Monthly Archives: February 2015


Emotion and Logic 1

I was just about to run off to the grocery store when I was struck by a thought. Grocery shopping on hold until further notice.

The other day one of my friends said something to me that struck a chord. It was a brief comment, but it was along the lines of, “Isn’t it weird that logic holds more weight than emotion in determining whether a decision is ‘valid’ or not?”

So I’ve been stewing over that comment for the last few days, because my gut reaction was: But emotion is ridiculously important in decision-making because it abbreviates the logic!

Part of the reason why I cannot dismiss emotion entirely from the decision-making process is that it’s what governs most of my final choices.  By which I mean I don’t make impulsive, consequence-ignoring decisions (that is the usual type of decision implied by ’emotional decisions’, is it not?), but that I am put into a state of emotional dissonance when challenged for a decision. I then know when the decision is ‘correct’ for me because that dissonance evaporates when I make it. If my state of stress persists past the decision-making, then I know I need to re-evaluate the situation because my conscious mind hasn’t dealt with something my subconscious is concerned about.

My personal makeup requires a reason for pretty much everything, so all my life, I’ve made a habit of trying to parse my emotions. This has two results. The first is that it makes my mild anxiety and depression a little bit super awful since logic need not apply. The second is that I am prone to using my emotions as a bellweather for when I need to roll up my sleeves and and get to the bottom of something. In case it isn’t obvious, I journal. All my thoughts get untangled via writing, and usually when this happens, when I actually grapple with the thing my emotions are flailing about, they sort themselves out.

Because this is how I deal with life in general, I often use the metaphor that emotions are a little black box. Things go in, things come out, and sometimes you can correlate input and output, but other times weird things come out along with nasty blue smoke as the result of an input you though you’d already recorded as producing something else. They’re a complex process, maybe a bit mysterious, but something you can manipulate to a degree if you hit on the right combination of inputs.

All of this–*waves hand toward prior paragraphs*– is sort of the background to the idea that I believe that emotions are the abstract user interface for the mind.

And by abstract, I mean really, very abstract.

As an example of the kind of abstraction I mean, in the Otherland series by Tad Williams, one of the characters has a garden in cyberspace. This garden acts as an abstracting agent for news and events from all over the ‘net. It’s the feed aggregate, the dashboard or hub for every one of his concerns to make their presences known. Except, and this is why the imagery has stuck with me in the however-many years it’s been since I’ve actually read the series, all of the news is represented by physical objects that would otherwise be contained within a garden. I don’t remember what the abstract mappings were in the book, but let’s say the patch of clover represented business concerns. They could be healthy or look kind of wilted to suggest the health of the companies under this guy’s control, or a large bunny could be nibbling on the foliage to suggest the impending hostile takeover that would wreak havoc on his business’s structure. It’s a metaphoric interface, with rain and sunlight and different patches of flora representing different concepts and events. In Otherland, the abstraction of a garden represents raw information made digestible at a glance.

There’s a similar abstraction in Gun, with Occasional Music does, only the information being abstracted is the daily city news. In GWOM, and again I read it a hecka long time ago, one of the images that stuck with me was that in this dsytopic cyber-noir future, nobody is allowed to use actual words to give you the news. Instead, there’s a radio program on that plays music. It’s orchestral, if memory serves, but music nevertheless. The hardboiled detective protagonist of the books listens and waits for the tremolo of suspenseful strings, because that’s his cue that something mysterious and awful has happened and he needs to break out his magnifying glass and investigate.

Instead of ‘digestible at a glance’, the use of music as an abstract plays directly upon the idea that music conveys ideas through evoking feelings & emotions. Music, for most people, is an emotionally evocative medium. Just in classical music alone, you can have music that evokes the feeling of standing on the edge of the sea, of walking down a country path, or of riding on a train. Movies use their scoring to support and enhance the emotional impact of scenes, and so do commercials when they’re trying to evoke an emotion that will allow them to sell you things. There’s angry music and sad music and music designed to pump up your energy so you can rock out on the dance floor. Music is powerful because emotions are powerful, and using music to convey emotion is one of the most efficient ways to condense entire experiences into something that can be passed from one human being to another.

That is: emotion condenses experience.

The emotional output is the result of the little black box has chewing up and spitting out every single thing that your mind has perceived happening to you at any point in time. Emotions are your garden and your orchestra.

And sure, sometimes there is an out-of-tune piccolo player who knows where the bodies are buried that you can’t fire and every time she shows up you cringe, or you plotted your garden on a stretch of rocky ground and you keep finding stones you swore you rooted out already, but emotion is information.  Even if the rogue piccolo is stressing you out and logic isn’t going to force her to hand over the blackmail, emotion is the layer of the human user interface that takes care of the ‘at a glance’ monitoring. If you’re grouchy and grumpy, maybe you’re hangry and need a granola bar. If you’re disquiet in a relationship, there’s probably a reason. And maybe if you’re stressed it’s not just one thing and none of the causes are fixable. I mean, emotion isn’t magic. Sometimes what it’s telling you isn’t exactly super useful.

I think that emotion’s status as the abstract interface is especially powerful in writing. Just like an evocative song, an evocative scene can convey a mass of condensed information and form a connection between writer and reader. This is what’s at the heart of the advice ‘show-don’t-tell’, it’s what advice about building and sustaining tension deals with, and it’s at the very center of adventures and romances and epic quests. I have never squared off against a dragon with a too-heavy sword and a sweat running into my eyes, but I can put together the sensations of it from other condensed experiences and feel that terror for my ownself.

The fun thing about abstract interfaces, though, is that they have a relationship with the thing they’re abstracting. In emotion’s case, it’s abstracting logic. I get really cranky when people insist that there’s a strict divide between logic and emotion, because they’re two necessary parts of a single decision-making system, even if that decision is something as simple as ‘what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?’.

Logic affects emotion and emotion affects logic. There’s a give and take to the system. I can logically step through a problem and feel relief at the solution, and I can write books with a minimum of plot holes so that people buy in and that, in turn, bolsters the emotional impact of my work. On the flip-side, I can also be hit by an emotion out of the blue that signals to me that something interesting is going on inside my head that I might want to take a look at, and I can create mystery in piece of fiction by describing someone experiencing an emotion that has no apparent immediate source. There’s an inextricable relationship between the two processes, even if it sometimes goes haywire.

In computer science, abstraction is often desirable, because it, as the wiki says, ‘suppresses complexity’ for ease of use.  So, say, emotion is abstraction (and desirable) and a readily-interactable interface, then logic is where all the heavy-lifting complexity behind the scenes happens when the mind is calling upon its heuristics. The mind is complex in ways science is still discovering, and the brain does take shortcuts (good google term, btw: ‘brain shortcuts‘), but logic is an if-then-else process that marches from one end to the other. In some ways, logic becomes constrained by it’s own linearity, hence the shortcuts. It needs emotion to help find other bits and pieces inside the mind that could be unrelated to the primary logical thrust, but be equally as important. Emotion networks even unexamined thoughts into the whole in rapid gestalt.

Not that incorporating unexamined notions ever backfires. Or that it always works.

Still, the point of this whole thing is that when I encountered the concept that logic is taken as more ‘valid’ than emotion, I had an immediate, “Wait, no- that’s not what I meant to imply at all!” Emotion and logic are interrelated in a complex fashion, and unless something isn’t functioning properly, to deliberately ignore one in favor of the other is a disservice to one of the primary systems that helps us connect to each other as living, experiencing humans.

Now, I’ve spent more time than I meant to on this and I still need to scoot off and get milk.


Philosophy of Editing

This particular post has a twofold purpose. First, to let you know where I am with my projects (!) and the second to sort of explain what sort of editor I am when I’m editing someone else’s work. Hopefully, the reason they’re mushed together in the same post will become evident rather quickly. 🙂

My ongoing writing projects have only been lightly touched this past week, so they’re in a bit of a stasis. Still trying to fix the danged ending of Station (it’s just about giving me fits), and I’m working up an old short story to my current skill level. However, I haven’t had a lot of time to work on them because I had a freelance editing job to accomplish and I still haven’t quite figured out how to balance personal writing with professional editing. The edit went rather well and I have a couple of other opportunities to chase because of it, so hopefully I’ll figure out balance here rather quickly.

I’m also trying to figure out how to explain the type of editing I do so I can put it up here on my website under its own heading. Yanno. Just in case.

And with that segue, here’s my attempt:

I like to call myself a developmental editor. There are several different kinds of editing, and sometimes the definitions thereof are a little ambiguous and somewhat overlapping. See three different sources: Here, here, and here, for case in point. So, as in any chat about editing, I should probably clarify my terms before we get too much further.

I usually classify them into three major categories. Copyediting, line editing, and developmental editing.

Copyediting (and/or Proofreading, because some people make a distinction between the two) is about getting down the very last stage of polishing and is primarily concerned with the what of what is actually set down on the page. It’s the grammar. The syntax. It’s making sure everything is spelled correctly and hyphenated correctly and that you’re using the correct slang. It’s citing your sources (in nonfiction) and making sure that you’re consistent in your capitalization and you’ve eliminated as many typos as possible. This is the very last stage before your piece of work goes live. This is the type of edit that I always seek out before I send anything off for real because even at my most accurate, I start seeing what I meant to type and not what’s actually there.

Line editing is a bit looser and more concerned with the how of how something is written. This is going through your story line by line, paragraph by paragraph and looking for both logical consistency and flow. This is the place where word choices are first challenged, and all of those sentences with jarring parallel construction are pointed out. This is where I nudge people toward a consistent style, and try and suggest ways to develop atmosphere and tension within a scene and what they’re accomplishing with the words laid down as-is.

Developmental (or Substantial/Structural) editing is the most abstract of the categories, and it’s primarily concerned with the why of the piece. Why is this scene here? Why are you developing this theme? It addresses concerns such as building tension and releasing it early, or overwriting scenes that don’t need emphasis. Being a developmental editor is like being a rollercoaster designer; it’s all about making sure the story will guides the reader from the beginning to the end on a smooth path and contains only the terror and thrills you mean it to.

Classifications defined, I must say that developmental editing is what I enjoy the most, mostly because I get to I wade into the story, knee-deep, and sort of muck about. Some of my most favorite discussions with people have been wrangling about the construction of novels and movies, and over the past couple of years I’ve transitioned that love of discovering why I enjoy a thing into something useful by practicing on my writer-friends.

My philosophy of editing is very much about figuring out what story the writer wants to tell. I’m not sure how other editors approach manuscripts, but I’m of the opinion that the only way something can be ‘wrong’ when writing a book is if the author does not convey what they were trying to get across. I also firmly believe that a necessary part of editing a book is knowing why something isn’t working.

Partially, my desire to make sure my writers know what’s going is because I’m constitutionally incapable of accepting a ‘correction’ if I don’t know the reasoning behind it. I have editors I trust to know what’s up, but my process requires knowledge of all of the ‘whys’ and mechanical underpinnings of what my words are doing. Sometimes an editor can suggest something quite good and it just won’t fit with what I was trying to accomplish; if I modified my piece, then my goal would be that much further away. Not only that, but I don’t learn and grow as a writer unless I know why I’ve missed my mark so I can hit it first try next time around.

I assume that other writers have a similar growth process and a similar attitude toward  grappling with the underpinnings of whatever piece they’re writing. Granted, sometimes that’s not true, but I default to explaining everything and modify based on author preference.

I need to wrap this up because I’ve spun off two other blogposts via digressions (not included) already, so I think my general conclusion is that, when I edit, I approach it with an attitude of figuring out what the writer’s goal was, and then helping them discover how they can accomplish that goal. I disagree with the idea that there should be some sort of conformance to a mold, even in genre writing, though I do think that there is power in using established conventions to convey meaning.

Developmental editing, for me, is all about finding patterns and making connections. Plus, feeling around inside the mechanical guts of a piece of writing has the fun and interesting side effect that sometimes I end up explaining to my authors what they were trying to accomplish by instinct in the first place.

Though I admit my investigations have been limited, I’ve not found a lot of information on how other editors (especially developmental editors) go about editing philosophically, so if anyone reading has any thoughts or resources, I’d love to compare notes. 🙂

 

 


Hitting the Sweet Spot 1

Writing, much to my dismay, is an ongoing process of figuring out what works, doing that for a while until everything breaks and then figuring it out all over again. I am always poking around writing advice blogs to read about other peoples’ processes, and whenever my current battle plan goes sideways I’ll try out some of what works for others. Recently I’ve been ruminating a lot on the idea of daily word counts. Having a daily word count is one of the methods that works more or less often for me, especially when I have a longer project, but I’m starting to realize that my approach to daily word counts is a little bit, shall we say, unconventional.

Most of the advice I’ve found makes your daily word count into a goal. You have a daily goal, that’s what you hit come hell or high water, and forcing yourself to meet your goal is the only reason the words come out some days.

Hilariously, this does not work as intended for me, because setting even a reasonable goal has the unfortunate side effect of making my brain fluctuate between three states: the ‘I have not hit the goal today, I have failed, I am a failure’ state, the ‘I’m going to not hit the goal out of spite, because I don’t take orders from arbitrary self-expectations’ state, and the ‘I will hit this goal if it kills me and it might’ state.

I do not do well with high daily word goals.

When I use a daily word count, it’s actually a minimum word count.  As far as I can tell, the reason for a daily word goal is really motivation. It functions as the butt-in-chair mechanism, and it will keep you at your work until you’ve hit your goal. That’s not a problem I have – once I start writing I’ll usually continue until I can’t, regardless of goal.

To that end, my minimum daily word count is actually only 100 words. It’s just high enough to sink me into writing mode after I’ve sat down, but it’s low enough that my brain decides that we are very certainly not done with writing. Something that low also lowers the inertia I need to overcome to start writing. It’s only a hundred words. I can do that in ten minutes. Ten minutes is easy and I have no reason not to.

Once I’m writing, however, and I’ve breezed past my hundred words, how do I ever get anything done? I’m glad you asked, my friend, because the ‘goal’ part of my daily writing is an abstract goal. The thing that motivates me the most is having an event or task or endpoint within my writing piece. Sometimes I’ll simply shoot for the end of the piece, for one thing, but I also use the end of the chapter, or the end of the scene, or – if none of those are within how much I can reasonably write in a day, then my goal is to get to the next natural break-point in the narrative.

To be perfectly honest, I consider a daily world goal to be unsatisfyingly arbitrary and a little too vague. I’ve done Nation Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) for the last six or eight years and while I can do the 1667 words a day for a month, it’s hard to sustain that pace when the larger, more abstract goal of ‘finish the 50k in one month’ is removed. If I don’t have an abstract goal like’ finish the book before August’, or ‘post the story before May’, then I don’t have the sense of investment and urgency that leads me to get stubborn about reaching my goal. Even if the abstract goal is very short term, such as ‘finish this scene before Monday’, I find that a far more effective motivator than ‘write 2k on Saturday and 2k on Sunday’, even if they are functionally identical.

An important thing to reiterate, however, is that the combined ‘daily minimum word count and abstract goal’ package is all about motivation, so when I talk about how many words I write a day, it’s actually based on the metrics I’ve kept for the last two years and anecdata from the last ten or so. How many words I write in a day really doesn’t have anything to do with any daily goal I’ve set myself, it’s merely a description of my past performance with respect to writing.

Until 2014, my metrics mostly consisted of a handful of disparate sources: My Nanowrimo tracker, the Ares Accord that I and a couple my writer friends set up to help do consistent word wars, a few other scattered challenges and projects, and a general sense of how many words I can accomplish on a lunch break. I liked to try and keep metrics of when I’d write and how much, and the tracking got more complicated and more comprehensive over time.

At the beginning of last year, however, I joined ‘Get Your Words Out‘ in an attempt to find a community of like-interested writers to help keep me connected. Billed as a writing decathlon, GWYO allows you to set a yearlong goal and then calculates out how much you need to write per day to reach it. I didn’t reach my goal last year (and I’m not sure I will this year), but that really doesn’t matter. The most useful thing about the challenge for me was their very slick spreadsheet a level above what I have previously been able to produce for myself. Barring any other benefit, I ended up with a year’s worth of cold hard data and that is more than worth participating.

In 2014, I wrote 561 words per day, averaged across the entire year, including days I didn’t write. Counting only days I did write, my average is 1102, which I suppose implies that I wrote only about half of the days last year. I write between 700 words a day and 1400 words a day normally, and it varies wildly between those two points. My ‘very good days’ are about 2000 words, and those usually happen when I near the end of projects. My ‘bare minimum’ days are 300 words, and that’s when I’m squeezing writing in between ridiculous amounts of busy.

As for my writing pace, I am surprisingly consistent. I write about 300-400 words in half an hour, and 600-800 words in an hour. If I’m loose and limber and have enough momentum, I can bump up to 1000 words in an hour, but that’s about as fast as my brain goes to produce something that isn’t going to be rewritten in full. I’ve written this fast for as long as I can remember, since my very first ‘win’ at Nanowrimo when I was in college, to the five years at my first job, to every single word war I’ve done for Nanowrimo or any other challenge.

I have yet to reach a solid daily upper limit. Previously, my upper limits have been nearing 4000 words in a day before my brain fizzled, but I blew past that this last November and managed a couple of 6000 word days. Those days were awful and caused immediate burnout, however, so clearly large word count days are not sustainable for in the long term for me.

That’s the important part, actually. Writing a book is a marathon, even if you’re trying to go as fast as you can, and a sustainable word count is vastly more important than slamming out ten thousand word days if you’re utterly useless for the next week.

This brings me back around to daily word goals. A post over on Jennifer Ellis’s blog, entitled Minimum Daily Word Counts, gives a short rundown of the various word counts of famous authors. It’s full of excellent advice on how to increase your word counts and reach new heights of productivity. However, the post is very much rooted in the idea of pushing yourself to find your upper limit and – perhaps – lingering there.

If you don’t know what your limits are yet, then hell yes go get some great ideas on how to push yourself higher and faster.

However – riding along your upper limit is an awful idea, because one misstep and you fling yourself into either burnout or unsustainable territory. If you’re going to use a daily word goal (instead of a ludicrously low minimum and an abstract goal like me), then in my humble, humble opinion the optimal word count lies in a ‘sweet spot’. It’s a word count that you can blow past if you feel inspired while still being doable if your life throws shit at you, because your daily target goal is just that. Daily. It happens if you’ve got to mow the lawn and do chores and go grocery shopping. It happens if your day job was a royal pain in the ass and you just want a nightcap and an early bedtime. It happens if the sun is shining and the snow is gone and spring is dragging you out to the park for ultimate Frisbee. It happens around feeding and transporting children, taking the cat to the vet, and lunches with friends. Barring emergencies, this is a daily word goal that somehow fits into your life.

If I were to set an actual word count goal, in comparison to some of these famous writers over here, mine would be 800 words a day. That’s what I can hit consistently even when life happens, barring the depressive doldrums. (Last year was a bit awful in that for me.) It’s on the bottom edge of what I know I write on an average day plus a bit more, and it will only take me a couple of hours if I’m writing fiction. It’s doable, but it is an actual goal that requires me to stretch myself on off days and it’s not so high I can’t look at it as just the start to my writing for the day on the good ones.

The secret is that the goal you set for yourself should not be so intimidating as to scare you away with the threat of failure. You want the barrier to putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard or butt in chair to be vanishingly low. The idea is that you’ll get there when you get there, and the point is to set a pace manageable for the long term so that when you do inevitably (and I do mean inevitably) miss days, you don’t lose your momentum. Even if you do have a deadline, the only way to ‘make up’ words on missed days is to take a page from Nanowrimo’s notebook and redistribute your needed words across all your remaining days, otherwise your target word count will snowball to something you can’t hit without burning out and starting will be that much harder.

I’m not sure I’ve read this very often in writing advice blogs (and I’d love links that do, if you have them!), but sitting your ass down and starting needs to be made as easy as humanly possible for you. Nothing else about writing is easy and if your brain is anything like mine, it will take any excuse not to do something that’s hard no matter how rewarding it may be.

So make sitting down easy. Trick your brain. Figure out what motivates you and how and why. Become a scientist and experiment with yourself, changing variables like location and medium until you find something that makes the act of sitting down something you can do without thinking too hard about it. Don’t let your writing become something that needs a superstitious ritual to start, where you’re afraid to change elements for fear you’ll never write again.

Find your preferences. Find your inspirations. Find your limits. Figure out your highest word count and your lowest and your average, and when you’re done figuring all of that out? Find your sweet spot.


Sketching Science

This morning, I stumbled across this post on io9: Yes, It Matters If The Science In Your Science Fiction Story Is Accurate.

It’s an interesting read, if a bit abbreviated on the subject, and it links to another article internally that it quotes. You can read that one here at the Berkeley Science Review, or find the link in the io9 article if you’re so inclined.

The general theme of both of them is that making sure the science is as accurate as possible is actually more about how far you can stretch the suspension of disbelief before it snaps. It’s about plausibility, rather than accuracy. It’s part of the idea of verisimilitude, of faking it just enough to get across the point and the purpose without wading in and showing off how very little you actually understand.

The idea of verisimilitude is actually something trained into me through my years in theatre, because it is very much understood that you’re not going to make an exact replica of… pretty much literally everything. It’s all suggestions. I’m going to suggest a doorway by putting a frame downstage and letting you assume that the house has four walls. It’s putting a boat on wheels and attaching it to a rope and giving your actor an oar to play with while you drag them from left to right. It’s not accurate, it’s the suggestion of accuracy. There’s an artistry to providing just enough detail, in just the right ways that makes the audience buy in.

And part of why that works, especially in science fiction is a part of a quote from the end of the Berkeley article that says:

Science fiction merely takes the variables that we know to be important, changes the values a little, and sees what stories and relationships are important to that believable, but mutated, world. – David Litt

It’s an over-broad generalization, unfortunately, but it does say why science fiction works: when done right, it’s the suggestion and support of various aspects of the story that make them real enough to be plausible. Yes, it’s about tweaking details, but more it’s about following the science to its furthest logical conclusions.

And – to elaborate somewhat in a different direction, this actually reminds me about how similar Science Fiction and Fantasy are as genres. At their hearts, they’re both about presenting the (currently) impossible or (currently) improbable, grabbing firmly ahold, and running with it as far as you can, all in service to the type of story you want to tell. Sometimes that story is about how the scientific or fantastical element facilitates or complicates the story you’re trying to tell, and sometimes it’s simply about the impact that element has on humanity (or the society upon which you’ve inflicted your story).

The thing is – and I think this is absolutely missing from both of the linked articles above – you can’t just slap odd or unique or bleeding-edge and experimental science into your story and expect the whole thing to hang together. Part of the underlying reason why verisimilitude and plausible suggestion even works is because you commit to building the foundation for it within your story, just as you commit to exploring the idea to its full limits.

(Side note: there is actually a difference between novel-length scifi and short-story scifi in this. Novel length absolutely needs foundation and that’s where most of the length comes from. In scifi shorts, there’s only really time to run with one idea, so the commitment to the idea becomes the story center.)

Here’s the thing, though, even a very ‘scientifically accurate’ story can fall flat on its face if the narrative, the characters, the world-building and all the rest aren’t committed to support of the science. If there’s no foundation, if there’s no story-support for the fact that this thing is happening and it’s real for the purposes of the world inhabitants, then everything falls apart. It’s a lesson learned when writing the fantasy genre, where world-coherency and whatever fantastic element you’re trying to sell lives or dies by how well you set it up.

Just because a thing is ‘real’ in a scientifically objective sense doesn’t mean you can be any less lazy with the set up. For example, Interstellar’s ending comes to mind. I won’t spoil it for those that haven’t seen it, but the ending and the events of it are simply not supported by the narrative at all. Things happen, and even if they’re based (possibly vaguely) off of prevailing scientific theory, there’s no hint in the narrative that the science parts are anything but made up whole-cloth. If it were billed as a fantasy story, all of those hard-core into the genre would be vocal about how poorly the setup was executed. As it was, even though the end veered off into the fantastical, there was still talk about how accurate the movie was with respect to the science portrayed.

To be a proper science fiction writer, you don’t need to be an expert in the field, but you do need to be able to fake it for an audience so that even someone relatively well versed in scientific theory would nod along and buy in. (And possibly launch into an in-depth analysis of the science with way more expertise than I could ever muster, which is honestly one of the best things about being a writer. I could listen to people enthuse over their passions all day.) The point is that you’re mocking up a house with painted flats, and you’re using eyebrows to give otherwise blank-faced robots emotion. You have to understand what you’re suggesting enough to convey it, but in the end it’s all about handing your audience their bag of twos and waiting for them to combine them into fours. The twos, however, need to be solid enough–plausible enough–that not only do they support your climactic idea or central conceit, but also that it’s clear to the audience what they’re even for.