrible is a fantastic example of a protagonist with two conflicting, and actively contradictory, goals.

I was playing around with these while putting together an exercise on dissecting plots for my writers group.  Dr. Horrible has two main plot lines, which for the exercise I deemed as the “Dr. Horrible” plot and the “Billy” plot, with each of the main character’s personas taking the role of protagonist, and Captain Hammer being the antagonist.  Let’s just do a quick breakdown for those who might not remember the entirety of each plot, using the seven step plot break-down I talked about two weeks ago.  These are my own suggestions for the points, so you may disagree with them and the will be spoiler filled.

Dr. Horrible wants to join the Evil League of Evil.  That’s his hook, and that’s where the story starts, reading viewer email and talking about his transmatter and freeze rays.  Plot Turn 1 comes when he gets a letter from Bad Horse saying he is under evaluation for membership.  Pinch 1 occurs during the Wonderflonium heist, which is interrupted by introduced nemesis Captain Hammer.  Even though he succeeds, the intervention complicates his path to ELE membership.  The midpoint is the second Bad Horse letter, announcing that he’s been unsuccessful in his membership and now must kill someone to get in, it’s the first point of transition from merely felonious to willingly murderous.  Pinch 2, rather than being an all-is-lost moment, is actually a high point during the song “Brand New Day” when Dr. Horrible realizes that Captain Hammer will be his victim.  Plot Turn 2 comes with the creation of the death ray and the accidental death of Penny, which leads to the conclusion as Dr. Horrible rides roughshod over the city and joins the League.

Billy is infatuated with Penny, the cute redhead at the laundromat, and his hook is the opening song “My Freeze Ray.”  Plot Turn 1 happens as he is preparing for the Wonderflonium heist (seriously, Wonderflonium is a fun word to write) when Penny recognizes him and talks to him about creating a shelter.  Pinch 1 has Penny swooning for Captain Hammer after he apparently saves her life.  In the midpoint Penny and Billy are now “laundry buddies” sharing frozen yogurt and talking about their lives, they even nearly kiss at one moment.  Pinch 2, all is lost, happens when Captain Hammer comes to the laundromat, recognizes Billy as Dr. Horrible, and announces that he’s going to keep dating Penny out of spite.  “These are not the hammer.”  Plot Turn 2, now this is the interesting part.  The moment where Billy has everything he needs to win over Penny’s heart, he doesn’t know it.  It’s the point where she walks off stage disgusted that Captain Hammer is discussing their love life and isn’t nearly as interested in the homeless as he seems.  Sadly, because Joss Whedon will rip your heart out every damn time, he doesn’t know this so the conclusion has her dead in his arms, her last words being “Captain Hammer will save us.”

The first important turning point of the story happens at Plot Turn 1 for the Billy storyline, which is appropriate.  Plot Turn 1 is that moment where we’re done introducing the characters and we need to give them a story to take part in.  Our villainous hero in Dr. Horrible has a moment after his first actual conversation with Penny where he considers whether he should go after her, or whether to continue with the heist and experience his other Plot Turn.  The choices are directly in conflict with each other, and he needs a moment to make a conscious choice between the two plots.  It’s that moment where he can choose whether to abandon evil and go after Penny, or where he can continue with his plan.  This comes to a head at the end of Act Two when Pinch 2 for each plot run headlong into each other.  When he has to confront Captain Hammer discussing what parts of his anatomy are, and are not, the hammer, he is again presented with a choice of how to go forward.  However, he doesn’t recognize it as a choice, and instead decides the murder of Captain Hammer will achieve both goals, certain Penny will love him when she gets a “shiny new Australia.”  The fact that he’s hiding behind a curtain when Plot Turn 2 happens for the Billy plot drives the point home.

Conflicting goals make characters interesting.  How they handle them is important.  In Dr. Horrible our main character has with two goals that I think a lot of young men in the target audience can understand: the desire to be a super villain and the desire to date Felicia Day.  Or is that just me?  Anyway, when it comes to conflicting goals like these, there are three possible outcomes to conflicting goals.  First is that the character, through trying to achieve both, achieves neither and learns a lesson in the process.  Second is that the character is forced, whether consciously or unconsciously, to give up one goal in favor of the other, and learns a lesson in the process.  The third is that the character gets to eat his cake and have it to, the conflicting goals through some device deconflict, and the character really learns nothing in the process.

Dr. Horrible is interesting because he has convinced himself that he is working towards the third instance.  Lots of characters, and people, presented with this sort of choice likely to do the same, to rationalize their decisions as being in the best interest of both goals.  It’s what makes the ultimately downfall of the Billy plot line so heart-rending, because he has convinced himself that his actions are building towards happy endings for both personas, though we as an audience are less naïve in thinking socially progressive Penny will agree that a world run by Dr. Horrible is the cure for societal ills.  He never recognized the moment that he chose one plot over to the others.  We can, we the audience know the tragedy that he is walking into.  In part because we’re trained that characters can’t have everything they ever wanted.  That everything won’t be fine.  Because that’s ultimately uninteresting.  There’s nothing of humanity in that answer.

Alright, that’s not entirely fair.  Characters do occasionally get to eat their cake and have it, too.  Not because they’re trying to.  It has to be that though choosing one goal they find another path to their lost goal.  Then they’ve grown and learned, and gotten a pretty nifty reward in the process.  It’s the character who is certain, as Dr. Horrible is, that his two goals are one in the same and can be achieved through the same grand act, who must learn through pain and suffering.

Characters need choices.  They need big choices.  They need conflicting options.  They need two doors, the lady and the tiger, and a requirement to choose one and never open the other.  They can have several shots at the same choice, but they need to either act consistently, as Dr. Horrible did, or have a good reason for changing.  And I won’t go so far as to say they have to be punished for their choices, but the choice cannot lack repercussions.  Some moment that drives home that they chose, and that their choice had implications.  It’s a moment to add depth to the character, and to give them a shot at some genuine emotion.  They have, after all, walked away from something that they wanted, something that motivated them for a good portion of the story, and the audience isn’t going to buy it if the character looks at what happen and they don’t feel…

…a thing.

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The End of a Legend

I’m a day late on this, because I wanted to talk about SOPA and PIPA yesterday.  Most of my readers are probably already aware that the Poe Toaster was a no-show for the third consecutive year, leading many to believe that the tradition has come to an end.  For those not aware of the Toaster…how did you find this blog?  He was a mysterious figure, or likely family of figures, who would visit Poe’s grave in Baltimore every year on the anniversary of his birth, leaving a half bottle of cognac and three red roses.

Rumors and questions have surrounded the tradition for years.  Why three roses?  Why cognac?  Why an opened, half bottle?  Who was he?  And now the biggest question of all: where has he gone?  What is known: the tradition passed on from a father to a son several years ago, that the new Toaster controversially included some political commentary in one of his offers a few years back, and now that the tradition has ended.  There are impersonators, people who have tried to keep the tradition alive, but the original line of Toasters haven’t show up since 2009.  Is he dead?  Did he just decide to end the tradition?  Was it always supposed to end?  The last year of the visits coincided with Poe’s 200th birthday, and perhaps that was the correct time to quietly end the ritual.

The end of the tradition saddens me as I’ve written what currently stands as a trunk novel that opens on the Poe Toaster (though decades before the actual Poe Toasters showed up).  It does have me interested in getting back to that novel, but that’s going to have to wait until Nickajack is done, at the absolute earliest.  Because of that novel I’ve been tempted for several years to partake in the vigil, waiting for the Toaster.  I suppose I’m glad I didn’t, because that’s the same time that he stopped showing up, but I wish I’d had the opportunity at one point to join in with other fan’s of Poe’s writing.

So, wherever you went, Toaster, I hope the tradition ended on your own terms.  And perhaps, one day, a Toaster will come again.

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A Note On Yesterday

Statistics say a few people did visit this site yesterday just to find that it joined the internet-wide blackout protest against the SOPA and PIPA legislation working their way through the US House and Senate.  First, I’d like to say a few words on my decision to join the protest, then a few words on why I’m against this legislation.  Words I probably should have said on Tuesday.

I have, on several occasions, stated that I do not get into politics or religion on this blog, in my Twitter statuses, or over on Google+.  However, there are some subjects that, while political in nature, I believe actually transcend politics.  One of these is censorship, which I’ve spoken out against on several occasions in this blog.  So while the battle lines being drawn in the House and Senate look partisan, my opposition to the bill has nothing to do with my personal politics, and everything to do with my anticensorship stance.  That’s half of why I joined in.  The other half is why I thought my little blog with its 20-30 viewers a day made any damn difference in the grand scheme of things.  I don’t pretend for a moment that someone learned about SOPA or PIPA for the first time by following the link I had on my blackout page yesterday.  Joining the protest was more about volume and solidarity.  The potential enforcement breadth for these bills is vast and could hit both big sites like Wikipedia and comparatively microscopic sites like mine.

Actually, in the end, it could hit a site like mine much harder, because I wouldn’t have the necessary legal fund to mount any sort of appeal to the decision, I’d probably just have to take my lumps and be gone from the web.

So why, exactly, do I oppose the bill?  I’ve seen some efforts made to paint anti-SOPA activists as pro-piracy.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  As a creator of Intellectual Property, I want to see that property protected.  However the bills as written do nothing to actually protect anyone from piracy, all they’ll do is make the internet harder for the law-abiding citizen to use while stemming none of the illegal activity that happens.  Whether this is because the bill authors are ignorant to the workings of the internet, or through a specific maliciousness, I could only offer opinions.  Why won’t it work?  Well, let’s create a tortured analogy, because I like creating those.  And since this is a blog about writing, let’s use a book as an analogy.

Let’s, in fact, use a massive and hypothetical dictionary as our analogy.  This dictionary contains every word and, bizarrely for a dictionary, has an index in the back.  This is necessary because the words in the dictionary are actually presented in largely an apparently random order based on which language they came from and when they became words, so you need a way to figure out which page and column each word is in.

That page and column number is equivalent to an IP address.  You may have seen those, they’re four sets of numbers separated by dots that usually look something like 127.0.0.1.  Every website on the internet has an IP address, and if the website is so configured you can directly access it with that IP address.  But they’re hard to remember, so websites instead are given nice friendly URLs, like dlthurston.com.  The index in the analogy is a DNS server, a layer of the internet that translates the URL into the correct IP address so that a site can be accessed.

Back to the analogy.  You’re looking through this dictionary and you see that the word “fuck” is in it.  You decide that the word is offensive and that no one should be able to see that word.  So you go to the index and you white it out.  But here’s the problem.  The word is still fully defined in the dictionary, it’s just been removed from the index.  Anyone who knew where to find it will still be able to find it.  This is what SOPA does, it demands that DNS servers remove the URL/IP linking to sites that are offering copyrighted materials.

But it does more than that.  This dictionary is in a bigger library.  Someone who knew where to find the word “fuck” in the dictionary decides to go to another book entirely and scribble in the margins where to find the word.  You discover that, so what do you do?  Well, an effective approach would be to figure out who the vandal was, but the approach that SOPA takes is to blame the author and publisher of the book, even if they had absolutely no control over margin scribbles.

So what can be done by the publishers and authors?  Well, they can seal their books, not allowing any interaction.  They could just not publish them to begin with.

In the end, it’s a completely ineffective approach to a legitimate problem, and one that will cause any number of unintended and extremely negative repercussions.  It is far worse than the status quo.  Fortunately SOPA is dead, but only for the time being.  While yesterday’s internet protest was super effective and the bill did lose not just support but cosponsors, the remaining sponsors and authors are still promising to bring it back and try again.  The primary weapons against these bills must be education and vigilance, because in the end this is the internet we’re talking about.  Perhaps one of the most important inventions in the history of man for bringing people and ideas closer together.  It isn’t always pretty, but burning it down out of spite is not the way to go.

Edited 3:33 pm:  TED talks.  Seriously, TED talks are fantastic.  Not having a regularly scheduled TED and wanting to get a talk about SOPA and PIPA up, they invited Clay Shirky to explain the problems with PIPA and SOPA, all in a much more scholarly tone, and even with a better analogy than the one above.

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Powered By Handwavium

You may think you know how warp drive works.  It’s quite simple.  A controlled matter/antimatter reaction is focused through a crystal of pure dilithium, which allows a ship to generate a subspace bubble so that it doesn’t experience any time dilation, while the space ahead and behind the ship are warped allowing it to bypass, rather than technically exceed, the speed of light.  That’s the explanation, that’s how it works, but the problem is that’s all just fiction.  It’s the kind of technological description often called technobabble, a very real and important part of far future science fiction writing where both Star Trek and Doctor Who serve as master classes.

Here’s the thing, though.  While it might be made up technobabble, every time the warp drive is explained, it’s explained in those terms.  Occasionally the explanation is made more complicated (in the original series, there was dilithium, and matter/antimatter, but no subspace bubbling) but the explanation never contradicts itself or changes.  The warp core itself, that long tube pulsing with matter and antimatter, even largely looks the same from Next Generation onwards as a visual cue that, while perhaps the technology may be gradually improved on, this is the thing that will drive the ship.

Faster than light travel is, as far as we can tell, impossible.  But many of us can explain how it “works” because we saw it in a television show that maintained an internal consistency in its explanations.  Right now I’m writing a steampunk story that features automatons, and a few other bits of magical technology.  The book presents far less of a blueprint about how they work that Star Trek does its warp drive, but that’s because we’re dealing with a smaller amount of time.  Star Trek has had 726 episodes and 11 movies totaling nearly 550 hours to get everything right, we’ve just got 90k or so words to establish a world and tell an enjoyable adventure within it.  So we drop little details here and there, and strive for that one important thing: the internal consistency.

Science Fiction and Fantasy come from similar roots.  To oversimplify the two genres, fantasy deals with magic and fey, science fiction deals with science and aliens.  Yes, I know it’s more complicated than that, and that there are a lot of cross-over elements, but just to speak in broad terms I’m going to ask indulgence to use that definition.  And yes, that makes Vulcans the Elves.  Deal with it.  What they share in common are the unreal becoming real.  Where they differ is how they become real.  It’s why the science of science fiction is often called, as I did above, “magical science.”  Both require some sort of consistency, though.  In the Harry Potter series, magic works by reciting an incantation that sounds like Latin and waving a wand.  In other series, it works through the absorption of magic from the world around us.  Or in the gathering of components for an alchemical spell.  Magic in all these cases is a system.  In science fiction, there’s likewise a system.  In steampunk, the science happens in boilers and gears.  In Star Trek, it’s driven by 200-300 years of scientific advances in all fields.

But it’s all consistant.

Whenever the Enterprise finds a new space-faring species, they achieved faster than light speeds by discovering matter/antimatter reactions and subspace bubbles.  If they aren’t, then a lantern is hung on that aspect, and it becomes a central focus of the episode.  We, as an audience, aren’t asked to accept that the technology is suddenly different one week and that the Enterprise is now powered into warp drive by the good intentions of its crew.  Which, thank goodness the Enterprise isn’t powered by intentions, or Riker would just have it pointed at Risa all the time.

The title of this post comes from a conversation I had with my wife about the technology we’re creating in our world.  It’s not entirely the traditional Steampunk technology, because that always leaves us feeling a little flat.  There’s only so far you can go with coal furnaces, boilers, and gears…something that reality discovered, and that kept us from actually living the Steampunk fantasy.  (Did I say “Steampunk fantasy”?  Future post.)  But while we’re not explaining the technology as thoroughly as we’ve world built it, we have world built it, we do have our reasons, and it is powered all through a special form of handwavium that we’ve invented and will use and exploit going forward.  We’ve decided to discard portions of the standard rulebook and substitute in our own pages, but those are the pages we’ll always use going forward.  And when we don’t, trust us, we’ll put a huge lantern on it and make it central to the plot of a book.

So don’t worry too much about the rules other people have used.  But worry obsessively about your own rules.  Because we’re fantasy and science fiction authors, which means we’re catering to a very literate audience who will call us on anything we do that isn’t internally consistent.

Oh, and I promised a post on the protagonist and antagonist within The Prestige.  That will come later in the week, as we didn’t actually have time for a rewatching this weekend.

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