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Month: August 2011

Sounds good…

I didn’t really learn anything from this (because, you know, I’m just so smart), but I thought this was a great primer on how sound works, and how it relates to music. I think it just goes a bit too fast. Slow down!

She says at about 10:55:

And we’re still pretty far from developing technology that can listen to lots of sound and separate it out into things anywhere near as well as our ears and brains can.

I wouldn’t be so sure of that…

Some philosophy of power in The Wise Man’s Fear…

I’m continuing to read Patrick Rothfuss’s huge novel The Wise Man’s Fear. (I’ve been an extremely slow reader this year… I usually finish one or two books a month. But this year I’ve only finished reading one in the last eight months. Terrible! But the wordcount for The Wise Man’s Fear is about a bazillion magillion frillion, so my slowness is somewhat justified.) Anyway, if you plan on reading the book and don’t want anything about it revealed to you, read no further.

There’s an interesting conversation between two characters about the nature of power on pages 380 to 382. (Chapter Fifty-six is entitled Power.) As a character says:

“There are two types of power: inherent and granted. Inherent power you possess as a part of yourself. Granted power is lent or given by other people.”

After talking a bit about them, he asks:

“Which do you think is the greater type of power?”

And he argues that granted power is greater.

Of course, it made me think: how would I answer the question? How would I talk to this man?

First, I have a problem with the premises, that there really are two types of power. I would argue that inherent and granted powers are just two sides of the same coin. Everything action you take requires both inherent and granted power. If I want to post this blog post, I must have an inherent power to know how to write, to know how communicate in a certain language. But I also must be granted the power of electricity and Internet access by other humans who chose to make such things available to me.

I suppose the question of “which is greater” is asking: “through which power can you accomplish more of you might wish to accomplish?” (Really “greater” could mean several different things, but this is, I think, the most obvious interpretation, yes?) But they depend on each other; neither is truly greater. You can’t work through a granted power without also relying on inherent power; likewise, you require granted power to exercise your inherent power.

In the book, the character makes a point that being part of nobility is a granted power, even though many people think it is inherent, as if one’s social status were in one’s blood. (A celebrity’s child? Queen of England, anyone?) But, the character argues, nobility is actually a power granted by those who agree to do what they say, probably in exchange for some sort of granted power they can use (to a lesser degree) themselves (like money or a higher social rank).

What the character does not seem to realize (or disagrees with) is that inherent power is required to use such granted power to any “great” degree. Therefore, I can not fully agree with his conclusion.

I guess I would agree with the character if he argued that granted power was the more “show-offy” power; our inherent power (or potential inherent power, at least) is much more similar to each other’s. But our granted power can vary immensely. Which leads some obsess over gaining granted power (social status, fame, fortune). But I still wouldn’t say that it’s “greater.”

Or, to get religious on you, as Jesus says in Matthew 16:26:

What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world [granted power] and forfeit his life? [inherent power]

(Though I guess if I wanted to get really religious, I could argue that all inherent power is granted by God in the first place!)

Anyway, I hope the points of the conversation will end up playing into the plot; philosophy is always more interesting (to me) when it affects character decisions. We shall see…

More novel progress…

My novel is now at 16K words. As you might notice, I added a little wordcount widget on the sidebar. The novel will probably be longer than 50K in the end, but hopefully I won’t let it go out of control, as I have in the past, where my wordcount surpassed 50K and the story had still hardly begun. That’s just awful pacing. But so far I think this story is working better. And when it’s past 50K, it will at least be official novel length (by SFWA standards).

So far this bad hurricane Irene we were supposed to get has been nothing but constant rain. No super-strong winds or long power outages. But I guess the night is still young, the hurricane is still moving, and there’s still a chance for more damage.

Anyway, I’m spending the night continuing to work on Animation Mentor homework before it’s due tomorrow… though maybe I’ll take a break at some point for a Netflix movie. I just hope the power doesn’t go out in the wee morning hours. That would stink.

How writing can be like animating…

I was catching up on some podcast listening earlier today, listening to Writing Excuses, which is the best writing podcast I know of at the moment. In episode 6.9, the podcasting writers answer some questions, one of them being: “As an outliner, when do you start putting in the details?”

Hey, I’m an outliner! But when write my first drafts, I put everything in there. I don’t leave any details out. I write straight through. But, as I’ve stated before, I’ve yet to finish any drafts for novels. I write myself into corners by not following my outlines closely enough, or I get too excited by some idea for a different novel and jump to that one.

I have been changing my ways a bit with “skip the boring parts” advice; I’ll skip around here and there to the most interesting parts of a scene or a group of scenes. But so far I still haven’t done it that often, and I still feel the need to go back and add all the necessary details in before moving on to another chapter or something.

But the answer to this question makes consider the “skip the boring parts” advice differently (at least, from an outliner’s point of view). It’s not just about skipping around here and there; it’s about fleshing out your story in passes. In the podcast, Brandon Sanderson answers that after outlining, he’ll barrel through the first draft, leaving out something like half the detail. Unheard of! Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of that?! Who says you have to write straight ahead, line by line, everything you think needs to be in the final version of the book? Why not do it in passes? After all, there’s no way you can write at the pace a reader reads.

It reminds of animation. Before I bought Richard Williams’s book The Animator’s Survival Kit, I thought just about all animation was done straight-ahead, frame by frame. You look at one frame, then draw the next. No no no no. Maybe if you’re doing claymation, but hardly any 2D or 3D animators work like that. You draw key poses, add in break downs, and the fill it out. Then you go through and do polishing passes — you go through your shot and just consider one element, like a hand’s arcs or something (time permitting).

So why not do something similar with novel-writing? Why don’t I just skip the moments where a bunch of description is needed, when having to figure it out slows my pace?

In animation, you get into a workflow, a method of working. Well, I’m still studying; I still don’t have a set workflow yet. I’m still experimenting with different ways to do almost everything, especially the blocking-to-spline phase.

Having written no novels yet, I don’t have a novel workflow either (and I haven’t written very many short stories either, but my workflow for that, for now, is just straight-ahead writing).

So what I’m going to try to do with my current novel is barrel ahead and just write the most captivating dramatic moments of each chapter. If something will require more description to make sense, I will leave myself a note, like “description of castle gates here” or “set-up of dark dank dungeons here” and I can come fill out all that stuff later, and give it more attention than I would have if my head were focused on the coming dialog or whatever.

Oh, another somewhat unrelated but cool thing Brandon Sanderson said (though I can’t remember which episode, maybe the same one):

This is why practicing and gaining skills as a writer through practice is more important in many ways than preparing for years and years in writing the perfect novel.

Kind of reminds me of a couple people I know who spend years and years trying to get their first novel published in various drafts rather than just working on something new. And then they end up self-publishing…

Not that I’m one to be talking… I can’t even write one novel…

My unexciting earthquake story

Listening to everyone around here tell their “earthquake story”, I’ll blog my boring one… (we live about an hour away from the quake’s focus)

I guess it was a little more than an hour and a half ago or so. I was sitting at work, doing my workly work things, when a low rumble came out of nowhere. What could it be? Probably the air conditioning unit going out again — we were having problems with it a couple weeks ago. Perhaps construction nearby? But it kept going and kept getting stronger. An earthquake maybe? Nah, since when have we ever gotten an earthquake around here? (Not in my lifetime!) A guy who had obviously experienced this sort of thing before started evacuating people. If it had gotten any worse, thank goodness someone there knew what to do. My plan of action was to just sit there and look around curiously. If it had gotten disastrously strong, I either would’ve managed to get out of there, or would have died from falling debris without fearing death or knowing it was coming. Anyway, it got strong enough that it was undoubtedly an earthquake, but not strong enough to cause any big apparent damage, at least where we were. It concerned me, but I can’t say it got strong enough to scare me. Nothing I saw scared me, at least, and we weren’t being jolted strong enough to cause any imbalance or anything. Some small items here and there fell over, but nothing huge, nothing like the awful videos you see from other parts of the world. But, for safety, the building was evacuated, and all public buildings I know of have been closed for the day (much to the disappointment of some).

I’ve heard stories of windows breaking, plates falling, stuff falling out of fridge doors, but no tragedies yet, and I hope I don’t hear any. At home, the situation looked the same: things fallen over here and there, off shelves, some things shifted around, cracks in the drywall that may or may not be earthquake induced. But nothing to worry about. Pic of the damage here: http://pic.twitter.com/5kQIsjX Oh, and my TV that my sister was borrowing fell off a shelf and broke, so she’ll have to pay for it…

Really, the only thing that interests me about this earthquake is that I’ve never been in one before, never really knew how it felt. But it feels just like you would imagine… the ground shakes. And, though it was not too huge of an earthquake, I have no real desire to experience one again, thank you very much. Even if it’s not life-threatening, it’s annoying.

Novel progress…

Novel progress has not been so great for the past week. I was spending a fair more amount of time on animation work, which is going well. Anyway, the novel is now at about 14K words, and I’m almost finished with chapter 7 which, as I wrote last week, introduces a new character gambling away money on a game of Twenty Wizards. Even though the scene is not very long, it was pretty challenging to write; I didn’t want to go into enormous amounts of detail about how the game works, yet I didn’t want it to seem too vague either. It will probably need a fair amount of editing at some point to get the balance right. But for now I think I can just finish up the chapter.

On writing reviews…

Though I have no intention of writing reviews anytime soon, I might someday, so this article, judged by its title, seemed interesting: How to Write a Good Review.

While I disagree that becoming a full-time critic is a good use of one’s life (rule three of the artist’s creed), the skill of critiquing is vital for the development of almost any skill, especially creative ones, where the choices are plenty and the rules lost in the depths of the subconscious mind.

On a quick side note, one thing I’ve noticed about reviews, which I find to be extremely annoying, is that they spend sometimes up to over half their time describing the plot of the work they’re reviewing. That’s a summary, not a review. But I suppose it makes sense; many people read reviews to decide whether or not to see a certain film or read a certain book. It can also be helpful in establishing the context of the review. I sometimes read reviews for this purpose, but more often I read them out of curiosity, to get different perspectives on work I’ve already experienced and naturally made my own judgments about, but might’ve missed some important point. Different people can see the same piece of work so differently, especially because so many people have different past experiences upon which to base their new experiences.

I suppose that brings up an important point that must be considered when writing a review. Why will a reader be reading it? In the aforementioned article, the author quotes a phrase from a review of the film Green Lantern (2011):

This is pure popcorn entertainment, a one-dimensional outing that is more in the ballpark of Thor and Fantastic Four than anything else.

The author says this about it:

Roberts use of certain critical clichés like ‘popcorn entertainment’ and ‘one-dimensional’ without either explaining them or relating them to some broader opinion about the film does suggest that he is applying a set of rules and templates without necessarily understanding what they mean.

I won’t argue about whether or not Roberts understands what those phrases mean; I think most readers will understand what he means in the context he uses them. (He’s saying the movie does little more than provide visual entertainment; there’s no deeper theme in the story, or if there is, it’s not a very good one.) I think Roberts’ review was meant for readers who didn’t want the details, they just wanted to know whether or not to see the movie that weekend or spend their $30 elsewhere. Roberts wasn’t pleased with the movie, but he does mention two other movies, Thor and Fantastic Four, so if readers enjoyed those movies, they might enjoy this one as well. So Roberts’ review may indeed include cliché phrases, but if the readers just want a brief answer to the question of whether or not they should go see it, I think clichés are perfectly fine. I think the author of the article wants to write reviews for readers who want a more in-depth, more analytical review.

As I say in the artist’s creed, no work of art is perfect. You could find something to critique in just about every work of art, especially films and literature. But looking at every work of art with that critical eye can be exhausting. If you’re watching a film or reading a book to be entertained, the mind may be a bit more passive, bathing in the vague feelings the work brings about, but otherwise not questioning where such emotions are coming from, at least not to a very great degree.

But I think the author’s point is still important. It may be OK for a review to be filled with clichés, but if the reader and writer don’t even realize when and how they’re using clichés and are simply being vague because they’re stupid or lazy or both, then the writer may be unintentionally misleading the reader, keeping him from enjoying a film he might’ve enjoyed because he didn’t enjoy it for reasons that might not have affected the reader had he chosen to see it. Or, at best, the review becomes mostly superfluous, and the writer fills a page with clichés and vague notions when a simple “I didn’t like it” would have sufficed, wasting the readers’ time (and perhaps the reviewer’s time, if he’s not getting paid).

The author tries to fit the skill of writing reviews in with “A Dreyfus Model of Critical Skill Acquisition.” I think this is silly at best. While the Dreyfus model he describes is somewhat interesting by itself, I think it’s inapplicable to the acquisition of any practical skills.

Not that the author is implying otherwise, but I think this Dreyfus model is too simplistic; a skill in and of itself is not a discrete entity. Acquiring skills may still fit the model, but you can’t rate your own or someone else’s “level of skill” that easily. Aspects of your skill may be low, while other aspects may already be mastered. For example, in chess, while we can say that you will be objectively better at the game after five years of studying for eight hours a day, you may be better at king and pawn endgames while another player is better at openings. The real “rules” of chess are not the rules of how you move pieces, nor are they just the sorts of patterns you read in books on chess. They are ultimately large-scale patterns that you only memorize with the experience of conscious effort, and even then it’s not necessarily guaranteed. It is similar with language and music; if we could completely define the rules by which we create and perceive such things, then we should be able to make computers write stories and symphonies. We can’t yet. Some rules are still elusive. So how do we know whether or not we have mastered these rules? We can’t, really. All we can judge is whether we can achieve the outcome we want, and how hard it was to achieve that outcome.

Overall, this article didn’t seem live up to the title; the only thing the author really says about how to write a review is to be more specific than giving vague cliché phrases to represent your conclusions. Not being a big reader of reviews, I thought there might have been some kind of conventional formatting or style that I didn’t know about or something, but perhaps not.