Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Attaining Wisdom

"By three methods, we may learn wisdom: first by reflection, which is noblest; by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the most bitter."

- Confucius, 551-479 BC

To a certain extent, the attainment of wisdom is life's overarching endeavor.  Wisdom in this sense entails understanding: of the world, of oneself, and of the relationships that lie between.  Such understanding can be obtained through pure cogitation, which, as Confucius intimates, is the most elemental approach, as abstraction gives rise to abstraction.  Thought paves the way for comprehension.  The flow from one to the other requires no conversion from one form to another - both are constructs of cognition, built of the same brick and mortar.

Imitation, which involves the close study of the means, or path, by which a result is obtained, focuses on modality - which, if mastered, will yield a functionally equivalent result, independent of whether the actor fully appreciates the means or the end.  Perfect imitation can, potentially, be achieved by sheer rote, and in this way, prove to be the easiest means of attainment.  It entails a transition from process to object, from movement to destination.  A transition occurs from the former to the latter, but it is a natural progression, fluid in its unfurling.

Experience is by far the most immediate method, for it depends on the filter of physicality.  If reflection is a top-down approach to wisdom, experience is bottom-up: it is a latticework of particulars that form a skein of understanding by virtue of their interrelationships.  But each point of the lattice is hard-won, paid for with wages of time, effort, pain, and conflict.  And many such points are required.

Fiction, both the reading and writing of it, shares with life the attainment of wisdom as its ultimate end.  But its function, and the means by which it allows us to attain it, is an interesting hybrid of the three paths considered by Confucius.  Fiction is by its very nature a kind of directed abstraction, of cogitation distilled by the lens of the narrative structure.  Yet the use of that structure is to a certain extent an inevitable pantomime of the processes and modes used by generations of storytellers.  There is room enough for innovation and novelty, but  certain core structures and dictates must be observed - or at least comprehended.  Only by comprehending them can the storyteller then subvert or break them to positive effect.

And yet what is fiction but a simulacrum of experience?  It allows the reader - and even the author - to live countless other lifetimes, sharing in both vicarious joys and sufferings, yet also reaping the points of wisdom plotted by those would-be experiences.  It begins with the forms of abstraction, utilizes the tools of imitation, yet yields the result of experience - which, in the end, is the shared goal of all three paths.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Currently Reading: R. Scott Bakker, The Prince of Nothing Trilogy

An interesting philosophical series of epic fantasy by a Canadian midlist author.  Define influences from Dune and Lord of the Rings (though what fantasy series doesn't borrow something from the latter?), but the milieu is unique and painstakingly detailed.  It lacks the clockwork metaphysical precision of Brandon Sanderson's worlds, but the depth of history, culture, and timeline evokes the kind of complexity and minutiae that marks Tolkien's Middle Earth.  A bit esoteric - and, perhaps, too scholarly - in tone at times, but definitely worth a read.

Presently 1/3 of the way through The Warrior-Prophet, the middle act of the trilogy.  Will delve into deeper analysis when the trilogy is complete.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

OSC on the Rules of Writing

"The only real rule is: You can break any rule, as long as you're willing to pay the price." - Orson Scott Card

Saturday, December 10, 2011


NaNoWriMo 2011 concluded over a week ago, and though I nominally met the word-count goal (even with the intervention of Skyrim), I fell short of my aspirations for a completed draft - or to catalog my progress here on the blog.  Perhaps Stephen King was right when he said that you should write your first draft with the door closed; few people, I think, would be interested in the messy ravings contained therein, and even if some are, I'm not sure I'd want to share them.  But if I tackle NaNo 2012, I'll try to make a go of cataloging my process again next year.

My goal now is to reestablish the biweekly posting schedule for my blogs, and to turn back to the half-penned doujinshi that I had to abandon midstream in November.  I've been studying and practicing to improve my illustration skills, so there may be an inevitable amount of clean up to be done on existing pages before new material starts to flow, but I'm hoping to have the doujin rolled out by the new year.

I'm also looking to complete final revisions on the short story I drafted a couple of days before NaNo 2009, hopefully in time to submit the story to the Writers of the Future contest before this quarter's deadline.  The last time I submitted to WotF was back in 2005, and someone had bothered to write "Send more soon!" on the form rejection letter.  Six years hardly counts as "soon," but I suppose "eventually" is closer to that mark than "never."

Finally, I'll be updating the Natty Words page with a Portfolio section that will offer some samples of my illustration efforts, as soon as I have some fit for display.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

NaNoWriMo #05: Background and Milieu Research

With 9 days to go until NaNoWriMo, I've started preparations for this year's project, codenamed (and possibly titled, though the chances of it surviving until the final version are unlikely at best) "Wander."  The premise is one that I used for my first published short story, a historical-fantasy mashup that spans a couple of millennia.  I've tabled this one for more than five years, because I felt I needed to grow a bit as a writer before I could do it justice.  The novel's scope and slightly more literary bent than my usual SF/fantasy modus operandi is one challenge that I think I'm now ready to face; the other is having to mesh the story of my pseudo-historical protagonist with actual events and locales.

One of the things I like the most about SF/fantasy is that the milieu is entirely your own creation; you can draw inspiration from wherever it suits you, and needed have to worry about how things correspond to the real world - except, of course, thematically or by analogy.  It can be a daunting level of freedom for writers who are used to the familiar confines of fiction set in the "real" world (which inevitable evokes only enough real world verisimilitude as the story itself needs), but on the other side of the coin, that freedom can also be something of a crutch.  Being forced to mesh things together with real world timelines, places, events, and people makes for a unique challenge for a speculative fiction writer like me, and the nature of the task requires that some pre-writing research and notetaking be done.

Among the various topics my research has me reading through: the Sengoku Era in Japan; the historical city of Alexandria; European warfare in the Middle Ages; and a question the answer for which continues to elude me - what is the difference between the terms Hebrew, Israelite, and Jew?

Also, some flights of pure fancy that I made over ten years ago also appear to have important milieu-based ramifications on my present line of research.  In the short story, I gave the protagonist the last name "Temani," which at the time I only knew meant "from the south."  My recent research has uncovered that being from "Teman," one of the larger and more characteristic cities of the country of Edom, would strongly predisposition a Jewish character as being one of the Temanim, or Yemenite Jews, a specific subset of Jewish people with a colorful and unique history.  A history which includes an aversion to naming their children after the biblical Ezra, which comes awfully close to the given name of my protagonist, at least as I had named him in the short story.  Whether that means I'll be giving him a different name, or whether that contradiction is a story-worthy complication remains to be seen, but I'll be working out the particulars as I continue my background research and start developing plot outlines.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

APAD Follow-Up

I've been putting the principles of Tuesday's APAD revisited post to good use this week, and have about 4 pages left (and a new character to design) for the rough draft of my 30-page debut doujinshi.  The goal is to have it published online before the month's end, and as long as I don't encounter any problems with the manga software I'm using, I think I'm on track to meet that deadline.

If you haven't tried APAD yet on your longterm project, go ahead and give it a go.  Tell me what's holding you back - or, if you've given it a try, how the technique worked for you.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fictional Tips: A Page A Day (APAD) Revisited

In one of the inaugural posts on the Nexus of Misc blog, I proposed that the three Rs of practicing any skill - including storytelling - are rigor, repetition, and ritualization.  The underlying notion is simple: to become good at something takes more than raw aptitude or inborn talent (though either can make the road a whole lot smoother).  In the end, though, you have to travel that road to get where you want to go.

This can often be easier said than done.  A penchant for procrastination is, I've found, something that almost everyone is born with.  Whether it's a term paper for a class, an article to be published in a scholarly journal, a short story, or an illustration, often times the hardest part about getting work done is getting yourself to sit down and actually plod your way through it.  The good folks at Writing Excuses offered the term "BICHOK" as advice for the itinerant writer: Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard.

My approach adapts the same principle to some of the progress benchmarks that writers like Stephen King swear by.  APAD, or a page a day, espouses an incremental approach to completing your creative (or even non-creative) undertaking, by 1) breaking it up into per-day-sized pieces and 2) most importantly, taking on each of those pieces day after day until the work is complete.

My original APAD post was intended as a call to action, but ironically, that post would be the last on the Nexus for almost a year!  Hardly practicing what I preached, as far as blogging goes.  Since then, I've tried to separate the Nexus's overly ambitious topic coverage into more clearly delineated niches, with Fictional Matters inheriting the posts focusing on writing and the creative arts.   I wanted to repeat that call to action, but this time couple it with an overt commitment on my part.  It has been my goal this month to begin providing new content on Fictional Matters, Watches to Wear, and Goods to Buy every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and to continue those scheduled updates into November, even as I take on NaNoWriMo 2011.

If you have large projects to write like a thesis paper or novel, a book or anthology to edit, or (the current occupant of my creative desk space) a comic book to pen, using the principle of APAD can help you to make it more manageable and to position yourself to make steady progress by minimizing the opportunities to procrastinate.  Give APAD a try, and if you do, be sure to tell me how it works for you by leaving a comment below.  Whether it works or fails, I'm interested in learning how it goes!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

NaNoWriMo #04: So You've Got A Story Idea - Now What?

This week's post in preparation for NaNoWriMo 2011 looks at the steps that come immediately after you've found an idea for a story.  How do you turn an idea into a story spanning 50,000+ words?

In many ways, developing an idea into a full-fledged story is a lot like the basic gameplay of the Katamari Damacy video game series.  Your idea is like the titular katamari - a magic ball that can adhere to particular things (namely, smaller objects) and add them to its mass, growing each time it picks up a new object.  The things that will stick to your idea are directly related to it, and you can begin in a number of places.

If you're like me, you could begin with characters.  Who is your protagonist?  What is their backstory?  What are their goals and desires?  Who - or what - will oppose them in their quest to fulfill those goals?  As you round out your main character, other characters, plot developments, etc. may pop up in the process.  You can aggregate your original idea with as many characters and as much depth as you like - whatever amount makes you feel comfortable with your prospective cast of dramatis personae.

Other well-known science fiction and fantasy writers are worldbuilders.  Like them, your idea might start with an intriguing premise and develop of the ramifications that it would have on the world in which it exists.  What if special magic users could derive specific abilities from ingesting and "burning" different kinds of metals? This milieu premise is the starting point for Brandon Sanderson's bestselling Mistborn series.  What if a desert landscape covered an entire planet?  Welcome to the starting point for Frank Herbert's Dune.

Or you can take the tiger by the tail and delve right into plot.  What has to happen in order for your idea to work?  What could happen in spite of all that?

This katamari-like process of info aggregation is primarily to get you comfortable and more familiar with the story-wide implications of your idea.  Your cast of characters, milieu, or plot could completely change - and often enough does - once you actually delve into writing your first draft in November, so don't be too concerned about getting every detail right at this point.  Give yourself permission to explore, to make mistakes, fix them, and keep going.  Odds are you'll find yourself having fun along the way.  And here's a secret from a past NaNoWriMoer: once you're comfortable enough with your story idea, the fun you've had in aggregating it is only a pale reflection of the fun you'll experience actually writing the story.  So no matter what, the best is yet to come.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Fictional Tip: Creating to White Noise

Nearly every creator has stared at a vast expanse of white struggling to set down the first few words of a story or the establishing line work of an image.  Faced with the stark emptiness and contradictorily endless possibilities that a blank page or canvas presents to a creator, the silence of a controlled - but equally empty - work environment can sometimes echo so loudly that it only compounds feelings of apprehension and paralysis.    Perhaps this is why many creators create with music playing in the background; Stephen King, for example, describes his preference for Heavy Metal in his memoir, On Writing.  Another near-cliche has writers seeking out the comforting ensconcement of the coffee shop, where relaxing surrounds and the ambient buzz of fellow patrons can ease the oppression of the creative void.  My preferred white noise of choice is the TV rerun - but only of certain varieties, and all with one prevailing virtue: I've watched them before.

The first variety is cooking shows.  My favorites include Alton Brown's Good Eats (which I've watched so much that I've taken to refer to Mr. Brown as "shisho," the Japanese word for "master"), Iron Chef (original Japanese program), and Jamie Oliver's and Gordon Ramsay's various series.  I've found that they provide a welcome distraction for the small part of my consciousness that serves as the eternal critic, deriding every creative thought that enters my mind and dares to transfer itself onto paper or computer screen.  (That part certain has its uses - namely in the editing and revising phase of creation - but it's a voice that needs to shut up when a work is in its formative stages.)  The acts and instructions of cooking are far enough removed from what I'm writing or drawing in order to keep the programs from being distractions themselves, as my having seen them before keeps me from becoming too consumed with what's happening there to neglect the work I'm creating.

The second variety is specifically Star Trek episodes from The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager.  I've seen these series enough times to usually recall the plot of an episode with no more than the first few seconds of the opening scene, so once again the danger for distraction is minimal.  Also, though the plots and milieu are somewhat uncomplicated compared to the stories I endeavor to tell, they for me also represent a large part of my foundational narrative: that is, I grew up with these stories, so at some elemental level, they possess poetic resonance with the very reasons that drew me toward storytelling in the first place.  

The third variety are Japanese-language programs, primarily documentaries and - predictably - cooking shows.  While this variety may be of best use for those creators who are familiar with more than one language, I find that having a program or even music playing with voice overs or vocals in a different language from the one in which I'm writing helps to keep the white noise from doing more than distracting your inner critic, and perhaps distracting or even interfering with your creative process itself.  I've encountered situations where the white noise I've employed had a detrimental impact on my writing, specifically where I had set my music player to repeat a single song - usually one that I'd only recently discovered and therefore wanted to hear over and over again.  Some of the worst, most melodramatic and pandering drivel I've ever typed resulted from the ad nauseum repetition of an otherwise perfectly good song, and I can't for the life of me explain why it happened.  But not only did the repetition confound my creative efforts, it also tainted my feelings toward the songs themselves, as I'd remember the atrocities against creation they had lead me to commit whenever I heard them after that.  Through this painful trial and error, I learned that repeating a single song while creating is a poisoned well that taints both the one who drinks from it, and the very watertable from which it springs.

So what lessons can we draw from these examples of white noise that worked and those that didn't?  I would say that successful white noise distracts your inner critic, thereby giving your creative mind the clarity it needs to do its job.  But it distracts in such a way that does not pull your attention away from the act of creating, or exert undue influence on the creative process itself.  

Ultimately, what works best for your white noise depends on your own background and preferences, though I would suspect that creating to white noise is a useful technique for anyone who has ever had their inner critic shout down creative ideas that should have been given the chance to make the blank page a little less so.  

What do you think about using white noise while creating, and if you use it, what seems to work best for you?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fictional Review: Working'!! and the Slice-of-Life Genre

Having added an apostrophe to its title (and logo!?), Working'!! is back for its second season.

Continuing the titling convention used in the second season of K-On! (aka "K-On!!" - the two exclamation points referring to it being the second season), Working!! (in which the first season already included the two exclamation points) recently began its second season under the name "Working'!!" - and yes, the apostrophe is not a typo.

Watching the first episode of the new season was a bit of a challenge for me, as the fansub group have upgraded their offerings to 10-bit video encoding, which even the latest version of VLC (1.1.11) does not yet support, displaying only a blank green screen of sadness where the video should be.  Updating to the latest CCCP codec set and opening the video with Media Player Classic fixed the problem for me.  The increase in the depth of visual quality between the encodes I'd in the previous season, which was presumably 8-bit, and this one is striking, as even backgrounds seemed to pop with definition and character:

I'll admit it: the depth of detail on the candy display here made my jaw drop the first time I saw it.

The story picks up pretty much where it left off in the first season, following the employees at the Wagnaria western-style restaurant as their eccentricities complicate their working lives.  If you're new to the series, the second season isn't where you'll want to begin watching, as many of the character's behaviors may seem inexplicable without the benefit of background exposition.  If you're a veteran of season one, though, watching the new season is very much like returning to school - and a familiar lineup of friends and acquaintances - after a summer break.

The girls and surrounds of Wagnaria look especially sharp in 10-bit video.

Working'!! is firmly entrenched in the comedy/slice-of-life genres, the latter of which being, as far as I'm aware, far more prevalent in Japan (particularly in anime/manga form) than it is in the West.  The slice-of-life genre is characterized by light plotting and characterization built on a milieu designed to evoke and emulate everyday life.  From a Western viewpoint of characterization and plot work, the slice-of-life genre should be fairly one-dimensional and uninteresting.  Yet examples of this genre (of which K-On!! is another recent exemplar) have an almost inexplicable allure that draws you into the uncomplicated storyline, and invests you emotionally in the relatively simplistic characters.  Whereas western storylines tend to use conflict and pain to induce audience members to invest emotionally in characters and plot, slice-of-life works focus on evoking a kind of warm appreciation - the Japanese expression, which defies complete translation, is mono no aware, or what I would call the sweet evanescence of all things - for the mundane, the familiar, and the familial.  It flies in the face of everything I learned about fiction writing in college - yet it works.

Part of the reason this entry is a "Fictional Review" as opposed to a "Stories That Matter" review is because  it isn't really the story that matters in slice-of-life works.  And though the characters themselves can gain a strong following, I think it ultimately is the work's ability to evoke a familiar milieu and distill it down to its most essential elements that makes this genre work as a form of storytelling.  K-On!! evokes the high school milieu, in particular the notion of a small group of close friends united by common interests (a common and ubiquitous trope in real life) and intensifies the experience through the rich interactions of members of the KeiOn Bu.  Likewise, Working'!! evokes the milieu of part-time working and the relationships a person builds with his or her coworkers, and magnifies those elements through the potentially over-the-top yet endearing qualities and behaviors of the Wagnaria staff.

Though I'm a dyed-in-the-wool anime and manga otaku, what intrigues me the most about a fictional work like Working'!! is how it shows that there can be more to storytelling than the traditional and overarching motivators of conflict and pain.  While I would still maintain that conflict and pain are essential parts of storytelling, and that even slice-of-life works like Working'!! cannot succeed without including a little bit of both, what this series demonstrates is that there are other methods of building a report with an audience.  It shows that the palette of colors that a fiction creator has at his or her disposal is larger and more varied than depicted by traditional viewpoints.  Mastering the techniques that underlie the slice-of-life genre is essential not just to aspiring anime makers or manga artists, but to anyone looking to deepen the emotional impact of the stories they create.

What do you think of Working'!!, the slice-of-life genre, or the role that familiarity or identification plays in storytelling?  Feel free to voice your thoughts in the comments below.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

NaNoWriMo #03, Fictional Tips #01: Where Story Ideas Come From

Now that I’ve covered the necessary background of what NaNoWriMo is and what you should do to get ready for it, I can back up a few steps and address those who would like to participate, but haven’t really given much thought to writing a novel until now.  One of the most common questions interested parties ask novelists and other storytellers is “Where do you get your ideas?”  It makes sense that this would be one of the first questions people would ask, as almost every story ever written began its life as a simple idea – or, phrased a little bit differently, a “What If.”

It Always Starts With “What If . . . ?”

In many ways, “What If” is the very core of storytelling.  Describing “What Is” doesn’t require a storyteller; all it requires is an attentive observer.  But considering “What If” implies a two-step process of posing a question, and then working out an answer.   Unlike the realm of “What Is,” neither question nor answer actually exists.  Both seem to spring from the storyteller like Athena from Zeus’s forehead: full-grown and ready to wage war.  Which can lead the casual onlooker to wonder: how did she get in there – and where did she find her weapons?

Like everything else in life, ideas for storytelling come from our experiences; they are not, however, limited to them.  A novelist can write about a murderer, or even from the viewpoint of a killer, without having ever taken a life.  Gene Roddenberry could create warp drives and Klingons without ever having to stop and work out whether either of them could actually exist.  In fact, the premise of Star Trek could easily be posed as a “What If” question:

What if advanced technology and an intergalactic egalitarian society allowed humankind to send its best and brightest out to explore the final frontier of outer space?

Or Lord of the Rings:

What if a ring of limitless and corrupting power fell into the hands of a young hobbit?

Or the Harry Potter series:

What if an orphaned boy discovers he is the wizarding world’s best hope against the very dark lord who orphaned him?

In posing what could be, and then attempting to answer that question, we take on the central challenge that storytellers have assumed since time immemorial.  It’s the first step in a journey that, in truth, can never end – and where the journey itself is everything.

Building to Critical Mass

Sometimes, no matter what idea you try to plug into the “What If” rubric, it just seems to fall short.  If that happens – or, more specifically, when – don’t panic.  And don’t simply discard your idea.  Just because it falls short on its own doesn’t mean it’s inherently doomed to failure.  It just needs a little help, and try as we may, we aren’t always up to the task of giving our ideas the help they need, at the very moment they need them. 

And that’s OK, because ideas come to us all the time, if we’re prepared to recognize and retain them.  As long as we hold on to those ideas that seem to fall short, they’ll be on hand when another idea comes – one that is, perhaps, also not quite enough on its own – and can lend us a hand.  As Orson Scott Card notes in his Characters and Viewpoint, combining two distinct ideas can give rise to something completely original and utterly compelling in a way that either idea alone could never achieve.   (His Nebula and Hugo Award-winning novel Speaker for the Dead is a great example, being a combination of the continuing storyline from Ender’s Game and an initially separate idea of a “speaker for the dead.”)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

NaNoWriMo #02: Gearing Up

Strictly speaking, there isn’t anything you need to do to prepare for NaNoWriMo (though signing up always helps).  Being able to sit yourself down on November 1st and just start writing is one of the virtues of the event.  But if you’re like me, the notion of sitting down to that empty page and blinking cursor is one of the most terrifying (literary) prospects imaginable.  I firmly believe that my success in NaNoWriMo so far has been the preparation I’ve done in advance of November, so if you think that you’ll likely find yourself in the same boat, then October is the month for you to get your head start.

That head start can be anything short of actually writing the novel (remember, that starts at 12:01 a.m. on November 1st!), but here’re a few things I’ve done in the past and will be doing this October.

Outlining Your Story

I’m not really into outlining, but I’ve found that having a framework to guide you through NaNoWriMo is crucial given the time constraint under which you’ll be laboring.   Brainstorm the overall plot arc of your story, write up character dossiers, and even quick outlines of your chapters.  The amount of detail you need is up to you and what works best for your creative process.  Some of us need to have all the ducks in a neat row before writing the first sentence; others just need an idea and an empty canvas on which to chase that idea to its conclusion.  Most of us fall somewhere between those extremes.   Figuring out where you fall and what you’ll need in order to succeed in November is what October is for.

Making a Game Plan

Along with planning the novel itself, planning how you’ll handle the task of writing 50,000 words in 30 days is also important.  50,000 words split into 30 equal pieces is around 1,667 words per day; if you’re very disciplined, you can plan on hitting the 1,667 mark and then calling it a day thirty times, and you’ll be done on time.  If you’re like me, though, you’ll have some days where you’re on such a roll that you’ll want to keep going, and end up with way more than your daily goal, and, inevitably, other days where you’re so busy with life and other exigencies that you can’t even add a comma before the next day arrives. 

To the extent possible, note the days in November when your schedule will be most likely to bottleneck: work deadlines, midterm exams, etc.  Mapping out where you’re most likely to be swamped will help you to figure out how many days you’ll need to designate for catch up – that is, days where you can reasonably set the bar at the 3,000, 4,000, or 5,000 word mark and make up for (or in advance of) days where you won’t get many words in edgewise. 

Locking and Loading

My last “Gearing Up” tip is all about the gear: make sure you have the tools you’ll need to succeed at NaNoWriMo, and check to ensure that they’re all in working order so that you’ll be ready to hit the ground running on November 1st.  Depending on your preferences, you may not need much: a bunch of scratch paper and a writing implement is all you need to start writing, and many NaNoWriMoers do pen their novels by hand.  (Admittedly, though, doing so does make word counting a little bit harder.)  For those who will be doing their writing on a computer, make sure its running smoothly, you have a word processor that you’re comfortable with and can rely on, and, perhaps most important of all, be prepared to back up your files!  It’s best to keep your backup copies on a separate drive, if possible, or even a cloud storage system. 

(My preferred cloud storage is DropBox.  It syncs automatically and is great for keeping files up to date across several computers.  It even has useful apps for iOS and Android that allow you to access and edit your files wherever you go.  If you’d like, you can click on my DropBox affiliate link to sign up for your own account [doing so gives me an extra 250mb of storage space, up to a max of 5gb, and once you’ve set up your own account, every friend you sign up gives you the same bonus as well].)

The point of locking and loading is to iron out any potential technical issues that might stand in the way of completing your 50k.

Monday, September 26, 2011

NaNoWriMo #01: What It Is And Why It Matters

NaNoWriMo stands for “National Novel Writing Month.”  It began in 1999, when founder Chris Baty and a group of likeminded friends first pegged November as the month in question and set out to pen 50,000 words in 30 days.  As of last year, according to the website, over 200,000 people participated and 30,000 of them completed 50,000 or more words by the November 30th deadline.  

What Are the Rules?

The rules are simple.  You write your first word on November 1st and keep going until November 30th.  If you reach the 50,000-word mark by the 30th (on average, that’s 1,667 words per day), then congratulations: you’re a NaNoWriMo winner! 

Why Participate?

The NaNoWriMo website (which is due for an exciting renovation this year) provides tools for your to track your word count progress and communicate with and derive support from other participants through its forums.  Local groups often organize “Write-Ins” where they arrange to meet in a particular venue to toil on their word counts together. 

Beyond these tools and activities, your participation in NaNoWriMo is really up to you.  There’s no editor (outside of your own head!) who will draw red lines through your sentences and make you rewrite them.  No webmaster or forum moderator is going to look through what you’ve written and make sure that the words you enter into the word counter tell a story or even make sense.  What NaNoWriMo gives you is an excuse to sit down and write, a month-long clarity of purpose in which you can breathe life into that story idea that has been niggling at the back of your brain for years on end.  It gives you permission to suck in your first attempt — as Hemingway said (and is proven true often enough), “The first draft of anything is shit” — so that you have room to complete it, and, eventually, go back and refine it.  It allows you to prove to the harshest critic of all — yourself — that the novel you’ve always said you’d write can, in fact, be written.  And it allows you to do all this in an environment where thousands of others are toiling in unison with you, all across the globe.

My First NaNoWrimo Experience

My participation in NaNoWriMo began in November 2008, but I first learned of it in the previous year from Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing podcast.   NaNoWriMo wasn’t my first experience writing a novel, as I had taken a year between college and law school — what I think of as my “fourth year” of college, as AP credits allowed me to graduate in three — to write the rough draft of my first novel, which I’ll be referring to here on Fictional Matters as Book One.  But that 130,000+ word draft had literally taken me the whole year to complete, so the notion of writing 50,000 words in 30 days was still daunting to me.   On top of all of that, I was in my third year of law school, which meant I was juggling classes and responsibilities as a law review editor, teaching assistant, and research assistant at the same time.  It really didn’t make much sense to add NaNoWriMo to my already overflowing plate, but I did it anyway. 

I did it as a way to show myself and my friends how serious I was about fiction writing.  I did it in order to prove that I still could write fiction after two and a half years of law school and legal writing.  I also did it as a partial rebellion against the traditional lawyer’s career path that I had placed myself on, an acknowledgement that I’d be taking a different direction after graduation.  It was grueling, but I succeeded in reaching 50,000 at the eleventh hour on November 30th, and doing it in a way that didn’t compromise my law school responsibilities, as I managed to ace that semester’s classes (and AmJuring, or getting the top grade in, my favorite class and area of law, Intellectual Property Law).

And I've been at it every year since then.

Your (Future) NaNoWriMo Experience(s)

If you’ve ever thought about writing a novel but talked yourself out of it, got too busy or simply never got around to it, you owe it to yourself (and your unwritten novel) to give it a try.   The experience will open your eyes to the possibilities of what you can achieve if you only dedicate the necessary time and resources.  Even if you’ve never contemplated writing a novel before, if you’re in for a potentially life-changing experience or just looking to try something new, give it a go.  If you decide to, there’s a whole community of others who will try along with you, and support you in this journey.  For my part, I’ll be following up with advice on how to get prepared for NaNoWriMo, some tools and strategies, and a day-by-day update of my own progress this November.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Fictional Manifesto

This post marks a turning point for the Fictional Matters blog, as from here on it will feature new posts on no less than a weekly basis.  After setting up this blog in March 2011, I took some time to determine the kinds of content that I will be able to provide, as well as what its readers would want to see.  

The following series are a glimpse of what you can expect to see here in the coming days:

  • Fictional Tips: These posts will feature techniques, advice, and thoughts on the craft of storytelling.  For most of my storytelling life, my medium of choice has been the written word, in the form of novel-length and short fiction.  I have also dabbled in illustrations, and have been working for the past month on my first fan-made comic, or doujinshi.  As a result, most practical tips will center on writing and drawing.  Tips focusing on the philosophy of the craft, however, will draw examples and inspiration from all media.
  • Fictional Tools: This series will feature the tools of the storyteller's trade, such as pens, pencils, keyboards, drawing tablets, and creation-oriented software and apps.  
  • Stories That Matter: These posts will review stories that constitute special achievements in the storytelling art and, in doing so, offer a great experience for storytellers and non-storytellers alike.  
  • National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Series: These posts will highlight what NaNoWriMo is, what steps you can take to get ready for it, and tips for succeeding in writing 50,000+ words of story in 30 days.  I've been a NaNoWriMo participant  and, knock on wood, perennial "winner"  since 2008, when I succeeding in reaching 50,000 words by November 30th despite being in the midst of the fall semester of my third year of law school.  This special series will feature posts on a more frequent basis in the months of October, leading up to NaNoWriMo, and November, the actual Novel Writing Month in question.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My History with Keyboards & Keyboard Review #001: Filco Majestouch-2 Linear R Limited Edition Tenkeyless FKBN87MR/EB2

My fascination with mechanical keyboards began with the metallic twang of the Model M attached to the first computers I used as a child.  But my initiation into the realm of modern, mechanical-switch keyboards can be traced back to a visit to Akihabara in 2008.  My primary business in Akiba was at the Mandarake doujinshi store, but once I'd finished up there, I explored that particular back street and found the Clevery 2 computer store, which specializes in peripherals, particularly keyboards.

(Sadly, going through my pictures folder, it looks like I didn't snap up one of the store itself.  Guess I was too starry-eyed at the time.  This image comes from the Clevery website.)

I tried my hands on every keyboard they had on display there, and in the end, a sturdily built (and $100+!) 104-key model with the name "Filco" emblazoned on it won me over.  Only the fact that I had come to Tokyo on a midnight bus from Osaka--and that I would be further laden down by the stacks of doujinshi I'd acquired from Comiket 73 on the trip back--kept me from purchasing it then.  Upon my return to the states, armed with the magical keywords "Filco" and "Majestouch," I discovered the forums, and was initiated into the world of cherry mechanical keyswitches.  I soon determined that the keyboard that had won me over had Cherry Black linear keyswitches, but that most typists preferred the softer touch of the tactile Cherry Browns.  Trusting the consensus, I purchased my first full-size Majestouch, with Brown switches, from beNippon. Over time, I would sell off the full-size for a tenkeyless model (one without the number pad), and expand my collection to include tenkeylesses with Black and Blue (tactile with a *click*) Cherry switches, along with a Topre Realforce 87U and a Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional 2.

I thought my foray into mechanical keyboards would end there, until I discovered through geekhack that Filco had released a tenkeyless model with the elusive Red Cherry switches--and, more than that, that it was available through Amazon.   I immediately searched for it, and--despite a general moratorium on purchases I've imposed around tax time--purchased it.  There were twelve left in stock when I came across the product page, meaning that after my purchase there were 11.  I briefly wondered if I'd been too hasty, adding yet another $100+ keyboard to my stable. 

The remaining 11 keyboards were gone by the next day.

My hope in purchasing this Cherry Red keyboard was to find a middle ground between the smoothness of the linear Blacks (which was my favorite Cherry keyswitch) with the lightness of the tactile Browns.  This was the general description of the Reds on geekhack, so I felt fairly confident that I'd finally found the best of both worlds in this keyboard.

Now, as I type this review on it, I can say that I have.

The "Limited Edition" keyboard came with the red WASD keys, while I had a spare red ESC from my other Filcos.  The keys depress with the same light touch that are the hallmark of the more well-known and widely used Cherry Browns (also used, for example, in the Kinesis Advantage Keyboard), but without the tactile "hump" in the resistance curve that I personally find detracting.  Within an hour of switching to it, typing has become more natural to me as it has on any of the myriad keyboards I've used before.

 (Close-up of the red WASD keys)

(As with the Filco with Black linears, the caps and scroll LEDs are red in this 'board.)

I've yet to use this 'board for gaming purposes, but as I tend to be a button masher, I suspect that the Black linears are still king in that department for me.  Nevertheless, I feel quite confident that I've finally found the keyboard I've been looking for these past three years.  As a writer and editor, the keyboard really is the definitive tool of my trade, and having one that suits my typing style so well makes every task that much more enjoyable.

(The 'board comes in a understated black box with simple lettering.)

Beyond the keyboard itself, the other gem of the experience is learning that Filco keyboards are now available on, as they are sold by the Keyboard Co UK (and fulfilled by Amazon, meaning that super-saver shipping applies!).  While the 87-key, tenkeyless version is sold out at the time of this writing, the full 104-key version is still available.  Also available are tenkeyless versions of the 'board with tactile Browns, linear Blacks, and clicky Blues, as well as full 104-key versions with Browns (in a Metallic Blue shell!) and Blues.

Fictional Thought #001: Revisiting the Rejection Pile for Kernels of Truth

It's been more than five years since I last sent out short fiction submissions, and on a whim I decided to look back at those stories.  I've always been a bit embarrassed to look back at my older stories--even the ones that made it to print--so up to this point I've simply let the ones that have collected their full measure of rejections collect dust in my files.  Reading Nei Gaiman's short story collection Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, however, made me realize that some of those stories might be salvageable.  Or more than that, truly great stories that I had failed, whether through lack of skill or experience, to tell properly. 

I've only managed to work my way through one and a half of them so far, but the mistakes literally leap out at me from the pages.  This could be either a good or bad thing.  Maybe it means I've gotten much better in the last five years; or maybe it means I was crap then, and I'm still crap (though of a slightly lesser magnitude) now.  I'm prepared to reserve judgment on that determination.  But what surprises me is how clearly I can see the gem hidden within each story--a kernel of cathartic truth (for it is truth that the storyteller seeks to share, though every word from his mouth and character on the page is, by the very nature of fiction, a clever lie) that could serve to animate a story, the way the soul can be said to animate a human being--and the sense of excitement I feel at the prospect of nurturing those kernels into a new form, one hopefully more true to them than my previous attempts have been.  In both cases, it's been so long since I'd written the stories that I had completely forgotten about their kernels, so it's almost as if they are care packages that I'd given to myself, more than half a decade ago.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Fictional Review #001: Sherlock (TV Series)

A post by Lynn Flewelling (author of The Nightrunner Series and The Tamir Triad, both of which will receive their own fictional reviews in the future) on her blog Talk in the Shadows first alerted me to the BBC's modern reboot of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's great detective.  Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and 221B Baker Street are no strangers to either film or television, but the creators of Sherlock endeavored something that previous incarnations dared not to: shed the Victorian trappings of the original books--in which the milieu often plays as vivid a part as Conan Doyle's inventive plots--for more contemporary surrounds.  The result could have degenerated into a flimsy pastiche with familiar names pasted onto characters so disfigured by the "update" as to bear little more than passing resemblance to their origins.  Instead, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (of Doctor Who fame) reinvigorate Conan Doyle's signature duo by seamlessly transplanting them into the midst of 21st-century London.

Heightening the writers' strong script and plotlines are Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, respectively.  Martin Freeman has made a career of playing the everyman, from Tim Canterbury in The Office to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's Arthur Dent, and he plays Dr. Watson's straight-man role masterfully.  At the same time, Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes manages to evoke every eccentricity of the original without the benefit of the man's trademark deerstalker cap, capecoat, or pipe.  Together they possess a strong chemistry that evokes precisely the kind of quirky friendship that underscored Conan Doyle's stories.  Highly recommended for anyone in need of a good story, whether a fan of the original or not.

Available at in a two-disc Series One DVD or Blu-Ray set.