Ten Minutes to Oblivion

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bridge to mystery
I don’t know why, but I’ve got a rather fatalistic attitude going into this NaNoWriMo. I don’t really have a plan. I’m sitting here ten minutes till November and I’ve got nothing but vague ideas, half characters, a stack of story ideas. In past years, I plotted and planned. I’ve gone the pantsing route before, too. Both have worked, and both haven’t. I don’t know, I guess I’m at a weird place in my writing. The future of Gone To Wonder isn’t quite set. I’ve got differing ideas for proceeding with my writing career.

It’s like driving into thick fog on a bridge. Everything is murky. Ahead of me, behind me, whatever direction. That’s how I’ve chosen to go. Into the murk, with nothing but a laptop. Wish me luck.

Panic Week 2014

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Source: picjumbo

I’m sitting in an abandoned corner at the library, full of coffee, empty of hope. That’s because yesterday, I woke up in the middle of my work day and realized there is exactly one week left until NaNoWriMo kicks off.

This “oh shit” moment is brought to you by Déjà Vu.

Yes, this has happened before. Yes, it will happen again (most likely). Every year in fact. It inevitably gets to be late October and I suddenly remember there is this thing happening in November that I am very interested in but somehow completely misplaced inside my brainspace.

I can attribute that to one thing, the biggest fault I have as a writer, my secret shame: consistency. When it comes to daily writing, I fail. I admit it. I’m a streaky writer (that came out weird…). I’m as streaky at writing as Matt Duchene is at scoring goals*. When I’m on, I’m ON. Remember back in May? (Of course you do, loyal reader). I knocked out the last two-thirds of Gone To Wonder #1 in less than two weeks. It was insane, terrifying, exhilarating. I live for those moments as a writer. But they are rare, and that’s bad. Not just bad for production, that’s a bad habit as a writer, because you lose so much simply by not practicing.

That’s why WriMo sneaks up on me, and why I panic a bit when it does. It’s not simply about not being prepared. I can usually psyche myself up enough to at least start on November 1st (finishing is another matter). It freaks me out because it reminds me that I’m not treating writing like I should.

Look, I’ve come to have a very liberal view of peoples’ habits. I’m not going to say that the only way to write and write well is to be consistent. That may work for some, and it may not work for others. It’s important to find your own rhythm, regardless of what advice people have. But there is something scientific to the idea of practicing. It has to do with patterns of thought. You ever play a game so much that you find yourself dreaming about it? That’s because your brain has been trained to think about that game so much, it can’t stop itself. It’s for that reason that writing can be likened to an addiction, especially if it is going well. You do something so much, and you establish patterns of pleasure and reward, the dopamine singing sweet songs to your neurons, that it becomes habit forming. In the case of writing, it’s a good habit to have, because it means more words on the page and a higher likelihood of improving at the craft.

I think that is part of the point of NaNoWriMo. It encourages people to become writers, and trains them on how to establish consistency, whether they realize it or not. Every keystroke is a drum beat, and you’ve got to keep the rhythm. The years I have won, I wrote almost everyday. The years I didn’t, well, you get the picture.

So here I am at the library, having this little moment of epiphany. I came here to decide what to write (to sequel or not to sequel) and to plan and plot. But I’m realizing now that what I should be preparing myself for as much as the story or maybe even more is how to keep it up, how to keep the drum beating. If I figure that out, I’ll share my secret. If I don’t, I’ll share my failure.

If you’re participating this year, good luck, and feel free to share your strategies below in the comments, for my sake and for others. You can also add me/judge me all November long at the NaNoWriMo website.

*hockey reference ftw. also, hockey season is not conducive to writing, but who cares because hockey.

 

Bearded Blackout

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Just a quick update for the sake of having an update. We’ve gone silent lately, not without good reasons. I’ve been working a couple of jobs and my time to do much beyond sleep and eat has dwindled to nonexistence. Andrew has his own stuff going on, too. But we’re still around, writing when we can. More importantly, November is approaching. You know what that means. NaNoWriMo. That’s what that means.

I’ll be planning some stuff for the blog for NaNoWriMo, nothing as blunt or presumptuous as “This is how you finish NaNoWriMo”, because, well, I don’t really know. I’ve completed the challenge half the times that I’ve tried. I’ve done some guide-like posts on my old blog giving advice and all that, but what I’ve really learned is that there’s no one way to do it, there’s no one way to write a book, there’s no story that progresses exactly the same as another. So instead of telling people how to write, I’ll do some stuff about how I’m preparing for it, and how it is progressing for me, and opening it up for others to share their own strategies.

That’ll do it for now. We’ll be posting regularly again soon. Thanks for sticking with us.

The Black Box

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J.J.'s Mystery Box

J.J.’s Mystery Box

There’s a black box. Inside this box is a mystery. It’s contents are unknowable. You can put something inside the box, or many somethings, and the box, via unknown means, produces something else. How it works, why it works, and all manner of technical questions are fundamentally unanswerable. It just works.

The Black Box is a trope in fiction. There’s the Tesseract (and other Infinity Stones) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an object of immense power the characters do not understand. There’s the Source Code in Source Code. The Machine in Contact. There’s the magic box in LOST (kind of—more on this one below). The trope is a bit like a Deus Ex Machina* meets a Macguffin—the audience does not understand it, and most of the time the characters don’t either, but it is what wills the plot forward.

Got unknown alien technology? Black Box. Hyperspace drive? Black Box. Zombie virus? Depends on the show/book/movie, but yeah. Magic spell? Might be a stretch, but I’d put it under the black box umbrella. To use a Potter example, a witch may say a magic word, a wand may translate the word/gesture/intent, and out pops the result of a spell. How does it work? Rowling never explains, because she doesn’t have to. It is irrelevant, which can be a feature of a Black Box.

The Underpants Gnomes Phase 2 is a Black Box that hasn't been found

The Underpants Gnomes Phase 2 is a Black Box that hasn’t been found

This is a common trope, especially scifi, but it is also a phenomenon in the real world. Radiolab did an episode about it a while back, with three fascinating examples. The one I liked the best was the Piddingtons. I wholly recommend listening to the show, but here’s a brief breakdown of the story:

The Piddingtons were a married couple who had a popular radio program in the 50’s. They performed feats of telepathic prowess, the husband ‘communicating’ with his wife over some distance, to some stunt location, where she would repeat some phrase verbatim after divining it out via psychic waves. In short, they were doing a trick, the same thing a David Blaine or Cris Angel do today. Their job was to present something that the audience, no matter how determined, could not figure out. Like any magic trick, it was a misdirection. They forced you to focus on one aspect of the trick, trying to figure out the code or whatever, when the truth was much more mundane.

That’s the beauty (and the danger) of magic acts. The truth is, it’s a trick. No one bends the laws of physics. There’s no such thing as telepathy, levitation, talking to the dead, and so on. The good ones (see: Penn and Teller and The Amazing Randi) do not obscure this fact. They openly admit to lying. They are entertaining because they utilize a black box, which is usually their own minds. They know the truth, they know how the trick works, and they use that knowledge to misdirect you. It isn’t what’s inside the box, or what it does that matters, but the box itself is the draw, the thing that creates wonder and excitement.

The Prestige is one of my favorite films. A recurring theme of the film is the secret behind magic tricks, and whether or not the secret should be known. Radiolab, a show that is about science and getting to the bottom of mysteries, presents you a choice. On their website is a clip from Penn Jillette, in which he explains how the Piddingtons probably did their trick. You, the audience, are presented with the challenge: look inside the black box, or let the mystery remain. You might drive yourself nuts trying to figure out the secret, but if you take a step back and think about the entire situation, you may discover that the entertainment isn’t about what the secret is, but about how it affects you.

This, I think, is the key to speculative fiction. Every piece of fantasy, scifi, and lots of horror, requires a black box of sorts. It may not be a literal object or process in the story, but a more meta assumption that the rules expressed in the story just work, and that you don’t need to know how. The Force has an input—the focus and intent of the Jedi or Sith. It has a result, levitation, premonition, lightning, etc. How does it work? We don’t need to know. It is better without knowing.

A black box in science is what drives careers. A black box in fiction can make—or break—a story. But there’s another black box, that may never see the light of day, and that is the human mind.

A few years ago, J.J. Abrams did a TED Talk. In it, he described a mystery box he got as a child. He never opened the box, instead cherishing the mystery. It became a metaphor for the creative process. It even appeared in an episode of LOST, where Ben tells John Locke about a ‘magic box’ on the island that can produce whatever you want. John takes it a little too literally, and Ben has to remind him it’s a metaphor. To me, the black box is a perfect metaphor for that weird, nebulous thing we called inspiration.

Where do ideas come from? We can sort of trace their roots. The musician Josh Ritter once described it like a monster you must feed constantly.You read/listen to/watch whatever the monster inside decides it wants you to absorb, and once in a while it will regurgitate something useful, artistic, profound. In classical mythology, the Muses also fit the bill.

This is the ultimate Black Box. How do my story ideas become? How, even, do my thoughts become? I know I see and hear stuff, and I produce things for others to see and hear, but I don’t really know how it happens (this is different from learning the craft of writing). There’s a lot out there about philosophy of mind, cognition, archetypes and the collective unconscious, and all that jazz, but it has only ever told me half-truths, patterns, and how to recognize patterns. How do ideas happen? I don’t know. I’m not sure I need or want to know.

We can accept a black box in fiction because we ourselves are a black box. We are the trope, and while it may puzzle most of us for a while, if we take a step back, we find it isn’t how it works that ultimately matters, just that it works.


 

cover3I know what inspires me in my current series, Gone To Wonder: theme parks, steampunk, coming-of-age stories, new technology, and crazy adventures. I don’t know how they Check out the first episode in the series, Absent Hero, available for Kindle.

Music (and Pictures) To Write To: All Scotland Edition

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If my math is correct, then as I post this it is a little less than 18 hours until the calendar flips over on September 18th, 2014 in Scotland, otherwise known as the date of the Independence Referendum.

I know exactly where I was one year ago, because I was there, in Scotland. To be specific, on the 18th of September, I woke up in the village of Kenmore, had lunch in Pitlochry, zipped by the Cairngorms, and ate dinner beside the River Ness. It was a helluva trip, one that will leave a lasting impact on myself and by proxy my writing for years to come.

So to mark the occasion, I thought I’d do a Scotland-themed MtWt. And then I thought I’d add some pictures. And then I realized I wouldn’t want to share just one song, so I’m going to go freaking nuts and share a bunch. And also pictures (taken by me, so excuse any lapse in quality).

First up, a classic, Loch Lomond as performed by Scottish folk legends The Corries

Loch Lomond, copyright Z.T. Burian

Loch Lomond

Next, one of my favorite artists, who almost always sings in a language I can’t understand but I adore anyways, Julie Fowlis. This video has a nice intro, and it’s a live performance. With a baby. Just watch it.

The Isle of Mull from Iona

The Isle of Mull from Iona

On to one of my favorite bands, not just from Scotland but from anywhere, Frightened Rabbit. I have had their album Midnight Organ Fight on repeat some days, and still can’t get enough of it.

Holyrood

Holyrood

For something completely different, here’s my favorite Mogwai tune.

And last, because I can’t resist, and because I absolutely love this song (not ironically), The Proclaimers.

Kenmore in the morning

Kenmore in the morning

Edinburgh in the evening

Edinburgh in the evening

Collies!

Collies!

My sister and me and Edinburgh Castle

My sister and me and Edinburgh Castle

I have thousands more pictures (not hyperbole), but I’m wearing out my welcome I think. Scotland has influenced my writing through the music above, and the places I visited. Old Town Edinburgh was my model for Ganton in Gone To Wonder. Celtic and gaelic imagery abounds in my work. But I could never do the place justice, in pictures or words.

I’m American, so what goes down the 18th is none of my damn business. No matter the result, I hope Scotland becomes an even more impressive place, and I wish the people there success. If you’ve never been there, I hope you visit someday. You might just be inspired to write.

In Defense of Exposition Dumps

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Andrew and I got into an argument yesterday. We had just watched a preview screening of The Maze Runner at the always-excellent Alamo Drafthouse, and we both, for the most part, enjoyed it. There’s a lot of action, though I wish there was a bit more about the maze—besides the creepy-crawly-id-monsters, the maze didn’t feel too threatening. But that wasn’t my major problem with the movie, nor was it the point that Andrew and I disagreed upon. We didn’t quite see eye to eye over one of the biggest obstacles with genre fiction: exposition.

Exposition, as defined by me, is the pure information of the story. It’s when someone (character or narrator) directly gives the audience information about the world. Think Gandalf sitting in Frodo’s kitchen telling him about Isildor and the One Ring. Obi-Wan explaining The Force to that whiny blonde kid. Etc.

It is the driving force of scifi, fantasy, dystopias, mysteries, thrillers—basically anything that builds a world we are not intimately familiar with. It’s even there in something like The Fault In Our Stars, as Hazel’s world of cancer* is unfamiliar to most people and has to be described in some way. In other words, exposition is so very necessary in order to understand a world.

But there’s a problem with it, as with anything. I love it at times, and can tolerate a lot more than normal, but at some point there is just too much information. A writer might get so into telling you about this world that they neglect the story, because story isn’t information, it isn’t even about history, it’s about character. There’s talking about a character and stuff happening, and there is showing how that stuff happens and how the character reacts.

In The Maze Runner, you are delivered into the world in a great way. Kid wakes up in an elevator, is very confused. That’s it, zoom, right in there. Contrast this to opening with a monologue voiceover explaining shit, like in Divergent (and, to be fair, LOTR does it too, but it works. That’s a whole ‘nother post right there). It’s a cold open, which serves to put you right in the character’s shoes. He doesn’t know what’s going on, and neither do we.

This is where Andrew and I diverged. From this point on, there were too many direct question-answers for him. Thomas asked a question about the world around him, he got an answer (mostly). Andrew thought this was too much information, that it was too easy. The problem here is, there’s not much you could do as a writer besides giving this information. The best you can do is make it entertaining and layer in character moments.

If you are writing in this or any related genres, this is your only way out. You must give the audience information eventually, but you can’t overdo it. I thought The Maze Runner did a good job of feeding you a constant stream of exposition without really feeling like it. Questions arose naturally, as they should. If Thomas didn’t ask something obvious (Where the hell am I? Who the hell are you? What the hell is that creepy noise?) I would have lost it. And if the other characters did not at least attempt to give him clear answers, they’d be assholes and I’d accuse the writer of stalling. Amnesia is a hugantic cliché, but the movie kind of hangs a lantern on it and utilizes the form to inform the story’s direction, instead of simply as a device to make the story easier to sell. In this I’d put it in the positive category of “Stories that have amnesia as a plot point and don’t suck.” (Off the top of my head, other members are Memento and Chasm City).

While I understand Andrew’s frustration, that it could feel like an expo dump in delivering a lot of information in the first act, I never felt like it, because there were plenty of character moments. Thomas’s inherent (if a bit generic) heroism shines in his responses to the information—his curiosity about the maze, willingness to be a runner, going after Minho and Alby, etc.

The movie doesn’t do so well at the end. To me, the expo dump at the end, all about the (REDACTED FOR SPOILERZ) was too much stuff that did not serve the story. It had nothing really to do with what the characters went through. It may have explained the world more, but it clouded the story to me, which is not something you do at the end… unless you have a sequel lined up. Because money.

Andrew was fine with that. I don’t know why. You can ask him, I’m done with him and his stupid face for a while.

*Hazel’s World of Cancer: Worst Theme Park Ever.


 

cover3I have an unhealthy attachment to exposition dumps, because I really love genre. If you’re like me, you might enjoy my book Absent Hero, which has tons of geeky exposition. It also has a steampunk theme park, nerdy teens, pirates, a fox, and giant animatronic knights made of stone. Get it now for Kindle.