Tag: "writing"

Product Placement: the Next Generation

A few days ago, I came across this article on BoingBoing about author Holly Lisle and the issues she was having with getting iBooks to carry one of her how-to books because in it she mentions Amazon — which is one of the biggest revenue sources for self-published writers.

I think Ms Lisle’s story opens up a much bigger can of worms, and it starts with this: in the novel I’m writing, the main character uses a Kindle. What happens if I want to get my book in the iBookstore? Do I have to have her use an iPad instead? And, more importantly, how will that change the character?

I’m not thinking that Apple’s going to reject my book out-of-hand just for that reason, but it’s certainly conceivable, right? I mean, I might get a little leeway because, in Chapter Four, she does throw the Kindle against the wall in frustration*, but still — it could happen.

Obsessed With Doing Something Else. ANYTHING Else.

Last Sunday, I took advantage of the fact that it was Father’s Day and (in the words of my daughter) “you should do whatever you want” to play about seven hours of Civilization V. I got the game a few weeks ago in one of those software bundles* never having played Civilization in any form. In fact, all I knew about it was that Brentalfloss made a song about it which includes these catchy lyrics:

So keep playing Civilization, take good care of your little nation
Start a war with ancient Egyptians, spread your equally valid religion
Win with science, culture, or napalm
Watch out, Gandhi might drop the A-bomb

This isn’t actually an article about Civ V, by the way. It’s an article about how some writers (like me) get obsessed with a thing to the exclusion of what we should be doing.

Perhaps you can relate.

Myth: Deadly Throwing Knives

The hero is cornered by the bad guys! Thinking quickly, she pulls out a brace of throwing knives. She flips the knives at two of her attackers. They go down, one clutching the knife embedded in his chest, the other lying still with a knife in his eye.

Stop doing this. Writers, moviemakers, everyone — just stop. Unless your hero is also wielding a magical get-out-of-physics free card, thrown knives don’t work that way.

One of the most important aspects of a weapon is its stopping power. That is, its ability to stop your attacker in his tracks and render him incapable of hurting you any more. Some weapons, such as pepper spray, do this by inflicting severe pain and blindness. Others, like a sword, inflict enough physical damage to make further attacks impossible. Thrown knives are usually shown to be the latter sort of weapon. In reality, thrown knives have negligible stopping power because they lack three crucial elements: Mass, velocity, and accuracy.

It takes quite a lot of force to push a knife through skin and muscle and bone. The force with which a weapon hits its target is determined by its mass and its velocity. Knives are relatively light — an alleged throwing knife that I borrowed from a friend weighs only 50 grams (~1.8 oz). The heaviest knife in my collection still only weighs 310 grams (~11 oz). Throwing spears are far heavier. This modern example weighs in at 1134 grams (2 lbs 8 oz). A person who uses a knife in hand-to-hand combat benefits from the ability to put their body weight behind each thrust. A thrown knife, on the other hand, has only its own weight to work with. When you see a thrown knife in a movie that has buried itself up to its hilt in the bad guy’s chest, what you are seeing a cliché with no basis in reality.

Light projectiles, such as bullets, have to rely on the other side of the equation: Velocity. The muzzle velocity of the popular 9 mm cartridge is usually around 400 m/s* (and this round is still not considered powerful enough for self-defense by many experts**). Compare this to a fastball, which travels at around 40 m/s — a speed that is still far above what can be achieved with a thrown knife. In fact, the fastest speed I could find for a thrown knife was only 16 m/s! The essential difference between the thrown knife and other ranged weapons is its lack of mechanical advantage. Bows use the energy stored in the curve of the limbs. Guns use chemical energy stored in gunpowder. Atlatls and slings are essentially big levers, multiplying the reach of the thrower’s arm and thus the speed with which the dart or stone is thrown. A throwing knife, in contrast, relies solely on the velocity that a human arm can give it.

Finally, there’s the question of accuracy. Even a light, slow projectile can be deadly if it hits its target in just the right way. Pointy projectiles — bullets, arrows, darts, and spears — travel pointy-end-first, making them aerodynamic. They often spin on their long axis for stability, like an American football. Knives, on the other hand, spin end-over-end. This creates comparatively large amounts of wind resistance. Thus, a thrown knife will lose what little velocity it has very quickly, making it next to useless at long range. The end-over-end spin also means that a knife spends very little time with its pointy end towards its target. Even a talented knife thrower is more likely to hit her target with the side or the butt of the knife rather than its point when the target is moving, as in a melee. Combine that with the knife’s limited range, and your hero would probably be better off walking up to the bad guy and stabbing him in the face.

My favorite depiction of how thrown knives could be used in hand-to-hand combat is in Steven Brust’s Taltos series. Our hero, Vlad, frequently gets himself into scrapes where he’s outnumbered by people who are bigger than he is. One of his tricks for winning these fights is to throw a knife. The flying piece of pointy steel makes his opponent flinch, giving him an opening. He does not expect the knife to hit the person point-first, and he certainly doesn’t count on the knife to kill anyone. Killing someone with a thrown knife is not impossible. It just isn’t something that a character can rely on in a life-or-death situation.***

Even with years of training, throwing a knife is still slightly less effective for self-defense than throwing a large rock (rocks are cheaper, heavier, and sometimes more aerodynamic). Please, the next time you’re arming your hero or her sidekicks for combat? Leave the throwing knives at home. They’re silly, they’re clichéd, and physics doesn’t work like that.

* This number is a rough approximation. Actual speeds will vary by load and barrel length. However, it’s still way faster than a knife.
** I will not indulge in the fast & light bullet vs. heavy & slow bullet debate here — .45 ACP still goes way faster than a knife.
*** Hunters who use throwing knives are usually after small game, like rabbits and squirrels. They also use very heavy knives.

The Bomb, The Fire and the Caves: New Mexico and Science Fiction

Nora Reed Heineman-Fleck lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she plays with bismuth and meteorites for Mama’s Minerals. By night she thinks really hard about bombs, villains and the hairstyles of video game heroines and makes bad art. She can be found on Tumblr and Twitter.


Image by Flickr user Larry1732, CC-BY

My state is on fire and I’m thinking about science fiction.

A flashback: here I am in 2000– I know it’s 2000 because I watched some of the news coverage of the fire from the airport in Albuquerque, waiting for a plane to come in, so it’s pre-9-11. The Cerro Grande fire is sweeping across northern New Mexico; threatening– and eventually burning– homes. The sky at sunset is a brilliant orange and the smoke in the air doesn’t hurt my lungs so much as make me aware of them in a way I usually am not unless I am running or otherwise exerting myself.

And I could be rewriting history a bit here, to make this a better story, but when I think about it, that orange fire is one of those weird New Mexican experiences that primed me for strangeness– that is, for science fiction.

I’m going to make a bold claim here, and that is that New Mexico is the most science fictional place in the world. We have the landscape for it. Carlsbad Caverns is such a strange, alien environment that going inside the caves feels like entering the mouth of a living planet, saliva drip-drip-dripping from it’s immensely slow but menacing jaws. Jim White, discoverer of the caverns, thought that he was descending into hell as he explored them, and areas like Devil’s Spring and the Boneyard still hold somewhat dire names. White Sands National Monument, a bit northeast of Carlsbad, is miles of sand dunes big enough to hold plenty of worms or fremen; the dunes move around constantly and so creating roads is difficult. The last time I drove past White Sands the dunes had shifted and overtaken the fence between the highway and the National Monument.

But it’s not just the landscape. The atomic bomb is from here, and the more I learn about the Manhattan Project the more it feels like a fabricated story. Oppenheimer is said to be the father of the atomic bomb, but really he’s just the only person in the world that rolled high enough Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma scores to manage the top secret, international community of scientists that the US Government hid away on a hill in the New Mexican desert. Read a bit about the stories of the creation of the bomb and they all feel like fiction– the Soviet spies meeting surreptitiously in Albuquerque, confirming their identities with matched halves of a Jell-O box, Richard Feynman learning to open locked cabinets containing nuclear secrets, even Oppenheimer’s iconic “I am become death” quote, and you’ll feel like you’re reading the notes and ephermera of a rather eclectic world of science fiction.

Radiation is worked into the soil here, more metaphorically then physically. It’s always weird to talk to about nukes with people from out of state because nuclear weapons are a little bit personal here. I don’t work at the lab, but you can’t throw a stone around here without finding someone who does; growing up it was one of those standard professions you knew some of your friends’ parents have.

It’s not just the labs, though. We have the only facility in the country for holding nuclear waste in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant; where radioactive waste is stored in salt mines that will grow around it until it’s encased in salt; it won’t be safe for 10,000 years. How do you warn future generations about that? By burying multiple “information rooms” and discs of granite, aluminum oxide, and fired clay in multiple languages, of course. It’s like they were building reality to make better fodder for post-apocalyptic novels.

New Mexico has the second largest deposits of uranium ore in the country and a controversial history of lung cancer in miners. You know that episode of Firefly where they go to the mining town and everyone has a lung disease? It’s a little like that, except the lung disease is cancer. We don’t have any operational mines now, but the boom-bust cycle of those mining towns is worked into Grants, New Mexico and won’t probably ever come out.

And that’s just the solid facts about radiation; the rumors are something else. Stories about forests where you shouldn’t eat the game because it’s too radioactive, places where you shouldn’t breathe in the dust you kick up because there’s uranium in it. We’re seeing it now; the Los Conchas fire seems to be making Twitter vibrate with anticipation that Area G will catch fire and release radioactive smoke into the air.

While I’m on rumors, let me veer off of radiation and point out Roswell, just a couple hours’ drive north from WIPP– another staple of science fiction lore, right in my little state; a town economically dependent on an accident with a weather balloon that happened over half a century ago. Roswell is an icon, almost a point of pilgrimage, a town that feels like living in a broadcast of Coast to Coast AM.

And what all these places have in common is that it’s the stories of them, the rumors, the people, that make them such rich fodder for the sci-fi imagination: the dunes overtaking the fence, the superhuman charisma and intelligence of Robert Oppenheimer, Carlsbad Caverns as an entry into hell and the buried tablets for future generations above WIPP, the radioactive smoke and soil. There comes a certain point where the rumors, the speculation and the truth all combine and create this strange atomic culture. That’s the air New Mexico breathes, and we’re all a little alien, a little nuclear, as a result.

The story is king

A friend pointed out to me on Twitter just the other day that as of this week, it is exactly one year since I picked up my first Stephen King book and started reading. That book was Under the Dome, which came out in November 2009, and I was utterly enthralled from beginning to end. As soon as I had finished I set myself the task of reading all of his work, in publication order. A year later and I have only reached The Stand – hey, it was a busy year – but I’m still loving every single word.

As a genre reader and writer, it might sound surprising that I came so late to King’s work. While his career has had high points and low, he is generally considered a master of science fiction, horror, and just plain writing, ably treading the line between vast commercial success and quality content.

But the reason I only came to his gigantic body of work with his latest novel is that prior to this, I was a King snob. Commercial success on such a scale usually meant – so I thought – very poor writing. This is often the case, but it was that foray Under the Dome last November that taught me a very good lesson indeed, one that is second only to the pants* rule.

It’s slightly oblique but I’ll try to explain. That lesson was: everything is about ‘the story’.

Okay? Hold tight. Here we go.

Currently we are continually bombarded with bad news about the publishing industry – about how publishing is on a downward slide, book sales are floundering while editors at the big houses flap to catch the next big trend or play it safe with unadventurous, unoriginal content. The industry is being shaken up by digital publishing and ebooks, while opportunities for new writers trying to get a break are shrinking more and more.

It would be easy, with all of this, to take a very bleak view, and certainly I’m not suggesting that the bad news is not true. If you were of a pessimistic nature you could lament the death of books and of writing as you sob into your cocoa in front of the TV. But there is one thing to remember amid this doom and gloom.

Writing and “the story”, to use some quasi-mystical catch-all, is all around us. Take a look at what you do during the day – strip out the day job (unless you actually make a living writing), the chores, the laundry, brushing your teeth, and look at what you do for entertainment, and what entertains you. I’m willing to bet that most of it, maybe 90%, is “the story”. And “the story” means writing.

There are more TV shows and films now than ever, and certainly in recent years a stonkingly good selection of exceptionally high-quality ones. It’s all “the story” – fiction, written by writers. And everything that surrounds it – special effects, marketing and merchandising, even the actors, producers, directors, crew, etc – are all there to deliver “the story” to us. The world of books is just one tiny facet – there are comics, television programmes, films, and games (video or otherwise). It’s all writing. It’s all “the story”.

Two things really crystalized this for me. Firstly, a couple of years ago I went to a comic convention which featured a host of writers and artists from DC Comics, including their commander-in-chief, Dan DiDio. During a weekend of panels and discussions, one thing became very clear. The DC universe is one giant story, a tale so big and sprawling that it literally covers the walls of several offices in New York. The job of DC is to deliver this to us, and to continue its development before passing the baton to the next batch of creators and producers. The same can be said of Marvel, or Image, or 2000AD, or any comic publisher or endeavour. The scale of it was quite frankly mind-blowing, and I came away from that con with my first suspicions about “the story” and how it impacted practically everything I did and was interested in and did.

The second moment of realisation came earlier this week, when I was fortunate enough to attend a small gathering of Doctor Who fans who were hosting an informal interview and Q&A with Daphne Ashbrook, co-star of the 1996 US/UK TV movie with Paul McGann, currently visiting the UK. I’m a Doctor Who fan, I’m happy to admit, but I’ve always had difficulty with the TV Movie. This ‘difficulty’ has evolved from outright denial and upset (hey, I was a sensitive teenager in 1996) through to grudging acceptance of the production, so long as I didn’t actually have to watch it. So driving for an hour to see a co-star I wasn’t particularly interested in talk about a production I didn’t particularly care for seemed, beforehand at least, a bit of a chore. But, what the hell. When was this opportunity going to come up again.

Of course, it was a marvellous evening. Daphne was a delight, and kept us entertained for close to two hours on the ins and outs of her impressive career (come on, forget Doctor Who, she was in Knight Rider, The A-Team, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; hell, even Murder, She Wrote). It was a revelation, especially when I realised that large parts of her lively discussion were her relaying to us the plot of these various shows, so we could have a better understanding of the role she played in each.

There it was. “The Story”. As an experienced actor, Daphne’s job is to deliver “the story” to us.  And “the story” means writing, plain and simple. Storytelling. Writing. Same thing.

So what’s the magic advice I distilled from all of this? Give up on the novel and try a screenplay? Not at all.

My advice is to realise that “the story” is everywhere, and like the guys from Pixar keep saying, “the story is king”. With this in mind, and knowing that writing is a never-ending quest to get better, it’s our job as writers to absorb as much of “the story” as we can. This means reading outside of our comfort zones and genres as well as within them – if I didn’t decide to try Stephen King I would never have discovered his extensive, and quite wonderful, back catalogue. When I was prepping to write a detective noir novel, I decided to bite the bullet and read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Whammo, the whole world of pulp detective fiction was opened to me.

One often-quoted piece of writing advice is to not just turn off your television, but to get rid of it entirely. Stephen King himself goes off on this in On Writing. A lot of writers follow this advice to the letter and do very well indeed. But personally I think this is missing the point, because between the inane loops of twenty-four hour news, reality shows and quizzes, the blowhards that King describes so well in his memoir of the craft, there is some damn good stuff on, be it a television series (old or new) or a film (old or new). So if “the story” is about writing, then by picking and choosing carefully and by not letting it become a time-sink (and that really is where the danger lies and the advice stems from, I think), you can watch, enjoy, and learn from some very, very good examples of the craft.

“The story” is everywhere, and where the story is, you’ll find writing. That will never, ever go away, no matter what weekly slice of negativity comes from the traditional publishing industry. The world needs writers and always will, because our whole lives are based around storytelling.

Read books. Watch TV. Go to the movies. But importantly, read something you might not have thought you’d like, and watch a film that isn’t quite the genre you are interested in. At worst, you’ll absorb another little slice of “the story” that you wouldn’t have otherwise and you’ll learn something from it. At best, you’ll discover something new and wonderful and whole news worlds will instantly become available.

And then think about it, and learn from it, and write.

* The pants rule is pretty simple and surprisingly effective: when writing comes up on your schedule, make sure you are up and doing and dressed. Don’t write in your pyjamas, don’t write in your slippers, no matter how appealing or comfortable it may sound. By “pants”, I mean trousers (not, as British people use it, as underpants… stop sniggering at the back there!), but that’s just a metaphor for being prepared and ready to write. The more prepped you are – showered, shaved, dressed, in a nice pair of shoes – the better your writing. If you want writing to be your job then act like it. Put on a nice shirt, or skirt, not just your comfy “at home” clothes. You can put those on when you’ve finished your job. In fact, the more formal you make it, the better you tend to feel (although I can’t imagine what happens to your writing if you turn up at your desk in full evening wear or a ball gown… I must give that a go sometime). Try it. It works!

NaNoWriMo for thee, but not for me

Like many writers, I’m not very good at making time to write. My days are, well, packed. I’m up at 5:15 to go to the gym, on the road at 7:20 to commute to work, at my desk by 8:30, back on the road between 5:30 and 6:00, home by 6:45 if I’m lucky, having dinner and spending time with the kid, then after she goes to bed I have to pack my stuff for the next day, make lunches, and am lucky to have half an hour to myself before going up to bed between 9:15 and 9:30. There I read for 15 minutes to unwind my brain, and then lights out.

It’s amazing that I manage to write anything, given that crazy schedule.

A friend of mine said that if I love writing, I shouldn’t give it up to exercise, but if you’ve seen me, you know I need it. I accept that. It’s why I joined the gym in the first place.

But I do write. A little, here and there. Sometimes at work, sometimes in the evenings, sometimes on the weekends (which are consumed by family time for the most part). I remember reading somewhere that David Mack, when he started out, would write for a few hours at night, giving up sleep in favor of writing*. I tried that too. The thing is, I’m not one of those people who can just sit down and start writing, especially if I’m in the middle of a story. I need to be in the zone — reread a little bit, get back into the characters, remember what I wanted to do next, and then actually be able to do the writing (and have enough time to do it, like people who write on their lunch breaks).

Why am I telling you all this?

Because I’m jealous. I’m extremely jealous, in fact.

NaNoWriMo is this month, and I’m not doing it.

Again.

I’m jealous of people who have the commitment and the drive and above all else the ability to make time to write 50,000 words in a month. Which isn’t to say I can’t do it — I wrote a 17,000-word novella in a couple of weeks, back in early 2009. But right now isn’t my time. Nor was last year. Or the year before that. Or the year before that. And so on. I accept that.

But do you follow any writers on Twitter? Because if you follow folks like Nobilis, or Void Munashii, or Inkhaven, or your favorite fanfic writer (a lot of them do it), you’re seeing word counts, status updates, messages of joy as your writer friends reach milestones… and the bad stuff too: “I didn’t write today.” “My plot isn’t working out.” “This story sucks, but I have to finish it.” “I lost all my saved files.”

I like my writer friends, don’t get me wrong, but reading their progress reports just makes me sad. As a writer without the time or the ability to make said time, all I can do is look on and occasionally offer congratulatory or sympathetic messages. And I can tell myself, “maybe next year.”

I’ve been telling myself that for five years now. Might as well keep up the tradition in 2011, too.

And now, your reward for reading my self-indulgent whining: a music video for “The Nanowrimo Song” by All Caps. Enjoy.

* This may be apocryphal**, but I’m sure Mack isn’t the only writer to ever do this.

** As Mack noted in the comments, this is indeed true. I should’ve said I might be misremembering — totally my bad on the incorrect use of “apocryphal”. Sorry about that.