All posts by SelimPensFiction

Joss-speak

Firefly, for those who don’t know, was a short-lived TV series that was broadcast in 2002. Set in the future sometime after Earth had been abandoned, it takes place in another solar system where terraforming has made many planets and moons inhabitable. While the central planets maintain a high degree of technology, the outer planets are quite primitive, living in much the same way as the settlers of the old west. After a failed war of independence, Malcolm Reynolds assembles a team to crew his Firefly-class ship, Serenity, performing jobs for a variety of clients, some legal, some less so.

It’s generally agreed that the series, developed by Joss Whedon, was brilliantly conceived and executed, and its premature demise is a source of woe for its legions of admirers.

Here’s the thing about writing Firefly fanfics: The inhabitants of the outer planets have a particular style of dialect that’s hard to capture. Some call it Joss-speak. To sensibly write Firefly, you have to re-watch some episodes to get into the rhythm of Joss-speak. Some examples:

It’s gettin’ too ruttin’ hot in here.

It’s the gorram law!

I aim to misbehave.

We just need a small crew, them as feel the need to be free.

Once you get into the zone and feel like you’re able to create dialogue that fits into the Firefly ‘verse, it can be hard to find your way back, and Joss-speak starts to leak out into real life. For instance it’s tempting to tell your spouse,

My car don’t crash. She crashes, you crashed her.

Or, you might aim to give your employees a dose of Joss-speak when they misbehave.

What in the sphincter of hell are you playin’ at?

On finding your favourite show is on TV when you’re feelin’ a need for simple comfort, you might say,

Shiny!

And so it goes. In the acting world, they call it method acting when you live and breathe the role, even off set.

Is there such a thing as method writing?

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I Wuz Framed

The more stories I write, the more time I spend thinking of how to tell them. That is, how do I tell a story in a way that makes the most impact?

Present tense?

Jacob picks up the photo.

Past tense?

Jacob picked up the photo.

First person?

It was on the evening of October 12th that my friend, Sherlock Holmes, first spoke to me about his addiction.

Third person?

It was on the evening of October 12th that Sherlock Holmes first spoke to his friend, John Watson, about his addiction.

Naturally, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these. Writers and readers may have personal preferences. Some techniques may be currently fashionable in the writing community, some less so.

As a reader, I don’t like stories written in the present tense. They grate on me. Don’t ask why, they just do. So, for no other reason than that, I don’t write stories in the present tense.

As for first person versus third person, that’s a tough one. I have a nostalgic fondness for Victorian and early 20th Century fiction written in the first person. Arthur Conan Doyle is a great example. By writing the Sherlock Holmes stories from Watson’s point of view, and in his voice, we are forced to imagine, rather than know, what it is that’s really going on in Holmes’ head.

Mind you, that doesn’t always work. I think the Hunger Games books suffered from limiting themselves to Katniss Everdeen’s point of view. That’s one of the reasons I find the movies superior.

Which brings us to another point: that in some way, the most effective storytelling technique depends on the story itself. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could plug the attributes of a story into a formula, and out popped the optimal narrative mode?

I started down this path recently, wondering about storytelling technique, because of the Firefly fanfic I’m currently writing. It concerns how characters Wash and Zoe, who initially disliked each other (we know from canon that Zoe initially disliked Wash; I assume the feeling was mutual), came to fall in love. Having finished the initial draft, it seemed that something was missing. I finally realized that the story needed something to frame it, to give it context. So, we start and finish with Zoe reminiscing about their relationship after the events in the movie, Serenity.

That made all the difference, I think. As to why that’s the case, I’m not sure. Wish I knew.

What’s your favourite storytelling technique?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Movie Review

Let’s get down to it. Is Captain America: The Winter Soldier as good as The Avengers? To me, it’s an apples and oranges comparison. The Winter Soldier is a different kind of movie. Though hardly lacking in action sequences, it’s a slower paced, more human movie. The quiet moments are my favourite. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) commiserating, soldier to soldier, with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) asking Steve whether that was his first kiss since 1945. And Steve’s heartbreaking reunion with an elderly Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).

Still, the action sequences are quite something. The hand-to-hand fight scenes are breathtaking, Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) long chase sequence is highly entertaining, and the big action at the climax is satisfying, though a bit predictable.

winter soldierAnd there’s more. SHIELD may have been infiltrated, but by whom? And to what end? The answer will have reverberations throughout the Marvel Universe, and will have to have some impact on TV’s Agents of Shield. Cap, the Black Widow, and the Falcon are on the run, hunted down by their own. They can’t tell the good guys from the bad, except, as Cap points out, if they’re shooting at you. Yes, there’s humour in the movie as well.

The Winter Soldier allows the actors to more fully develop their characters, has an interesting story, great action, and changes everything. What more could you ask for in a “comic book” movie?

 

How Do You Write?

I first learned about discovery writing from the podcast, Writing Excuses. This is a technique whereby you create a setting, populate it with some characters, then make things difficult for them. Depending on the genre in which you’re writing, you might blow stuff up, let the monsters out, create a love triangle, or kill someone. Maybe all of the above. Then you sit back and see what happens. Even the writer doesn’t know what comes next.

That’s not what I do. Maybe its my career in computing science, where I didn’t start to build something until I had some concept of the end result, but discovery writing scares the hell out of me. It’s taken the writing of a dozen or so short stories, feeling my way in the dark, to understand how it is I do go about writing.

First, there’s THE IDEA, the flash of insight that becomes the basis of the story.

If prolonged exposure to the time vortex can cause human DNA to resemble Time Lord DNA, then… (“Fate of the Earth”).

Suppose we took the characters from Castle and set them in the old west (“Western Castle”).

You get the idea. So that’s the start. Next comes the end state. In other words, before I start writing, I always know how I want the story to end. After that it’s just a question of how to get there from here.

Some writers blast through a story, never looking back until the first draft is complete. Then they make a second draft, and so on, until they’re satisfied that everything works. Not everyone does that. I’ve found that I’m a revise-as-you-go writer. I tend to write in chunks. Usually, a chunk equals one scene. I revise constantly. When I start to write on a given day, I look over the previous scene, and revise as required. This, I find, serves two purposes: it puts me back into the story, and gets my juices flowing so the words start to flow for today’s scene.

In practice, I rarely spend more than two hours a day writing, and many days it’s less than that. It’s slow but steady work, but extremely satisfying. Without that creative outlet, I find myself increasingly restless as the day goes by. I need that writing fix.

I’ve used a beta reader at least a couple of times now (hi, Twisha). It’s helped in ways I didn’t expect, pushing me to become better at world building, fleshing out characters, and making situations believable. In fanfiction, where there’s no editor to review your work, a second set of eyes can be very helpful.

I’ve added a new step recently. When the story seems to be all there, I get my computer to speak it aloud. It’s both entertaining and instructive. Detecting awkward sentences is easier when you hear them spoken.

As for tools, I’ve settled into the habit of using Google Docs for my fanfiction and Apple’s Pages for original fiction, just because I just like to be familiar with more than one editing program. They’re both excellent. Google has a slight edge in that it keeps dozens of versions of your document in the cloud. Pages has the advantage of existing as both a cloud service and a stand-alone, local program. While Microsoft’s docx file format is a lingua-franca for exchanging documents, you don’t need to use Word to create those files. I have Microsoft Office installed on my MacBook, but honestly, I rarely use it.

And that’s about it. At least, for short stories. I have a concept for a novel, but just a few pages written, so it remains to be seen whether this approach will scale up. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

So, how do you go about writing?

The Wolf of Wall Street Movie Review

In the spirit of better late than never, here are some thoughts on Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Generally accepted as one of America’s greatest directors, it’s worth taking in any Scorsese movie just to see what he’s up to. After viewing this movie, though, I found myself asking, what was he thinking?

To start with, what was the point? Why make the movie in the first place? One is tempted to guess that Scorsese, too, succumbed to the sales charm of Jordan Belfort, the former Wall Street stockbroker whose rise and fall is the subject of the movie. It would only be fitting. Given the movie’s commercial success (at the time of writing, over $110M), it may prove to be yet another Belfort windfall.

After all, is anyone surprised at the portrayal of stockbrokers as greedy, decadent, overgrown adolescents? This is hardly new territory. Then add to it’s pointlessness the punishing length of this movie. At three hours long, they could easily have had cut an hour’s worth of material. How many scenes did they really need to demonstrate the greedy, decadent and adolescent behaviour of the brokers? By the time the credits roll up, the movie has succeeded only in making nudity, sex and drugs utterly boring. This is perhaps its greatest sin.

Are there any positives? Well, yes. There is some very fine acting, and Leonard DiCaprio displays some brilliant physical comedy. Is it worth suffering through the whole movie for this? Not really.

Every great artist is entitled to a miss or two. This one is definitely a miss. Let’s hope Scorsese hits it out of the park next time.

 

Wilfully Ignorant?

Some time ago, I tweeted: “Ignorance is forgivable; willful ignorance is not.”

That about sums up what I want to say here. Willful ignorance puzzles me. Why do some people choose to be ignorant?

It’s well known that how you perceive things depends on your preconceptions. A simple example: show a group of people a sequence of letters, then an ambiguous character. Most will interpret the character as a letter. Show another group of people a sequence of numbers, then the same ambiguous character, and they’ll interpret it as a number. The same character is interpreted differently depending on the context. Depending, in effect, on your preconceptions.

That’s not what I’m discussing here. I’m talking about people who, for reasons of their own, refuse to believe well established truths such as: complex life evolved from simpler organisms; human activity is affecting the climate; the Earth is older than 6,000 years. What drove it home for me was a local story in which the old childhood disease, measles was making an encore appearance due to some parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children.

To put it succinctly, there are people who refuse to believe that science works. In effect, they refuse to believe that reality is, well, real.

1969 lunar landingThe fact is, science does work. The proof is all around you. Is that a mobile phone in your pocket? Remember the antibiotics you were prescribed for that fever? The manned space station? Those robots scurrying around on the planet Mars? The space probe that has gone beyond the edge of the solar system? Those things are real. Science made them possible. And the same scientific method that led to the moon landing in 1969 tells us, irrefutably, that evolution happened, that it’s as real as gravity. You can’t cherry-pick the scientific results that are compatible your belief systems and reject the rest.

To better address this, we need to improve the way in which we teach science to our children. Science is both a method and a body of knowledge. Too often, the body of knowledge is taught but not the method. That’s unfortunate, because the method is key. What am I talking about? Things like hypotheses, pilot studies, experiments, observation, measurement error, statistical analysis, peer review, replicated studies. This stuff isn’t particularly complicated. It’s not rocket science. But it’s fundamental to evaluating scientific data. The application of the scientific method is the basis for the information in the science textbooks you’ve used. And it’s important to you in your everyday life.

Why? Here’s an example. Suppose you read a new study demonstrating that eating at least 100 red grapes per day reduces occurrences of cancer and heart disease. (Note: I made this up.) Time to head to the grocery store, right? Wrong. (Really. Don’t go.) Where was the study published? A reputable journal? Was it properly controlled? Are there alternative interpretations of the data? Has it been replicated by several labs? Are the results generally accepted by the scientific community? Until these questions are answered, the study is vaguely interesting and nothing more. A possible basis for further work. Why is it on the front page of the newspaper then? To sell newspapers, of course.

Take evolution, which lies at the other end of the spectrum. First proposed in the 19th century, the evolution of species has been confirmed by countless tests in fields such as anthropology and biochemistry, and is generally accepted as, not only a fact, but a pillar of modern science. So, why would anyone doubt it? Wait though, isn’t evolution just a theory? No. Evolution unquestionably happened. Theories of evolution attempt to explain the detailed mechanisms of how it works.

And what about vaccinations? They are considered one of the greatest boons of modern medicine, having been instrumental in reducing or eliminating diseases such as polio. Climate change? The science here is more recent, but the fact is that climate change scientists collectively assert that human activities are adversely affecting the climate, this based on countless experiments and observations.

If you’re inclined to deny science, I would invite you to spend some of your energy learning more about how it works. Afterwards, when you can better see the world for what it truly is, you might find yourself looking about with new, wide-eyed wonder.

 

The Fan Writer Hugo, and Pros

Whatever

Over at File 770, Mike Glyer takes aim at pro writers who have won the Best Fan Writer Hugo , me included, on grounds that we tend to minimize the Fan Writer Hugo on our professional resumes; as Glyer puts it, “People who are building careers as writers do not want to identify their brands with anything that hints of the amateur.”

I have a direct response to him in the comments there, which basically is, no, actually, I’m really proud of my Fan Writer Hugo, it’s important to me for all sorts of reasons, and I mention it here not infrequently. At the same time I’m careful how I advertise the win in my professional life because I recognize that a fair number of fans would be spiky about me using it there. In my case it’s not about worrying that it’s an amateur award, but trying to…

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