A math guy's random thoughts.
|A math guy's random thoughts.|
|What's in a name?
We all have them. Most of us don't get to choose our names, or even our nicknames. I knew someone who never responded to "Billy," which was his way of rejecting a loathed variant of "William." In Oklahoma City in the 1980s, a retailer changed her legal name to "Soundtrak." But these are exceptions. Generally speaking, most of us are stuck with given names and even nicknames.
Fictional characters are stuck with their names, too, except that the author gets to choose the name. Sometimes the name is fraught with meaning. "Skywalker" is certainly such a name, or Ratzo Rizzo. Less obvious is the name of the hypnotist in "Dead Again," Madson, which reveals that he really is a "mad son." Other times, a name can be ironic. In this case, think of "Little John," or the bald Stooge named "Curly." Sometimes a name can just be for humor. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the entrance to the tunnel leading to the eponymous stone is guarded by a giant, slobbering three-headed dog named...wait for it...Fluffy.
The point is that the names of our characters aren't random. If we name a character "Hunter," for example, it's obvious that he's looking for something. Philip Vandamm in North By Northwest is surely damned for his nefarious character. Verbal Kint has a story to tell in The Usual Suspects. "Vader" is Dutch for "father." Sometimes a name can be an acronym for something else--Anna Madrigal from Tales of the City being a famous example.
There are plenty of sites that give you the history, meaning, and nationality of first names, with http://babynames.com being one of the best. They even have a page, https://www.babynames.com/lists/character-names.php, with suggestions for authors. Sites like http://ancestry.com can give you the history and meaning of many surnames. If you Google "how to name your characters," you'll find dozens of sites giving advice on this topic.
My purpose here isn't to repeat the good advice available elsewhere, but to give you some examples to think about as you select names for your character. Drop me a note with your favorite examples of a character with a meaningful name.
|My friend--and awesome author--Raven recently posted a link on Facebook to this article . It's about using a visit to refresh old friendships that have faded due to time and distance. It's an interesting article, and well worth the read, but it got me to thinking about online friendships.
Here on Writing.Com, I've formed many treasured friendships. Some of these date to my first days on the site, while others are more recent. These friendships started from our mutual interest in writing, but blossomed over time to much more. Now, I look forward to hearing from these friends, whether on Facebook or via email, about the joys and sorrows of their lives. I share the same with them. I am as close to these on-line friends as to my friends in that other place, the one that we call in the real world.
The thing is, these friendships are as real to me as any other. These friends make my sorrows easier to bear, make my joys more complete, and enrich my soul. Today's fractious world gives credence to Sartre's observation that hell is other people. But friendship doesn't divide people. Friendship surmounts the gap that separates us. The bridge that is friendship is where we can, at last, find the divine.
A couple of weeks ago, I got a call from a phone number I didn't recognize. I thought it was probably "Daryl, from card services," or some other scam, but I answered anyway. The woman at the other end spoke in a voice I didn't recognize, and asked for Max.
Now, understand, Max is my pen name. The list of people who know both my pen name and my cell number is short, and almost no one on that list would call me "Max." I knew at once this had to be Carol St. Ann . We exchanged our first messages here sometime in my initial days on Writing.Com, and long ago traded phone numbers, "just in case" we needed to speak in person. But this was the first time I'd heard her voice.
We chatted for nearly an hour about writing, work, and life. It was like we'd known each other for years because we have known each other for years. We've made tentative plans for her to actually visit Oklahoma, if not this summer then eventually.
Which brings me back to the essay I mentioned at the start of this blog. It's about renewing old friendships, but it could just as easily be about adding a "real world" component to virtual friendships. There are easily at least a dozen people I've met here on Writing.Com that I'd love to have visit me in Tulsa. I won't list the ones that come to my mind, because I'm sure I'd overlook someone whose visit I would treasure.
The article gives four rules for a "friendship visit." These are
Rule 1. The purpose of the visit is for friendship only.
Rule 2. Stay at your friend's home.
Rule 3. Be alive in the space of the friendship--no social media during the stay.
Rule 4. No special plans, like a spa or a fancy restaurant. The purpose is to see your friend in their settled life, in their home.
I'd have to say that I think some flexibility on the rules is appropriate. We're fortunate to have a spare room with a private bath, but not everyone has space for an overnight guest. For most of us, a trip to a far-away place is expensive in both time and money, so tacking a friendship visit onto the end or beginning of a business trip makes sense.
As to rule four, the community where we live is part of our settled life. Depending on the visitor, I might want to take a guest to a museum , or to a Mexican restaurant, , or on a drive along Route 66 , or perhaps a tour of the city's art deco heritage. . The point is to let your host show parts of their community that they find interesting. After all, that's part of being with your friend in their settled life.
I'd probably add another item to the list. The essay mentions that she stayed for two nights. Two nights sound like a minimum to me, with three or four being preferable. Much longer than four could readily start to intrude on your host's other responsibilities.
So, what do you think? Would you be interested in hosting a virtual friend in your home? Would you be interested in visiting a virtual friend? To be sure, there are risks involved. What if it turns out you can't stand the person once you meet them face-to-face? What if their significant other is a hopeless boor who insults you and what you hold dear? What if their home is a candidate for an episode of Hoarders, or their pet snakes slither up into your lap? (We have cats, and, yes, they will climb onto your lap and offer to let you smell their...well, you get the idea.)
But life is risk. For friends, I'm willing to take the chance. How about you?
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|No, I've not been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land. I've just read a bunch of stuff about craft, followed by reading a bunch of stories here on WDC. These "commandments" are just a summary of the advice I mostly wind giving when I write reviews. They're not divinely inspired. They may not even be 100% right in all circumstances. I've just found them useful, and I hope you find them helpful, too.
Any list of ten commandments for authors will be incomplete. Other people will have different priorities, and so produce different lists. I've looked at lots of "rules for writing," and mostly gleaned my ten from other, more skilled, authors. Commandment X, for example, comes from Edgar Allen Poe, the first and, in some ways still the most perceptive, critic of short fiction. Some of my inspirations are below.
I like Elmore Leonard's list , for example, for its specificity.
Dashiel Hamment has a rather specific list for authors of detective stories. Raymond Chandler has a more general set of ten rules for authors of detective stories. Both are useful, in their own way.
It's hard to argue with Kurt Vonnegut's list of eight rules for writing a short story.
Anyway, I hope this little compendium is useful to someone...
|This is kind of kewel, although it's another hour spent playing instead of, you know, working. I made a word doodle in the shape of my face using http://wordart.com.
It's derived from this photo:
Okay, that photo is thirty years old, but it's the only one I've got. I hate having my picture taken.
I used "Meaning in Fiction" to create the word list, so it's got some peculiar things in it, like einbahnstrasse.
Anyway, this was fun to do.
|I've recently spent a couple of days figuring out how to produce maps for SciFi and fantasy worlds using Photoshop. The result was this map:
~~Image ID# 2183563's Content Rating Exceeds Item Content Rating~~ .
For a full-size image with much better detail, see here. .
Most of this was pretty easy to do, but at least one step is complicated. I thought others might be interested in the process, and I wanted to record the steps here for my own future reference. So, here goes.
The first step is to produce--or find--a line drawing of your map. Being lazy, I started with a line drawing of an existing geographic area, the Aegean Sea. You can find my starting point here. . The map also appears at the bottom of this post.
The discerning reader will note that my final map uses the Aegean Sea as the land area for my SciFi map. I also rotated it 90 degrees so that the Bosporus--which becomes a peninsula--points downward.
I copied this to Photoshop, rotated it, selected the blue areas on the map, then inverted the selection. Then I created a new layer and filled the new layer with green. The next step is to use the eraser and pen tools to touch it up, producing the final outline I wanted. The end product was the basic outline of the map.
This is the basic "mask layer."
Select the colors and add a new layer under the mask. Fill the new layer with something--it doesn't matter what color. Then use filter/stylize/find edges, which produces a hard outline. Finally, on this layer, use layer properties to add outer glow. For the map above, I used a size of 25 pixels, light blue color, and a hard light. That's the light-colored glow you see around the land mass in the final map.
Create another new layer, this time above the mask layer. Select the mask again, as before, and, in the new layer, change the color selections to a green foreground and a tan background. Then do filter/render/clouds several times until you get a mix of fertile--green--and desert--tan--areas that you like. You can always touch these up later with a fuzzy brush tool, as I did to create desert-like areas east of the mountain range. If you use the mask to select the land area, you can even use the a fuzzy brush to simulate ice caps in this layer. By selecting the land mass first in the mask layer an then using the brush on the topography layer, the ice stays on the land mass and you keep the coastline. (My island is too small to extend to the ice cap--it's about 2/3 the size of Ireland.)
Okay, that's the easy part. Next, I wanted to add mountains. I wanted mine to run down the west side of the island, so I used the lasso tool to create a loop in that location. Next, with select/modify/feather, I feathered the edges of the loop by 25 pixels. Add a new, blank layer and deselect all the other layers. This time, I selected a light gray foreground and an almost black background. Now apply filter/render/clouds. The selected area will have clouds fading to nothing because of the earlier feather. Next, with filter/noise/add noise, add noise, using 3% for the amount, Gaussian, and monochromatic. At this point, it looks fuzzy and speckled.
The next step--remember, we're just building the mountains here--is to add a new channel. So, click on channels, then new. You'll see a new channel, probably called "alpha1", in addition to the color channels. In this new channel, use filter/render/difference clouds to add difference clouds. (Make sure your color selections are still the light gray/black you selected earlier.) Repeat this until you get a mix of light and dark colors in the selection area.
Still in the channel, add noise as before. After adding the noise, go to edit and change the noise level to 50%.
You're now ready to go back to the layer where you made the loop that holds the mountains. It's still there, unchanged from what we did in the alpha channel. Here's where we finally get the mountains. Apply fitler/render/lighting. You might have to fiddle with the lighting some--make it bigger, for example, or less intense. But the important thing is to change the "texture channel" at the bottom of the lighting effects screen to "alpha1," or whatever the name of the new channel was that you created in the prior step.
When you reveal the other layers, you'll get the map I started with.
The end result are the mountains you see in the original map.
This is relatively simple, although I admit there are several steps to get the mountains. It's amazingly difficult to find these directions by just googling. You'll find lots of instructions for more complex processes that, I admit, look a tiny bit better. It's also easy to find Youtube videos that rush through a process in two minutes, which means you have to stop them, take notes, restart, etc. If I want to learn how to tie a butcher's knot for my pork roulade, nothing beats Youtube. But it's not the medium for complex, technical instructions.
Anyway, that's it. Hope this is helpful to me a year from now, the next time I want to do this, and to you, too.
|I admit it. I'm not so good at grammar.
I subscribe to The Chicago Manual of Style for exactly that reason. It provides clear answers to almost any grammar question.
You don't have to pay for good grammar advice, though. Most universities have websites devoted to the basics to assist composition students. Many people in the business would agree that one of the best is :The Purdue Owl . When I am critiquing a story that I think would benefit, I will often link to the relevant page on the Owl. Their discussion of commas, for example is quite good.
I've recently started reading reviews that other people post on WDC as part of participation in Sara♥Jean 's project "R.A.W.R. Public Forum" , Rewards for Awareness of Wonderful Reviews. I'm pleased to report that there are dozens of excellent reviewers here on WDC who provide helpful, supportive, and accurate critiques. I knew this was true from the multitude of helpful comments I've gotten on my own work, but it's nice to see this reflected across a broad spectrum of users. Helpful reviews are one of the many features that make WDC so valuable to authors.
Sometimes, though, even a well-intended and otherwise valuable review can be a bit off the mark, which is what inspired this blog.
I have seen more than one review that conflated "passive voice" with "perfect tenses." Not sure what a "perfect" tense is? The trusty Owl has the answer: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/grammar/verb_tenses/index.html
So here's the thing. Sometimes, ever on the lookout for passive verbs, a review will mistake, say, past perfect for passive voice. It's easy to do. I've even caught myself doing it, and I know the difference.
Let's look at an example. I wrote
I have seen more than one review...I could have written
I saw more than one review...Both indicate that the action happened in the past.
Both are active: there is a subject--I--a verb, and an object. The mere presence of the helper verb "have" in the first example does not make this a passive sentence.
So, what's the dfference? Of course, the first uses a past-perfect verb, while the second uses past indicative. CMOS 5.133 says
[Past perfect tense] refers to an act, state, or condition that was completed before another specified or implicit past time or past action
In particular, I read these reviews after participating in the R.A.W.R. project and before writing this blog. When I read these reviews answers the implicit question posed in the immediately preceding sentence about what inspired this blog.
In short, past-perfect tense gives more information than the past indicative "saw." It helps to establish the sequence in which events occurred.
The same is true for all the perfect tenses: present-perfect, future-perfect, and past-perfect.
They are not "passive voice." They are not "passive writing." They are grammatically correct writing that conveys information in a precise, compact way.
I know that "had" often appears in lists of words to "never use" in fiction. It's true that generally speaking fewer words are better. It's also true that often the sequence of events doesn't matter. But it's also true that there are occasions when it's appropriate and even more accurate to use one of the "perfect" tenses.
I'm tempted to say that there is no "writing rule" that doesn't have an exception. However, I don't need Boolean algebra to know that would lead to a paradox.
That's a blog for another day.
|I've posted a review of The Man From Earth on my blog.
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|One of my writing groups recently discussed how to plot. Wouldn't it be awesome if there were a magic formula on how to plot? Better yet, how about a magic formula on how to write a novel? There's lots of books out there on exactly this topic.
But then I realized something.
There is exactly one correct way to write: the way that works for you.
Lawrence Block, the Edgar award-winning novelist, once surveyed a score of best-selling authors regarding their method. Each one was certain they had discovered the one and only route to success.
Here's the thing, though. There was no consistency in any of the survey answers.
Some authors insisted on detailed plots. Some, like Block, wrote entirely seat-of-the-pants, with zero idea where the story was headed. Some wrote spare first drafts and then expanded them. Some wrote first drafts double the length of the final novel, and then cut. Some kept detailed character files, some did nothing of the sort.
Each author had found their own, unique, way to organize their writing.
Now, it's useful to read about how other authors do things. I've learned amazing things that way. I've learned about the "middle muddle," about the three act play structure, about plot beats, about "scene and sequel," and many other useful concepts. All of that influences what happens when I sit at the keyboard and start to write. But Frank Sinatra may as well be crooning in the background when I start to type: I have to do it my way, whatever that is.
That's not say that there aren't tried-and-true elements of craft all authors should know and practice. Most of my reviews--of myself and others--focus on some simple elements of craft deduced from the theory of the "fictional dream." We'd be idiots to have not learned from centuries of experience of other authors. There's a *reason* no one uses omniscient narrators any more, and it's more than just the fanciful whims of style. There's a *reason* why "murmured" is better than "said softly," and that one should be obvious by just stating the two ways of saying it. There's a reason to avoid info-dumps and head hopping. But I digress.
There's a difference between craft and creativity. Anyone who can write sentences can learn the former. It's hard, tedious work, but it's just an acquired skill. We learn craft because it will make what we write more effective.
Creativity, on the other hand, comes from deep within the soul. You can't learn creativity. When you're an author, a real author, you write because it's impossible not to write. It's an obsession that won't go away unless you feed it. Don't look for a formula on how to do be creative. There isn't one.
It's like Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
|My current work in progress, "Timekeepers " is about time travel. Like most time travel fiction, it's got time travelers jumping into various historical epochs and doing stuff. But there's some interesting corollaries to this kind of fictional technology.
Think about it. My protagonists jump about in time, from 2018, to 1066, to a million years ago in the Pleistocene. But, while their "timepieces" displace them in time, they always wind up on earth. Nothing remarkable, right? That happens in all the time in this kind of fiction, from H.G. Wells to the ones on TV just last season.
Here's the thing, though. Everything moves.
The solar system is moving in an orbit about the galactic core. In fact, it's moving pretty fast: about 515,000 miles per hour. This means that from 1066 to 2018, the solar system has moved 0.73 light years. Thus, when our time travelers "jump" from 2018 to 1066, they not only "instantly" travel in time, in order to stay "on earth," they must also "instantly" travel that same distance in space, 0.73 light years. Of course, what "instantly" means in a universe of time travel is a question in and of itself. On the other hand, relativity pretty much erases the notion of simultaneity, so time travel or not, we know time doesn't follow intuitive rules.
It gets worse. Our characters "jump" 1.4 mega-years back to the Pleistocene but stay on earth. When they do this, they have also traveled over a thousand light years.
The inevitable conclusion is that a time machine is also a faster-than-light drive. Of course, we all know it's impossible to travel faster than light, so the logical conclusion is that time travel is also impossible.
On the other hand, we all enjoy stories that include faster-than-light drives, so impossibility isn't really a problem with fiction. Except fiction, unlike the real world, has to at least make sense.
So there's an issue for a author writing about time travel. It seems incumbent to find an "explanation" for staying on earth's "world-line" when "jumping" in time. The explanation needs to be plausible, although it can't be "scientifically accurate" since time travel itself is surely impossible. My idea for this novel is that they are traveling in a gravity well that's carving out a path in space-time. It's not implausible that the least-energy path back to 1066 is along this path. So, when my time travelers "jump," they are following the most efficient path in terms of energy expenditure to the past carved out by Earth.
Do I believe in that explanation? Well, no. But I don't believe in time travel either. This at least passes the sniff test, if you don't think about it too much.
The other paradox with time travel involves "changing the past" and erasing the future. That's a common plot element in time travel fiction, and it's in my novel, too. But a plot turning point in my novel is what I think is a new idea about what "really" happens if someone "changes" the outcome of one of history's turning points. The idea is tied to some real ideas in physics that arise in quantum mechanics.
Since it's part of the climax to the novel, you'll have to read the my book to learn about that.
|Some Thoughts on In-Depth Peer Reviewing
We've all gotten drive-by reviews. They tend to be short and full of adjectives. Sometimes the adjectives gush with praise. These reviews are at least an ego-boost to receive. Other times, the adjectives pierce with condemnation. These hyper-critical reviews can send even experienced authors off the deep end of depression. The emotional reactions make it easy to think of these as "good" and "bad" reviews. There's some truth to that: certainly, a "good" review encourages the author and a "bad" review does the opposite. From that single perspective, the "good" and "bad" labels are probably accurate.
However, the point of this essay is that neither type of drive-by review is useful: they do nothing to help the author craft better fiction.
Reviews on Writing.Com, even those on reviewing in-and-outs like "The Review Spot" , are peer reviews.. They are one author, interacting with another author, about a piece of writing. One goal of a peer review is to start a conversation between these two authors. That conversation helps both the author and the reviewer craft better stories. That's the whole point of peer reviewing.
This essay gives some more-or-less random thoughts on what goes into a helpful peer review.
How to write a helpful peer review
A helpful review needs to make specific comments about craft--about the words on the page, the characters, and the story. In particular, a helpful review:
Makes judgements, both positive and negative;
Provides specific reasons for the judgements it makes;
Gives specific examples from the author's text to support the judgements it makes;
Makes specific suggestions for revision where appropriate;
Gives specific praise for what the author has done well;
Provides encouragement for the author's creativity and artistic impulse.
A helpful review that follows the above suggestions is balanced: it has both positive and negative elements. A helpful review is reasoned: it explains why some feature works or why the reviewer thinks it needs revision. A helpful review is specific: it gives particular examples from the author's text and makes specific suggestions for revision. Finally, a helpful review is respectful: it acknowledges the author's creativity and encourages the artistic impulse.
What to include in a helpful peer review
This is a little harder, since every author brings a different artistic perspective to writing, and hence also to reviewing. Still, there are some basic things like grammar or point-of-view that might be common to all reviews. If you've gotten a review from me, you probably know I have a I use leads to provide structure and to remind me to do certain things such as praise what the Each reviewer, then, will have their own "what to include" list. I'll share my own admittedly idiosyncratic list, along with why something is on the list and what I look for.
What I liked best. I start here, partly to launch the review by reinforcing something I liked about the piece I just read. It's my reminder to tell the author what they've done well. And, yes, every piece I review has something I can praise. On the rare occasions where there's not, I don't provide a review.
Opening paragraph. This is critical to any fiction. Did it the reader? Does it establish point-of-view? Does it draw the reader into the fictional world? Does it start with action?
Style and Voice. Is the voice first person or third person? If the latter, is it omniscient or third person limited? Why is omniscient deprecated in modern fiction? "Style" is the author's voice, which is different from the point-of-view. Many authors have a distinctive voice that shines through their prose.
Vonnegut's admonition that every sentence should advance character or plot, and preferably both has a place here. So does advice against info-dumps. Elmore Leonard said he left out the parts readers skip--that might be relevant, too.
Characters. Characters need to have goals. The goals need to matter--those are the stakes. Something has to stand in the way of achieving the goal--often but not always an oppositional person. Goals, stakes, and opposition are at the heart of both plot and tension, so these are important in almost any work of fiction.
Characters need to be authentic. Readers need to believe in their actions, goals, and emotions.
Readers need to care about your characters. They don't have to like them, but they have to care enough about their goals to keep the pages turning.
Plot. There's no single idea that animates my comments on plot, although the three-act-play structure is close--see "Finding Plot" . Chekov's gun-over-the-mantle comment is sometimes also relevant.
Setting. This is certainly part of orienting the reader. It's also staging--keeping track of where the characters are at in the fictional world and in relation to each other. Finally, the setting can often reveal character and plot--see Vonnegut above.
Hook. If I'm reading a chapter, it needs to end with a hook--something to keep the pages turning. I like this blog on hooks.
Referencing. This is properly part of scene setting, but much of what I read is SciFi or Fantasy where referencing the specific features of the fictional world is important. For fantasy in particular, the dreaded info-dump comment often appears here. This is also important for stories set in another historical period or for stories set in a culture unfamiliar to the reader.
Grammar. My adverb fetish rears its head here.
The Purdue Owl , the writing site at Purdue University, has the best set of free resources I know for grammar rules. For serious authors, The Chicago Manual of Style is the definitive resource, but it's only available to paid subscribers.
Just my opinion.
I'll often include a comment here about the "fictional dream," since that can inform the final section which has line-by-line comments. I'll often summarize what I see as strengths and possible tweaks noted earlier in the review. I try to always thank the author for sharing their story or chapter and to tell them--truthfully!--that I enjoyed it.
Line-by-Line remarks. This is where I pick out specific things that I flagged while reading, either because I liked them or because I thought they were candidates for revision. Often these are the specific examples that support more general comments made in response to the earlier leads. Note I do NOT copy the entire story or chapter here--just specific places as examples to support earlier comments or to make new ones about craft. Often the most detailed and, I think, useful parts of the review are here.
I always close by reminding the author that I'm just another author, like them, and they are the only ones who know what's best for their work.
That's it, my $0.02 worth on in-depth, peer reviewing. I hope you find this helpful!
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