Sarah Palin Parking Lot

Fascinating on all sorts of levels.

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via DangerousMinds

Franklin Sherman spins on the floor for ten minutes

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I sort of know how he feels.

Advice on writing a novel, part five

Part Five: Research

Writers need to be omniscient as far as their writings go.

Any sentence in your book needs to be justified. If you don’t know what the hell you are talking about, don’t write the sentence. In general, you need to know more about what you are writing than anyone likely to be reading it, and be able to pass muster with those who do know more than you.

A book is a world the reader enters. The experience must be complete. Seamless. Ideally, the reader is actually paying attention, and will notice if things don’t make any sense. Holes in the fabric of the tale woven ruin the reader’s experience. Stupid gaps in a narrative’s logic tell a reader they may as well not bother. The author is not up to maintaining their end of the bargain.

Every plot point needs to be solid, especially important ones. You can maybe get away with not being sure about less important points; but if they aren’t important, why are they there in the first place?

What all this means is that tonnes of the work of writing is in research. Research is pound for pound going to take up at least as much time as the actual writing. (This is one reason they say write what you know… if you already know it, you don’t have to research it.) Luckily, finding out shit is half the fun. There is an arcane joy to be had in suddenly realising it is vitally important you understand something utterly obscure to make sense of a character’s decision, and then going off to figure it out. Life, the universe, and everything is pretty interesting. Some parts are more obviously interesting than others, but hell, basically anything is pretty fascinating once you scratch beneath the surface.

You will probably never use most of what you come to learn while researching. (It has to come out somewhere. Thus writers make wonderful, if potentially insufferable and boorish, dinner party guests.) There is definitely a line beyond which the returns diminish – you need to know when to grit your teeth and just write – take the leap, enter the flow, and make shit up where necessary. And you will discover that all that painstaking detail you have learned will in fact be omitted to make the story flow. But what is left out is what makes things work as much as what you put in. What matters is that it makes sense. That it has the feel of a tangible whole. This quality – and its absence – is obvious on reading.

Another way to approach research is the understanding that, from the point of view of writing, everything is material. Every random fact, perspective, or experience, can someday find a home in a piece of writing. Be interested in everything. Insatiable curiosity is a strength in a writer. Notice things. Wonder why. (I think Burroughs’ first piece of advice to writers came down to “keep your damn eyes open”.)

But yeah. As fun as research is, you got to sweat blood out your eyeballs and write something someday…

[See the earlier parts in this series: 1, 2, 3, and 4.]

dark matter

We have blogged about dark matter a few years back, and have been tracking it a little as it is interesting if mysterious stuff.

One of the people actually doing the research on which dark matter is based, and so actually well placed to talk about it, is Professor Robert Kirshner from Harvard. Last week I went along to see him speak.

He talked about his research measuring the expansion of the universe via searching for supernovae and measuring their brightness and distance, and how this leads to detecting dark matter and dark energy.

Basically, the expansion of the cosmos should have slowed down due to the effect of gravity. While billions of years ago the expansion of the cosmos was decelerating, the convergence of data is that the expansion of the cosmos is currently accelerating. For this to make sense, there needs to be a lot more matter than we can detect pulling on things.

Hence, cold dark matter, about which little is known, beyond that it is estimated to make up 23% of the universe (as opposed to the 4% of the universe which is “normal” matter, which, according to quantum physics, is frankly in itself pretty peculiar and unknowable stuff*). And dark energy, about which even less is known, but is estimated to be 73% of the universe. The history of the universe can now be seen as a history of the struggle between gravity and dark energy.

There isn’t a hell of a lot to add since so little is known. But it was cool to go through the process of discovery in detail with someone who gets it, rather than reading brief and bizarre articles, and to get a taste of science actually living its myth of exploring the frontiers of knowledge to get us closer to truth**.

Today dark flow appeared on my radar again. Basically, a bunch of galaxies are accelerating away in a particular direction that indicates something really big is attracting them, maybe another universe.

Anyway. Humbling. Stuff is Big. We don’t know much. Be nice. In fact, let’s quote Kurt Vonnegut, who got this particularly right.

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

* I would seriously recommend The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav as the best book on physics I have read. There have been a few over the years, so there was a certain amount of scaffolding to build on, but Zukav communicates things clearer and better than anyone else I have encountered.

** If you take exception to that statement, go read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.

culture notes

* Mamma Mia is a really good musical. This surprised me given how painfully shit the movie had been, and I really wish I had seen the musical first. But yeah. Lots of fun, and it is actually about something. The humour and emotion come through on stage in a way that the film failed to capture. A random experience and a good reminder of how much I like musical as a medium, and the power of something live on stage.

* Am now up to date with Dollhouse. (Just in time for the news that Dollhouse has been more or less cancelled – the rest of series 2 will still go to air, but unless there’s a ratings miracle, there will be no series 3. Gah.) Whedon delivers again with the good TV. Even if individual episodes sometimes don’t entirely add up in their push for One More Twist, the potential thematics and moral black hole being explored through the premise are fascinating, the ensemble cast is pretty cool, and Amy Acker makes facial scarification far too hot.

(With my antipathy to spoilers, I had actually been really regretting watching Episode 13 of season one. (It was not broadcast, but was on the DVD.) I suspect they made it when they didn’t know if they were being picked up for another season, and so far season two is developing beat for beat along the lines laid out along the future portrayed in ep13… so if they really don’t get another season, I guess we have some sense where it was going.)

* Saw Muntu, an African play, which was basically a symbolic history of the Africa’s and its interaction with the world in fast-forward, and thoroughly good shit.

* Discovered that Dust of Dreams, Book 9 (of 10) of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, was out, and have spent the subsequent few days plowing through it. Coming back to the genre after a decade away, this is the series that has totally redefined epic fantasy for me. Colossal in every way – including its historical, religious, philosophic perspectives – if goddamn bleak at times. Complex, deep, humorous, twisted and wonderful. Dust of Dreams is part one of the finale, and seems to be setting up one hell of a world-reshaping chaotic bloodbath. Now would be a good time to get on board, as you could probably read the series before #10 comes out… if you felt like reading 8000 pages or so…

meaningful work

Showed the doco to KB reps last night and got the content signed off on. There is a bunch more to do on that project, but hopefully my role is more administrative from here on out. Getting the doco to this point, and finishing the draft of the nonfic and getting it to a point where it can be submitted to publishers (there is more to go on that project too, but again hopefully more administrative stuff and minor touch ups) has been the focus of, well, the past couple of years, since my brother died.

And I have definitely resisted taking on new projects and commitments since then. I didn’t start another band when This Charming Mystery folded last year. I have avoided becoming integral to any of the worthy community projects underway.

All in all, this opens up many questions (why am I in Wellington? What am I doing? Why?) which all sort of subsume into the question “what now?” Travel has been the default goal for a while now. Which leads to the need for some money to travel. Which likely leads to the question of paid work. Which is something that circumstance has allowed me to avoid for a long time.

For a long time now I have been engaged in projects that have eaten my life but I have felt were worthy. That sense of worth and usefulness is pretty fundamental. It is extremely difficult to conceive of doing anything without that – or some corresponding – sense of valuation to my actions. Acting in accordance with my values – following my bliss, in Joseph Campbell’s language – makes an incalculable contribution to my experience of life. (Maybe “acting consciously” is a good synonym.) Abandoning that seems untenable. Life just seems too short to be acting in a way which doesn’t accord with my fundamental beliefs about what is important; life is definitely too damn short to do stuff that is not worth doing. (My feeling about this is probably coloured by watching my brother going from healthy to degenerating and dying in a span of years.)

A lot of people seem to get that the system is fucked, but be less certain about what to be doing about it; embedded in the trade-off between work and the freedom money buys to do what they want, but unsure how to shift their work to something they find meaningful. And the irony is there is a tonne of really worthwhile stuff to do, that I would happily do, but it seems harder to get paid to do it than doing meaningless work in a capacity which perpetuates a broken unsustainable system I disagree with.

I am not the only one thinking along these lines. For instance, this random blog from some guy which captures a lot of the insight about what we do in working vs doing what we value:

The difference is more than merely the one between business class and flying coach. There’s a whole set of values, attitudes and behaviors which go along with working that simply do not flow quite as naturally from the state of “not” working. (I keep putting these things in quotes because I’ve worked my ass off while unemployed, literally two or three times as hard as I ever did as a salaryman.)

And here’s my calculus: not only am I personally almost infinitely better off (emotionally, physically, psychically) not working, but I feel, and believe the results will bear me out, as if I have contributed far more to the world I live in while not formally employed.

Ironic, isn’t it? Build a few compromised, painfully limited Web sites, and enjoy all the fruits our economy can bestow on you; structure your time in such a way that you can actually contribute useful things and, hey, baby, you’re on your own – no salary, no benefits, no protection. I suspect that I am far, far from the only one for whom the same calculus would apply.

My challenge, from here on in, is going to be to invent situations that allow me to do what I do best and still put food on the table. These situations, I am coming to believe, will hardly ever resemble “jobs” as we understand them, and I’ll know a certain measure of insecurity as a result, because our economy and even our society aren’t particularly well set up to account for edge cases like mine. And like anyone in similar circumstances, I’ll need all the help I can get.

As you might expect, I resonate pretty strongly with these comments. I also like the term “situations” above, which seems to capture a sense of the fluidity and out of the box quality underlying this sort of thinking.

Where are the jobs about building the world to come? How can anyone get paid to help a transformation of life occur when the money is generally all about preserving the status quo? How can I create/facilitate positive change in the world and/or individuals and get paid? How does one interact with a failing system on its own terms while bringing about a new way of being? These are questions I guess I am now asking more in earnest, among others (more about figuring out what I really want/need.) And figuring out the answers will likely be a process…


That is the sound of my brain relaxing.

Major phase of non-fic rewrite is done. Have taken two days off from writing since Oct 5. I forget what the law is called that says that a job will expand to fill the time allotted to it, but I have definitely found setting punishingly unreasonable deadlines useful in getting things done.

Will probably take at least a few days to run something else through my mind before printing it out, reading it, and discovering exactly what I have done. Flipping between the micro and macro levels of a manuscript is tricky. There is probably a better process but I dunno what it is. Anyhow, hopefully just minor corrections and polishing from there.

Meanwhile, there’s a bunch of tinkering to do on the doco before showing it to KB reps on Thursday…