Not Done

83,438 words. Still not done.

Close to, but not quite, 5,000 words more than last week. Well shy of the 90,000 words I wanted to have done by the end of this month.

If I manage to crank out 3,000 words today, and do a marathon session of 4,000 words tomorrow, I might just make 90K. I’ll have finally caught up with the flu week, but only if I steal 4 hours or so away from chores and errands.

And even then, I probably won’t be done.

I’m into the latter third of the book, but only a few hours into the final day. There’s so much left to have happen, so many events that also need description and character insight and reactions and justifications and dialogue, that…I think I might not be done till I reach 100,000 words, or more.

On the one hand: hooray for the little story that could, the story I thought would be over so fast I’d have to write three of them to hit the 50K word mark for NaNoWriMo.

On the other: ye gods, I can’t wait for this thing to be done.

Permutation City by Greg Egan

I’ve refrained from reviewing fiction on the blog for two reasons: first, I don’t want to have to issue spoiler alerts for the books I want to talk about, and second out of a (possibly misplaced) sense of professional curtesy; as a writer who wants to be published professionally, I don’t want to be seen as being overly critical of those whose ranks I wish to join.

I’m breaking my self-imposed rule now because I realized there’s a way to talk about the fiction I read without indulging in spoilers or going too negative. Instead of discussing the overall quality of the book, like a normal reviewer, I’m going to talk about what I’ve learned from it about the art of writing. Like studying Frank Lloyd Wright buildings for architects, or replicating how Van Gogh made his own colors for painters, I think each book, each short story I read can teach me about the writing craft.

Take Permutation City, a book I finished recently. It’s an older science fiction work – published in 1994 – recommended by Jo Walton in her What Makes This Book So Great? compendium of fantasy and sci-fi reviews. What did it teach me?

It supports the idea that the real strength of the novel (as opposed to film or tv) is the ability to completely describe a character’s thoughts and dreams in addition to their actions. Novels can take you deep inside someone else’s head, something that tv and film can’t really do. It’s something Egan proves a master at, using it to make what on film would be just a character staring at some shapes moving on a screen into some of the most compelling parts of the story. In contrast, the more traditional “action” parts of the story aren’t as interesting or exciting.

It offers a rebuttal to my (recent) idea that often the details of something don’t matter, that character and plot can carry you through even when you’ve got the science (or the law, or the traditions) wrong. I’ve been using this idea to explain why I still enjoy shows that have dodgy physics or loose legal systems (Arrow, Forever).

But Permutation City has a huge crack running through the middle of the narrative, a place where it gets the details so wrong that the only way the plot can proceed is if you take a leap of faith along with the author, disregarding a lot of what we know about the physical world and how computers work. It’s a leap of faith I couldn’t make, and it divides the book into a well-detailed, well-thought-through portrait of the mid-21st century and a second half that, for me, might as well have been a discussion of angels dancing on the head of a pin.

Perhaps if the novel had built that leap of faith in from the beginning, I might not have felt the fracture? In any case, I’m taking it as a warning, a sign that sometimes getting the details wrong (or perhaps poor timing of certain details?) robs well-drawn characters and intricate plots of their power.

Re-watching: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Recently re-watched Sherlock Holmes, the first of the two Guy Ritchie movies with Robert Downey, Jr as the famous fictional detective. I’ve seen both movies multiple times, but on this re-watch several things struck me that I hadn’t noticed before:

  • Rachel McAdams’ Irene Adler is the weakest part of the movie. Her acting doesn’t hold up very well – especially compared to the actress who played Irene Adler for the recent Sherlock TV series – but within the film itself she seems stiff and dull compared to the performers around her. I came away with a greater feel for Mary – Watson’s fiancée – as a character than Adler, which is perhaps why McAdams was dropped so early in the sequel, while Kelly Reilly’s Mary got a larger role.
  • The villain is entirely wrong. He was cast incorrectly, coming off as cartoonish and silly rather than threatening. The whole occult mis-drection angle is outside the mood of a Sherlock mystery, and clashes with the otherwise steampunk-lite industrial trappings of the movie. It’s a constant distraction to be rolling my eyes every time the villain shows up and starts mumbling about hexes and spells.
  • The action sequences where we see Holmes calculate each move in advance are still amazing. They make what would be standard – and therefore boring – fight sequences interesting again, giving us insight into how much calculation Holmes puts into every part of his life, and completely justifying the film’s emphasis on more physical roles for both Holmes and Watson.
  • In comparison, the extended action scenes toward the end of the movie – shots fired, martial arts employed, multiple fights going on at once – just seem busy, and not that interesting. They don’t have any of the comedy or setting interest that the first fight sequence between Holmes and Dredger has, nor do they use the Holmes-fight-calculation technique that made the other fights interesting to watch (would it have been so bad to show Adler or Watson trying to do the same fight planning during this sequence?).

Overall, still a good movie, and an interesting take on the Holmesian mythos, but with some glaring flaws. As I recall it, the second movie fixed these mistakes and kept what worked from the first film, making it the better movie. I’ll have to re-watch it soon to check if that still holds true.

The Plans of Mice and Writers

Novel broke 79,000 words this morning. That’s 5,000 more words than last week, putting me back on my desired schedule.

So waking up that half-hour earlier has been worth it. I’ve been getting in 250-400 words in that extra 30 minutes, making it a lot easier for me to hit 1,000 words by the end of the day.

Writing at lunch hasn’t worked out as well for me. I’ve often got errands to run and chores to do in that hour, and even if I try to carve out 30 min for writing, my mind’s so busy with other things that I end up just staring at the page.

Fortunately, I’ve done much better with writing at the end of the day, especially since I’ve got the morning kick-start to relieve some of the pressure.

So, I’ll keep up the new habit next week, and try to use the weekend to catch up from the week I lost to flu. My goal is still to finish by the end of this month, so I’ve got some cranking to do.

How to Fix: Boyhood

True, it’s up for several Academy Awards. And yes, it’s an ambitious project, to film a single set of actors each year for twelve years and splice the scenes together into a growing-up story.

Except that it’s a boring movie. We spend three hours watching short scenes that for the most part have no drama, no conflict, no plot at all. On top of that, the two main characters we see through most scenes – the kid and his sister – are both incredibly boring. Neither of them seems to care about anything, greeting most of their parent’s concern and anger with a shrug. 

The movie seems designed to coast by on its premise alone. And, seeing as it’s gotten several Academy Award nominations, that seems to have worked for it.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen child actors grow up before (Harry Potter, anyone?) and I’ve seen shaggy, low-plot stories done well before (Dazed and Confused, remarkably from the same director as Boyhood). So neither of Boyhood’s gimmicks are enough for me.

Fixing it is simple: make it interesting. Keep the actors, keep the concept, keep the low-plot nature of things. But make each scene (or set of scenes) picked from a time period be some conflict, something dramatic that seems very important to the boy (and therefore us) at the time. This will get us involved in the kid’s life, show them as actually giving a damn about something, and draw us in to the movie.

You don’t have to tie each of the conflicts together. You don’t even have to make them about the big, cliché events (first kiss, first date, etc). So you can keep the shaggy-dog nature of the story, just showing a kid growing up, but by picking out conflicts involving things the kid cares about, you draw the audience in. They care, because the kid cares.

Over multiple segments, this structure would drive home the concept of the passage of time, and how much we change without realizing it growing up. Mason’s boyhood concerns and conflicts would fade and eventually be forgotten, replaced with new cares and concerns.

Perhaps one or two would survive into young adulthood – a childhood wish to be an astronaut surving as a hobby of stargazing – to give us some continuity, but the rest of the movie can be about the changes we go through, the many different skins we shed on the way to adulthood. That would certainly hold my attention over three hours, and fufill the potential of Boyhood’s premise.

Your Money Ratios by Charles Farrell

Repetitive in places and oddly self-promoting. Farrell adopts the grade-school method of writing: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them. After reading other financial advice books (Personal Finance for Dummies, Pound Foolish) that use a more modern and adult style, his was frustrating and a little off-putting.

That said, the advice itself is interesting and logical. Three things I learned:

  • 401K contributions are taken out pre-tax, and are tax free until you take them out. This means contributing to your 401K is an easy way to both save for retirement and lower your tax bill (since those contributions don’t count toward your income for the year).
  • Social Security is solvent now and will probably remain so, though benefit payouts might be reduced over time to keep it that way. Still, you can include it in your retirement planning, lowering the target amount you’ll need to save.
  • Splitting your retirement savings between stocks and bonds protects you from some of the down swings the stock market will experience over the years you’ll be saving for retirement, allowing you to confidently adopt a long-term perspective for your investments.

So Many Excuses, So Little Time to Write

Novel stands at almost 74,000 words as of today. That means I only got 3,000 words written this week, instead of the 5,000 I wanted, and the 10,000 I needed to write to catch up with losing last week to the flu.

So what happened? Looking back, all I can see is excuses: I’ve only got 30 minutes to write, and that’s not enough time to do anything good (never mind that this is the first draft, so the good or bad doesn’t matter so much now as simply getting it done); or I can’t write today, I’ve got to make dinner before my wife comes home (even though my wife is awesome, and would totally understand if dinner were a little late because I took time to write); or I’ve got too much else going on to write (bills, chores, etc).

I think part of my problem is that I don’t have a set-aside writing time. Currently it’s catch-as-catch-can, with me snatching time away from other activities (like making dinner) to get some writing done.

I also still have trouble letting go of my inner editor. This makes even the time I do take to write less productive than it could be, with me second- and triple-guessing each word, each line, before I write it.

So, new strategy for next week: get up thirty minutes earlier, and dedicate that time to writing. Then pull a half-hour from my lunch break and use that, as well. That’ll give me an hour of writing time, which should be about a thousand words, which will keep me from falling further behind (if not exactly back on track to meet my writing goal for the month).

Also: spike my inner editor’s morning coffee, so when I’m gearing up to write he’s passed out on the couch, dreaming in red ink.

Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive by Bruce Schneier

Picked it up because of Schneier’s awesome columns in Wired and his generally great blog posts. Glad I did, though it wasn’t what I expected.

It turns out to be less of a book with new information and more of one that organizes the things we already know about trust from game theory, anthropology, and neuroscience. It’s well written, and focused on building a framework with which to understand problems of rule making and rule breaking in modern society.

Three connections I hadn’t made before:

  • Corporations cannot be punished like individuals, which makes it harder to force them into compliance, and increases their tendency to defect. The harshest punishment any corporation undergoes is fines, converting a decision that should be affected by moral considerations into a simple question of dollars and cents (and turns the fine into just one more cost of doing business).
  • One potential downside to increasing diversity in a neighborhood: as the number of different standards of what’s fair and what’s polite multiplies, your chances of unknowingly offending someone with your “normal” behavior increases; thus trust in general in the neighborhod declines.
  • Facebook is becoming an institution, setting norms for social behavior, and yet it is a for-profit company, with conflicting interests between its profit motive and society as a whole.

Apple Woes

For me, the real sign that Apple might be in trouble was when my wife upgraded her phone, and decided against getting a new iPhone.

Understand, my wife’s the reason we’re an Apple family. She convinced me to try out a Mac way back in 1999, in the days of Bondi Blue iMacs and OS 9. The experience hooked me, but the seed planted was hers.

16 years later, everything about Apple frustrates her. She couldn’t organize her photos on her iPhone, couldn’t even access them all without third-party software. Her last iPad update wiped out all the iMovie videos she’d created over the last six months. Apple Maps always led her astray, and Siri never helped.

So she went Android for her last phone. That’s the Apple warning bell for me: my wife is Apple’s target market – smart but non-technical, creative and needing things to just work – and she doesn’t want what they’re selling anymore.

Novel Update

When I finished NaNoWriMo, I was 50,000 words deep into the novel, but it wasn’t done. I decided to keep setting word goals for December and January, in the spirit of NaNoWriMo: 1,000 words per day, excluding weekends, or 20,000 words per month.

I managed to hit that target for December, crossing 70,000 words on New Year’s Eve.

Work on the novel has suffered since then. I came down with the flu on Sunday, wiping out my chance of making progress for most of this week. I’m hoping to make up some words this weekend, but I’ll still need to crank up my average if I’m going to hit 90K by the end of this month.

Fortunately, I feel like I’ve turned a corner in terms of the writing itself. The end of the novel is close, close enough for me to start seeing it pretty clearly.

My main problem at the moment – other than the daily battle at starting to write, which always seems harder than it should be – is wanting to rushing toward the conclusion, skipping details and plotlines just to reach the end.

To help combat this tendency, I’ve been using the day’s word count as both motivator – get those words down, or else – and forced breather, a way to trick myself into writing a lot more than I want about scenes that I’m itching to skip over, scenes that often turn out to be very important.

My hope – my goal, rather – is that this month’s 20,000 words are the novel’s last, and that I’ll be able to write THE END by Jan 31st. that way I can use February to work on something else, and gain enough distance from this novel to come back to it in March and edit it into something worth reading.