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Month: July 2016

New music and a Patreon account…

Over the weekend I finished a short composition called A Stargazer’s Lullaby:

As I write in the video’s description:

This piece is part of a short soundtrack for a book series I’m working on called Insane Fantasy. “A Stargazer’s Lullaby” provides the theme for the main character, Coptivon, who’s growing up in a crater in the Crater Lands. There’s not much life out there, but the flat landscapes offer a nice view of the stars. With little else to do in the Crater Lands, Coptivon has memorized all the constellations he could learn. His theme is meant to capture his boredom giving way to fantastical dreams as he gazes at the night stars.

This was my first try at screen recording on my new computer with Nvidia’s ShadowPlay that came with their GeForce GTX970. I’d say it’s definitely the smoothest animation I’ve ever been able to record, so this is definitely the way I’ll do it from now on.

Also, I went ahead a set up a Patreon account here: Sean on Patreon. Of course, funding is always a great help to any artist. This will also allow me to sort-of sell tracks as I finish them rather than having to put out singles on bandcamp or something while I’m saving tracks for an album. Although I’m not really selling them; rather, I’m offering them as a reward for tip-jar donations. Which may amount to the same thing in some people’s eyes, but I’m not sure I’d really consider Patreon that sort of an eCommerce site.

This will also ensure that I release at least two new pieces a month, as I’ll be obligated. (I suppose if something drastic comes up, I can always suspend donations for a month or two, but completing at least two tracks a month won’t be difficult.)

A big thank you to anyone who pledges!

Common story arcs as identified by AI

According to this article:

researchers from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide determined the core emotional trajectories of stories by taking advantage of advances in computing power and natural language processing to analyze the emotional arcs of 1,737 fictional works in English available in the online library Project Gutenberg.

The paper can be found on arXiv.org. They discovered six emotional arcs (which also just happen to exhaust all possible alternating binary arcs… in other words, they didn’t really “discover” anything, haha)

1. Rags to Riches (rise)
2. Riches to Rags (fall)
3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
4. Icarus (rise then fall)
5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

I’m not sure their results are all that helpful; any experienced storyteller understands this stuff naturally. It is somewhat interesting to see it correspond so strongly to a story’s word usage, though.

I was also interested in their little plot of the emotional arcs in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, which can also be found in this article from The Atlantic. If you check it out, you’ll notice that the second act conforms pretty perfectly to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat story beats. The first act mirrors this, in terms of there being three main peaks, or three pairs of falls and rises. I’ve started calling these “the three trials”, and most stories tend to conform to this. After the story’s catalyst (or including the story’s catalyst), the story goes through three falls and rises before reaching the “false high” of the midpoint. Many times, a rise will cause a fall in the B story. That is, the plot lines tend to alternate naturally with direction of the emotional arc (though not only at these points, mind you). For example, the hero might, say, punch a bully (rise in plot line A), only to discover his girlfriend wants to break up with him (fall in plot line B).

The “three trials” may be subtle, such as the thematic arguing in the first half of Jurassic Park. (Though if you’re going to make them as subtle as they are in Jurassic Park, the theme better be as interesting as resurrecting dinosaurs. And the characters should actually argue their sides as adamantly as John Hammond and Ian Malcolm; they can’t just stand there and wonder.) I’d identify the three trials of Jurassic Park as:

1. “Life finds a way” – After the thrill (rise) of seeing their first dinosaurs, Ian Malcolm argues the whole thing is bound to end in disaster (fall)
2. “Dinosaurs on your dinosaur tour?” – The guests are excited to start their tour (rise) but fail to actually see any dinos (fall)
3. “Nedry’s betrayal” – The guests are happy to gather around a sickly dino (rise) but as a looming storm forces the tour to be cancelled, Nedry begins his plan of betrayal (fall)

The escape of the t-rex then serves as the midpoint of the film.

OK, that was a tangent, but it’s a good plotting exercise to identify the “three trials” of a story’s first act; I have found it helps a lot in plotting. The arcs of stories that are more “episodic” may not be connected so much, whereas in tighter stories, each rise causes the following fall, and each fall leads to or makes possible the following rise.

(On a side note, it would be interesting to see how film music conforms to these emotional arcs.)

The Atlantic article goes on to mention:

Eventually, he says, this research could help scientists train machines to reverse-engineer what they learn about story trajectory to generate their own compelling original works.

OK, good luck with that. I think emotional-arc mapping should be the least of your concerns if you’re striving for computer-generated stories.

The article writer from the No Film School article, on the other hand, goes on to write:

But I sincerely doubt a computer or AI that we train to write stories will ever be able to find joy, no matter how much emotional value we assign to its database of words.

But, uh…. who cares if the computer can “find joy”? Your role as an audience member, as a consumer of a product, does not necessarily need to include making some emotional connection with the author, as that can only ever be imagined in your own head to begin with. This is similar to the morons who experience an uneasiness listening to computer generated music, as though all this time they were imagining the beauty of music came not from something eternal in nature, but was rather infused into the music by the author’s brain, as though the author created the beauty rather than merely discovered it in the realms of infinite possibility. Does that distinction make sense?

I doubt anyone needs to be concerned about AI storytelling anytime soon though, anyway, as we still don’t quite understand our human ability to use language. We’re much closer to programming a Mozart Symphony Generator (we’re only a fraction of an inch away from that, if not already there). Problem with language programming is that a lot AI researchers try to “cheat”; rather than searching for a deeper understanding of how humans use language, they try to turn it into a simple numbers game, like gathering statistics on word associations. That may be useful for autocomplete functions, but won’t help much with the creation of a serious story, or even a serious paragraph. Words have meanings, and you can’t simply take those meanings for granted, as if they’ll just take care of themselves if you map out word associations enough. We may need to figure out a way to represent those meanings without having to create a bunch of “experiences” for a computer to associate them with, if that’s possible. I have no idea. (And if I did, I would keep it a secret so that I could use it in a grand conspiracy to take over the world, which would fail, but would be turned into a great Hollywood film.)


Another interesting website to fool around with is whatismymovie?, an attempt at creating an AI to help you find an interesting movie. It sometimes comes up with some strange results, but it’s fun to play around with.

Deliberate practice, and random movie stuff

From another retweet I saw on Twitter (via writer Brian Niemeier), this blog post asks the question: If you just keep writing, will you get better?

The answer really depends on where you’re at, but it boils down to this: getting better at anything depends on what some call deliberate practice. That is, practice with focused attention on what you’re trying to improve. It’s difficult, it takes brain work, because you’re forcing your brain to build new connections. As the task becomes easier, you’ll settle into using your new connections, but you’ll cease to become better. That is, just going through the motions isn’t going to automatically increase your skill. You’ve got to hone in on and focus on specific weaknesses. The whole 10,000-hours-to-become-an-expert thing is misleading, because it doesn’t account for how focused one is.

In regards to writing, this leads to the question: how does one engage in this “deliberate practice” with writing? Is it even possible, after a certain level of skill is reached?

Critiquing other people’s work and collecting critiques for your own will help, assuming you work with the right sort of critique partners, but there remains that nebulous boundary between what one might consider the product of a writer’s skill level and his subjective stylistic preferences. That is, how can one measure one’s improvements? Is there any way to increase one’s skill beyond requiring outside help?

I’m not really sure, I’m just thinking out loud…

For me, personally, one thing I’d like to practice isn’t so much writing in and of itself, but writing faster. Or, lest that make me sound like I wish to be more of a hack, perhaps I should say I’d like to be able to stay focused on writing for longer periods of time so that I can accomplish more in less time. That should be something I could practice, though practicing staying focused always risks that paradox of focusing on whether or not your focusing rather just focusing.


In other news, an new trailer for the upcoming fantasy drama A Monster Calls was recently released:

I read the book it’s based on, which was OK, but I think the story will work better as a film, and the director J.A. Bayona is one my favorites (he’s set to direct the next Jurassic World film), so I’m looking forward to seeing how he brings the book to life.


I thought this little sci-fi short called “Adam” was interesting for purely technical reasons. (I can’t really figure out what exactly happens in it… a wizard turns off a bunch of robots’ iPhones so they follow him like sheep?) It was rendered completely in real time in Unity. Some things aren’t so impressive; the waving grass and the water ripples look awful. But overall this looks pretty darn fantastic for something rendered in real time on a GeForce GTX980. I’m just looking forward to some VR animated movies. Hurry up, rich people of the world, and make them. (Reminder: the film rights to all my books are still available.)

Writing fiction and the final cause

Aristotle was turned into stone by a wizard

If one asks why the heart pumps blood, one could answer in two ways:

A. The heart pumps blood because because the brain sends electrical signals to it that make its muscles contract. Or,

B. The heart pumps blood to deliver nutrients and oxygen to cells and to whisk away their waste.

In philosophy, Aristotle would say that an answer like A is the efficient explanation, a sort of cause-and-effect answer. These are the events that happened before that which we are seeking an explanation for, which we identify as its causes. (It tends to come naturally to us humans, and it seems easy enough to understand, but there’s something I find rather mysterious about it. After all, how could we program an AI robot to form such explanations? Can they only be formulated by observation and experience?)

An answer like B Aristotle would call the final explanation, the end toward which the action is directed.

Now suppose I want a cold soda. I must use my understanding of efficient explanations to create (or at least recall) a set of ordered actions I would take to get that soda. I get up, go to where we keep cups, put ice in it, etc., everything done for the desired end of drinking a cold soda. If something does not as planned, I must edit my set of ordered actions. Perhaps we are out of cups in the cupboard, and I must get one from the dishwasher. Or perhaps we are out of ice and I have to leave a can of soda in the fridge for a while, or drink it warm, or drink something else instead.

Of course, there are all sorts of fun theological discussions to be had concerning the relationship between efficient and final explanations. Final explanations do not exist physically, after all; they are, by their nature, abstract, like thought itself. Perhaps one could say that they can only exist in a conscious being. Still, I could program an artificial neural network to teach itself to do some task, like read numbers. Upon studying the results, I may discover that some section of the network achieves some end needed for the final result. For instance, perhaps a part of the network recognizes the presence of a horizontal line. Now I could say that this portion of the network has the recognition of a horizontal line as its final cause, yet this portion of the network was not created by a coder, but is instead the byproduct of the efficient causes (the training of the network) put in place for the sake of some other final cause. In other words, though we as intelligent beings may recognize that something, like a portion of a neural network or a beating heart, appears to have a final cause, it does not imply that that system was necessarily created by an intelligent consciousness. It may be an emergent property. (Which isn’t to say that it isn’t part of another grander final cause (evolution can be part of a God plan), only that the recognition of a final cause is a conscious abstract act. Does that make sense?)

Anyway, I’ve recently been thinking about this stuff in terms of writing fiction, because an author naturally thinks about these things when plotting a story. Maybe not in a philosophical sense, but we give our characters goals, and we ourselves may have a certain climax or ending or theme in mind (final causes), and then we must order things together naturally so that one event leads to another (efficient causes) and the plot moves toward the ends we desire.

But when I plot out a story and work from an outline, there’s always a bit of joy lost in the writing process, and it can sometimes feel a chore; I know to what end everything is leading, and keeping it in mind so often can lead to boredom, and I find myself wanting to plot a new story rather than finish writing one.

On the other hand, whenever I try writing without an outline, I quickly write myself into corners, or I keep adding new plot lines and characters and the work becomes an unfocused mess.

So I’m searching for a happy medium. Is it possible to write without an outline and without knowing the final cause, yet being sure that the story will indeed come to a satisfying conclusion, as though I had been planning the climax all along? If so, how?

I think it is possible, but I’m not quite sure how to do it yet… (I suppose one could write backwards, but I think that comes with more problems than its worth.)

Some forthcoming metal

About a year and a half ago, Nightwish was pretty much the only symphonic metal band I listened to, but after stumbling across Xandria last year (especially their album Neverworld’s End, which is perhaps my favorite symphonic metal album so far, or at least tied with Nightwish’s Imaginaerum), I have been steadily expanding my tastes for the genre. I have realized that their often fantastical themes, ridiculously cheesy as their lyrics may sometimes be, provide wonderful inspiration for my writing (perhaps equally cheesy) fantasy.

Just recently, some new singles have been released from some upcoming albums.


Heroes of Mighty Magic

First up, there’s Battle of Arcane Might from Twilight Force’s upcoming album Heroes of Mighty Magic. (How’s that for a cheesy fantasy title?)

I’m not so sure about all the girly pink and purple color scheme, but, well, there’s a dragon! Anyway, I love the track; triumphant sound, and a nice cinematic melody.


Then there’s Hammer of the Gods from Freedom Call’s upcoming album, Master of Light:

They’ve got a pretty distinct style, often featuring very anthem-like choruses. I always find them pretty catchy, and this track is no exception.


The Last Stand

Finally, there’s The Lost Battalion from Sabaton’s upcoming album The Last Stand:

I actually couldn’t get into Sabaton’s music at first; the main singer’s deeper, grungier voice is quite a difference from the more operatic female vocals featured in bands like Nightwish and Xandria. But they’re still actually singing here. I highly doubt I’ll ever get into those uglier types of heavy metal that feature singers just vomiting into the mic.

Rather than singing about fantasy, their albums are always war-based concept albums. They don’t glorify war for its own sake, but rather tell war stories, often honoring and paying musical tribute to real men who served. So one could certainly learn some history listening to their music. And their melodies, in a different context, could almost be folk songs. But they’re just as catchy in their bombastic epic metal form.

So three upcoming albums I’m looking forward to. Xandria’s also recording a new album at this very moment, which is awesome. Now I just want Ancient Bards to release a new album…

Random bits from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s biography

fhb

I finished reading a biography about my old famous aunt Frances Hodgson Burnett a while ago, the most recent comprehensive biography that was published in 2004: Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Unexpected Life of the Author of The Secret Garden

I recently came across some quotes I had pulled from it, little tidbits I thought were interesting.


From page 137:

It was about this time that Frances fell into the habit of “adopting” other children while she was absent from her own. In Rome she took up two “tiny pretty little beggar boys” who sang for tourists near her hotel. … Over time she would bring in sick children to educate them, and would help establish a club for boys in London. She saw these disadvantaged children as somehow substituting for her own, and she expected her own children, so far away, to respond with enthusiasm toward those they might well view as their substitutes as rivals. Frances in some way believed that lavishing attention and gifts on other children, then telling her own children about it, would make her sons feel closer to her rather than jealous or replaced.

This just made me laugh. It’s of course easy to admire her charity, but telling her own children about it as if it excused her from lavishing similar attention on them leaves me scratching my head. Maybe her children were not as hungry for attention as others, but I can’t see myself as a child much appreciating hearing about strangers getting gifts from one of my parents. Even when you’re a mature adult, it’s like getting one of those donation non-gift gifts, “a donation has been made in your name to blah blah blah”, to which you must politely and humbly reply, “Gee, that’s great, thanks!” rather than, “Thanks for reminding me that I’m already too fortunate for a gift and that you’re charitable. What a great gift.”


Frances was a famous writer at a time when high powered women were not so common and surely the idea of “feminism” meant something far different than it does these days (especially the Internet’s bizarre brand of “SJW feminism”). She was once asked to contribute a set of her works to woman’s exhibit at the World’s Fair in Chicago in the 1890’s, an exhibit meant to “instruct men as to the work and importance of women”, paying tribute “to the achievements, public and domestic, of women.” From page 166:

As one of the world’s most popular living women writers, Frances was asked to contribute a set of her works, but she did not take this as the honor it was doubtless intended to be but rather as one in a series of requests. Her apparent annoyance seemed to lie more in the fact of a building devoted to womanhood than with anything else. “Will you please send a complete set of my books … ” she wrote to Scribner’s. “It is in response to one of those endless demands that one should send some of oneself to some Womans Department of Something at the Worlds Fair. I have grown so tired of Woman with a W though I suppose it is the rankest heresy to say so. I dont want to be a Woman at all. I have begun to feel that I want to be something like this ‘WOMAN.’ Nevertheless if every body is sending books I must send mine.”

I thought that was an interesting response; I reckon she didn’t like the idea of others seeming to define for her what a ‘Woman’ should or shouldn’t be, or that she was automatically obligated to support the cause by virtue of being a famous woman. Hard to tell for sure though.


A hint of how the book business worked in the days of old, from page 178. Frances wanted a book of hers to be published immediately rather than having to follow the publisher’s schedule, and she was apparently a popular enough author that she had some pull. Scribner’s offered to skip the novel serialization and the income that would have come with it, but offered an advance on royalties. Here’s what I thought was interesting: Frances rejected this deal because accepting an advance on royalties could be risky in those days because the advance might have had to be returned if the book failed to earn it out. Can you imagine having to pay back an advance? That would stink. I was surprised publishers and authors apparently used to make those sorts of deals.


Back to womanhood for a moment, from page 187, Frances was being interviewed and was asked questions about the sexes:

“The man and woman question has no interest for me,” she told the interviewer. “We are not to be divided into mere men and women; we are human beings who are part of each other. Each part should be as noble as the other, and the one who is stronger should teach the other strength. To be a man’s wife and the mother of human beings is a stately thing. Frequently it is not, but it should be. And to be a woman’s husband and the father of human beings should be quite a stately thing. When it is not it is rather disgraceful. . . .”

“Then I gather that your ideal woman must be a mother?” [The interviewer putting words in her mouth?]

“She must be a mother if she has children. . . . She must have the reason and sense of honor and justice which one expects from the ideal man.”

Having written a book that both bowed to and called into question the proper role of women, she ended the interview with a statement that seems to have sprung from her lips without forethought. “It is my opinion,” she told the interviewer, “that the ideal woman, among quite a number of other things, should be a ‘perfect gentleman.'”


Skipping 100 pages into Frances’s future, here’s another part I found funny. In 1914, Little Lord Fauntleroy was turned into a British film for the first time. From page 279:

[The film] made its New York screen debut at the Lyric Theater. In true Frances fashion, she made a “fairy story” of it, taking the hundred seats the producer had offered her for the first performance, a benefit for the Newsboys’ Fund, and instead of distributing them among her friends made a children’s party of it. With Frances as hostess, the dozens of boys arrived half an hour before the curtain went up and waited in great excitement.

This reminded me of J. M. Barrie doing something similar in the film Finding Neverland, inaccurate as it may be, in which the playwright invites children to fill seats throughout the theater for the premier of Peter Pan, both as a gift to them, and to provide a spirited laugh track for his fairy tale to ease what the typical adults may otherwise try to take too seriously. “What is it called, James? A play!

Anyway, Frances’s little plan does not go so well…

Although she had been told that there would be a few “novelties” in the production, neither she nor the children were quite prepared for the fact that the director decided to kill off each of the heirs to Dorincourt, one at a time, in florid details of hunting accidents and delirium tremens. By the third miserable death, one of Frances’s small guests cried out, “I don’t like this play! If I knew this play was going to be this kind play I wouldn’t have come to this play. I want to go home.” With that he bolted up the aisle in tears, and most of the other children followed suit. Frances could only herd the wailing children out of the theater in dismay.

Sad, but hilarious.


Finally, it seems Frances did not much like editors or criticism. Nowadays, writers quickly learn that taking criticism is part of the craft, and one must learn to use it to fine-tune one’s work and one’s skill. Frances, it appears, did not quite operate that way. She believed her work came from a higher power, so it was not for others to criticize or edit. From page 294, emphasis mine:

Elizabeth [a friend] was a sounding board, one whose job was to admire but not to criticize. Frances once recounted in amazement the time she’d read a story to a young man who dared to offer criticism, something Elizabeth would never dream of doing. In fact, the only other time someone had dared such a thing, it ended with his losing his job. Apparently Frances sent the manuscript of one of her novels to the publisher at a time when her editor was unfortunately in Europe. His new young assistant wrote out a list of improvements and passed them on to the equally new assistant editor, who made the mistake of mailing it to Frances. “The result,” Elizabeth wrote, “was an explosion that shook the building which held the magazine and its employees. Mrs. Burnett gave a magnificent illustration of the tempest that can be aroused in gentle souls.” She withdrew the manuscript, to the astonishment of the editor who’d known nothing of what happened, and refused all their calls and letters and cables. By the time it was resolved, months later, Frances had their written agreement that they would continue to publish her work without any alterations whatsoever, as they had all along. When Elizabeth later asked why Frances was so averse to criticism when she averred that stories came from outside of herself, the answer was that “I am the custodian of a gift. It is for me to protect its dignity from the driveling of imbeciles!”


That’s it! Overall, it was a fascinating book, I very much enjoyed it!