Whoops

So, uh, this week I was a bit distracted. Not by the thing you’re thinking of… well, yeah, I suppose I was distracted by that too. But mostly I was distracted by writing an essay on the Penrose–Lucas argument (and why I think it’s bogus). The short, short version: Penrose (a physicist and mathematician) and Lucas (a philosopher) think that AI is impossible because humans can “see” the truth of certain things that a computer cannot prove, and I argue that humans aren’t seeing the truth so much as guessing at what might be true.

The details really go off into the weeds of mathematics, information theory, and computer science. You’d probably be bored to tears reading it.

So, uh, yeah. This is totally what I meant to write this week. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org; my profile) is a challenge to write the first draft of a 50,000-word novel over the course of November. Since November has 30 days, completing the challenge requires sustaining an average of 1,667 words per day. (300 words = 1 page, so 50k words = 167 pages and 1,667 words = 5.5 pages.)

I’m participating this year, although I fully expect to fail the challenge. My personal goal is to improve the consistency of my output: I want to get into the habit of writing a modest but meaningful amount each day. If I’m writing at half or one third the speed required to complete NaNoWriMo on time, then so be it.

So far, I’ve written 2,900 words in 6 days, or 480 words per day average… which doesn’t sound too bad, as it’s roughly in the range I was hoping for (if a little low). Unfortunately, the number is skewed by an unusually productive day, and the truth is that I got no writing done this weekend. Up until now, my strategy for dealing with writer’s block on a given chapter has been to skip ahead to the next chapter, with the hope of coming back to the incomplete chapter after I have things more fleshed out. Unfortunately, I found myself blocked on what I wanted the next chapter to be, so things aren’t looking pretty at the moment.

Next up: I’m going to take a step back, try to figure out where I want things to go, then forge ahead on Monday.

Writer’s Block; Inkshares

This last week, I’ve suffered from a pretty awful case of writer’s block: every time I sat down and tried to write, my mind wandered away and I couldn’t focus on the page. I finally broke that pattern this evening, managing to write about 700 words. My solution: better living through chemistry. Specifically, caffeine. I ordered some 40mg caffeinated mints off Amazon, and they seem to be exactly what I was missing. Woohoo!

I’ve now drafted the second scene of Chapter 1. It follows on from the first scene, fleshing out the two established characters a bit more, tying the prologue’s event into the protagonist’s life, and introducing a new concept or two from the setting.

When I complete the book, I’m planning to try publishing through Inkshares. It’s basically a cross between a micropublisher and a crowdfunding site: authors propose books to the site, readers commit to pre-orders, and if the book meets the crowdfunding thresholds, then Inkshares commits to publishing it. I’ve uploaded the draft-so-far to its own Inkshares page; if you’re already on Inkshares, or if you create an account, then you can read the draft for Chapter 1, give me feedback, and Follow the book to get status updates.

Creating a character

I find that creating a new character from scratch is a tricky proposition. Most of the time, I already have a subconscious idea of the character’s goals before I start; after all, I created the character to serve a purpose in my story. But having goals isn’t enough: each character needs a distinct voice, so that the audience can easily tell the characters apart. Developing that unique voice can be tricky: if I’m not careful, they’ll end up speaking in my voice. I like my voice, but it just doesn’t provide enough variety.

Something I’ve taken to lately is building a personality profile of each character. I’ve used Myers-Briggs in the past, but the “Big Five” system has a better scientific basis, so for my current novel I’m trying that out instead. The Big Five system is a measurement along five axes, with the mnemonic “OCEAN”:

  • Openness: willingness to try out new experiences (curious vs. cautious)
  • Conscientiousness: punctuality, organization, reliability (organized vs. easy-going)
  • Extraversion: desire for social stimulation (outgoing vs. reserved)
  • Agreeableness: compassion, cooperation, quickness to trust (friendly vs. detached)
  • Neuroticism: quickness toward anger, anxiety, despair (sensitive vs. confident)

This is a good start, but it isn’t enough by itself: while a given OCEAN profile might rule out some voices or suggest others, two people with the same OCEAN personality should nonetheless have different voices. Thankfully, there are a lot of voices out there.

What is a voice, exactly? Well, some of it is simple vocabulary and word choice: there’s a stark gap between “You look great” and “You look fabulous”. Tone is also a big component: is someone always serious, or do they make sarcastic quips, or maybe they tell bad jokes when they get nervous? Grammar is another piece: do they follow “the Rules”, i.e. the stuff supposedly chiseled into stone tablets and taught in English class, or do they follow the standards of something more vernacular or less formal?

There are so many voices out there that choosing one gets complicated, fast. The first and most important step is to pay attention and listen when other people are talking — not just what they’re saying, but how they’re saying it. This applies both to the real world, and to the fictional characters created by other writers. Once you have a stable of interesting voices, a useful shortcut to a new voice is to mix-and-match aspects of two or three existing voices.

One character I’m working on has so far been about 1/3 inspired by a coworker I knew at a previous job, and 2/3 inspired by Jade Harley from Homestuck — plus some tweaks to fit her OCEAN personality, which was distinct from either of her inspirations.

Beginnings

I’ve started the planning for my first proper novel.  I’ve never taken part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, which is in November)… and honestly, that probably won’t change this year, as I’m nowhere near ready to start writing.  But it’s the kick in the pants I needed to pull this off the back-burner and at least try to get the planning done by the end of October.

If you asked me, I’d say that there are four elements to a novel, all of them important for their own reasons:

  • Theme ­— What is the story about? What’s the moral? What’s the question?
  • Setting — Where does the story take place? What’s it like to live there day-to-day? What’s possible there, technologically / politically / socially?
  • Character — Who’s in the story?
  • Plot — What happens in the story? What’s the conflict that makes the story interesting?

(My tendency is to work through them in the order I’ve listed. Other authors may differ.)

So far, I have the themes nailed down and a pretty good idea of the setting. I have a vague idea of how the story starts and ends, but I don’t yet have a plot because there’s no conflict.  I’m tossing around some ideas for one or more antagonist character(s), and once I have them, they’ll determine the plot. Probably.

I also need to populate the setting with more characters for the protagonist to interact with. So far I have the protagonist plus two, but that’s an awfully small world. Some of the minor characters I’ll invent on the fly as I fill in the story, but I need at least a few strong, well-developed personalities for the protagonist to bounce off of.