Year of Short Fiction Part 5: The Call of Cthulhu

Somehow I went my whole life without reading a single thing by H.P. Lovecraft. Since we’re still doing short fiction from the early 20th century, I decided to rectify that. I’m not much of a reader of horror, but there’s certainly a lot any writer can learn by studying the genre. And let’s face it, The Call of Cthulhu is one of the most important works of horror to every be written both from a literary and cultural perspective.

There is a joy in experiencing this story with little knowledge of the plot, so I’ll word things in a vague way to keep the secrets untold.

The first thing to jump out at me was the dense prose style. The first two sentences already indicate this is not your average pulp genre writing:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

I had to look up a few words in the first pages, though some of these might have been more standard back when it was written (e.g. bas-relief). These opening lines set up much to come. The main character has to piece together various found stories to get the full picture (i.e. “correlate all its contents”). Later we will get a scene set on infinite black seas. So these lines had full intention behind them to set up later parts of the story.

I was a little surprised by how real it was. One might say it is written in a hyperrealist style. The level of detail provided is almost distracting. At times, it was hard to remember the story was fiction instead of reading actual travel logs and notes by people. There are many names, and each of these people have precise degrees and jobs and even full addresses (7 Thomas St., Providence, R.I) associated with them.

In other places, we’re given exact coordinates of various sightings: S. Latitude 34° 21′, W. Longitude 152° 17′. This gives the reader precise information about the settings of various events, but at the same time, it’s kind of useless unless you pull yourself out of the story to Google it (as I did). These details mostly serve the purpose of making everything as real as possible.

This story really hits upon one of the things I wanted to encounter when I started the series. There’s close to a full novel’s worth of material in it, but it’s somehow packed tightly into a single short story.

This hyperrealism is part of what makes this possible. Instead of getting lots of lengthy “show don’t tell” descriptions that usually flesh out a single moment into a full short story, Lovecraft presents several detailed fragments that the reader must piece together on her own. In this way, we get years of events in a few pages, and it all feels natural since we’re just reading a few primary sources along with the main character.

This makes it hard to tell exactly what is happening, but this is done to give the reader the same experience as the narrator, who also doesn’t know what’s happening.

And now we’re in horror. It’s often said that the most suspenseful and horrifying things are those things we can’t see or understand. The structure of the story brilliantly puts you in the unsettled feeling of the unknown. It opens with a vague description based on a symbolic representation of the monster:

If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing.

This cleverly lets the reader’s mind run wild over the first half of the story about what exactly this Cthulhu is. Lovecraft proceeds to add mystery upon mystery: sudden deaths, cults, people going mad, and conspiracy. It’s somewhat brilliant in how it continuously adds suspense without resolving earlier mysteries.

Lovecraft keeps you guessing with that unsettled feeling. Is the main character interpreting this correctly? Is he putting together a set of unrelated things? Is he going mad? Or maybe, worst of all, he’s right, and all of this has been hidden from the rest of us.

Overall, I think a lot can be learned from studying this story. The dense and flowing prose style is impressive on its own. I may have to do a whole “Examining Pro’s Prose” on it. Moreover, the tension and forward motion Lovecraft creates through mystery and hidden information is excellent. Lastly, he brilliantly packs in so much information through the use of non-linear structure.

 

Elements of Writing that Annoy Me Part 2

I wrote the first of these something like three years ago. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood or the writing I read really is getting worse, but certain things have been getting on my nerves a lot. It’s time to pick this up again!

  1. Not trusting your reader. This is a typical flaw of first-time novelists. They have a beautiful idea and execute it in a clever, original way, but they are so fearful the reader will miss what they’ve put all this work into that they overdo it.

It’s like if someone were to tell you a joke, you laugh, and then they say, “Did you get it? Here, let me tell you why it was funny.” There’s never a reason to do this. If someone didn’t get your art without you telling them, then it failed. Telling them what it’s about doesn’t fix that. For everyone else, they already got it, so there is no need to re-explain it.

The example that jumps out to me the most is the movie A Single Man. I thought this movie was brilliant when it came out, but the ending made me cringe a little. A new character comes in right at the end and explains it all to you. I haven’t seen it since it was in theaters, so maybe I’d feel differently now.

The other way this manifests is in thoughts and exposition. I hate when a book explains how a character feels right after it was demonstrated.

Sally yelled, “I hate you!” Fred annoyed her so much, and she was beginning to hate him.

That’s obviously not a real example, and I exaggerated it to illustrate the point. But I’ve seen things almost this bad.

2. Alliteration. I have a theory about alliteration. When you’re in a flow state of writing, the brain makes a lot of weird connections. So when you get to a noun like “book” and you want more description, the brain naturally jumps to something like “boring” or “bothersome” or “bad.”

I have no evidence to support this theory. I’ve noticed in my own writing that this is when it tends to creep in. Don’t get me wrong. Alliteration is a literary device that can be used to great effect when done right. But if you find it in a first draft, it should pretty much never make it to the final draft. It was probably an accident.

I view the misuse of alliteration to be a mistake on par with a grammar mistake. I know this sounds unfair, since it’s only a prose style error. It falls under the category known as “diction.” I’m not sure why standards have gotten so lax in this category. You will never find this error in great writers of the past, but it’s everywhere now.

It’s hard to say what annoys me so much about it. I think it’s some combination of thinking about why it happens. It’s either laziness on the writer’s part or lack of knowledge on the writer’s part or laziness/lack of knowledge on the editor’s part or the writer ignoring the editor’s advice. All of these are pretty annoying reasons.

3. Semi-dangling modifiers. Okay. I made this up. It’s not a real thing. If a book is traditionally published, it should go through an editor good enough to not allow any actual dangling modifiers. A dangling modifier is when you start a sentence with a clause that modifies a subject not actually present in the sentence.

An example: Having eaten a large breakfast, lunch was unappetizing. The first clause has an implied person as its subject. The second clause has “lunch” as its subject. This is an easy fix: Having eaten a large breakfast, I found lunch unappetizing. Now the implied subject of the modifying clause matches the subject of the sentence.

Beginning with modifying clauses in general can be grating. If this were in something I was editing, I would strongly suggest the change: I found lunch unappetizing, because I ate a large breakfast. It converts the sentence from passive to active voice, and it clarifies the logic.

Now I’m going to pick on a real book to illustrate what I mean by “semi-dangling modifiers.” I’ve been reading The Bees by Laline Paull, and she does this all the time. I don’t want to pick on her too much, because I actually see this in a lot of what I read. I just happen to have that book on my desk right now. Chapter 21 begins with this sentence:

Shocked at her own act, Flora was among the first out.

When I read this, I had no idea what act it referred to, because I had put the book down at the chapter break. But let’s not dwell on that (this might be against 1 in trusting your reader too much by starting a chapter with a reference to the last event of the last chapter).

The modifier is not dangling, because Flora is the subject of the sentence. I call this “semi-dangling,” because the clause has no logical connection to the main sentence. When a sentence begins with any clause, it is implied that the sentence could be rearranged in a way to make it clear how the clause contains relevant information to the rest of the sentence. In the example I gave above, we learned why the I found lunch unappetizing.

In this example, the clause could be deleted without losing anything, and so it should be deleted! It’s semi-dangling in the sense that the clause itself never refers to something relevant to the rest of the sentence.

People, stop semi-dangling your modifiers. If the clause is irrelevant, delete it. If it is important information but has no logical connection to the res of the sentence, make it a whole new sentence.

Prismata Review

A few month’s ago I reviewed a game by David Sirlin called Codex. It is an attempt to convert a real-time strategy game, like StarCraft, into a card game. And it actually does a really good job (see the post for details).

I’ll try to not talk about StarCraft very long, because the words will be indecipherable to anyone who hasn’t played it (which is probably 99% of people reading this). There is a really old and interesting question about the game: if you strip away everything but the strategy aspect, is it still an interesting game?

This may sound weird to people unfamiliar with the game, because, well, it’s a real-time “strategy” game.

The first ridiculous thing when starting StarCraft is how much there is to learn. There’s probably close to a 100 hotkeys you have to know. There’s the tech tree structure. There’s around 60 units, each of which you should know cost, types of attacks, damage, health, shields, and what the spell-casting abilities are. Knowing those things, you’ll need to learn what counters what and why.

And you might be thinking, but I’ll just click through stuff during a game to find the information. There’s no need to memorize it. That brings up the other crazy aspect of the game: apm (actions per minute). You are going to have to have 200-300 apm (i.e. clicking or pressing a keyboard key 5 times per second on average for an entire 15+ minute match), so you just don’t have time to look stuff up during a match even though that information is available:

 

If you’re not a StarCraft player, hopefully you’re getting a sense of why the question doesn’t have an obvious answer. You have to play for months just to internalize the hotkeys and learn enough to get to the point of forming any sort of strategy.

If you strip out the memorization; If you strip out dividing the opponent’s attention and distracting them; If you strip out the fog of war; If you strip out having to execute 5 actions per second perfectly for an entire match: is there an interesting strategy game left? In other words, is the winner just someone who clicks faster?

Codex went a long way to answering that question in the affirmative. Sirlin brilliantly left in an aspect of the fog of war and tech trees. But the fact that it is a card game messes with the answer a little. There’s still some luck and some blind countering and some memorization to know what possible answers your opponent will have.

Okay, so this post is supposed to be about Prismata. To me, Prismata gives us a near perfect game for answering the question. There is absolutely no hidden information. All the units and their costs and their abilities are listed on the side at the start of the game. A beginner can play matches with slow enough time controls to carefully read all of this and formulate a plan before making moves.

As soon as your opponent buys a unit, it goes onto the board. So there is no random hidden information of shuffling it into a deck like Codex. Despite it’s appearance, Prismata is NOT a card game. There is no deck or randomness in gameplay at all.

The only randomness is in what units you are allowed to choose from during setup, and I think this is absolutely brilliant. In traditional strategy games like Chess or Go or even StarCraft, there are set openings that one must memorize to play at the top level because every game starts the same. This takes the strategy out of the opening.

In Prismata, every game is different. You have to look at the board you’ve been given and start planning a strategy on Turn 1. It’s a really exciting and fresh idea for a strategy game. It’s like if Chess or Go started with some randomized board state. You couldn’t go into a game with a plan to play a Queen’s gambit or the Kobayashi opening or something. You have to develop a plan on the fly based on the board. It’s a true battle of skill.

Before this review gets too far, I have to bring up the last comparison to Codex. Codex is a card/board game. There is no real online way to play. I played quite a bit by forum, and this might be tolerable for some people. The community is certainly very active, and you won’t have trouble finding a match. But it brought too much fatigue for me, and I stopped liking it for awhile.

Prismata is computer only (eventually through Steam and a separate client and web browser, though I’m not sure if all will continue to be supported after Steam release). If Codex had a computer version, it might compete for my attention. As it is, it’s a game that is played in person, occasionally.

Prismata has an excellent set of tutorials and basic bots and “story” to play through to get a newcomer up to speed. The game looks horrifically complicated, but it is actually very easy to learn and difficult to master. I promise if you play through the basic stuff, you’ll have a full grasp of the basics and even have a few basic strategic ideas. Do not be intimidated by a cluttered screenshot if this game sounds at all interesting to you.

Prismata is a game for people who like strategy and/or card games but who don’t like some of the ridiculous aspects of both. Many strategy games have too much hidden information to make good decisions or too much technical execution to execute a strategic plan. And card games, well, the online ones at least have way too much randomness. There’s also that super annoying way card games completely change every few months when new cards get released and you have to dump a ton of money into it to stay relevant.

Did I mention Prismata is true free to play? Since it’s not a card game, you’ll be playing the real game every game. Neither side will have an advantage merely from grinding out hundreds of hours or paying hundreds of dollars to unlock some legendary thing.

Right now, if you want to try it, you’ll need to request an alpha tester key here. It should release on Steam very soon, though, and I promise to reblog this with the link at the top to remind anyone interested.

The Carter Catastrophe

I’ve been reading Manifold: Time by Stephen Baxter. The book is quite good so far, and it presents a fascinating probabilistic argument that humans will go extinct in the near future. It is sometimes called the Carter Catastrophe, because Brandon Carter first proposed it in 1983.

I’ll use Bayesian arguments, so you might want to review some of my previous posts on the topic if you’re feeling shaky. One thing we didn’t talk all that much about is the idea of model selection. This is the most common thing scientists have to do. If you run an experiment, you get a bunch of data. Then you have to figure out the most likely reason for what you see.

Let’s take a basic example. We have a giant tub of golf balls, and we can’t see inside the tub. There could be 1 ball or a million. We’re told the owner accidentally dropped a red ball in at some point. All the other balls are the standard white golf balls. We decide to run an experiment where we draw a ball out, one at a time, until we reach the red one.

First ball: white. Second ball: white. Third ball: red. We stop. We’ve now generated a data set from our experiment, and we want to use Bayesian methods to give the probability of there being three total balls or seven or a million. In probability terms, we need to calculate the probability that there are x balls in the tub given that we drew the red ball on the third draw. Any time we see this language, our first thought should be Bayes’ theorem.

Define A_i to be the model of there being exactly i balls in the tub. I’ll use “3” inside of P( ) to be the event of drawing the red ball on the third try. We have to make a finiteness assumption, and although this is one of the main critiques of the argument, we can examine what happens as we let the size of the bound grow. Suppose for now the tub can only hold 100 balls.

A priori, we have no idea how many balls are in there, so we’ll assume all “models” are equally likely. This means P(A_i)=1/100 for all i. By Bayes’ theorem we can calculate:

P(A_3|3) = \frac{P(3|A_3)P(A_3)}{(\sum_{i=1}^{100}P(3|A_i)P(A_i))}

\frac{(1/3)(1/100)}{(1/100)\sum_{i=3}^{100}1/i} \approx 0.09

So there’s around a 9% chance that there are only 3 balls in the tub. That bottom summation remains exactly the same when computing P(A_n | 3) for any n and equals about 3.69, and the (1/100) cancels out every time. So we can compute explicitly that for n > 3:

P(A_n|3)\approx \frac{1}{n}(0.27)

This is a decreasing function of n, and this shouldn’t be surprising at all. It says that as we guess there are more and more balls in the tub, the probability of that guess goes down. This makes sense, because it’s unreasonable to think we’d see the red one that early if there are actually 100 balls in the tub.

There’s lots of ways to play with this. What happens if our tub could hold millions but we still assume a uniform prior? It just takes all the probabilities down, but the general trend is the same: It becomes less and less reasonable to assume large amounts of total balls given that we found the red one so early.

You could also only care about this “earliness” idea and redo the computations where you ask how likely is A_n given that we found the red ball by the third try. This is actually the more typical way the problem is formulated in the Doomsday arguments. It’s more complicated, but the same idea pops out, and this should make intuitive sense.

Part of the reason these computations were somewhat involved is because we tried to get a distribution on the natural numbers. But we could have tried to compare heuristically to get a super clear answer (homework for you). What if we only had two choices “small number of total balls (say 10)” or “large number of total balls (say 10,000)”? You’d find there is around a 99% chance that the “small” hypothesis is correct.

Here’s the leap. Now assume the fact that you exist right now is random. In other words, you popped out at a random point in the existence of humans. So the totality of humans to ever exist are the white balls and you are the red ball. The same type of argument above applies, and it says that the most likely thing is that you aren’t born at some super early point in human history. In fact, it’s unreasonable from a probabilistic standpoint to think that humans will continue much longer at all given your existence.

The “small” total population of humans is far, far more likely than the “large” total population, and the interesting thing is that this remains true even if you mess with the uniform prior. You could assume it is much more likely a priori for humans to continue to make improvements and colonize space and develop vaccines giving a higher prior for the species existing far into the future. But unfortunately the Bayesian argument will still pull so strongly in favor of humans ceasing to exist in the near future that one must conclude it is inevitable and will happen soon!

Anyway. I’m travelling this week, so I’m sorry if there are errors in those calculations. I was in a hurry and never double checked them. The crux of the argument should still make sense even if you don’t get my exact numbers. There’s also a lot of interesting and convincing rebuttals, but I don’t have time to get into them now (including the fact that unlikely hypotheses turn out to be true all the time).

Year of Short Fiction Part 4: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of those weird cultural staples that literally everyone has heard of it. Most people over a certain age have probably seen the movie, but ask them what it’s about, and they probably have no idea. It’s kind of fascinating to think how a novella/film gets to such a point. I can’t even think of another cultural phenomenon of this type.

I was pretty excited going into this for a few reasons. I, too, had seen the movie enough years ago to not remember it. Oh, there’s the long cigarette, and a crazy cat, and a wacky party girl, and singing “Moon River,” but what was it about? What was the plot? The other reason I was excited was that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is one of two books that have ever made me cry. The way he writes is breathtaking.

The first thing to jump out at me was the vulgarity of the language. It was published in 1958, so we’ve moved past short fiction that hides indiscretions. But I still must imagine this novella pushed what was acceptable for the time. It openly talks about prostitution and homosexuality and a 14-year-old girl getting married to an adult man. Plus, Holly’s language is very direct and crude (I don’t recall if she swears, though).

Lolita came out a few years before Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Tiffany’s doesn’t compare in disturbing imagery to that. So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. It had more to do with tone than imagery, though.

The novella is basically a long character study, and it does an excellent job at this. Holly has to be one of the strangest characters of all time. Capote’s attention to detail is incredible. Almost every sentence that has Holly in it is crafted to expose some tiny piece of how her mind works. An early example is that the location on her business card is: traveling.

At first, it comes off as chaos. Nothing about the character makes sense, and the sentences she speaks come out in a stream-of-consciousness level of confusion. But then, by about halfway or so, she’ll do something weird, and you find yourself thinking: that’s so Holly. There appears to be a deep internal logic to it. Holly feels very real and knowable.

The plot itself is fairly melodramatic. It goes by at rapid-fire pace. This short novella has Holly being in love with and engaged to several people. She travels to probably a dozen places, often not even in the U.S. There’s parties. She’s involved with a scheme to smuggle drugs orchestrated by a man in prison. She gets pregnant and miscarries. It’s almost impossible to take stock of all that happens in this, and there’s almost no real emotion behind any of it.

Capote clearly did this on purpose. Holly’s character is flighty, and she often jumps into things without any thought. If we think of the novella as a character study, then all these crazy events occurring is part of the brilliance of the novella. The plot doesn’t have weight for the main character, so it would be a mistake to have the events play a significant role to the reader. Holly moves on, and so should the reader.

And now we come full circle. No one remembers the plot to Breakfast at Tiffany’s by design. We’re only meant to remember Holly. Even her last name is “Golightly.”

The only moments of emotional poignancy are when the narrator reflects on it all, and when we see beneath Holly’s shell. He falls in love with Holly for real (this is a bit of a theme to the book: what is love?). This is quite well done, because it contrasts so starkly with Holly’s indifference and shows how devastating her indifference can be as she tears through people’s lives.

Capote gives Holly one piece of depth that prevents her from being some caricature of a socialite. She cares deeply about her brother, and it is probably the only real human connection she’s ever had. A lot of her carefree attitude stems from a disturbing fact dropped subtly in tiny details. She runs from human connection because of the psychological trauma of being a child bride.

Overall, the novella was way better than I expected in terms of character development. It was also sort of disappointing in a way. I went in expecting it to be a romance between the narrator and Holly done in a brilliant literary Capote-esque way. It’s not that at all. But once you get over the initial shock (and genre confusion), it’s brilliant.

The Book of the New Sun

It took me three months, but I finally finished The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. It was published as four novels, but it is clearly one giant novel. Each one practically ends in the middle of a sentence, and none are standalone. There’s so much to say about this, and yet it basically defies talking about.

The initial critical reception was quite good. It was published throughout 1980-1983. So it fits into a transition time for SF/F. The pulps had died off by this point and a lot experimentation happened in the 60’s and 70’s, but the genre hadn’t fully evolved into the literary phenomenon that it would become by the end of the 90’s.

This book is very much ahead of its time in this sense. The Washington Post said Gene Wolfe is “the finest writer the science fiction world has yet produced.” Maybe. But the genre has taken the best of both worlds: fast-paced genre action/adventure/fun and quality literary writing that imparts deeper meaning on subsequent readings.

Anyone who has been reading this blog for any sufficient amount of time will know my views on abstract, difficult, or avant-garde art, especially writing and music. I love it. I love having to dig in and listen to a piece of music 10+ times to start to understand what’s going on.

These types of pieces often give the listener the most rewarding artistic experiences. As DFW once said (I paraphrase), art is a relationship between artist and viewer. Relationships can’t be meaningful if all the work is done by one side. The more you put into experiencing a work of art, the more you get out of it.

Anyway, I won’t rehash that argument any further. My views when it comes to long novels have evolved a bit. There’s something of a difference between getting more on repeated readings and requiring multiple readings. It’s a respect thing. I respect an artist who promises more depth on another visit. An artist is disrespecting my time if I spend three months experiencing their art only to be told at the end that I can’t have understood it on the first time and I absolutely must spend another three months rereading it to make that first time around meaningful.

So that’s where The Book of the New Sun ends. The novel intentionally draws the reader out of the story many times. Two of the most difficult points for me were the long play within the novel in Book 2 and the sequence of short stories told by various characters in Book 4. Yes, I get that they are vital pieces to that underlying secret story that couldn’t be understood the first time. But they’re pretty obnoxious if you aren’t on that second read.

Overall, don’t let this dissuade you from reading these. The first read is pretty good outside of those complaints and a few meandering bits. The futuristic society Wolfe creates is shockingly deep and remains fresh and original today despite the number of dystopian/dying earth novels that have come out since then.

The writing is incredible. Wolfe is often too good I’d say. First off, he has created an SF/F series with a bunch of weird terms that sound oddly fitting. It turns out that every strange word in the book is actually a legitimate English word that has fallen to the wayside of history. This is an incredible idea to create both an ancient, strange sound that also feels very familiar. Same thing with the names of characters. They look all fantasy-like, but they are all names that were common at one point in history but have fallen out of fashion.

The dense, precise writing often challenges the reader to stay in the story rather than contemplate what it says:

War is not a new experience; it is a new world. Its inhabitants are more different from human beings than Famulimus and her friends. Its laws are new, and even its geography is new, because it is a geography in which insignificant hills and hollows are lifted to the importance of cities.

Many genre writers, to the extent that they think about prose, might want to show the horror of war by having the description be short, choppy, and crude like the thing it is describing. How many times have you read something like: “War is hell—horror everywhere. It changes your world.” This is lazy and cliched writing.

Wolfe’s elegant imagery does so much to bring the terror to the readers mind. War is a new world. This hinges on the cliche, but the followup prose doubles down on the imagery by precisely describing the geography of this new world: insignificant hills are lifted to the importance of cities. I get chills when I’m transported to such a devastating world. And then I’m off thinking about this and pulled out of the story. It’s almost a catch-22: write too well and it might be a distraction to the reader. I’m only half joking about this.

The astute reader is presented with some difficulties early on. The narrator claims to have a perfect memory. Later on, we start to get contradictory information about what happened. So either he lied about his memory or he’s lying to us about parts. This isn’t a logic puzzle. We have 100% confidence that the narrator is unreliable at that point, which puts the reader in an awkward position.

Since I recently read Imajica, I was struck by the similarities. I’m pretty sure Barker was not inspired by New Sun, but the archetypes and structure are the same. Barker has the Reconciliation and Wolfe has the Conciliator. I guess these, or similar terms, are bound to come up in any grand savior plot.

Will I reread this? I’m not sure. It won’t be anytime soon for sure. Do I recommend it? I’ll cautiously say yes. It’s very, very good. As Neil Gaiman said, “The best SF novel of the last century.” I’m not willing to go that far.

My main reservation is that you’ll certainly struggle at points, and you might be disappointed that everything changes at the end, requiring another reading. On the other hand, if you want to sink a few years of your life into discovering the hidden depths of an excellently written book, this is probably your best bet (seriously, peruse urth.net for a half hour to see the truth of this).

 

Amber Run: Pop Done Right

Let me tell you about a band you probably haven’t heard of. Amber Run is an indie pop/rock band from Nottingham. I accidentally discovered them a little over a year ago on some random Google Play station (yes, I might have said, “OK Google, play good music” just to see what would happen).

Amber Run’s debut album 5AM has probably been one of my most listened to albums since I discovered it. Their latest release, For a Moment, I was Lost, came out last month. It is a bit of a departure from from the first. I won’t be reviewing these albums. This post is more an examination of what they’re doing right.

Most pop songs follow a standard pattern. There is an introduction followed by a sparse instrumentation first verse, a chorus, a heavier instrumentation second verse, a bigger repeat of the chorus, a bridge that changes things up, a climax/guitar solo, end on the chorus.

A lot of popular songs on the radio often do a poor job at this. I think this attention to detail on building up instrumentation and texture is a lost art. It has to be interesting and subtle. Sudden instrument or pattern changes can feel unnatural and jarring. The song will lose its flow. This means a lot of modern pop bands skip this.

Certainly on 5AM, Amber Run nail this. It’s somewhat hard to describe in words. All these little transitions between all the segments I listed above are done with incredible finesse. I think of it like watching a flower bloom in time lapse. It goes from a closed, tight sound and opens up in one smooth motion. All of a sudden we have a much bigger and completely different thing. But it makes perfect sense how we got there.

Let’s break one of their songs down from that album:

It begins with a bass pluck on the beat every beat and the guitar has a sparse chord pattern. The drums play a very simple and straightforward rock pattern. There’s some light electronic sound enhancements. As we end the first verse, we get this “bloom” into something new. The drum pattern gets slightly more complicated with a harder snare on 2 and 4. The sound fills out with full guitar chords. The bass does basically the same thing, but it shouldn’t be all that different at this point.

We then get the next bloom with a more dance rhythm in the drums. The band fades down in a sort of fake out to the bridge transition. Here the feel is completely different but in a natural way. The chord progression is the same, but the pattern is a simplified version from the opening. We only have high hat in the drums.

But then it blooms again into this vastly different thing. This thing keeps building by adding texture through vocal harmony. This doesn’t exactly follow the pattern I wrote above, but what I’d strongly suggest is listening to the beginning and end without the middle. The song progresses so much that it’s kind of hard to believe it could change that much, but in the context of the song everything flowed as if it couldn’t have progressed in a different way.

And pretty much every Amber Run song on this album plays out this way. These little bloom transitions bring you to completely unexpected places without it being sudden or jarring. This leads to some truly stunning moments.

The other thing I really like about Amber Run is how they develop their smooth melodies with complicated harmonization. Melodic development is one of those concepts taught in music composition school almost immediately, but you rarely hear it in pop music. Often bands just repeat their melodies once they have them.

Amber Run establish their melodies, but then when they repeat they sometimes get embellished with extra notes (the most common type of development). But sometimes they use more complicated development by inserting pieces of the melody in a different part of the scale and extending the melodic line by a measure or two (a technique called fragmentation). If done properly, this adds tension and direction to a song unlike many pop songs that feel very static.

I could go on about many other things they do well, but I think that’s enough. Here’s a song off their new album. Listen for those brilliant blooms into new ideas and how the melody embellishes and adds intensity and direction. The song starts so subtle and ends at such an intense place. It’s quite remarkable:

Thoughts on Arrival

Warning 1: Whatever my opinion of this movie, I warn you to not read this post before seeing it. I’m warning you. There are major spoilers, and these are the types of spoilers that don’t merely reveal some plot twist. These reveals will irrevocably altar the way you experience the movie to an extent where you will be robbed of being able to form an your own opinion.

WARNING 2: I’ve warned you. Do not let your eyes drift down this page if you haven’t seen this movie.

For those of you who are still reading for some reason, despite not having seen the movie, I’ll start with a few non-spoiler things I didn’t like to give you a chance to click that x in the upper right corner of the screen while you have the chance. Do it!

First off, the movie was terribly derivative. It’s hard to think of single thing in the whole film that isn’t just a copy of something already done in some other “first contact” story. I know that “everything’s been done” (supposedly). But if you’re going to pick a story that’s really been done a hundred times, please, please, have something truly new and interesting. More on this later when I’m allowed to start spoiling.

The characters and their motivations seemed really weak. After some thought, I identified the problem. Theme must emerge from story and characterization. Arrival put theme before characters. So when humans freaked out that the aliens arrived and started trying to wage war and division everywhere, it didn’t seem all that motivated.

People planted bombs and cut off communication in order to show that humans are these terrible war-driven species. In other words, the writer(s) knew they wanted to get this across and so showed it. Instead, they should have had a story with a strong flow and sense of character in which that theme emerged. Also, they hired this linguist to do her job and then opposed her ideas every step of the way. This was unmotivated, artificial resistance to create conflict: a terrible narrative device.

Okay. Now on to some of the things that really bothered me. How the hell did they crack the written language? The entire premise of the movie hinges on them being able to read the words with high accuracy and specificity (remember that scene where they translated “weapon” and everyone freaked out?).

Seriously. I wrote a novel with an unknown written language, so I spent a huge amount of time thinking about this. Despite spending a thousand years and having a whole library of this language with books with pictures, I came to the conclusion that the researchers would get essentially nowhere.

So how the hell did these few people, in a matter of weeks, figure out pretty much everything (including highly abstract words like “time”)? The language doesn’t even have an order or grammar to it. They never left the spaceship. That means they were never pointing to a tree and writing “tree.”

I know this seems like some trivial thing: suspend your disbelief, etc. But I can’t. If this was 90% of the movie, it would have been the coolest first contact movie ever. That’s how interesting and difficult and original the idea would have been. Instead, they skip over the only interesting thing and pretend like it was so trivial that it wasn’t worth mentioning. It’s impossible they figured this out and renders the whole rest of the movie worthless.

Let’s return for a moment to the lack of characterization. Are we really supposed to believe that the two main characters fell in love? They never once flirt. They never even crack a smile at each other for all I remember. They never hold hands. Chemistry never develops between them.

Now, this would have been fine if one of the last lines wasn’t: “Do you want to have my baby?” Um. What? The most obvious reply should have been, “You creep. Who asks that? Get away from me.”

Since we see lots of events after the alien part of the movie, they could have flashed forward to a place where he says this, and then we would fill in all the lovey-dovey stuff in our minds. It would have been way less creepy. Or, they could have done a better job at developing the romance.

I get that she can see the future, and he has just learned that, so he knows that she already knows if they have a baby. That makes it ever so slightly less creepy. But not really. Why would that be the first thing you ask? Why not just ask her on a date or something?

Now that we’ve broached the topic of the twist of the movie, let’s dig into that. It doesn’t so much bother me that the premise of the movie rests on a sketchy theory, namely that language affects how you perceive the world. Plenty of great SF take cool theories to their extremes (including ones I’ve written).

What does trouble me is that every interpretation of the form of time travel the main character gains leads to major problems. The least plausible interpretation is that she can actually travel to and live in future and past places of her life.

This is problematic because it basically implies immortality. Are you about to die? Then just go live an earlier part of your life out. Plus, there’s all the time travel paradoxes that would arise. If you actually relive it, then presumably you can change things. That’s a problem for obvious reasons.

A more charitable understanding is that she can merely access “memories” of future events. The movie makes it seem like they must be her own memories, but that seems to cause problems for the aliens who seem to know events 3000 years in the future. But whatever, let’s say the aliens are more advanced, so they have memories of future events regardless of point of view.

This still leaves some problems, like in the future, when meeting the Chinese general, she doesn’t remember calling him, despite it necessarily having happened already. This makes it seem like it isn’t a mere memory of the future but an actual living out of that moment (and we’ve already said this is a problem). So let’s assume it’s a mere memory of the future and not a living out, despite the problems that causes with the movie.

What does it mean to access a memory of a future event that doesn’t happen? It’s a paradox. If she has the choice to not have her baby, then she could choose not to have it based on knowing her daughter will die early. But then not having the baby would erase the memory of her daughter dying young, and so she wouldn’t have a reason not to have it. This means she would choose to have it. Woops. It’s an endless cycle that creates a paradox.

Okay. So let’s say she can’t choose. The future is set. That undermines the entire message of the movie, which is that she chooses life in the face of struggle. Plus, this choice aspect of the movie is voiced by several characters (it’s the reason Ian leaves). There is no way the writers want you to interpret the movie as some argument against free will.

As you see, the movie does the opposite of good SF. Good SF, like Primer, makes you super confused, but as you think deeply about it, you gain clarity. You realize it really does make sense. Arrival does the opposite. It seems deep and interesting at first, but the deeper you think about it, the more it unravels as nonsense.

I know a lot, and I mean a lot, of people really, really loved this movie. So my question is: why? It’s paradoxical. It’s derivative. The characterization is shallow. The plot has major holes. It’s hard for me to think of a single thing someone would have liked about it.

Is it just that people haven’t seen really interesting SF, like Primer, for example, so they don’t see this for what it is? They’re blown away by the twist ending, so they don’t think any deeper and just believe it to be as deep as their initial intuition leads them to believe?

This actually troubled me enough that I had a hard time sleeping after watching it. It’s sort of my job to understand what people like in stories, so to not be able to think of anything that makes this movie worth watching (other than the brilliant cinematography, seriously, that DP deserves a bonus) while millions loved it is very troubling to me.

 

Everyone Should Write a Romance Novel Once

When I say “everyone” should write a romance, I mean everyone who wants to write in some genre whether it be literary or sci-fi or otherwise. I’ll start with the obvious: most novels have some sort of romance subplot in them. It’s always a good idea to do focused practice to get better at something. How many times have you cringed at the romance subplot of an otherwise good novel? Probably more than once.

But there are some less obvious reasons to do this exercise (and no, it doesn’t have to be a full novel or even good). I, and many other writers, get caught up in certain aspects of the craft. I tend to over-analyze and polish prose, as can be seen with the several dozen posts I’ve done here only looking at prose style. I’m also into plot, and I think most writers start a project because they are excited about a plot idea.

Now you might be thinking: what else is there? Exactly. That’s why you need this exercise. Romance novels almost universally ignore both prose style and plot. I know I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that, but just go look at the top few romances on Amazon. Browse the first few pages for free. The number 1 book for months and months has been Everything We Keep. The prose is almost laugh-out-loud funny, so clearly readers of the genre don’t care about that stuff.

This means you’ll be free to focus on other aspects of writing that often get ignored. The thing romance does well is create memorable, interesting characters. You’ll need to focus on characterization a lot.

Dialogue is very important as well. The dialogue should create tension and chemistry between the characters. Dialogue has to push the story forward by constantly revealing things. You can’t have a bunch of stiff “shoe leather” dialogue about the weather and small talk and greetings (unless its a historical where that type of thing might reveal status).

Lastly, setting description will be important. Romance readers want to be transported somewhere. This is a common focus of many other genres as well, but it’s one of the reasons so many romances take place in the lush countryside of Ireland or some Duke’s castle.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to write your romance. You are not to focus on plot. This has been predetermined. Pull up a random word generator. Here’s your plot. Answer the following questions using the random words. I’ll give sample answers.

How do they meet? Ans: “Dove”

Opening scene: They are both walking in a park and they stop on opposite sides of a pond to watch a dove. The dove flies off and poops on male lead. The female lead laughs. They meet eyes. He storms off.

Why can’t they be together? Ans: “Advocate” re-roll “Crop” So advocate for farming rights?

Male lead is a lobbyist for Monsanto-like corporation. Female lead is an activist against his company.

Next set of scenes: They meet at some high roller D.C. party, and she has infiltrated it with an attempt to wreck chaos as a form of protest. Right before she does it, they meet eyes across the room. He goes up and confronts her about laughing at him. Chemistry ensues. Early signs of love. Then she does her protest, and they realize they can’t be together.

They keep meeting up, falling more and more in love. They try to make it work despite their differences. There will be a sex scene or at least a kiss depending on how graphic you go. Eventually something so bad must happen that it seems they won’t be together.

You can use another random word here, or just tie it to what you have. Probably here it would be something like female lead makes male lead promise he won’t cross the line with some legislation. He promises, but gets caught in a no-win situation and crosses that line. She finds out and breaks it off. A scene or two of wallowing ensues.

Then there needs to be a proof of love scene. Here it’s easy. Male lead devises a way to kill the legislation, but it costs him his job. But that’s okay. Female lead is worth it. They live happily ever after. I know. This sounds suspiciously like The American President, but I swear those were my random words. And if you break down any romance, you’re going to find the same outline.

To recap, the form is easy. The leads meet. Only after some serious chemistry do they find a difficulty with their relationship. They make it work for a time despite this. Then something bad happens, and they seem to be permanently broken up. But then one proves their love for the other by sacrificing something important. They live happily ever after.

At any point that you can’t figure out what to do, use the random word generator. Throw some twists in with it. Do not, under any circumstances, spend a ton of time on the plot or prose. Get the characters and chemistry and dialogue and setting right. You’ll want to throw in a few side characters as well. Figure out their personalities with your word generator.

Side character 1: “Shark” So female lead has friend obsessed with sharks, maybe so much so that it offers comic relief. They sometimes protest together certain environmental causes, and this is how they met.

Side character 2: “Drunken” Male lead has alcoholic best friend. We see some of male lead’s redeeming qualities that female lead doesn’t see when he helps this friend in a scene.

I’ll end by reiterating that I do not believe this is how all romances are written. I’m not trying to make fun of them by doing this. The point is to forget about plot and prose as an exercise in generating interesting characters with chemistry and strong dialogue. So often these things get overlooked in other genres.

Also, it’s an exercise. Please do not publish this under any circumstances unless you take the time to make it good. The Amazon self-publishing scene is flooded enough with weak novels as it is.

Thoughts on Barker’s Imajica

I believe I read a Clive Barker novel about fifteen years ago, but I have no idea what it was. A few years ago, I read some of his short stories, and this reinforced the conception I had of Barker as a horror writer, which isn’t really my thing. Still, Imajica came up on my radar for some reason, and I decided to give it a go.

Wow. I’m so glad I did. It’s going to be fairly difficult to describe anything about this book. It’s very weird, but in a wildly inventive and wonderful way. There are some gory images here and there, but I’d most certainly not classify it as horror. It’s more of a surrealist examination of spirituality? So kind of like The Holy Mountain.

I’ll try to set up the premise to give you an idea of the bizarre-ness, though, the whole point of the novel shifts by about 1/10 of the way through it. There’s Five Dominions. Earth, as we humans know it, is the Fifth Dominion. We’ve never seen these other magical places.

There’s a longtime conspiracy of people (I use this term lightly) making up a secret society to keep the Fifth Dominion separate from the other four. There is a way in though.

The novel begins with a man who is so in love with a woman, Judith, that he hires an assassin to kill her after she breaks up with him (obviously so she can’t be with anyone else). He has second thoughts and contacts Judith’s ex, Gentle, to stop the assassin. He succeeds. The assassin, Pie, is a being from one of these other dominions that doesn’t really have a gender. It becomes basically whatever it’s lover wants to see in it.

Pie seduces Gentle by appearing to be Judith. Gentle learns of what it did, and Pie takes Gentle into the other dominions. They gradually fall in love. Also, a billion other things are going on by this point, so don’t think that’s “really” the story. It’s about revelation, separation, unity, isolation, love, sex, power, God, redemption, finding meaning, culture, and on and on.

Don’t panic. It’s not done in a way that tries to be about everything and ends up being about nothing. This novel really tackles the big questions in a focused and metaphorical way. It just so happens that these big questions encompass all those other things.

Here’s some things I think the book does really well. There is a gigantic amount of information hidden to the reader: the conspiracy, how these other dominions run, the cultures there, the background on the conflicts, why the Fifth is separated, and so on.

Barker manages to slip this information to the reader in gradual and subtle doses over 600 pages or more. This means the novel stays story centric and engaging with almost no information dumps. It’s actually kind of brilliant how he does this. Often, you will hear things that make no sense. This causes you to reconcile your view of what’s going on with your existing theory. It’s only after you’ve done this many times that the full picture comes into focus.

Another thing I didn’t expect was how good the prose was. I expected genre horror writing full of stock prose: nothing bad but nothing great either. Instead, I found excellent execution of register shifting (often thought to be the most advanced and subtle techniques of prose style).

Register shifts refer to changing the type of language used to adapt to a situation. For example, if you’re hanging out with some friends, you might say, “‘Sup?” This is an informal register. If you’re at a job interview, you might say, “Hello. How are you doing? It is very good to meet you.” This is a formal register.

The thing that makes this so difficult in prose writing is that the context of scene must determine the proper register. When you first try to do this, it will probably be overdone, and this will change the voice. It must be done with enough subtlety so the voice remains consistent and only the register of the voice changes.

Most people will never notice if a writer has done this well. It is usually obvious when a writer doesn’t do it or overdoes it. We tend to say the writing fell “flat” in an absence of register shifts (a great term because there weren’t any up or down shifts in register).

The register tends to reflect the dominion we’re in. This is because as the dominions get closer to the First, the people get closer to God. The register shifts up to indicate the formality and ritualistic nature of religion. Take an early scene.

Gentle took off his heavy coat and laid it on the chair by the door, knowing when he returned it would be warm and covered with cat hairs. Klein was already in the living room, pouring wine. Always red.

This is quite low. There’s even a sentence fragment. The sentences are simple and to the point. The descriptors are common.

Now take a midway scene in a different dominion.

Like the theater districts of so many great cities across the Imajica, whether in Reconciled Dominions or in the Fifth, the neighborhood in which the Ipse stood had been a place of some notoriety in earlier times, when actors of both sexes had supplemented their wages with the old five-acter—hiring, retiring, seduction, conjunction, and remittance—all played hourly, night and day.

This single sentence is almost double the length of the entire three sentences above. The structure is quite complicated: subordinate clause, appositive, etc. This is an elevated register. The same sentence in a lower register would be “Whores could be found on the streets of the city in which the Ipse stood.” We could lower it even more or raise it to more formal levels than what was written. But it strikes a delicate balance of beautiful description in elevated voice.

I know it’s kind of mind-boggling to think that Barker did all this, but I noticed it early and then paid close attention. It is consistent throughout, which makes me think it is not some accident or coincidence.

Lastly, the symbolism is amazing. It draws on and reinterprets many famous Biblical stories. I can’t get into it, because I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read the book. It is some of the best of this type of writing I’ve seen. It isn’t so direct as to be cringe-worthy, and it is all done in an inventive re-imagining.

It’s kind of sad I didn’t read this during my Year of Giant Novels. It possibly would have been the Number 1 book of the year.