Charlie's Diary

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Thu, 29 May 2003

The ongoing crisis

According to the Financial Times, the Bush administration has deliberately buried a Treasury report "that shows the US currently faces a future of chronic federal budget deficits totalling at least $44,200bn in current US dollars. ... The study, the most comprehensive assessment of how the US government is at risk of being overwhelmed by the "baby boom" generation's future healthcare and retirement costs, was commissioned by then-Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill. But the Bush administration chose to keep the findings out of the annual budget report for fiscal year 2004, published in February, as the White House campaigned for a tax-cut package."

Can someone explain to me a reason why the current Republican administration in the US want to run up a budget deficit that even the US economy can't pay off? One which doesn't boil down to "an ongoing state of emergency makes it easier to justify drastic measures to maintain order at home"?

As an aside, the argument that the invasion of Iraq was really about keeping the Euro out of the Dollar's oil business seems more and more plausible every day. Back in the 1970's not-so-good SF was anticipating wars fought over the last oil reserves in the 1980's and 1990's. I'm beginning to wonder if maybe those predictions aren't starting to come true.

[ Discuss death camps ]

posted at: 17:06 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Wed, 28 May 2003

Death Camp Guantanamo

Australia's blows the lid on US government plans to add a death row and execution chamber to the detention facility Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners will be tried by military tribunals in secret, sentenced to death, and executed without right of appeal or access to civilian legal representation. (There's corroboration from the Daily Telegraph.)

If you put this together with the provisions in the USA Patriot Act II proposal floated earlier this year, which allows the US government to revoke the citizenship of US citizens who support organizations designated as "terrorist" -- even retroactively -- the implications should be truly frightening for any US citizens critical of their government. The sketchy outline emerging here -- and it is still just an outline, there's probably still time to stop it materializing -- goes a long way towards explaining why the Bush administration was so adamant about not signing on to any international courts or conventions on human rights or war crimes.

Looks like they've been taking lessons from their allies in Egypt, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia. As a tight-lipped Downing Street spokesman said, "the US Government is well aware of the British Government's position on the death penalty."

[ Discuss death camps ]

posted at: 10:59 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 27 May 2003

Real life imitates proverb (again)

Police marksmen shoot bull in Lancaster china shop (after it escapes from a livestock auction).

[ Link ][ Discuss wibble ]

posted at: 11:16 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 26 May 2003

European Space Agency to acquire manned launcher?

Looks like ESA might (if they want to pony up the EUR 1Bn bill) take out a contract with EADS and Starsem to start launching Soyuz vehicles from Kourou in French Guiana, with the first launches as early as 2006. "Soyuz would give us the full range of vehicles to get into orbit" -- Esa director-general Antonio Rodota (via BBC News Online). "The low-cost Soyuz can lift medium payloads into low-Earth orbit and geostationary obit. It would also give Europe a manned spaceflight option."

[ Link ] [ Discuss space ]

posted at: 23:16 | path: /space | permanent link to this entry

Weird Webby Wibble, again

I'm collecting more weird shit for the blog -- shovelling it into the furnace that is the writer's zeitgeist, I guess.

Are you close-mouthed enough? If not, you probably need to read the NSA Security Guidelines Manual. It'll set you straight on what you should and shouldn't do if you plan to work for the US National Security Agency. It's boring enough that it's almost certainly genuine, and it sure gels with what I'm reading in James Bamford's Body of Secrets, a book I heartily commend to those of you trying to write novels about real spooks (as opposed to James Bond, who is so unlike the real thing that I half-suspect the Broccoli empire is underwritten by MI6 as a disinformation exercise).

If this spook stuff sounds a bit paranoid, for real paranoia Damien DeBarra spins a really plausible line around the thesis that boy bands are a serious threat to society -- manufactured marketing pap intended to swamp real artists in a sea of over-hyped mediocrity and thus neutralize the serious social and critical potential of popular music. Which is, I think you'll agree, a bit off-beat but not as incredible as the revelations of Archimedes Plutonium or Doctress Neutopia.

Proof that the apocalypse is at hand comes in the shapely skins of The Sims, a game originally developed under the monicker "Doll's House" in which you, the player, get to design your Sim's homes, dress them, tell them to go to the toilet, and generally run their lives while they yatter at each other in endearing Sim-speak and form meaningful relationships with each other's pet cats. Or alternatively dress up in fetish gear, get naked and make out, or indulge in some quiet serial killing. Yes, with the aid of various free add-ons The Sims can be just like real life! (Although I'm not sure I want to know just what male Sims do with the FemToy.)

Finally, you too can visit the Second Congress of Atlantis Explorers in Moscow and find out what the latest state of Atlantis-ology is! "I am sure that this issue is extremely complicated and important, so one has to deal with it seriously, on a serious scientific level," as Alexander Gorodnitsky, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences said when asked if he had any hints about the location of the sunken continent. Maybe the Russian Navy could send their newest nuclear submarine to go join the hunt.

[ Discuss wibble ]

posted at: 21:27 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 24 May 2003

Today's grab-bag of weird webby wibble

Oruchuban Ebichu is a bizarre Japanese anime (cartoon) TV series about a hamster (called Ebichu) -- "Ebichu the Housekeeping Hamster". Ebichu lives with and keeps house for OL, a Japanese Office Lady who is somewhat desperate to get married, and her boyfriend Useless, who is. Which sounds innocent enough, except that there's a remarkable level of slapstick sex and violence (mostly against small furry animals) that can give rise to reviews like this. As the official website says, "Recommended for Ages 20 and Over Best Suited for Ages 25 and Over...Single...and Female".

When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail: and when your only tool is a print spooler ... you get this account of how to turn a perfectly innocent UNIX print subsystem into a streaming MP3 jukebox by printing music files to your sound card ...

Gallery Serpentine is an Australian goth fashion emporium who sell corsets and bustles and the sort of clothes 1880's Victorian debutantes might have gone for if they'd known about PVC.

If you're having difficulty with figures -- and not the kind a corset would help with -- you might want to look at the Museum of HP Calculators. HP no longer make these gems, but they released the ROM images from their later machines (the HP-48 and HP-49 series) and you can get a beautiful emulator for a $250 HP-49G called Power48 that you can then run on your $500 Palm Tungsten C. You can also go wardriving with WiFinder, an AirSnort type WiFi detector (the final release of which should be GPS compatible).

And if you're sad enough to salivate over the electronic gizmos but not the sex-crazed hamster and retro rubbermaid outfits, you probably need to read this blog or visit Bianca's Smut Shack, possibly the oldest smutty site on the web (as I recall from the shock it caused when it first showed up in 1994).

[ Discuss pomo ]

posted at: 20:06 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

More weirdness from Japan

If you feel the need to dress a cat ...

very silly picture of a cat dressed as Anne of Green

... you need to visit this website for all your feline costumes. As the owners say:

Anne of Green Gables appeared in popular costume play series! The hair of the red hair of costume is coquettish and cute. The cat which became a hood figure is likely to have a broom at any moment, and is likely to begin cleaning. As for the blouse of the country tone made with the same cloth as a hood, the yellow flower arrangement of the center of a collar is impressive, and looks very prettily! Since it can equip with a hood and a blouse on a piece of Velcro, attachment and detachment are easy!

(Frigg's comment, from under the bed: "Rrrrrrrr ...")

[ Link ] [ Discuss dumb ]

posted at: 10:58 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 23 May 2003

I'm back

The silence this week was caused by a spontaneous and unprovoked trip to Leeds, for no reason of earth-shattering importance other than the realisation that I hadn't seen my parents (or brother, and sister, and in-laws) for a couple of months and I needed a change of scenery.

When I get my head together and catch up on my sleep (I've had three days of impromptu family tech support call-out) it'll be time to do something about my shameful neglect of Unwirer, get the eighth (and penultimate) Accelerando story in to Asimov's SF, and then attack the next novel. In-between getting up to the north-west of Scotland to see the solar eclipse, getting married, spending a week or so in Amsterdam, and other minor distractions ...

Has anything earth-shattering happened in my absence?

[ Discuss wibble ]

posted at: 19:53 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Mon, 19 May 2003

My head hurts ...

I have just been playing telephone tag with the Inland Revenue. This is what comes of selling foreign language rights to fiction abroad, and of not wanting to pay income tax on the royalties twice over. I think I'm getting a headache. Did you know that according to the Inland Revenue, there are more than 1,300 double taxation treaties world-wide and the UK has the largest network of treaties, covering over 100 countries?

You know your questions are getting obscure to the point of surrealism when you discover that they've got a specialist Reverse Double Taxation Group, but only one person in the office actually understands what you're asking, and her answer boils down to "write to the Ministry of Finance in Moscow and tell us what they say, we'd love to know." (Mind you, I now know that the place where they've got the answers is: State Revenue Department, Ministry of Finance, Ulitsa Kuibysheva 9, Moscow 103097.)

[ Discuss writing ]

posted at: 13:33 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 16 May 2003

Moments of realisation

I've spent most of the week not getting to grips with the next novel. It needs to be finished by December, but it's a lot bigger than "Glasshouse" -- target length is not more than 200,000 words -- and I wrote the first three chapters back in January/February. So I've been trying to pick them up and figure out why I feel uneasy about them in between succumbing to a bad cold.

The moment of realisation: say you've got three alternating plot threads set in different parallel universes (like me). If you kick off the novel with alternating chapters, and #1 consists of a head-butt and #2 is a knee in the goolies, it is a bad idea for #3 to be a Vicar's tea party. I speak metaphorically -- describing the tone, not the content, for no goolies are kneed or heads butted -- but chapter #3 is limp.

(Got to fix that. Heh. Where did I leave my anti-RSI gloves ...?)

Oh yeah. In other news, my agent read and really liked "Glasshouse". So I guess it will probably be my next SF novel after "The Iron Sunrise" (which is now on an editor's desk at Ace, slouching towards its publishing epiphany some time next summer), and I'm one relieved scribbler. It's always hard to tell if what feels like a mad creative fit is genuine mad creativity or just arrant self-obsessive nonsense, but it sounds like I didn't completely lose touch with reality last month.

[ Discuss writing ]

posted at: 11:44 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 15 May 2003

Polar bear attacks submarine

(Best read while listening to One of our Submarines is Missing by Thomas Dolby.)

[ Link ][ Discuss dumb ]

posted at: 13:09 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

How to improve corporate computer security in one easy move

Y'know, I don't do this stuff for a living no more. I really don't. But this story from Computerworld just rings true on so many levels that it's completely believable.

What's astounding is that this sort of thing still happens. For example, my copy of the UNIX research system papers (tenth edition, from 1990) contains a paper by Fred Grampp and Robert T. Morris (senior) on security that includes the following gem:

The most important and usually the only barrier to the unauthorized use of a UNIX [or other multiuser] system is the password that a user must utter in order to gain access to the system. Much attention has been paid to making the UNIX password scheme as secure as possible against would-be intruders ...

In practice it is easy to write programs that are extremely successful at extracting passwords from password files, and that are also very economical to run. They operate, however, by an indirect method that amounts to guessing what a user's password might be, and then trying over and over until the correct one is found.

Guess what -- this paper came out in the early 80's, when networked interactive timesharing systems (like this Macintosh Powerbook) were becoming common enough that attacks were commencing. And there are still big consultancies -- with responsibility for security at large companies -- where nobody seems to understand it.

It's not stupidity. These folks aren't stupid. But there's clearly a failing here, and I'd ascribe it to institutional culture. My experience of large consulting companies is that their analysts are more focussed on the appearance of professionalism than on the substance, more interested in looking trustworthy to the occupants of the boardroom -- walking the management walk, talking the management talk -- than in actually doing the job. And, just as bad money drives out good, the focus on client relationships drives out competence because clients like predictability, and good security cannot, by its very nature, be allowed to become predictable. (As witness the story in the link below.)

Structures. Human organisations that are fundamentally defective at the job in hand but that are more successful than competent organisations in the market because they're better at winning contracts. Predictability and security. (Is that an itch in my fingertips? I can feel a story coming on ...)

[ Link ][ Discuss geekery ]

posted at: 10:18 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 13 May 2003

If you or I do it, it's theft ...

This just in: Bill Gates and Tom Brokaw are (alleged to be) thieves. At least, if The Register's account of events in Watertown, South Dakota are to be believed they don't believe in paying for goods and services they've taken ...

[ Link ] [ Discuss microsoft ]

posted at: 12:49 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Sun, 11 May 2003

Lords Discover Spam

The following exchange in the House of Lords, which took place earlier this year, made it into the hallowed pages of Hansard, the official record of the proceedings of the British government:

Lord Renton: My Lords, will the Minister explain how it is that an inedible tinned food that lasted for ever and was supplied to those on active service can become an unsolicited e-mail, bearing in mind that some of us wish to be protected from having an e-mail?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I am afraid that I have not been able to find out why the term "spam" is used, but that is the meaning it now has. It is a matter that should be taken very seriously because it not only clutters up computers but involves a great deal of very unpleasant advertising to do with easy credit, pornography and miracle diets. That is offensive to people, and we should try to reduce it.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I can help the Minister with the origin of the word. It comes from aficionados of Monty Python, and the famous song, "Spam, spam, spam, spam". It has been picked up by the Internet community and is used as a description of rubbish on the Internet.

More seriously, is the Minister aware that up to 85,000 pieces of unsolicited e-mail are received by the Parliamentary Communications Directorate each month? Will he join me in congratulating the directorate on its valiant efforts to filter out that menace, given that a high proportion of it is rubbish advertising from the United States and that some of it consists of profane material? The directorate is battling against a rising tide; the Government's assistance is needed in combating it.

It's nice to see that Their Lordships wish to protect us from spam because it consists of rubbish advertising from the United States -- and some of it is profane.

On a more serious note, Lord Sainsbury added: "We aim to implement by the end of October this year the privacy and electronic communications directive. This includes requirements that unsolicited e-mails may be sent to individuals only for the purpose of direct marketing with their prior consent, except where there is existing customer relationship between the sender and the addressee. Consultation on the draft regulations started on 27th March and closes on 19th June." And apparently there's a multilateral EU agreement on spam in the works. In a fit of sanity, their Lordships refrained from prescribing technical fixes: "we do not want to specify what ISPs must do, because different people require different levels of protection."

The exchange ended:

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, can the Minister think of a name for the enormous amount of unsolicited ordinary mail we receive?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, when I have a moment I shall bend my mind to that question.

Anyway, regardless of whether they achieve their goal of sanitizing the internet, we now have an answer to the very important question of whether the denizens of the House of Lords are familiar with Monty Python.

[ Link ] [ Discuss spam ]

posted at: 21:36 | path: /spam | permanent link to this entry


I thought things were a bit slow today ...

[charlie@antipope charlie]$ w 8:39pm up 74 days, 8:29, 4 users, load average: 54.32, 70.26, 68.31
charlie pts/0 4:50pm 1:13m 3.69s 3.64s mutt
charlie pts/1 4:50pm 1:03m 9.58s 9.52s slrn
feorag pts/2 6:23pm 12:15 0.11s 0.11s bash
charlie pts/3 8:38pm 2.00s 0.20s 0.12s w

Yes, mail loops (on someone else's server, to which two of your local users subscribe) are Not Your Friend.

posted at: 21:00 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 10 May 2003

On ultraintelligent machines

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an "intelligence explosion," and the intelligence of man would be left far behind (see for example refs. [22], [34], [44]). Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control. It is curious that this point is made so seldom outside of science fiction.

From Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine, a paper by Irving John Good, then at Trinity College, Oxford. England and Atlas Computer Laboratory, Chilton, Berkshire, England. This paper was based on talks given in a Conference on the Conceptual Aspects of Biocommunications, Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, October 1962; and in the Artificial Intelligence Sessions of the Winter General Meetings of the IEEE, January 1963

(This may be the first paper to actually note the singular consequences of developing ultraintelligent machines, and some of its conclusions don't look that far out even today, forty years later: "The first ultraintelligent machine will need to be ultraparallel, and is likely to be achieved with the help of a very large artificial neural net. The required high degree of connectivity might be attained with the help of microminiature radio transmitters and receivers. The machine will have a multimillion dollar computer and information-retrieval system under its direct control. The design of the machine will be partly suggested by analogy with several aspects of the human brain and intellect. In particular, the machine will have high linguistic ability ...")

[ Link ] [ Discuss singularity ]

posted at: 11:23 | path: /sing | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 08 May 2003

Signs we're living in a different century

I've been a bit tired today; had to spend the first part of the week playing catch-up with a months' neglected feature writing (after knocking out draft 1.0 of "Glasshouse"), and now I think I've got a combined case of (a) a mild summer cold, (b) cognitive whiplash from no longer being elbow-deep in something new and obsessive, and (c) up-front exhaustion whenever I contemplate the 200,000 word doorstep I have to write by December. But still ...

This is not the twentieth century any more.

I just picked up a 256Mb compact flash card for £41, including international delivery. That's 25 times the size of my first hard disk, for almost exactly a tenth the price.

While writing up my trip to the Media Lab for Computer Shopper I stumbled headfirst into a moment of epiphany: because I hadn't realised that one of the goals of the Center for Bits and Atom's Fab Lab project is to make it self-replicating -- sufficiently comprehensive that if you have access to one of the compact toolkits you'll be able to make duplicates of it. In other words it's a cargo-cult Von Neumann machine, and they're working on it today, about seven years ahead of where I placed it in Lobsters.

And the first blind people with with retinal prostheses have been reported to be showing good results. (This means quite a bit to me -- both my retinas are dodgy, in different ways, and I might be needing at least one of these gadgets within the next couple of decades.)

The twenty-first century: it's not all about recessions, terrorism, and megalomaniacal presidents.

[ Discuss singularity ]

posted at: 20:02 | path: /toys | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 06 May 2003

On writing novels

Long discursive essay coming up. I'd just finished writing a novel and, on one of the newsgroups I hang out on (where the topic of writing fiction is meat and drink) someone asked the following question:

I have two ideas I think could be novel length, and once I let the ideas ferment a bit longer and get into 'voice' I think I might give it a shot. FWIW I don't outline physically on paper. Once the story seems set in my mind, I hit the keyboard.

I guess my question would be is there a way to prepare my mind for the wider latitude that a novel offers? Or do I sit my @ss down and write like I always do and practice day after day, slowly learning how to explore in ways that a short didn't allow?

What follows is my brain dump on the novel-writing process. It's not prescriptive, it's simply a description of how I work. As the Man said, "there's more than one way to do it," and your mind probably doesn't work the same way as mine. Moreover, you'll have to wait until August (or later) to judge how good or bad the results are.

Having said that, here's my response to the short story writer asking about how to prepare for writing their first novel ...

The first thing to understand is that a novel is structurally different from a short story. It's not just longer -- although you're looking at a minimum 80,000 words to the 3-4000 you've been working with -- but qualitatively different. Short stories don't have room for sub-plots, not if they're also going to have characterisation or ideas. Moreover, short stories almost never have room for character development. Novels need all of this, and more.

The next thing to understand is that you never have as many ideas as you think you do when you start out writing a novel. Your novel absorbs material like crazy; you throw loads of stuff at it, stuff you're used to leaving out of your short stories because there simply isn't room, and the novel just sits there in a corner and belches, then says "think you're tough, eh? Gimme another sub-plot! And a recomplication on the side!"

So. How to start?

I just finished writing a 90,000 word novel which I did at speed. The reason it went fast was that I had most of it nailed down before I began. The ingredients consisted of: a central character, and a situation of jeopardy the character finds themselves in, the situation arising organically from a sociological-SF idea. The soc-SF idea in question unpacks, exhibiting complex side-effects which recomplicate throughout the book, generating sub-plots and alarums and excursions -- it's not just one idea, but a concept that unleashes a fleet of ideas as logical consequences.

A quarter of the way through the book, having established the protagonist, their predicament, some friends and rivals, and their situation, I realised that in another 50-60,000 words I'd have to send off for a resolution. I therefore needed something to resolve, which suggested a back-story behind the original soc-SF idea. Scribble some history and suddenly our protagonist has a background that explains why they're probing the soc-SF McGuffin in the first place, and suggests some Bad Guys lurking in the shadows to be confronted later.

(Word processors are marvelous tools when you need to go back and add some foreshadowing. Just as long as you keep track of all the loose ends.)

While writing the novel I was also writing the outline. Which flailed around like a wet flag in a gale, never quite pointing in the right direction but acting as a tool to let me steer the novel. (I've done it differently in the past, but when writing a novel as fast and intense as this one, I didn't need the outline to remind me where I'd been so much as I needed it as a what-if modelling tool for the plot.)

Now, the previous novel I wrote took me (counts on fingers, nearly runs out of fingers) six years. And I provide it by way of a ghastly counter-example. It's a sequel to an earlier novel (Singularity Sky). I began writing it cold after completing draft 1.0 of the first novel, then realised this was a Bad Idea and put it down, half-finished (at 65,000 words) when novel #1 hadn't sold instantly. Lo, novel #1 sold eventually, and it said in my contract that they expected novel #2 by-and-by. So I picked it up and handed in the first couple of chapters as a taster, then realised that the next 55K words were mostly shit. Oops.

Novel #2 had three interlacing sub-plots written around an elaborate temporal paradox. Which sounds great, except one of the sub-plots was as big as the other two put together, one of them had wandered in from an entirely different novel (which may turn out to be #3 in the series if they ever drag me kicking and screaming back to it), and I tied my brain into a moebius strip whenever I tried to understand the temporal paradox.

I resolved the situation by viciously excising sub-plots, throwing away the temporal paradox, and resolving to write a more or less straight space opera, cannibalizing anything I could keep. To replace the missing subplot I created another, which worked okay ... but didn't want to join up with the remaining two, until I realised I needed a fourth subplot to act as glue and provide some Space Nazis. This lot occured to me over the course of writing draft 2 (cut draft 1 to 15,000 words then write out to 60,000 words) and draft 3 (cut draft 2 to 40,000 words and write out to 90,000 words). None of drafts 1-3 actually reached the end of the book, but finally I managed to bolt an ending onto draft 3 that sort-of-worked.

This was something of a fiasco, but I have a secret weapon up my sleeve that most people don't have -- namely, an agent who likes reading my work and who, as a former editor, has a good eye for plot. I asked her if she'd cast an eye over it, and she came back with some cogent suggestions which involved beefing up one sub-plot, merging two major characters from different threads, and throwing away the ending. I took everything on board except throwing away the ending, which I mutated out of recognition instead. This turned into draft #4, at 140,000 words, and is what has finally gone in to my editor, with a working plot, about ten major characters, and comments from one reviewer to the effect that it's better than the first novel. But it came at a price -- 140K words of novel and 80K words of junk on the cutting room floor. That's no way to earn a living at any job, turning in 40% junk. (Must Do Better.)

Which gives rise to a critically important lesson: don't get clever-clever! Yes, the novel will absorb lots more material than you expect, but at the same time, if you try to weave a complex structure you stand a very good chance of losing control of it because while writing a novel your detail memory of what's going on and your projection of what's going to happen is a moving window on the novel that extends maybe one real-time work day behind and ahead of you. If you're working at 1000 words per day you probably only have a really fine view of the past 2000 words and the next 2000 words you're planning to write. Which is, by no coincidence at all, of the same order as the length of a short story (except what you're writing is not a short story and isn't structured the same way).

So. What would I do if I was in your shoes (short story writer contemplating trying their hand at a novel for the first time)?

Start with a character portrait of your main character. Just have a look at them interacting with other people in the context of wherever it is they live. Write 2-4000 words around them. You can use it in the novel, or not -- you don't have to decide right away.

Start making notes on the universe, its history, and the things your character needs to know about where they live and how they relate to other people. Be as detailed or as vague as you like, just make sure you have some idea. (You'll need this stuff later in any case: it comes in handy when you put together a detailed outline for the pitch to a publisher.)

Be aware of your foibles. I've just had the fun experience of sub-edits and/or proofing on four novels. This has made me hypersensitive to my usual overuse problem: colons. Which, at one point, got completely out of control: no sentence was complete without one. (In the most recent novel I rationed myself to one per thousand words, max. I seem to have kicked the habit.)

Think about the plot. No need to get too hardcore at this stage, the plot will almost certainly change because you will add subplots at random as you write, when a minor character kicks you in your authorial shins and says "I wouldn't do that! I'd do THIS instead! Now how're you going to tie everything up at the ending, eh?"

Plots can come in bits'n'pieces, but usually follow a story arc. The novel begins with scene-setting, then something disrupts the status quo. There's a long rise in tension as the disruption recomplicates, adding complexity and making our protagonists Do Things. Eventually we hit a resolution point at which things Change -- the climax. Finally we have a look at the new status quo (optional, if you're good enough to imply what it will look like to the readers before you get there).

You need to keep an eye on pacing. One thing I find myself doing if I haven't thought through the next major development in a novel properly is s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g the scene leading up to it, going into far too much detail. (So I don't have to put my brain in gear and confront the hill-climb of the upcoming chunk.) At its worst this can result in a novel that sags in the middle, or with an excessively long beginning or (rarely) a grossly over-long ending. Watch out for it. If you find your scenes normally run to 1-2000 words and you're 4000 words into one that isn't something special (like the climax to the entire novel, or the pivot scene that triggers the disruption of the status quo) it's probably a sign that something's wrong.

Don't get silly and try to write a multi-threaded novel straight off, you'll tie your own shoelaces together and trip over them. If you must do multithreaded, a better way to do it is to write a novella -- say, 30,000 words long -- and then write a second novella of the same length showing the same story from a different angle. Then intercut them chapter by chapter, like chunks of salami. The trick here is to find a story that has enough different angles to be worth looking at repeatedly.

A valuable asset if you can find it is a plot generator. This is an idea (like the one I mentioned in my most recent novel) that can be established early in the novel and that sits there generating side-effects. Your characters can then bounce off the side-effects until they get dizzy and send off for the ending.

Another useful tool is some source of rivalry. It's not vital, but character development and the climax scene tend to be helped by having an excuse to stick ten inches of cold steel into the moustachio-twirling villain's abdomen, or through the heroine's bodice laces, or whatever. (And remember, rivalry tends to be a major source of plot development in romance, as well as in action-oriented fiction.) But remember, bad guys need to have at least a marginally believable motivation. If you can plausibly imagine yourself writing the novel from the bad guys' point of view then you've probably got a plausible bad guy -- if you can't, then you haven't designed them properly.

Horror is a tone. Horror is like monosodium glutamate -- used sparingly in the right places it can enhance the flavour, used to excess you just get a splattery mess everywhere. A dose of horror in the run-up to the climax provides a sense of increased jeopardy. A dose of horror in the initial disruption of the status quo provides an added incentive to the protagonists to Do Something. And so on. A thick coating of horror everywhere, however, is best left to Guy N. Smith. (Killer crabs, anyone?)

Character development is something to keep an eye on. The plot changes the personality of the main protagonists, and it's likely that the protagonists determine the climax. Certainly they probably ought to be changed by their experiences in the novel, otherwise what is it telling us about the human condition that justifies reading it (as opposed to a bunch of short stories)?

One of the easiest and commonest character development McGuffins is the romantic engagement or "boy meets girl" plot. The conventional rendering is "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl". With or without variations -- in the case of my most recent novel, "boy meets six-armed alien penguin, boy and six-armed alien penguin have great sex, boy turns into girl, girl loses six-armed alien penguin ..." -- it's a handy tool because it gives your protagonist a goal to aim for and a yardstick for character development. By the way, people have been running riffs on this since the 16th century (and earlier); Shakespeare's comedies are a good source of ideas, notably "As You Like It", "All's Well that Ends Well", "Much Ado About Nothing", and so on. As somebody or other said, "if you're going to steal, steal from the best" -- there's a full run of synopses at that provide a suite of off-the-shelf romantic subplots if you're not imaginative enough to work out the details of six-armed alien penguin sex with hermaphrodites.

The other big character development things are, as Heinlein noted, "the man who learned better" (i.e. your protagonist gets an education about something), and "the brave little tailor" (humble little guy goes off, has picaresque adventures, wins through partly because of his humble background, and turns out to be quite a mensch). Heinlein classified them as plots, but I'm not so sure that's where they belong -- they're things that happen to your protagonist's self-definition, and you can mix and match them to order. (For example, "The Odyssey" is a mixture of "the man who learned better" and "the brave little tailor", framed by the back end of a "boy meets girl" plot to provide Odysseus' motivation for getting home again.)

Fun things you can throw in that I haven't mentioned already include: unreliable narrators and ignorant protagonists. These are variations on the central idea that the main character not only doesn't know everything that's going on, but may have been actively misled about some of it. Amnesia is one handy cause of misconceptions, as are lies by another party (the bad guy?), stupidity (but be careful -- readers can't easily relate to excessively stupid protagonists), and misunderstandings caused by miscommunication. You can use unreliable information to trigger a plot development. For example, in the "boy meets girl" sequence you can do: "boy meets girl, boy is misinformed about girl's unvirtuous past, boy loses girl/goes off in a huff, boy learns better", which mixes in a dose of "the man who learned better" and gives your boy a plausible reason to be pissed off at the villain when you need to work out the climax.

Does all this sound trite and mechanical? Well, yes it is and no it isn't. These are all standard tools that can be used as easily by a hack as by a giant of literature. What makes the difference is the extra something you bring to the task -- your own insight. If you have a better way of handling characterisation, and you're not interested in plot-driven fiction with a conventional climax, then obviously you should follow your own muse. The reason I list them here is because they're useful guidelines that allow me to focus on those details of the novel that I find most interesting, while colouring the background on autopilot.

Remember, none of this is written in stone. These are just a bunch of suggestions and ideas for tools you can use. You'll probably find yourself using several of these tools on any given novel, because novels are big projects. But there's no rule saying you can't invent your own wholly original tool that nobody has ever deployed in a novel before, or that you have to use all of these tools, or any particular one of them. They're just tools, you're the author, and in the final analysis what you build in the workshop of your mind depends on how good you are at design and which tools you feel comfortable using.

[ Discuss writing ]

posted at: 10:41 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 02 May 2003

And if you thought that wasn't weird enough ...

Those whacky Japanese, part II.

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posted at: 21:06 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Sailor Moon goes Sumo

Those whacky Japanese. Again.

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posted at: 19:15 | path: /weird | permanent link to this entry

Recombinant politics

The results of yesterday's elections for the Scottish Parliament are coming in. According to the BBC, "with eight of the 129 seats left to fill Labour had 50 seats, the SNP 21, the Liberal Democrats and Tories 15 each, the Greens six, five seats were held by the Scottish Socialists and four by independents".

(Of the independents, one is a retired doctor, campaigning against the closure of Stobhill Hospital -- she succeeded in unseating a minister in his home constituency.)

The big news? The SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party -- soft-left socialist party with an agenda calling for a referendum on Scottish independence as a separate EU state) lost eight seats. Labour is down five, and the LDP (Liberal Democrat Party) is down one. What seems to have happened is that Labour has been somewhat damaged by the war, while the radical left parties have cannibalized the soft left side of the vote. (The Conservative gain -- from one seat to three -- isn't really very significant; their baseline support in Scotland is around 8-10% of the population, with no real variation, and the single seat situation was something of an anomaly.)

Labour won't be able to govern without a formal coalition, almost certainly with the Lib-Dems. In the previous administration Labour ostensibly ran the government, albeit as a minority and relying on the Lib-Dems not to oppose them. This time around, there'll be no such illusions. Among other things this means that Westminster's plan to impose a national identity card system on the UK, piloting it in Scotland, is probably about to come to a screeching halt, as the LDP position on ID cards is more or less "over our dead bodies". And the potential exists for a left-wing rainbow coalition to gang up on Labour if an issue ever surfaces on which the Lib-Dems, SNP, SSP, and Greens all agree. We might even see Labour in Scotland being forced to crawl to the Tories and independent MSPs for support in crucial votes.

All of which basically confirms two important facts of Scottish politics: firstly, that it's much more pluralistic than anyone expected, with no less than six parties holding three or more of the 129 seats, and secondly, that the main right wing party in Scotland is Labour -- apart from the Tory rump, everyone else is some way to the left. In fact, the outcome can be characterised as Scottish politics moving steadily leftwards, with the Socialist Party and the Greens as the main beneficiaries.

And in the larger picture, it suggests that Tony Blair isn't going to reap one fly-speck of political solace from being on the winning side in Bush's war when it comes to the next general election. Which is good.

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posted at: 09:38 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry


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The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
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Simon Bisson's Journal ]
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Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
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Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
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Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

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