Saturday, March 26, 2011

Made-up words

The lovely Elizabeth Mueller wrote a fascinating post about made-up and foreign words. In it, she gave a beautiful example of showing the meaning of a foreign phrase without actually translating it. Check it out here.

I commented about my own made-up words and Elizabeth said she'd like to see my example in a blog post. Well, that sounded way too much like a challenge to pass up...

So, to continue the theme, yes, I make up a lot of words in my own stories. Mostly, these are place names or character names, with a few individual words for drugs and poisons and other things.

I haven't graduated to full-blown made-up languages like Tolkein or Elizabeth, but I do try to give the impression that my words are part of a larger whole.


"Barza" and "Braz", ancient words for town and city, crop up in many place names: Stoon Barza, Sho Min Barza, Cravel Braz, Prandis Braz...

Trylex, animastin, and nacrolin are all drugs in Shayla's armoury. I tried to make them sound "druggy".

When I make up words, I try to keep a "sound" in mind for some sort of consistency, usually based on an existing terrestrial region. In Ghosts of Innocence, many place names have a slightly harsh sound to them, reminiscent of Russian, while other districts are more oriental. Many characters have a middle-eastern sound, with lots of "bin" and other prefixes. The idea was to create an exotic feel to the average English-speaking reader, to echo Shayla's feeling of entering foreign territory.

I also like to adapt or combine English words: "starhopper" is a type of ship, "passkey" is an electronic security implant, "shimmerblade" is a kind of knife that you really don't want to meet down a dark alley.

On to the example Elizabeth wanted to see...

The MC, Shayla Carver, has infiltrated the Imperial Palace staff as a high-ranking official. She has just dismissed a member of her staff, and her boss, Mabbwendig ap Terlion (a.k.a. Mad Mabb) is not happy. Her tirade includes a completely invented word, plus familiar words combined in new ways.

     The summons came quicker than Shayla expected. Barely an hour after Skimlok had left, muttering threats under his breath, she was back in Mabbwendig's office.
     The air was as stifling as it had been two days ago. There was no waiting in the outer office this time. Mad Mabb was in too much of a hurry to vent her rage to bother with the niceties of psychological abuse.
     "You prance in like the Shal-heil ..." Mabb spluttered. Shayla puzzled for a second, searching her mind for the undoubtedly insulting reference. Shal-heil? The evening desert wind? Flighty. Hot. Bringing no relief from the day's sun. Aah! Late and useless!
     "Make Mabbwendig and whole Palace wait on your precious meditations. You have no respect for Palace. Nor Emperor, I think. What Grand Duke saw to recommend you I know not."
     Hmm. What interest does the Emperor's uncle have in Brynwyn?
     "Ten thousand years these walls have stood. Traditions old beyond your paltry wit to understand. Who you think you are? Red-faced fishlander, coming here upstart-nose-in-the-air to teach us new ways like we know nothing?"

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Happy birthday, Matthew

This year, rather than a birthday party to celebrate his tenth birthday, Matthew wanted to go camping.

We've been away before for Megan's birthday, but that's in July. This is March.

Oh, what the heck! We've got the trailer now and we've camped at Easter the last two years. Not that much different.

So, we decided to try out somewhere we've not visited before. Cowichan Lake.

Not surprisingly, we found we had the whole campground to ourselves (apart from a couple of motorhomes nearby the first night)...

But the kids enjoyed exploring, and with nobody around to be bothered, they made dens in the woods all over the place.

And we got the bikes out to ride a few miles of the trans-Canada trail, including the spectacular Marie Canyon trestle...

And we all enjoyed the tiny but fascinating Kaatza Station Museum in Lake Cowichan...

And then there was the birthday itself...

Complete with birthday cake improvised from a chocolate swirl cheesecake...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The diagrammer's Lego set

Networks, Gannts, PERTs, calendars, ...

The world of logic and planning is full of intimidating tools. And rule books thicker than a politician's hide for how to use them, draw them, what shape to make the boxes, and how many nervous breakdowns you're allowed along the way. Throw in some nifty software like MS Project and you can easily feel like the tool is in total control.

But this is writing we're talking about here, not project management, not software development, not bound by the strictures of PRINCE or SSADM (and, yes, that's at least as punitive as it sounds).

No-one is going to audit your plans for compliance with standard #252 subsection 3 paragraph 9.4 on the use of the colour pink in heading titles.

The only one who needs to get anything out of these tools is you. The author. The ultimate ruler of your domain and arbiter of whatever standards you set for yourself.

This little mini-series, this diversion down one of the Byzantine side roads of logical consistency, is all about giving you the confidence to throw out the rule book and draw pictures that make things clearer to you.

The nitty-gritty

These kinds of diagrams are all, at heart, variations on a simple theme. They all show you things of interest, and relationships between them.

To build your own useful diagrams, you need to decide two things:

What things are of interest in your particular situation. Things of interest might typically be characters, actions/events, time, or places (i.e. who, what, when, where). But you might have your own ideas. In the next post, I'll give some specific examples of things you might be struggling with in the quest to wrestle a complicated plot to the ground.

How best to show them to reveal what you want to see.

This mini-toolkit gives you a few simple ways to depict these things, and important relationships between them. You'll soon see that all those impressive diagrams are built from these simple ideas, and when you see them stripped and naked like that, they don't look so scary.

1. Put things in boxes.

This usually accounts for the meat of the diagram - its most important content. So you usually choose the most important objects of interest to put in boxes.

As we are talking about writing stories, and stories mostly consist of things happening, most of the time your boxes will contain actions or events of some sort. The examples in the earlier post were all of this type. But that ain't necessarily so, and later on (probably another post) I'll give a useful example of something else to go in the boxes.

BTW - by "boxes", I mean any shape with a definite boundary that you draw around the information inside: rectangular boxes, round bubbles, fluffy clouds, diamonds, pink hearts...

2. Lines between boxes.

Lines or arrows can be used to show relationships between your major objects of interest. In the network diagrams and Gannt charts I talked about last time, arrows show logical precedence or causal relationships: this has to happen before (or at the same time as) that.

Again, I've only talked about diagrams where lines happen to show dependency, but there are other uses of lines which I'll touch on with concrete examples later.

3. Position on the page.

How you position things on the page can be made significant. If you have one kind of thing of interest in your boxes, such as events in the story, you can lay out something else of interest along either a horizontal or vertical edge of the page. Then where you place your box along the page shows a relationship with whatever is on the edge.

Timelines are one example, where you mark off intervals of time along one edge.

Another common way to divide your page is into swimlanes. This simply means marking off strips of the page and assigning each strip to something of interest, such as a character, or a location, or a subplot. Everything in that particular swimlane is then associated with that character or location, or whatever you've decided on. This is a useful way to group things together so that it's easy to see at a glance everything that belongs together.

Think of a swimming pool. Imagine there's a hundred people in there, all ages and abilities, trying to swim lengths. It's a mess. But if you get your lane markers out and signpost the lanes according to ability (beginners, slow, medium, speedy) then things become a lot easier to viola! have swimlanes.

Of course you can combine these. Swimlanes along one edge are usually combined with time along the other, as in the Ghosts of Innocence example.

So, maybe you decide you need a timeline, but you want to easily see which characters are involved in a particular action, and also where it is happening. Obviously a swimlane might help, but are you going to slice up your page by character, or by location? Whichever aspect you choose, you will lose sight of the other. Well, you can do both, using...

4. Shape, colour, size, text.

Visual properties of boxes and lines can all be used to denote things of importance.

To resolve the dilemma I just mentioned, you could use swimlanes to show where things are happening, and choose a different colour for each of your characters. Or different shaped boxes. Or both. For example, you might use yellow stars for Sir Prancelot, pink hearts for Lady Jejune Legover, and black squares for the evil Baron McNasty.

We've already met examples where the size of the box is important. In Gannt charts, the length along the timeline shows duration. But you could also use size to show other things like distinguishing the main plot from subplots, or highlighting pivotal events in the story.

And, if all else fails, you can label your boxes with additional information.

How does this relate back to some of those earlier examples?

Probably the simplest diagram I've talked about is the basic dependency network. With the above building blocks in mind, you can see that this diagram shows actions/events in boxes, and arrows between boxes indicate that one event must happen before another. Positioning on the page is relevant, but only in so far as arrows must be arranged to go in a definite direction of flow. This is what ensures your dependencies are consistent.

This network does have a sense of the direction of time, but a Gannt chart takes this a step further by adding actual time measurements along one axis. This means that timing and duration of events is significant, not just order, so we have used one edge of the page to show time as an object of interest, and show relationship of events to time by how they line up along that edge.

Both of these diagrams can be further extended by adding more of the techniques listed above, such as swimlanes, shape, colour, etc.

All I'm really trying to illustrate here is that a whole plethora of diagramming tools, many with fancy and intimidating names, are nothing more than variations on a simple theme.

There is nothing difficult about them. Don't fear them.

Fear leads you to the dark side...

Kids in a candy store - don't overdo it

Once you start inventing your own diagrams, you can get really creative with exposing different aspects of the logical structure of your story. final word of warning. There is a limit to how much different information you can usefully convey in a single diagram.

There are practical limits on how many swimlanes you can get across a page, and the more you have, the less room there is to fit any meaningful information in.

Similarly, there are even fewer different colours or shapes you can realistically use and still hope to distinguish one from another. And if you try to combine too many different things, then you can easily end up with a mess.

Of course, the above also depends on what you are trying to get out of the diagram. If it is going to be your master reference, a repository of useful information where you tend to home in on the detail, then you can probably get away with cramming a lot more in.

But if you are trying to illustrate some pattern or picture at a glance, then you probably want to keep it simple.

My advice is: decide on the features that are most of interest, and focus on those. What is it you are trying to achieve with this diagram?

Oh, look! Outcomes again...

That is the subject of the next post, where I'll come at these diagrams from the other end...examples of problems you might be facing in unraveling your plot, and ways to build helpful pictures using these building blocks.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Help desk shorthand

Random thought #1: my team provides technical support for a portfolio of large software applications. We use a ticketing system to log and track calls from customers. When each ticket is resolved, it needs to be updated with details of cause and resolution.

Random thought #2: most typed notes these days are sprinkled with widely-understood shorthand notations, e.g. LOL, ROFL, IMO, WTF, ...

Breed the two thoughts, and you get ...

A dictionary of help desk shorthand

ACE - Another customer error
AFTUNG - Application failed through unexplained network glitch
APADNSAC - Application performing as designed, not sure about customer
BRAZIL - Customer is nuts
INABIAF - It's not a bug, it's a feature
NIT - Network is toast
PIIS - Plug it in, stupid!
RTFM - Read the freakin' manual
SHAFAWISM - Server had a fit and went into single-user mode
SINP - Software is not psychic
UCOW - User can't operate Windows

Important note: all the above are entirely fictitious. Almost. Whatever! We would never, ever ... ever ... put anything disparaging about a customer into a help desk ticket.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Grow your own

No, I'm not talking about smoking anything dodgy! I'm taking a little diversion onto the side roads of logical consistency, because all this talk of networks, and Gannts, and timelines, and swimlanes, can be a little daunting.

Tools like this come in all different shapes and sizes, with a host of different conventions for showing information. This can lead you to wonder how you will ever remember all those different diagrams.

The simple answer is - you don't!

In my previous post in this series, I showed a timeline from Ghosts of Innocence. If you think I memorised a vast array of subtly different tools, so that when the time came I could pick just the right one off the shelf, then your overestimation of my abilities flatters me.

Let me reveal a little secret. My memory for lists of facts & stuff like that is amazingly bad. And I'm incredibly lazy, so I like to make things easy for myself. I don't have a long list of tools in my head, I just have a very short list of ways to make my own tools.

In the Ghosts of Innocence example, I used that particular kind of layout because it suited what I needed to show.

In this case, my story had multiple points of view and several interconnecting threads of action, so it was important to keep sight of what each character was up to and how the different threads ran alongside each other and intertwined. However, I didn't have many causal connections so a full-blown network wasn't necessary. All I needed to do was track a few major crossing points.

But timekeeping was definitely important, because I had several journeys of many days duration. I needed to make sure, for example, that people didn't arrive before they were supposed to, or too late to make their next connection.

That led me naturally to design a layout that had a timeline along one axis, and swimlanes for the major characters on the other. Not because there was a ready-made tool for the job, but because that particular combination showed me what I needed to see.

Oh, look! There's that central theme of "outcomes" showing up again. Know what you want to achieve, and choose the tool for the job. 

Except that, in this case, "tool" is actually a component, or building block, used to make up a tool.

But look what you can do with some very simple building blocks...

I've become a bit paranoid about the length of some of these posts, so I'm going to pause for breath here. In the next post, I'll delve into the basics of this whole class of diagrams and show you how to build your own tools for yourselves.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Don't kill my dream

I've seen many posts recently about electronic publishing, the move to e-books and e-readers, the increasing number of self-publishing success stories, and where is the publishing industry heading?

I responded with a comment on one such post, and that got me thinking more deeply about what I was trying to say.

I class myself firmly in the traditional print camp. I am not tempted to get an e-reader of any description, and I suspect it'll be a long time before I do.

But why?

I like the feel of paper

Often the cry of us techno-Luddites.

And it's true. I do like the feel of a real book in my hands. But that's no reason to despise alternatives. After all, nobody is trying to dematerialise my print collection, so the electronic revolution is hardly a threat to what I already own. And I've never been against change. In fact most of my working life has been as an agent for change. I built my own home computer back in 1979 (before Bill Gates took all the fun out of computer ownership) and I love to try new things.

In this case I get such a strong feeling that I don't even want to try, that I suspect this is just a surface rationalisation.

I need to dig deeper...

I don't trust modern technology

This is more subtle, and more credible.

The pace of change is such that today's must-have toy is tomorrow's museum piece. Why would I want to build a library on such shifting sands? Some of the books on my shelf are many decades old. What will become of the Kindle in forty years time? Will the books I purchase now still be readable? I doubt it.

Related to this is my reluctance to commit slices of my very limited time to learning new technology. My experience with PC bloatware has not been happy, everything is more troublesome than it has any right to be, and I just don't want to invest that time in what is likely to be a dead end.

And yet most of the music I listen to now is on an iPod. I hardly ever get out one of my stack of CDs, and the ephemeral nature of my current collection is not something I worry about.

No, this excuse doesn't quite cut it either.

It is threatening my dream!

Now this is more like it.

When I started writing, just over six years ago, e-books were barely on the horizon. Self publishing was still the poor relation to traditional print, the option of choice for some niche markets, but the choice of last resort for many.

I dreamed of finishing a novel. That, alone, was a significant step. But beyond that was the dream of being taken seriously by someone in the profession, of gaining some measure of acceptance in this big and frightening world, and finally of holding my own book in my own hands and seeing it on the shelves of my local bookstore.

E-publishing is threatening my dream.

If I were to go that route, I would never be able to hold the tangible results in my hands, nor see it on a shelf. If I self-publish, I am giving up on the mark of acceptance that getting an agent or publisher would denote.

I am seeing my dream washed away on the tide of technology. That is why I am so hostile to it.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Helping ze little grey cells

So, you have your facts straight, as per my post on factual consistency. Everything is happening in the order you outlined. Characters' hairstyles and eye colours don't shift from scene to scene, and you stick to your description of the flock wallpaper in the Flamingo Drawing Room in the sprawling mansion, right from the opening chapter through to Hercules Parrot's dramatic exposure of the midnight pudding thief.

You've got factual consistency licked.

But then...

Some astute reader points out that the cook couldn't possibly have had time to walk into the village and back in between Uncle Herbert's bathtime and the discovery of the missing cruet set in the middle of the croquet lawn.

And if Aunt Maud really could see the summerhouse from her lawn chair, then she couldn't possibly have also observed the twins duelling by the Fountain of Eternal Mediocrity because of the twelve-foot-high privet hedge in the way.

Because, while you were busy with factual consistency, you got ambushed by it's twisted sidekick...logical consistency!

Outcome - logical consistency

This is all about making sure your facts also abide by the laws of physics, geometry, chronology, human psychology, or whatever laws are relevant to your world and important to the story.

This alone is a huge topic, so I won't try to hit it all at once. This post will concentrate on causality, dependency, and chronology - making sure things happen in a logical order and in a plausible time.

In many stories, this is not a huge problem. Sequences of events happen one after another, and it's pretty clear which needs to go before which. But if you have a complicated plot, where many threads are going on at once, and especially where who knows what is important, then things can get messy real quick.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Think of an Agatha Christie mystery. My head hurt tracking all the movements of people around the boat in "Death on the Nile", and to be honest, even if there was a logical inconsistency there I'd never have spotted it.

I don't know how Agatha Christie plotted those stories, but most people need some kind of tools to help manage webs of intrigue like that, and mostly this involves some kind of visual depiction of relationships.

One of the simplest is a dependency network. This kind of diagram has two simple features: things that happen are shown in boxes or bubbles; important relationships are shown as arrows connecting things that happen.

Things that happen can be things people do (like Uncle Herbert takes a bath, or the cook walks to the village), or events (like Aunt Maud sees the twins duelling). For simplicity, I'll refer to all of these as "actions", even though some are passive (like seeing something happen).

Relationships show some kind of dependency between one action and another. These may be:
  • Directly causal - Action A causes Action B to happen. For example, Jeeves entering the Flamingo Drawing Room at an inopportune moment causes Delilah to flee in panic onto the verandah.
  • Dependent - Action A logically must happen before Action B. For example, the cook has to discover the antique silver cruet set is missing before the search for it can begin. You could argue that this is also causal - the discovery caused the search - but that is only partly true. There were choices to be made first (announce the loss, or conceal it, or pack bags and set sail for Brazil...). The key thing is that the search couldn't logically begin before the discovery.
  • Or required by the story - it is important for Action A to happen before Action B. For example, it is important that the cook leave for the village before Jeeves enters the Drawing Room, otherwise she'd see a semi-naked Delilah running onto the verandah, which we don't want her to know about.
For whatever reason, there is a clear requirement that A happens before B, so you draw an arrow from A to B to show this.

The diagram as a whole must have a direction of flow, usually either top to bottom, or left to right. Use whichever direction works best for you, but choose one and stick to it. Arrows can go with the flow, or be slanted at an angle across the flow, but they cannot go against the flow.

This is what ensures causal consistency and avoids chains of events that try to turn on themselves and eat their own tails. If you can't arrange things so that the arrows all go with the flow, then you have a logical inconsistency somewhere.

Here is a network diagram from the start of Electrons' Breath, where I was trying to sort out the interactions between the main players as various threads of events unfold.
Please accept my apologies for the handwriting! This shows just how quick and dirty these tools can be. Great for roughing out first thoughts.

The beauty of network diagrams is that they are simple and scalable. You might use one to map out a whole novel, or simply to make sure that a messy fight scene hangs together. You might limit it to just the major plot, or delve into all the twists and turns of sub-plots. Wherever you have a mess of things going on, this might help you to keep things straight.

Time, gentlemen, please!

So, maybe you've got the cook toddling off to the village at the right point in the story, but returning again only minutes later because her departure and return are logically sandwiched between two other events. But the village is a fifteen minute walk away, and the cook isn't all that young or sprightly, and she's bound to stop for a pick-me-up at the Jolly Ploughman...oops! Your network diagram didn't show up that little problem because all it cares is that things happen in the right sequence.

Where time is important, you can turn to a related tool called a Gannt chart. This is essentially a network diagram with a measured time scale along the direction of flow. Instead of simple boxes or bubbles for actions, the length of the box now shows duration and its position on the page shows when it happened. Everything above still holds true, except now you have to make sure that you have room for the right sized boxes.

This can show up temporal inconsistencies, like where you haven't left enough time for a series of events to happen. It can also show up the less obvious opposite problem, where your character on one thread is going to end up twiddling his thumbs for an embarrassing length of time while waiting for something else to happen.

While network diagrams are easy to sketch out on a piece of paper, Gannt charts take a lot more effort to draw. If you are going to do things like this, you might consider drawing software that lets you move whole blocks of activities around together, or even project management tools like MS Project. However, I think you'd have to have a pretty complex plot before you needed industrial leverage like that.

Let me check my calendar

The chances are, if you have concerns about temporal consistency, you can probably get away with a related but much simpler tool: a calendar, or timeline. This focuses just on the timing of events, rather than all the causal relationships between them.

Without all the arrows to worry about, you can knock up timelines quite easily in tables, maybe using Excel. Here, your activities are in cells, and each row (or column, if you are going left to right) represents a unit of time. This makes it very easy to lay out a series of actions one after another, and make sure they will fit into the time available. If you need to move blocks around, you just have to make sure they still occupy the same number of time units. This is easy in a spreadsheet using cut/paste.

I used this approach to map out the main outline of Ghosts of Innocence. Here, time flows down the page, and each row is a day.
This kind of approach still lets you check for some causal consistency, providing you don't have too many dependencies. You can lay out several different threads in parallel on the same timeline, and make sure the important points where they cross paths coincide. In this example, I use arrows >> and << to show where events need to stay lined up.

In the swim

This chart also illustrates another useful technique.

Just as the position and size of a box on the page can show you time and duration, you can make use of the other dimension to show some other key information. In this example, while the rows show time, the columns show the main groups of characters. This is then called a swimlane diagram, because your activities are confined to swimlanes running either down or across the page.

Keeping everything related to a character together in a swimlane helps keep track of who's doing what, as well as when.

Back to the theme of logical consistency, this helps to ensure that you don't end up with people trying to do things in two places at once.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Spaced out!

I've been getting so excited recently planning that series of posts on writing tools, that I've been neglecting other artistic endeavours. I did manage to make a bit of progress on my latest painting, though. It's getting very close to finished.
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