Good Times

My, how the recruitment standards for the Plumbers have fallen. Almost 40 years on and you fuckers still can’t figure out how to tap a  phone* right but at least G. Gordon Liddy never dressed up like a fake pimp to pull a Halloween trick and then demand it be taken as serious journalism.

And this is how you dingbats are planning to build an empire? Hiring Young Republicans to shit themselves in a fit of public embarrassment as part of some ill-conceived plot to undermine the Democrats? The Democrats? All you have to do is ask politely and they’ll undermine themselves. Instead, you find some eager young fascist willing to pull some old-school Nickelodeon prank and expect that to send a message of fear and loathing into the hearts of your enemies. Instead, we’re all pointing and laughing.

This is why America is doomed: Nero set the city of Rome on fire and then blamed it on the Christians, and that was just for a laugh one Saturday night. Meanwhile our would-be emperors are cribbing their grand master plans from Saturday Night Live skits. We’ll just skip the Glorious Imperium stage, thanks, go straight to the part where the descendants of madmen squat in the ruins of a once-upon-a-time beacon of hope and enlightenment.

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* Now they’re claiming they weren’t trying to tap senator Landrieu’s phone, just disconnect it. Because sabotage is so much better than unlawful surveillance.

Number Three is Going up Against a Sicilian When Death Is On The Line

It doesn’t help our claims that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq aren’t modern-day Crusades when the military is using firearms inscribed with Bible verses. In the great and infinite list of bad ideas, this one is pretty much number 2 (number 1: don’t start land wars in Asia).

Why don’t we just send clerics and wizards over there and be done with it.

The Story Thus Far, Part 3

So, the other day I had a story-related epiphany–

Wait. Let’s back up a sec, so I can make sure we’re all on the same page story mechanics-wise.

When writing (or just telling) a story, it’s important to now what the nature of the conflict at the heart of that story is about. Some of you may recall the conflict types discussed in English lit classes but for those who don’t, a quick refresher. All story is conflict. Period. Nice happy tales about people getting along, communicating clearly and always telling the honest truth and never hurting anyone’s feelings are boring.[1] Drama comes form conflict. There are a few archetypal conflicts:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Society

A few examples:

Man vs. Man: Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth vs. Darcy, over their true feelings. Man vs. Nature: any disaster movie, ever. Something bad happens (tornado, volcano, killer fog, alien invasion, etc.) and our characters must overcome the world to save their asses. Man vs. Society: 1984. Winston feels compelled, by his own humanity, to rebel against an arbitrary and repressive society that regards him merely as a useful tool. This arbitrary society at various points in the story manifest in the form of characters, namely O’Brian, who is it’s mouth piece and Julia, who is likewise used to seduce him into thought crime.

So. The epiphany: I had the wrong conflict in mind.

I kept thinking that The Man From Planet X was a Man vs. Man conflict, namely it would all resolve down, after much running about doing cool, dramatic bits, two Tom and his idealism vs. Our villain, Victor Malenfant, and his cynicism.[2] But, ahah! It doesn’t. I was trying to figure out why I couldn’t break act 4 into a satisfactory conclusion and it wasn’t working, because I was trying to contrive a way for our villain to be responsible for all the other problems that our protagonists encounter. That felt hollow and didn’t ring true but I couldn’t figure out why. Sure, on the most obvious level, having one man be responsible for everything wrong with the world is unrealistic. But beyond that, it’s a cop out. It makes our villain a scapegoat. You kill him and then the world is fixed because all the bad stuff goes away. Except, it doesn’t. The real world doesn’t work like that and neither does this particular fictional world. Malenfant is a villain, sure, but he’s not a magical font of concentrated evil. He’s not Voldemort or Sauron.[3] He’s just this guy, you know?

Which made me realize that the conflict of my story is not Man vs. Man but Man vs. Nature. Tom and our hero protagonists are trying to figure out why the world is so screwed up and how they can unscrew it. Malenfant is not our antagonist, he’s a villain protagonist. He’s trying to take advantage of the fact that the world is screwed up for personal gain. This changes the dynamic of the story a lot. Instead of a major climatic battle between the two characters, they instead will circle each other in ever tighter spirals, eventually meeting and realizing that circumstantial evidence has made them think each other is the cause of their problems. This causes the characters to have to reevaluate what they’re trying to accomplish. More conflict! More drama! But it all comes out of the characters making choices based on faulty information, a classic and ever-relatable story hook that goes back forever, at least to Homer.[4]

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1. It’s slightly more complicated than that, but not by much. This is the reason that the Twilight series is riddled with such bad story telling: it’s not that the vampires are lame (though that certainly is a contributing factor)* it’s that there are no real dramatic conflicts in the stories. Everyone likes Bella. She and Edward are in love. The only moments of pseudo tension wrung out of the plots in those books comes when one character picks up the idiot ball and does something to create conflict for no real reason. Edward runs off, without telling Bella why, making her mopey. This is the basic plot impetus for all subsequent drama in New Moon. It’s sudden, unmotivated and once you learn why he left, doesn’t hold up to a moment’s inspection. He did it just because there was no drama and Stephanie Myer had three more books to write.

*The reason the vampires are lame: Stephanie Myer forgot what vampires represent. They’re dark symbols of sexual predation.They aren’t bad boys or cool. They’re rapists and murders who murder you with their mouth rape-y fangs. Worse: they seduce you into letting them kill you slowly, in a manner that is pleasurable for them by convincing you that you deserve to be raped to death. Falling in love with a monster is not a good thing. See; Buffy: the Vampire Slayer for how that kind of self-loathing relationship turns out.

2. This being a science fiction story, these internal conflicts and ideas will be manifested concretely through metaphor. Because that is what fantastical literature is good at: taking abstractions and giving them a concrete form against which to examine yourself. There’s a school of thought that in sci-fi and fantasy stories, all your metaphors should be walking around in the story, given a voice, and that descriptive passages should contain similes only. I find this intriguing and might need to give it some more thought.

3. The problem with both these villains is that they are too big to be believable. While the respective worlds they both inhabit do not become happy magical fun lands when the villains are defeated, way too much of the evil does vanish. The surviving Death Eaters are still mass murdering fuck heads. Same with the Orks of Middle Earth.

4. Homer never has correct information. That’s why his get rich quick schemes never work, like invading Troy to corner the market on doughnuts.

Heretics of Dune (And Everywhere Else Too)

PZ Myers alerts us to the grasping straws of those dimwitted creationist nincompoops, who, having had their ass handed to them by real scientists, have turned their baleful glare on science fiction authors:

Science fiction is intimately associated with Darwinian evolution. Sagan and Asimov, for example, were prominent evolutionary scientists. Sci-fi arose in the late 19th and early 20th century as a product of an evolutionary worldview that denies the Almighty Creator. In fact, evolution IS the pre-eminent science fiction. Beware!

It’s true.[1] Most Science fiction authors are atheists, or even worse, espouse strange ideas that would make a vicar’s bowls loosen.

Science fiction, by its nature is unorthodox. More than that: it’s heretical. The author is deliberately creating parallel universes, like the one God supposedly made, but with additions or subtractions that no God created (or else we would be living in that universe instead of just writing about it). It’s a deliberate affront to orthodoxy, implying that the world we have is lacking something and the author, a mere mortal, knows what that is and can create it himself. Sci-fi is a hack. It’s a software patch, illegally brewed in some guys basement, and grafted onto the cracked open, proprietary operating system of the world. That’s why it’s so awesome.

The world is bigger and weirder than the narrow view of some dusty old poem about how evil shrimp are and why we should all grow our beards and how the straight and narrow path and not spill our seed. Science fiction is a reflection that the world can and should be different and better and that human minds, creative, inventive and hyped up on sugar and caffeine, can make it so. Sci-fi also points out the glaringly obvious: that God is an evil alien who wants to suck on your soul, or worse doesn’t even exist at all, and is just the mad by-product of some sufficiently advanced alien experiment gone wrong.

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1. Except for Sagan and Asimov being evolutionary scientists. As PZ points out, Sagan was an physicist and Asimov a chemist. But let’s not quibble about facts, that just makes creationists cranky. And you wouldn’t like them when they’re cranky.

The Story Thus Far, Part 2

To pick up where we left off before being so rudely interrupted by the holidays…

Wait, back up for a second. For the curious, here’s a picture of my workspace, from the Ceiling Cat perspective.

Yes, thats a big pink owl on top of my mini. No, I wont tell you why.
Yes, that's a big pink owl on top of my mini. No, I won't tell you why.

This is where I do most, but not all, of my writing. The desk is not always this organized but I’m working on trying to keep my creative space in some shape, to help me work, if not faster, at least more efficiently. Hence the Big Board.

This will get a lot more cluttered, very quickly.
This will get a lot more cluttered, very quickly.

As you can see by the above picture (blurred for your protection[1]) I’m organizing my chapters and scenes using the tried and true note card method.

Each card has a brief scribble noting what should happen in that chapter. The 8 cards in the top left hand corner are the completed chapters while the single card just below those is chapter 9, where I am (and feel as if I always have been). The three cards (and attendant sticky note) below Chapter 9 are chapters 10-12. The four cards bellow those are chapters 13-16, which are the beginning of Act 2. As you can see, I’m breaking out the last third of Act 1 right now.

Act 1 is the Set up. That’s where we introduce the bulk of the characters (all the important ones anyway) and set up the drama that will get complicated in act 2, reversed in act 3 and resolved in act 4.[2] The note cards let me shuffle some ideas around before I even start writing the scene, that way I can tell if I even need the scene, or if I can move the action into another chapter. This makes things easier for me to see where I am and what’s going on, rather than just tying to visualize inside me wee little noggin.

Each act of this story is slotted for 12 chapters. Every 4 chapters makes an episode, with each of the 4 chapters as a miniature act. This, chapter 9 is a set up chapter for what gets complicated in chapter 10, reversed in chapter 11 and resolved (kinda sorta) in chapter 12.

And that’s where I am. I’ve been wandering around in chapter 9, trying to figure out what happens here in relation to what went before and the hundred and one strange ideas I have fr what happens next. You can’t se eit on the blurry picture of The Big Board, but the card for chapter 9 says:

Major Tom moves into a bungalow in the Castro and throws a housewarming party. Hijinks ensue.

This is more of a suggestion, or a hook, but it gives me something on which to focus. It’s a nice little set up. Two months have passed since chapter 8. Tom is settling into the 21 C but is having a few issues, such as a mild case of PTSD. But Salome and his gay neighbors are helping him through it and then along comes Alice Atomo, a friend of Salome’s invited to the housewarming party. Oh, and she’s brought her father with her. Who’s a mad scientist. It sounds sort of like a new story is starting, which it should. This chapter introduces the romantic subplot and, if I play my note cards right, a few other things that will get interesting later.

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1. I used the secret Photoshopping skills called “not focusing the camera” to hide the incriminating evidence of my heinous handwriting. It’s blurry not because I’m concerned about people finding out my precious ideas (I do actually want people to read my book) but his post is more about the method I’m using for breaking the story than what the actual story is all about. This clearly is not a secret, as I wouldn’t be writing this if it were.

2. I’m using the modified 4 act structure, based on the the 3 act structure outlined by just about everyone. Most people recognize that act 2 in the 3 act structure is twice as long as act 1 and hinges in the middle on the climax. They dutifully break the act into 2A and 2B. But really it’s 4 acts. So for our purposes, if you read Syd Field or any other story structure guru, when he refers to act 2A, I’m talking about act 2 and when he says Act 2B, I’m talking about act 3. act 5 is right out.[3]

3. Historical anecdote: most plays written before the 19th century had a 5 act structure that was just the same as our 4 act structure but they always added a sort of prologue explaining the set up, called an introduction. You see this in Shakespeare’s plays, especially Romeo and Juliet, where someone comes out and sets the scene for you. By the 19th century, most writers realized this was redundant, as the details of the story could easily let you know where you were and who was doing what, so they dropped the introductory act.