My Life In Neon

Sci Fi / Fantasy writer Autumn Nicole Bradley – Dream in digital, live in neon

Archive for the month “February, 2011”

How To Write Better Dialog 3: Subtext

Or: What-the-Scene-Is-Really-About

Subtext is all the information about a scene that is communicated indirectly in the hopes that the audience will understand it without it being stated outright. It’s the stuff that’s on the characters’ minds when they speak. It motivates their word choices and their actions. By these choices, we can then infer a great deal about what is really going on in the head of a character.

In books, there is an additional layer to subtext. There’s the subtext of the scene, and there’s the subtext of the dialogue. The subtext of the scene is anything that never appears on the page at all. The subtext of the dialogue is whatever is not spoken by the characters (but which can appear in the accompanying narrative). There is a place for both and there must be a balance.

Subtext is tied directly to motivations and premises. In other words, you need to answer these questions:

  1. What does the character want that the other characters in the scene can provide?
  2. What does the character believe is true about the world and their situation?
  3. What status transactions are at play?

Concerning the first, this isn’t about what the character wants in the Big Picture Narrative Arc of your story. It is about what the character wants right now, and from that person. It could be as major as getting a general to agree to drop a nuclear bomb to as trivial as seeking validation from a friend that the main character is doing the right thing. They may not even be conscious of their desire, particularly in the case where a scene is driven by status interaction rather than objectives.

The second is about premises, which I dealt with here.

In other words, what is the scene really about? And what is each conversation in the scene really about?

Dialogue Subtext

To reiterate, dialogue subtext includes anything that the characters don’t come out and say directly. But this information can appear in the narrative around it. This includes dialogue tags, italicized thought passages, omniscient narrator explanations, footnotes, or whatever other conventions you are employing in your work.

Typically, subtext of this sort is filtered in some fashion through an unreliable narrator. If it is an omniscient third person, it may be the point of view of a historian documenting the events and it may be shaped by their ignorance. If the book is first person, or limited third person, it is colored by the bias of the point of view character for that scene.

“Are you going to the beach this afternoon?” Toby asked.

The asshole knew very well where Caitlin was going; he was just trying to trap her into admitting it. So she shocked him into silence by giving him exactly what he was asking for: “Yes. With your brother.”

You can see where understanding Caitlin’s thoughts gives us some hint about what Toby’s motivation is. As the scene continues, we may find out that Caitlin was wrong in her assumption, or we may find out she was exactly right. What’s important is that we know why Caitlin came out and admitted the truth: it was a defiant expression based on the belief that it would work out in her favor.

It’s sometimes thought that omniscient narrators can’t use this because it becomes “telling” instead of “showing.” However, omniscient narrators certainly can employ this to create dramatic irony. With the reader having access to the thoughts and motivations of both characters, the drama of the scene is driven by the audience knowing that the characters are just misunderstanding one another.

In a certain variety of first person and limited third person where the narrator is narrating from far in the future, they may have attained a degree of omniscience. You may see passages such as: “I found out later that Patricia was lying to me from the start, but at the moment, I was taking her at her word.” This is another way of introducing dramatic irony where the narrator comes out and states that the character is about to make a mistake in judgment.

Another important element of dialogue subtext is using dialogue tags. This isn’t about using tags to spruce it up and add variety in place of the word “said,” though. When building subtext, the dialogue tag should be there in order to tell us something that is not readily apparent based upon the words used in dialogue.

“I hate you,” she said with a smile.

“I’m proud of you,” Joe said, but it was a toss-off comment. He hoped Riley would be satisfied with the praise and leave.

“They’re destroying the city!” he shouted gleefully.

Scenic Subtext

Scenic subtext is the tricky one, but if you’ve been following the prior two articles, it should come as no surprise when I say that status transactions, and premises and biases are your hammer and screwdriver when building in subtext. Once you understand what a scene is really about, what the characters believe is true, and how the characters relate to one another, you shouldn’t need to have characters explaining themselves to one another. If you understand those aspects, then it will flow naturally.

Some writers prefer to save subtext for its own separate revision pass. The thought is, writing scenes without subtext lets them get to the point sooner so they themselves know what the book’s “roadmap” is. Then they go back and scrub the scenes of the “telling” dialogue and let the audience infer more. I happen to like this method myself because it frees you up to just write the damn scene, without getting hung up on crafting a Checkov play on every page in the rough draft. Once you know what the scene is really about (possibly because a character has come out and said it), you can hold that thought in your mind as you break it down and build it back up in revision.

If you are doing it by revision passes, the simplest way to add scenic subtext is by removing unnecessary dialogue subtext. Unnecessary dialogue subtext can be seen as an attempt to explain scenic subtext. Contrast that with necessary dialogue subtext cues which, if removed, meaningfully change the nature of the scene. This is particularly apparent in the case of dialogue tags and dramatic irony. Don’t remove necessary subtext cues.

If you’re building from scratch, don’t just have characters answer questions directly, or respond to provocation for the sake of it. Each time you put a ” ” on the page, consider why that character is speaking and what they hope to accomplish with their speech.

How To Write Better Dialog 2: Premises

When people come together to discuss a topic, they bring with them all kinds of assumptions and biases about the topic. If I say the words “labor union,” it instantly conjures up all of your feelings on the matter. Some of you will be predisposed to be hostile toward any discussion that does not involve dismantling them. Some of you will be equally biased in favor of them. And at no point can a constructive discussion take place unless we have some common ground or room to negotiate.

Our characters have the same kinds of predispositions and biases. If you are writing a fantasy story that involves magic and monsters, then it’s a sure bet that every single person in that world has an opinion about magicians, or a personal story. Even if they are as rare as a two-toothed narwhal, people have probably at least heard of them. If they haven’t heard of them, then they probably are disinclined to believe magicians even exist!

However, more often than not, I come across dialogue in novels and movies where a topic is introduced (about which characters of different backgrounds would likely have divergent views) yet everyone is on the same page about it. You end up with a group of people who stand around agreeing with each other, or even when they disagree, they are bickering over the details.

This happens when everyone in a discussion accepts the premise of the conversation.

Premises

Premises are the assumptions that are built into a conversation. They are based upon word choice, which is informed by biases. We are not always conscious of these built in assumptions, even when we are the ones asking the questions.

For example, if a character asks the question “Why do labor unions deserve legal protection for their collective bargaining rights?” then there are certain assumptions buried in the question:

  1. The belief that rescinding collective bargaining rights is a legitimate option. Without this premise, any answer given would be irrelevant.
  2. By raising the question at all, it implies that the person asking it believes it should be done. Otherwise, they’d have never raised the issue.
  3. Use of the word “deserve” implies that it is a privilege that must be earned.

How does this relate to dialogue in fiction?

I picked something politically charged and divisive on purpose. The confrontational nature of the question makes us want to respond to it. Whether we agree or disagree, it is demanding a reaction. When we write, it is easy to slip into the trap of making characters respond to provocation because we would respond to provocation.

But let’s say you wanted to show that your character is not just some author avatar spouting your personal morality, so you put them on the opposite side of the debate. You dislike unions, so you write a character that defends them.

Now, the trap is that even if the character answers the question by saying workers deserve protection, they have still accepted the premises of the question. In other words, if the character says: “Unions deserve legal protection because without it, management’s right to take legal action would be an unfair advantage because management has the financial means that individual workers do not,” then they have still unintentionally agreed that it is a valid topic for debate, and that workers must prove they deserve the additional protection.

The character’s act of disagreeing is unimportant because they have already validated the central premise, and revealed an underlying bias on the part of the author that has crept into the work. Whatever heated debate is taking place on the page is no longer drama, but sock puppet theatre.

Some other situations:

  • If your characters are building a wood shed and get into a protracted debate about what color the shed is, they have already agreed to the premise that the shed ought to be built in the first place.
  • If your characters are arguing about the morality of using demonic magic to stop an even more powerful demon, they have already agreed to the premise that demons are evil and the use of magic must be justified.
  • If your characters are sailing a ship and they argue about whether three point sails are better in a storm than four point sails, they have already forgotten the obvious advice to bring the sails down during a storm.

Rejecting the Premise

It is a time honored tradition in public relations, advertising, and politics to attempt to establish a premise ahead of time. It’s also referred to as “framing the debate.” Less experienced rhetoriticians often fall into the trap outlined above where they react to the provocative statements of the other side without questioning the assumptions inherent in the statement or question. Over time, however, people learn to reject the premise before responding.

To use the prior example, “Why do labor unions deserve legal protection for their collective bargaining rights?” some responses might be:

  • “Why are we discussing hard working citizens when it is a corrupt political structure that is causing the problem?”
  • “How many jobs should a person have to work in order to support their family?”
  • “No one in management is having trouble making ends meet, so why is this a problem?”

All of these responses share one thing in common: they brush aside the premises of the original question before dropping in a new set of premises of their own.

Rejecting the Premise for comedic and dramatic effect

Let’s face it. Tit-for-tat arguing can get the blood flowing but we only watch it as a spectator sport to either root for our side, or to listen to what nonsense the other side spouts. As writers, we are aiming to craft characters and scenes with greater depth than a Facebook argument.

Rejecting the premise can be the source of immense drama, and it tells us much more about a character than an argument does. Let’s re-examine the scene from the previous article, and this time we will examine the premises rather than the status transactions.

Julie pushed open the doors to the board room. The meeting of her fellow directors was already in progress.

“It’s about time you got here,” Seth said. He threw the copy of the report on the table and shoved toward Julie’s seat.

Julie picked it up to read without sitting down. She skimmed to the report’s conclusion. Seth started speaking but Julie held up a hand to silence him until she finished. “Change of plans,” she said. “We’ll be going with David’s proposal.”

“What?” Seth shouted. “David’s never even seen Denver!”

“It’s the continental U.S. How different can it be, really?” David asked.

“Plenty. Do you remember—”

“That’s enough, you two,” Julie said. “Seth, I understand your concerns, but Taiwan just isn’t feasible right now. You understand why, right?”

Seth opened his mouth to protest, but instead he nodded and took his seat.

When Seth calls out Julie for being late, he is trying to establish a dominant position. His choice of words and his defiant act of shoving the report across the table rather than handing it to her indicates he is operating from a particular set of assumptions:

  1. Julie’s tardiness deserves commenting on.
  2. He expects her to justify her tardiness.
  3. His time is more valuable than hers.

Julie doesn’t take the bait. In effect, she refutes Seth’s premise by not responding to a deliberate attempt to provoke her. She is saying, “Your comments on my behavior are not legitimate enough to merit justification.” That reaction (or non-reaction) creates more dramatic tension than if they had broken down into bickering.

Tit-for-tat bickering is a way to release dramatic tension, not build it! When characters argue, they are laying their cards on the table. To build tension in the scene and in the reader, you want to do the opposite: hold things in reserve until the last possible moment.

We see her put this into practice in the following sentence when she cuts off Seth before he can press matters. She has now established new boundaries for the discussion: they will be discussing what is important to her, and on her time.

Now, we have conflict. Seth wants one thing, Julie wants another. More importantly, they are doing all of this in front of an audience. The implicit conflict becomes explicit when Julie makes the statement that they will not be going with Seth’s plan, but with David’s.

Seth lays out that David has never been to Denver. Implied in his statement is the underlying assumption that: “Unless David has seen Denver, he does not have the expertise or the authority to speak about the plan.”

Now we have an example where a character unintentionally accepts the premise. David directly responds to Seth’s statement, hoping to convince Julie that Seth is wrong, and that he knows what he is talking about. But, in accepting the premise, he has already slipped into Seth’s trap: any justification he makes will be weaker than Seth’s statement.

Julie rescues him (and the scene) by cutting off the bickering before it goes too far. In effect, she rejects Seth’s premise that David must have seen Denver in order to have sufficient knowledge. Once again, we build dramatic tension because the characters do not accept one anothers’ premises. That dramatic tension is resolved with Seth conceding.

Comedy

We can use the same technique for comedic effect. I won’t break it down as much here because the structure of refuting the premise is the same for comedy as it is for drama. The only difference is the tone of the scene. Any dramatic event can be played for laughs by changing the tone.

Joss Wheadon is a master of building comedic scenes upon characters holding divergent assumptions about the world. Any scene between Mal Reynolds and Jayne Cobb in Firefly would serve.

As a simple example, think back to any of the old Looney Toons cartoons where a character runs off a cliff but doesn’t fall. The dramatic tension is built on challenging the audience’s assumptions, namely the assumption that gravity works. The character holds a mistaken belief that they are immune to gravity (or a mistaken belief that there is still ground underneath them). The longer the character defies gravity, the more tension is built on the part of the audience because they are having their belief directly challenged by the fact that the character is not yet falling. To resolve the tension, the character falls, complete with the stoic “Uh oh” face. (Then, once audiences started to accept the premise that characters could defy gravity, they played with it further by having the characters sometimes scurry back to the cliff successfully only to throw some other sort of reversal at them.)

Conclusion

Give your characters the ability to reject the premise of discussions. It builds greater dramatic tension and reveals more about the character’s own beliefs and biases. In short, it gives them greater depth.

What is the worst writing advice you’ve received?

Amid all this advice I’m giving on how to write dialogue, I am mindful that not all advice is helpful or well received.

For example, I once received this unsolicited gem from someone who learned in passing that I was a writer and was trying to be helpful (in the most assholeish way possible):

It will be taken as a sign of maturity when you accept that your book will never be published.

Lesson of the day? Projecting your own inadequacies is not advice. However, that comment is now forever burned into my memory and will be the crux of any inspirational words I have for anyone else.

Addendum: I did not piss in his cornflakes, before or after. Though I maybe should have.

So what was the worst advice you’ve ever been given?

Edit: I just remembered another one:

I have a family member who was burned by a vanity press (if you don’t know what it is, read up on it here) back in the 80’s and none of my extended family has forgotten about it. However, they aren’t writers and aren’t involved in the industry in any way, so they have been disconnected from the rise of self publishing. With eBooks and print-on-demand services, self-publishing is not the same as the vanity press scam (although the vanity press scam is still alive and well).

I’ve been working on a series of short stories for the past few months and the intent is to shop them around to online magazine publications first in order to qualify for joining the SFWA. Three qualifying sales and you are eligible. However, should that fail, my intent is to target the eBooks marketplaces. I do feel the work is professional quality, and I don’t consider self-publishing to be a failure. At all. But going that route first for the time being precludes qualification for SFWA membership.

The moment I opened my mouth about self-publishing a series of short stories, the floodgates opened. It wasn’t enough that I had to first endure a family member breathlessly recounting the horror my great uncle suffered, and their dire warning: “Don’t do it!” only to have to explain to them that “No, this isn’t the same situation. The market has changed. No, I do not pay up front out of pocket.” No, I needed to endure this gauntlet over and over and over with each of my half a dozen aunts and uncles in town for my uncle’s wedding. And then their spouses. And my parents. It would have been simple if I could just get all of them in one place just give a speech. But, that would be too simple.

But every single time it was: “Oh. Well, ok then. Be careful.”

/facepalm.

How To Write Better Dialog 1.5: Additional Example

I posted yesterday’s article over at the AbsoluteWrite forums and got some questions about the three tips I laid out at the start. Specifically, I addressed this:

Douglass

I’m curious about your number one rule:

“Dialogue is the last resort of the desperate storyteller.”

It seems in conflict with two trend of novels: 1) more and more dialogue with each passing generation. 2) the more popular the novel, the more dialogue it contains.

I touched on that in the paragraph that followed:

The first one mainly applies to screen and stage, since they are visual media and you have someone’s performance and action on screen to carry the scene when there is no speaking. On a page, the text is there whether it is dialogue or narrative, so the rule isn’t as hard and fast as it is for the screen, but in general, if you are falling back on dialogue to do the storytelling, then you need to re-examine your plot structure.

I got my start in screenwriting and I had gone to school for theatrical and film direction. That’s a guideline that exists for visual media.

That said, it’s easy to fall into the exposition trap, even when writing novels:

“Did you hear? Jacob, your brother, will be coming up from his home in Kansas to lecture at our son Chris’s college. I’d like to offer the guest bedroom to him while he’s here, but I don’t want to hear you two playing Madden 2012 until 4AM like last time he came, at Christmas,” Alice said.

It’s clunky, and unnecessary. Most importantly, it doesn’t flow. That text is going to be on the page either way, but compare it to this:

“Jacob is coming to town,” Alice said. Brad held his tongue. The last thing he needed was a lecture about staying up until 4AM playing Madden 2012 with his brother at Christmas. “Chris is looking forward to his lecture.”

“Why would a math major be attending a lecture on paleontology?” Brad asked.

“‘Because it’s his uncle and he never sees him’ isn’t good enough?” Alice poured a cup of coffee and passed it to Brad.

Brad sipped his coffee. “I’ll clean the guest room,” Brad said. Alice looked at Brad sharply. “And we won’t play Madden. Not much. At least not past 2.”

The word count is a little higher, but this is just off the top of my head (so, in the strictest sense I am breaking my own rule, but the spirit of the rule remains in that I’m not using the dialogue to convey everything). The dialogue communicates more about their relationship and how they relate to one another, rather than conveys the raw facts. The dialogue is pulling double duty in parts like: “Why would a math major be attending a lecture on paleontology?” We learn that Brad is attentive enough to know what his son is studying but doesn’t understand why he would be interested. In fact, the facts learned (Chris studies math, Jacob is a paleontologist) are actually the least interesting parts of that comment.

When Brad jumps to “I’ll clean the guest room” without explicit prompting, we understand that the subtext of Alice’s entire half of the exchange was: “I want Jacob to stay here.” When we look back at the things she says, they all lean in that direction without her coming out and saying it, which is another clue about what kind of relationship Alice has with Brad.

If it’s crucial to cut word counts, the important bits of the conversation can be boiled down to: “Jacob is coming to town.” followed by, “I’ll clean the guest room.”

“Jacob is coming to town,” Alice said.

Brad sipped his coffee. The last thing he needed was another lecture about how he and his brother had played Madden 2012 until 4AM at Christmas, so he decided to nip the discussion in the bud. “I’ll get the guest room cleaned.”

The essentials are still there, and we keep the big clue about their relationship: Brad understands Alice enough to know why she is bringing up Jacob’s visit without her needing to say it.

How To Write Better Dialog 1: High and Low Status Players

Raise your hand if you’ve never struggled with dialogue. First, you’re lying, and second, if you’re not lying then you aren’t pushing yourself to improve as a writer.

Well, there are a few pieces of advice I picked up from my screenwriting and acting days:

  1. Dialogue is the last resort of the desperate storyteller.
  2. People are always pursuing objectives; understand what your characters want from one another and you’ll know why they are saying what they do.
  3. You can only have two people sitting on a park bench talking about the nature of art if one of them knows there is a bomb underneath the bench. (This last one is paraphrased from another source but it’s been a long time since I heard it; I no longer remember where it was.)

The first one mainly applies to screen and stage, since they are visual media and you have someone’s performance and action on screen to carry the scene when there is no speaking. On a page, the text is there whether it is dialogue or narrative, so the rule isn’t as hard and fast as it is for the screen, but in general, if you are falling back on dialogue to do the storytelling, then you need to re-examine your plot structure.

There’s a perennial piece of advice for writers which states: Show, don’t tell. Put simply (actually, how can it be put simpler than that?) your objective should be to have your characters take actions that demonstrate their desires and personality, rather than describing them on the page. You may have also heard this as Direct Characterization and Indirect Characterization. We should know that the villain loves dogs by the fact that he has a bronze statue cast of every dog he’s owned on display in the front hall of his downtown Metropolis office tower, and that their pedigree is lovingly etched into their plaques. In addition to being a unique quirk, it reveals more about the character than just: “he liked dogs.”

It is the second two that I will be focusing on in this series of articles. Number 2 relates primarily to Status Transactions and Premises, while number 3 can be summed up as Subtext.

Status Transactions

Keith Johnstone introduced the world to the concept of “status transactions” in his book on improvisational acting, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre I was introduced to Keith Johnstone’s work during my screenwriting class with Doug Heil while at UW-Oshkosh. (You can find Doug’s own book on screenwriting, Prime-Time Authorship, at Amazon.com) Impro is a book for actors and directors, but in it he posits that human interaction can be described in terms of relative social status. The way we interact with one another on a status level says more about who we are than the actual content of our speech or actions.

In other words, the difference in relative social status of two characters and how they react to that difference is more important than what they say or do.

I’ll break down the part that’s most important for writers concerned with dialogue:

  1. High status roles and low status roles are determined relative to one another. A parent has higher status than a child in that a child is expected to defer to an adult’s authority, and outsiders will most likely think the child is being disobedient rather than that the parent is being unreasonable. An older child has higher status than a younger. A well-respected grad student may have more recognized status than a tenured professor due to past circumstances. (Already you can see how status can drive dramatic tension!)
  2. When interacting with others, people will attempt to raise and lower their perceived status, either to achieve an objective or to return to their comfort zone. In Johnstone’s own words:

    A person who plays high status is saying, “Don’t come near me, I bite.” Someone who plays low status is saying, “Don’t bite me, I’m not worth the trouble.” In either case the status played is a defense and it’ll usually work.

  3. People have a status they are most comfortable with. Some people are not comfortable being deferred to. Some people reject any efforts to overrule their opinions. We all have a preferred state we wish to be in, and sometimes circumstances force us outside that state.

    [When a status play works] It’s very likely that you will be increasingly conditioned into playing the status . . . You become a status specialist, very good at playing one status but not very happy or competent at playing the other.

  4. Drama comes from either a disagreement over relative status, a reversal of expected status, or characters forced outside of their preferred status. Just think of how much character drama is based upon conflict between lovers or coworkers who cannot get along, or the classic fish-out-of-water scenario where a character is suddenly invested with a great deal of authority, or has an empire they have built taken away from them. (Brewster’s Millions is a brilliant example of this.)

Example

Let’s play with this a bit. We will be using Julie, Seth, and David as our sample characters.

Julie pushed open the doors to the board room. The meeting of her fellow directors was already in progress.

“It’s about time you got here,” Seth said. He threw the copy of the report on the table and shoved toward Julie’s seat.

Julie picked it up to read without sitting down. She skimmed to the report’s conclusion. Seth started speaking but Julie held up a hand to silence him until she finished. “Change of plans,” she said. “We’ll be going with David’s proposal.”

“What?” Seth shouted. “David’s never even seen Denver!”

“It’s the continental U.S. How different can it be, really?” David asked.

“Plenty. Do you remember—”

“That’s enough, you two,” Julie said. “Seth, I understand your concerns, but Taiwan just isn’t feasible right now. You understand why, right?”

Seth opened his mouth to protest, but instead he nodded and took his seat.

Let’s break this down.

The first thing that happens: Julie walks into a meeting already in progress. We aren’t certain of Julie’s actual status relative to these people yet, and Seth immediately takes her to task for being late. He is deliberately trying to lower her status and raise his own. With that one sentence he is saying, “You are late and deserve less respect,” and, “I should be the respected authority here because I am allowed to pass judgment upon you.”

Next, Julie ignores his criticism. She could dispute him, but that would involve accepting the premise of his statements. If she argued with him at all, she would be acknowledging that he has the right to pass judgment upon her. (More on premises next time!) As soon as she does that, she is demonstrating that he was correct that his status was higher than hers. By ignoring him completely, she rejects his status claim as being beneath notice.

Then she silences him with a gesture. She has now turned the tables entirely: she no longer needs to speak to make him respect her authority. By his silence we know that Julie is the real authority here, and that Seth’s power play has failed.

When she announces her decision, it rekindle’s Seth’s desire to spar with her for control. Now he has not just his prestige among the board at risk, but his position in the company: if David’s idea is chosen, David’s status rises and he misses an opportunity. So he needs to reassert himself and make Julie back down.

Since he already accepted the lowering of himself a moment earlier, he then tries to drag David down to his level by calling him ignorant.

David, not as disciplined as Julie, disputes his claim by observing that he has all the knowledge he needs. It is a weak claim, and Seth has successfully dragged David down with him. As we see in the next moment, Julie separates them like bickering children: she now sees both of them as being so far beneath her that she can address them in an infantilizing manner.

Her final question to him, “You understand why, right?” is a direct challenge. But it is also a trap, because if he disagrees he is saying he does not understand. (Again, more on premises later) Instead, he lowers himself further by allowing her to speak to him in a parent-and-child manner reminiscent of “You understand why it’s wrong to steal from the cookie jar, right?” The poor treatment may leave lasting damage to their relationship going forward, but it may also stave off future status struggles long enough for them to put their “plan” into action in Denver.

Conclusion

Next time, I will be examining conversational premises in greater detail and addressing how accepting and rejecting premises plays into dramatic dialogue.

The Early 1900s Were Cooler Than You Thought (My trip to the Museum of Science and Industry)

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I went to the Museum of Science and Industry in downtown Chicago. The highlights:

  • A working Foucalt’s Pendulum (Two, in fact. Read the article if you don’t understand why something so incredibly simple can demonstrate something so profound about our world.)
  • Jim Henson’s Fantastic World with a whole section devoted to The Dark Crystal
  • Fast Forward, kind of a Popular Science/Popular Mechanics exhibit where I got to play with a Reactable! (See it in action) Needless to say, I would love to have one of these to use in live performance.
  • The U-505 Submarine. A German U-boat captured in WWII. It’s an amazing piece of engineering and war history. Not to get all war-ranty, but I’m not one that is typically prone to romantic idealizing about war being a noble venture. But there are parts of it that are truly awe inspiring. This view actually moved me to tears. It’s impossible to convey the feeling you get when you see this thing and understand what it means that our grandfathers and uncles built and used these things to kill each other.

I will admit, I was actually moved to tears multiple times inside the museum. There are a handful of things that will make me cry, and amazing and humbling feats of human achievement are one of them. For those keeping score at home, I have also readily admitted to weeping at the sight of The Millennium Clock Tower during my visit to the UK.

But in the upstairs of the Science Storms exhibit, they have a collection of what can best be described as early electrical odds and ends.

They have one of the (if not the) largest Wimshurst Machines ever built on display.
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Leyden Jars, an early electrical capacitor:
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An early Tesla coil. (They had a modern Tesla coil mounted on the ceiling creating artificial lightning above a circle of couches. I admit that Tesla coils are Fucking Cool, but not exactly the best atmosphere for a tea party. Unless it is the coolest tea party ever.)
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Big Daddy’s little brother? (It’s actually a fire fighter’s helmet.)
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My Writing Partner

My Writing Partner: Flower

Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature,
An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature;
Your visual, olfactory, and auditory senses
Contribute to your hunting skills and natural defenses.

I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
A singular development of cat communications
That obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
For a rhythmic stroking of your fur to demonstrate affection.

A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents;
You would not be so agile if you lacked its counterbalance.
And when not being utilized to aid in locomotion,
It often serves to illustrate the state of your emotion.

O Spot, the complex levels of behavior you display
Connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array.
And though you are not sentient, Spot, and do not comprehend,
I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend.

-Lt. Cmdr. Data (ST:TNG – “Schisms”)

Sometimes An Idea Strikes

Sometimes this happens:

monkey_steals_the_peach

When an idea strikes, will you be ready?

An idea just grabs you and won’t let go. Sometimes you are just struck by an idea and you need to write it down (or else a ninja will rip your balls off). It burns its way out of your skull and there’s nothing you can do about it except close your eyes and let your fingers be guided by the inspiration alone.

And then sometimes inspiration takes a break before crossing the finish line.

A few weeks ago I was hit by an awesome idea for a short story. Miraculously, I got it finished over the course of a long weekend. “My Brother’s Keeper” is a sci-fi story about relativistic weaponry and interstellar war, except it’s not really about that, those are just the parts that make it sci-fi.

Then on Valentine’s Day I was hit by an idea that had absolutely nothing to do with Valentine’s Day, except that it is a love story. It’s about 93% coincidence that it was Valentine’s Day. I’ll grant 7% for the fact that the last puzzle piece for the idea fell into place while on a movie date.

Here’s what I should be doing:

  • Editing Root of the First‘s first 50 pages again.
  • Editing “My Brother’s Keeper” and “The Last Warband.”
  • Preparing for another round of agent submissions.
  • Preparing for WisCon35
  • Revising Lewis Mulligan and the Pandemonium Engine*
*Note, I’m intentionally letting Lewis Mulligan wait until March before I begin editing.

Here’s what I am doing:

  • Working on a yet-untitled new paranormal literary fiction novel.

The idea for it hit me, and it’s still a little underdeveloped. I know where I want to start, and where I want to end. The paranormal aspects of it were just too cool not to build a story around because it flows so perfectly with the driving theme of the story. It’s incredibly rare that life gives you a high-concept, easy-to-interpret metaphor that is attached at the hip to the plot, all wrapped up in a neat little box.

All that’s missing right now is the big, empty middle. There’s a whole “middle” to this story that just isn’t there yet. And I have no idea what to put there. I haven’t even settled on a time period that this is set in. As I’ve worked on it this week, I have become increasingly enamored of the idea of leaving it deliberately vague. But I don’t know how long that will last.

The WI situation in 30 seconds

As I explained on Facebook to a friend:

Fed Gov: We have some money left in the stimulus. Want it?

Doyle: New high speed rail? Reopening Amtrak routes to Madison and the Fox Cities? Thousands of private sector jobs spurred by contracts? Sure!

Wisconsin: Down with socialism!

Doyle: Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, you’re cool, fuck you. I’m out.

Walker: Did someone say down with socialism? We don’t need the federal government’s “handouts,” so they can take their DoT funding and shove it. While we’re at it, I hear the state employs a lot of people. That’s socialism too, right? So raise your hand if your pay has been frozen for at least 3 years. Yeah, we’re taking your benefits since you should be able to get by without handouts, and we’re giving it away as a tax break but not to people in your tax bracket. Oh, and we’re busting your unions too because we don’t want to hear any whining from you lazy freeloaders.

Wisconsin: Wait, what?

Since Walker’s policy is the source of this budget shortfall, the burden of proof is on him to explain why it is necessary to redistribute wealth upwards to those who do not need more of it. The workers whose benefits are being cut have no need to justify their outrage. They earned every bit of what is being taken away from them. If Walker wants to claim it is some public good, he needs to make a damn convincing case for it.

Screen Name Blasphemy follow-up

So, after a bit more Google searching of PsychicToaster, I have actually found several instances of others using my screen name. (Gasp!)

There’s at least one other blogger, and someone snagged the Steam ID on the new “custom URL” feature. The most bizarre one was the League of Legends post I came across since it actually sounds like something I might write if I were in the same position. It even kinda reads like my forum postings.

Eventually, I even came across someone using FileFront all the way back in 2001 that sullied my name with posts featuring some atrocious spelling (“betta” instead of “better”, “pole” instead of “poll”, no capitalization, no punctuation, euch!). I know it was 10 years ago, but I have never bought into the notion that typing on the Internet excuses poor grammar. That, and I didn’t even know about FileFront until at least 2006-ish when we were using it to distribute build files for a mod.

Amazingly, In my searching I found something extremely useful. I had “favorited” a slide show I had seen on SlideShare a while back. I had been searching for that slide show for at least the last year, but all I had been able to find was a similar one from a conference lecture. This one had a particular driving theme to it that really resonated with me as a designer and when I tried to reinvent the concept from what I remembered, I found I couldn’t quite capture the nuance that made their proposed model functional.

For the curious, here it is:

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