Posts about the art of writing.
I hate social networking. I do. I also love it, but that doesn’t lessen my hate. Allow me to explain…
If you’re anything like me — and if you’re reading this, you’re probably another science fiction and fantasy writer, so you’re at least a little bit like me — then you know exactly how effective Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, and other social networking sites can be at helping you vacuum the cat. Oh sure, you could work on that novel or write that short story you’ve been thinking about… or you could check your friend stream, and peruse various amusing pictures of cats. Look, your friend Gary’s got a new chihuahua, and gosh, that’s a hilarious video of monkeys grabbing a sandwich from someone standing too close to the bars at the zoo! It’s midnight already? Oh well, no time to write tonight…
Don’t get me wrong, social networks aren’t all bad. Among other things, they’re good ways to remain connected to friends and family you might otherwise grow distant from. Awesome. But they’re designed to keep your attention on them instead of on, for instance, that novel or short story you’re trying to finish.
But suddenly that has changed, with the advent of Google+. Google has done something I once considered impossible: It has provided the world with a social networking site that actually helps its users be more productive, not less. It accomplishes this with something they call “Hangouts.”
A Hangout is essentially an on-the-fly group video-conference. It allows groups of people from anywhere in the world to chat with each other. For writers, this is an absolute miracle of productivity, because nothing quite gets the creative juices going like peer pressure. It’s why we meet up to write in coffee shops and libraries.
Now, if I’m in a writing mood, I can essentially create my own virtual coffee shop, announce its presence to the world, and let writers I can’t normally hang out with drop in for some productivity. It is, in a word, awesome.
How awesome, you might ask? Well, let me put it this way… As a parent of two young kids, I hardly get writing time at all before 9:00 PM, when my eldest is asleep. Most of my writing for the last few years has been on buses, while commuting to and from the day job. This is not a terribly productive atmosphere, and I usually have to pack up and get off the bus just when I’m really getting going. And at 9:00 it’s really hard to make myself write instead of surf the web for those aforementioned cat pictures. But somehow, knowing there are other writers staring at me through my webcam forces me to open that story document, and start writing — even if they can’t actually see me, because they’re too busy looking at their own story documents. Their mere virtual presence is enough shame fuel to get me started. And of course, once I’m started, I keep going, because I like to write. All I need is some impetus, and something to distract me from the cats.
So from now on, I’ll be doing these hangouts regularly. Right now, Wednesday nights starting at 9:00 PM seem to work best, but I’ll update if that changes. If I have a couple hours to spare at other times, I’ll do hangouts then, too. If you see me, drop by, say hi, and start writing.
Human beings still have wisdom teeth. Our spines aren’t very good at standing us up straight. Our recurrent laryngeal nerves make a biologically unnecessary trip down into the thorax before making their way back up our necks. And we’re woefully inefficient food processors, producing far more waste than would be biologically necessary if someone decided to make a human from the ground up.
But… We’re also very, very smart.
Human biological engineering is becoming more and more a science fact, rather than science fiction, and that got me to thinking: What if we could engineer away our own inefficiencies?
Take food, for instance. Imagine you could rework your stomach and intestines to extract far more from what you eat than you currently do, turning your body into a super-efficient calorie-extracting machine. Imagine one meal keeping you sated for a week, after which you would… ahem… excrete whatever tiny amount of matter could not be used as fuel in any way, in the form of one small, hard pellet.
From an environmental and humanitarian standpoint, such a biological change would be of extraordinary benefit. No more starvation, no more squabbling over land resources for growing food… It’s hard to imagine a down side. Overnight, overpopulation concerns are gone, or at least staved off for a day far in the future.
And what about water? Why do we need to urinate at all? If we were more efficient, everything that currently comes out as urine could be included in your weekly excretion. We could stay hydrated on maybe one cup of water every two days. The drain on the world’s waterways could disappear practically over night.
And sleep? What if you could improve your sleep efficiency such that one hour a night was enough? Or even take a pill that negates the need for sleep entirely? Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to spend an extra eight hours a day with their family and friends? Or earn a little extra income with an additional part-time job? Or, to make it more personal, have the time to work on that novel?
I know some people would be horrified at the concept of a human being as thoroughly bioengineered as I’m describing, but why? Is there a downside? If so, what? Sure, I’d miss eating lots, but that’s because I’m biologically wired to crave food. What if I wasn’t?
And how would society change to accommodate a human race that eats once a week, drinks very little water, and hardly ever sleeps? What other changes can you imagine that would make us more efficient?
Some time in the next few days, I’ll become a father again, and it’s got me thinking about the nature of creativity.
The universe is an inherently entropic system. Whether it eventually collapses back into the singularity from which it emerged, or expands continuously until the very atoms that comprise matter rip themselves apart, this universe will end. Perhaps it is a cyclical event, and a new one will appear in its place, but that is academic. This universe, this time, this place in which I find myself… It will not be in any meaningful sense a part of whatever comes after.
Creativity, to me, is the act of striving against this eventuality. Making order out of chaos, whether it’s the chaos of ideas that fills my head and becomes my stories, or the chaos of matter sloshing against matter that becomes my children. Doing, building, giving form and shape… these are anti-entropic acts.
I find that amazing. What an astonishing turn of events, that an assortment of atoms came together and became adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, which in turn produced my ancestors and, eventually, me. And that I, in my small way, can resist entropy, can make some tiny portion of the universe go the other way. I can create.
What an opportunity!
Please stand by for a random information dump…
I received and signed the contract for The Stonecutter, which will be appearing in Electric Velocipede! John Klima is really a great editor to work with. He’s got a good eye for the detail, and the changes he requests, while minimal, are always absolutely essential. Or so they seem to me once he’s found them. Here are my thoughts upon receiving them:
- My story is completely broken! WAAAAAAH!
- Wait, I can fix these with tiny line edits! My story is made of awesome! YAAAAAAY!
I had these thoughts more or less simultaneously.
I’m reading The City and The City by China Miéville
Actually, technically speaking I’m stealing [ljuser]floatingtide[/ljuser]‘s new copy of the book and reading it in furtive dribbles when she’s not paying attention. The basic premise is.. frankly, it’s too weird and wonderful for me to spoil it for you here. Go read it. You owe it to yourself.
I’m writing again
Betcha didn’t know I stopped. Well, I didn’t really completely stop, but I wasn’t writing at my usual levels for a while. Life got too busy and hectic, so I gave myself a brief vacation to Get Shit Done. And the Shit? It got Done. Mostly. We do still need a new bathtub and a new car (no, the two problems are not related in any way).
Yeah. Our old one needs a couple thousand dollars of work on it. It’s a great BMW, and whoever buys it off us and puts in the work will have a seriously kick-ass car, but we don’t need a kick-ass car. We actually need a nice and simple family vehicle, which we can buy for the cost it would take to refurbish our ridiculously over-powered street racer disguised as a sedan.
Tree roots in the walls. Let me say that again: Tree roots. In the walls.
That’s what we found growing in the gap between our old tub and the plaster. We had to rip the tub and a good chunk of the walls out. We decided we want to replace the tub with a nice claw-foot while we’ve got the opportunity, but it’s a big pain in the ass, and we had to wait for a long time while the roots in our goddamn walls dried up and died. Well, they’re dead now, so I guess it’s time to get crackin’.
Look at your man. Now back to me. Now back to your man. Now back to me. I… am not Isaiah Mustafa. But I have been working out, and it’s beginning to show. I bicycle a lot, which keeps me more-or-less trim, but I was beginning to have lower back pains again, which only go away when I’m getting enough upper body exercise. Being tall is a mixed bag. Sure, I can reach the top shelf, change the ceiling light, and annoy the guys behind me in the movie theater when I sit up straight, but I also have the odd back and neck trouble, and I probably hit my head more than is healthy, strictly speaking.
In any event, I’ve been hitting the gym again. If enough people request it, I will post photographic evidence thereof. Perhaps I will wear a towel, like Mr. “Old Spice Guy” Mustafa.
Baby due December 19th
I have mentioned I’m going to be a dad again, haven’t I? Well, I am. We’re expecting our second daughter in December. Now you know, internets!
OK, I think that’s about it for now. If my real life is too boring, feel free to provide some additional details of your own devising in the comments below.
Have you noticed that we live in The Future yet? I have. I realized it while I was on the biofuel-powered mass conveyance machine this morning. Anyway, I looked up from my portable network terminal (on which I was simultaneously reading about vat-grown organs and receiving wireless audio signals) and found myself genuinely considering, for the first time, the possibility that I might someday become functionally immortal.
After all, scientists have already demonstrated that simply by reducing the speed at which DNA structures called “telomeres” shorten, they can make worms live 20% longer. Studies are already under way on telomerase, and other gene therapies that at least theoretically counteract some or all of the effects of aging.
Of course, there are other paths life-extension technology could take. We don’t even have to wait for the day limb replacements get better than the real thing; that day is already here.
I wanted to share these thoughts with someone. I considered using my portable network terminal to engage in instantaneous verbal communication with someone — that someone could very well be anywhere on the planet — but decided against it. Such conversations are a little rude in close quarters such as the conveyance I was sitting in.
So I kept it to myself. However, the towering heights our collective technological genius has reached left me feeling dizzy all day, from the moment I used a magnetized strip embedded in polyvinyl chloride acetate (a credit card) to purchase breakfast, to the moment I decided to use a large-screen portable network terminal to write this essay and simultaneously share it across half a dozen different virtual network locales (websites).
What would our burgeoning sciences look like to species on other worlds (some of which we can now take actual photographs of)? When I visited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories, I met a man whose job description is basically “drives robots on Mars with his phone.” We must appear to be getting fairly high-tech to the little green men now, if they’re out there.
In some ways, this is something of a bittersweet thought. The science fiction I read when I was a child has been outstripped by a reality I couldn’t have imagined back then. And the pace of improvement keeps increasing. Sometimes I’m afraid any story I write will be obsolete by the time it’s published. Writing fantasy has frankly become easier, because no scientific advancement will ever render stories set in magical worlds any less realistic than they already are.
But… We’ve won. And by “we,” I mean science fiction writers. We’ve dreamed of futures filled with spaceships and robots and computers and everything else for so long, those dreams have affected the reality we live in. Scientists and inventors look to science fiction for inspiration, and find ways to turn it into science fact.
We live in The Future, and it’s goddamn awesome.
I’ve been watching the ongoing debacle regarding Apple’s newest iPhone. For the uninitiated, iPhone 4 released on June 24th. It’s a beautiful looking phone. But there have been a few reports of problems with it since its release. A few piddling, negligible, unimportant problems.
Namely, it loses its signal when you hold it.
Now, Apple has responded in several different ways to these reports:
- This problem doesn’t exist. The iPhone 4 is not plagued with any signal degradation from holding the phone.
- Even if the problem is real, other phones have it, too. All your past experiences to the contrary, holding any cellphone results in a loss of signal.
- But the iPhone doesn’t have a signal problem, even though we just said that all cellphones do.
- And this problem (which, again, doesn’t exist) only happens when you hold your phone wrong.
To normal human beings, this sounds like a defect, whatever Apple says. And it’s especially bizarre for Apple to tell customers who suffer signal degradation that they’re holding the phone incorrectly, when Apple’s advertisements and demonstrations of the iPhone 4 all depict it being held the “wrong” way (otherwise known as the way someone who holds phones in his left hand, like me, would hold a phone). Engadget has a helpful pictorial.
But to my astonishment, there are Apple customers defending the phone and even arguing that this isn’t a problem. People who agree with Apple on the topic, regardless of their own past experiences with other cellphones that — let’s be honest — can in fact be held without dropping calls. This knee-jerk defense of what seems like a serious design flaw has left me scratching my head.
Here are the basics of the problem: The iPhone 4′s antennas are integrated into the body of the phone as thin metallic strips on either side, one for the GSM connection and one for wifi and bluetooth. The rest of the edge is also metallic, but separated from the antennas by thin rubber buffers. When someone holds the phone in the normal phone-holding position with their right hand, there’s no problem. But a left-handed grip bridges the gap between the antenna on the left and the other bit of metal at the bottom. For a lot of people, this results in a loss of signal and dropped calls.
Now, the science fiction writer in me wants to pick this apart. Why do people’s egos get wrapped up in the quality of a piece of technology they’ve purchased? Why defend an obvious flaw, or pretend it doesn’t exist? Why willingly change personal behavior, such as how one holds a phone, to overcome that technology’s shortcomings, without admitting those shortcomings exist? What do they gain?
I can understand partisanship for or against a particular company’s products. But that doesn’t require the complete dismissal of any facts that cast the technology I’ve chosen to use in a negative light. I use Linux rather than Windows, because I find its features more in line with what I need, and the price for equitable features in Windows is too high. I think Linux is simply a better operating system for most tasks.
But that doesn’t mean I regard Linux as the One True Operating System, perfect and error free. It has its problems, one of which is the way application developers for Linux will sometimes put out non-beta software of beta quality (I’m looking at you, Amarok 2 and Audacity 3). I stay with Linux because I find those problems less frustrating than the ones in Windows, but I don’t pretend those problems don’t exist.
So… Technology cultists. People whose senses of ego and self-worth seem to be tied to having made the “right” technology decision, and reject any facts that render their chosen technology less than perfect. I’m trying to wrap my head around it.
There’s got to be a story in there somewhere.
EDIT: I’ve made some adjustments above for clarity, and wanted to promote this really well-crafted analysis, care of [ljuser]dsmoen[/ljuser].
EDIT 2: Well, that was fast. According to the Houston Press blog, there’s now a class-action lawsuit.
Wacky. I find myself writing my first short story sequel. I’ve got a few settings I’ve used for multiple stories before, but never for direct sequels wherein one story naturally flows from another.
It’s fun and frustrating at the same time. Fun, because I get to tie up some loose ends from the previous story and deal with a big leftover problem that I hadn’t even realized was there until the idea for the sequel came to me. Frustrating, because the story needs to be able to stand on its own merits, without requiring readers to go back and read the first one. That means finding ways to fill the reader in on the events of the first in a way that comes across as back-story instead of a full (and poor) retelling of the original.
I’m normally skeptical of sequels on general principles — to use a movie example, for every Matrix, there’s a Matrix Reloaded. But damnit, this is a story I want to tell, and it doesn’t make any sense as anything but a sequel. So that’s what I’m doing.
On a side note, thanks for all the well-wishing after my last two self-pitying mope-fests, but what I really needed was someone to smack some sense into me. Oh boo hoo, I don’t have time to finish my novel before my self-imposed deadline that matters to no one but me. Waaaah, the news is depressing so I can’t write optimistic science fiction. I wanna go back in time, just so I can say, “Man up, Nancy” to myself.
I’m a published author, with more stories on the way. I have a happy and healthy family. Life is good. So Mopey-Me can have a nice, tall glass of STFU.
There’s been a lot of hubbub lately about optimistic science fiction. You’re got Lightspeed Magazine, edited by the inimitable John Joseph Adams. You’ve got the Shine anthology (as well as Outshine, of course). There are all sorts of traditional science fiction outlets looking for positive views of the future.
But I’m not feeling very positive right now.
I’m back from my news fast, to find a world in which BP has created the worst oil disaster in U.S. history, several states are trying to follow Arizona’s racist lead, Israel has made some very bad choices, and… well, let’s just say not very much good news seems to have happened over May.
My thoughts, in no particular order:
- The ongoing oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is astonishing and horrific. There are no words.
- Israel made a terrible, monstrous mistake when it raided the Gaza-bound flotilla of humanitarian aid. The Israeli government needs to make amends, and quickly, lest it alienate a world that by and large supports it.
- Speaking of Israel, I’m very tired of right-wing lunatics telling me I’m anti-Semitic when I don’t support the government of Israel. Those teabagging nutcases don’t get to accuse other people of racism when they continue attacking President Obama’s legitimacy with racism thinly veiled as claims of a foreign birth. And accusations of anti-Semitism are particularly hilarious coming from a crowd that supports segregationists like Rand Paul. If they don’t understand — or choose not to — that it’s possible to be critical of a government’s policies without giving two shits about the religious beliefs or ethnic makeup of that government’s members, then I don’t see any reason to talk to them.
- I’m boycotting anything made in Arizona.
So… I’m back from my news fast, but feeling a bit pessimistic about the state of the world. I’d like to write some positive science fiction, so feel free to counter my pessimism with some positive news stories I may have missed over the month of May.
OK, I’ve stalled out. The novel stares back at me with dead, soulless eyes and says “let me go” in a piteous, mewling whisper.
I haven’t written more than three lines in it for a week. Obviously, this isn’t working. With DayJeorb, family, house, and medical things going on, writing has become an occasional, if-I-feel-inspired-for-five-minutes-on-the-bus kind of thing. The only time I get a solid two hours to write — a basic minimum for me to be productive these days — is on the rare evening off. Looking at my writing folder is getting depressing.
Here’s what my average weekday looks like:
- 5:30: Wake up, get dressed, brush hair, and so on.
- 6:00: Do some dishes, eat breakfast, get bicycle ready.
- 7:00: Out the door.
- 7:45: Get to the office, prep for DayJeorb
- 8:00: DayJeorb
- 11:00: Get lunch, eat, write if possible with remaining time (this never happens)
- 12:00: DayJeorb
- 5:00: Get on bicycle, go home.
- 5:45: Relax for a little bit (thank you, Loreen!)
- 6:00-ish: Various combinations of family activities, dinner, playtime with Bee, and everything that can’t happen during the work day. At the end of it all, I read Bee some stories and put her to bed.
- 9:30-ish: Time in which I could write, if I had any brain power left (this never happens).
So, what to do when you need to write, but simply don’t have the blocks of time you need to write the novel you started the year so desperate to finish? I’m entirely open to suggestions. For the time being, I’m going to go back to my old sentence-a-day rule, so that if nothing else happens on any given day, I’ll have written at least one sentence of new prose. It’s something, if not ideal.
Beyond that, I’m kind of stuck.