Introduction

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My site objective is for those who have never met me (including my future progeny) to get to know me. I mean, to really get to know me. What is my worldview? What are my beliefs regarding life, death, religion/philosophy, art, science, and the future of humanity? Fiction writers call these beliefs my “lens” through which I interpret life and make decisions. We all have a lens, formed by our propensities, experiences, education, and knowledge. Want to look through my lens. Come closer … take a look.

 

 

Left Them Better than Found Them

In college I took several philosophy classes. The required reading in one class included a book that evaluated a host of religions and philosophies. The author sought a universal philosophy that would benefit everyone. His conclusion was simple: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Of course, this is the golden rule and it is a philosophy that anyone can follow, regardless of education or intelligence. Years ago I came to realize that implementing the golden rule didn’t entail much more than simply showing people respect and consideration. I don’t have to like everyone I encounter, nor do I have to agree with them. However, if I show enough respect to give them their space, listen to what they say, and keep a level head, then everyone seems to get along without much pain. This approach is akin to another, more broadly defined philosophy: live and let live.

Having lived for over seven decades, I can say that I’ve encountered another golden rule: leave them better than you found them. I don’t think nearly as many people embrace this view as the more well-known one, but it is worth remembering, especially whenever there is give and take in a relationship (uh, like always!). As an example, I’ve never sold a home that wasn’t in much better condition than when I bought it. The reason for this isn’t simply because I’m something of a handyman, nor is it because I’m looking for a good price (although it sure helps). It’s because I want the new owners to get as much (if not more) joy out of the house as it brought to me. I want a win-win for everyone.

Another good example of this rule is when people divorce. Leaving an ex- better off than how you found them is the noble thing to do.

My bigger hope is that the leaders of countries would adopt this philosophy. I admit, though, that even if they do, it is really tough to make assessments of how well they did. For example, is the USA better off when a new president is inaugurated? How about a few years later? Or many years later when the president is out of office and historians try to assess any lasting effects of the presidency. It is so hard to accurately attribute which actions caused what effects and whether those effects were enduring or short-lived. This is one thing that makes the US so resilient as a country.

Economist have known for years that when presidents and congress give big tax cuts, like they did last month, somewhere down the line someone has to pay for it. The only other thing for sure about tax cuts is that the rich benefit the most from them. So, it seems safe to say that the present administration is indeed leaving them better than they found them. By them, of course, I’m referring to the rich.

Aqui Esta Drive

In the Florida town where I spend most winters there are more than a few unusual street names. One example is FORTRAN Drive. Those with an engineering background will recognize FORTRAN as the scientific programming language originally developed in the 1960’s. It is still in use but has long since been eclipsed by many other languages. Another street name example is BURNT STORE Road. One can imagine that long ago this road must have led to a store that burned down and the name stuck. Other atypical street names include OLIPHANT Lane and MARLYMPIA Way.

In my view, one of the most interesting street names in this town is AQUI ESTA Drive. Anyone with exposure to the Spanish language will recognize this Spanish phrase as, “here it is.” My guess is that the person naming the street either had a sense of humor, or simply wanted to acknowledge the notable Latin American influence in the area. In any case, the name is significant for several reasons. First, the street is a major thoroughfare in the town thus the name is spoken often. The second is that many people with little or no exposure to Spanish pronounce it as if it were an English phrase, which comes out sounding something like ack-kwee-es-ta. If you put the street name into something like Google Maps and select voice directions, what you hear is pretty close to this pronunciation.

It’s been a while since I’ve taken any languages classes. One general rule I do remember, though, is that proper names should be pronounced in their native language if possible. It is possible to put a Spanish pronunciation to my name (Jack) but it sure sounds a lot different than the English version because of the “J.” If someone called my name in Spanish I likely would not respond, or even know I was being called.

To me, the strangest thing of all is that folks insist on calling AQUI ESTA by the English version even though they clearly recognize that this word phrase doesn’t look the least bit English.

The Hook

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If you say the word hook to a fiction writer they immediately think you’re referring to the situation or event early in the story that grabs the reader’s attention. The hook is intended to impact the reader in a way that makes them want to read further. It makes them want to, well … uh, buy your book!

The origins of the word hook harkens back to physical implements like the two hooks shown in the picture. These are actually the same two hooks except the one on the left is covered with a rubber hose and then the ends were epoxied shut. The reason for doing this is that the hook, while big enough and strong enough to meet my boating application, has a zinc coating. In a saltwater environment the zinc coating will totally rust over in a year or less. Thus, by putting the rubber hose over it and sealing it I’ve delayed the rusting by many years. Of course, had I been able to buy this hook in stainless steel I could have avoided having to add the covering.

Fortunately, the hooks we use in fiction writing don’t rust. However, like the hooks in the photo they do have to be strong enough to do the intended job. Some authors, if they have a sufficient fan base, can get away with a weak hook. I’m not one of those, nor are most of the writers I know. So I’m all for a nice, strong hook.

 

 

 

 

AI and Mankind?

There are two schools of thought on the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI). One school believes that AI is a great danger to mankind’s existence. These people believe that intelligent machines will rise up and subdue humans, even destroy us. These machines will be intelligent enough to make more machines of even greater intelligence and there will be no need to maintain a human population. The other school of thought believes that man will maintain control of intelligent machines no matter how smart they get. Machines don’t have wants like humans do so machines will never want to take over the world and control humans.

As contrasting as these two views are, I believe both of them are close to being right. I do believe that man will make AIs far more intelligent than humans are today. I don’t really see this as a danger, however, but more as our “manifest destiny.” That is, humans take too long to evolve (tens of thousands of years) whereas we can build new, more capable machines within a timeframe of months or a few years. We already use machines to handle processes too complex or intricate for humans to run. As technologies become increasing involved, only machine “minds” will have the memory, the speed, and the range of capabilities to keep things straight.

AIs show promise to solve many of our current engineering, mathematical, and scientific problems. Perhaps even more important, however, is their potential to solve the biggest problems facing mankind: our inability to stop lying to, cheating on, and killing one another.

I don’t think AIs will eventually raise up and smash humans and take over the world.  Instead, I think human populations around the globe will become so fed up with their inept, corrupt governments that they will cajole scientists into making future AIs available to run the world’s government(s). Just as bitcoin could be a universal cash-equivalent, AIs could become a universal government-equivalent.

If all this turns out to be true, what will happen to mankind? I think we will eventually die out. Not because the AIs smashed us, but because of just plain boredom.

Then we will have fulfilled our manifest destiny.

 

 

Tongue in Cheek Short Stories

There are certain forms of short story that present facts mixed with rather preposterous circumstances or situations. The net result is a rather humorous story, especially if the reader quickly catches on to its underlying farcical nature. Like most all short stories, the ending is intended to be a surprise. Further, the ending should amuse, typically by playing on an idiom or using a bastardized twist to a well-known phrase or bromide. I call these Tongue-In-Cheek, or TIC, short stories. I do so because their only reason for being is to insight laughter (maybe even guffaws for the exceptionally good one). These types of stories seem to be especially common in the science fiction genre. I’ve observed over the years that many SF fans have a dry sense of humor, so I suppose it all fits.

I recently read one of these stories which is what prompted this post. The story differs from my description above in one notable way: it was a novelette rather than a short story. Being of longer length I found myself disappointed in the ending. Not that the ending lacked humor. It would have been just fine had the story been half as long or less. In my opinion, a novelette is too long a piece for a TIC story. Why? Because when I put the kind of time needed into reading a novelette I’m looking for something more than just a punch line at the end.

The author is a professional and did a great job of using what I would describe as an “old English” style narrative that seemed to fit another time and place (supposedly far in the future). I would also say the story was as much fantasy as it was what I consider SF.

Many publications still pay based on word count. Maybe the author got more money for his efforts, but for sure he got no guffaws from me. Not even a heart-felt chuckle.

 

FICWA Regroup

 

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In my most recent post (September 29, 2017) I introduced the concept of FICWA (Fiction Inline Commentary Writing Approach). My plan was to continue posting on this method as I demonstrate how it can be used. Unfortunately, the FICWA write-up requires several MSWord features, primarily line numbering, that WordPress does not support. In order to get my Sept. 29 post loaded into my blog I used a very cumbersome and time-consuming work-around. Consequently, I’ve decided that I will develop a separate booklet for the FICWA material rather than try to post it. Once I’m far enough along in writing the booklet I’ll have a downloadable version available.

Exploring fiction writing methods has been a major interest of mine since I took my first fiction writing seminar years ago. I’ve read many of the recommended books on the subject and I still feel there is much useful research to be done. Every writer tries different approaches as they develop their skills and discover what things work best for them. During one writing seminar I attended the speaker made a profound observation. Although he was primarily a science fiction author, he stated that, “All fiction books are mysteries.”  I immediately understood what he was getting at; we read stories to find out what happens. If we knew what happened our motivation for reading the story would diminish.

A very popular storytelling technique these days is to start by showing a glimpse of the ending scene of the story and then go back to the beginning. I say a glimpse because enough of the ending is shown to tantalize us and pique our interest, but no so much as to give away the ending. In other words, the mystery is still there to goad us into doing the reading.

My point is that mysteries naturally lead to questions like: who did it, or what happened, or who won, or when or where did an event take place, or just plain why? The core concept of FICWA revolves around the questions the story generates and the answers it gives. I’m thinking that’s key to it all.

Inline Commentary Fiction Writing

In this post I’m going to introduce a possible method for fiction story writing. I got the idea while attending a fiction writing seminar where the speaker offered this tip: “I like to write sentences that beget other sentences.” I’d never heard this expression before but it seemed worth a closer look. I understood what the speaker was getting at: write a sentence that refers to, or alludes to, things that require further elucidation. Then, in subsequent sentences the writer has some idea of what to write more about — those things needing elucidation. (Clearly this is more suited for those of us who are pantsers).

As an example, consider the following sentence:

line 1

Notice two things about this sentence. First, it has a line number on the left (more about this later). Second, this sentence raises a number of questions. Assuming it is the starting sentence of a story, then: 1) who is “I,” 2) who is Mark, 3) why would I think he wanted to kill me, and 4) what did he do that shocked me? Also, 5) we know nothing about the scene these two characters are in, nor 6) the timeframe of the scene. There are also the 7) inevitable situational aspects we don’t know about.

In subsequent paragraphs we start filling in this information, mindful that in so doing we can allude to still more things that require elucidation. For now, which of the above questions do we address first? Well, let’s just draft an arbitrary sample of a plausible next paragraph and see what we find.

line2

line3

This paragraph addresses questions Q3 and Q4 above, but that’s about it. Further, it adds to our list of questions: 8) who is ringing the doorbell, 9) what do “fraudulent baseline” and “fair-dare mean, 10a) why did Mark kill himself, and 10b) why did Mark jump instead of putting his gun to his head and pulling the trigger? Of these questions it seems to me we first need to address Q8 – who is ringing the doorbell. It is human nature to respond to an incessantly sounding notification, be it doorbell or phone. Anyway, the “I” in the story can’t do anything for the guy who went over the planter so he may as well answer the door.

line4

line5

line6

Now we have a partial answer to Q1 and Q2. We know that “I” is Jeff Bailor and that Mark is Mark Wye, an accountant. However, before going further it is evident that we could use some help in tracking all these questions and answers. Below is a simple table that may do the job. This is where the line numbers come in handy. In MSWord these numbers can be readily added on any selected text. However, I don’t think it necessary to be too precise in referring to them. The idea is they help us refer back to the general area in the text where the question or answer was presented. For example, the line number could just as easily refer to the paragraph containing the question or answer. Also, note the line column to the left of the addresses column refers to the line (or paragraph) that gives an answer to the question. Note that the line numbers in this post apply only to story lines. Also note that many answers are not complete answers; that is, we can expect more complete information later on.  For this reason the column on the right is titled Addresses meaning the entry may not be the complete answer. Cells in the table that are left blank mean no entry has been identified for them yet. Thus we see, for instance, that I have not yet addressed Q6 – the timeframe of the scene.

 

line QUESTION line ADDRESSED
1 1 – who is “I,” 40 Jeff Bailor
1 2 – who is Mark 40 Mark Wye, accountant
1 3 – why would I think he would want to kill me 2 Mark was brandishing a gun at him, threating to shoot
1 4 – what did he do that shocked me 8 Ran out to the balcony and jumped over the planter, plunging to his death
1 5 – we know nothing about the scene these two characters are in 47 In Mark Wye’s apartment on the 7th floor
1 6 – the timeframe of the scene
1 7 – inevitable situational aspects we don’t know about.
1 7a – what is the relationship between the two men 35 Mark was Jeff’s accountant
1 7b – what brought them to be together at this time and place
5 8 – what did Mark mean by “fraudulent baseline” and “fair-dare”
19 9 – what caused the two cops to come to the door, especially with guns drawn

 

This is a lot to take in in one post, so I’ll end it here and continue the discussion in a subsequent post. I’m not sure if this method has been identified by others; I can only say that I came up with it on my own from the inspirational tip mentioned in the beginning. For lack of a better term I’d call this method the Fiction Inline Commentary Writing Approach, or FICWA. If I had to define it in a few sentences I would describe it as: a writing tool consisting of original numbered-line fiction text interspersed with inline commentary. The later focuses on the identification and accounting of explicit, implicit, or anticipated questions and answers raised in the fiction text. A simple table method is used to facilitate Q/A tracking. The table need not be embedded inline and in fact is more easily used if in a separate window (assuming a computer is used).

 

 

 

 

OADA and Character Drive

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Character motivation is also part of the OADA model (see my August 25 and Sept. 2 posts). Fiction writing classes often emphasize the importance of knowing what the protagonist wants. What the protagonist wants gives focus to the story and forms a basis for whatever motivation s/he might have. All characters have wants even though it’s the protagonist’s wants that the story centers on.

The truth is that wants say a lot about a person; they can be incredibly telling. For example, suppose one of my middle-age characters has wanted to be a successful novelist all of her adult life, yet has failed to complete her first manuscript. We immediately know that she is not applying herself; no one has to tell us this. More telling is when we learn she has no plan to achieve what she wants. She is either a person who can delude herself or she is trying to delude others.

Some wants have a time limit. Suppose my nineteen-year-old character wants to break into major league baseball. He has joined a minor league team and is doing all the right things. However, we all know he only has a limited number of years to make it into the majors. That’s the nature of professional sports. It also happens to be pretty typical of other pursuits, like the performing arts.

Our character’s plans for achieving what s/he wants comprise his forecasted trajectory through the story. If the want is significant enough, at some point it shakes up his routine existence. Also, it is typical that a preliminary trajectory may be altered along the way. The character may realize that the grind of going to medical school, for instance, is more than he bargained for. Or the wannabe thespian character may decide to leave New York City after years of disappointing audition outcomes. Characters, like people in the real world, should be a work-in-progress. We learn from our mistakes; we try new things knowing they may not work for us; and we have varying levels of risk tolerance at different ages. Adult wants can be tied to human traits such as determination, work ethic, biases, beliefs, talents, and life styles.

How much of the above an author wants to deal with in a story is s/he’s call. However, a common complaint from fiction readers is that too many of our characters are overused. I think much of this stems from using simplified character. Humans are complex; we don’t always know what we want and we certainly can have multiple wants – sometimes conflicting wants. Our wants can be short-term and long-term. Logically, the short-term is more about intermediate wants whereas the long term is about goals and dreams. That said, many characters (like people) move their dreams into the short term. I once met a young lady working in a NYC smoothie shop who had been there six years trying to break into theater. After I made my purchase and left it occurred to me: how many more years was she willing to try before she either succeeded or gave up?

Interestingly, there can be interplay between wants and self-identity. Our character may desperately want a big house on a hill, a CEO position at a big company, a few million dollars to spend, or to be a star on a TV show. S/he may never feel happy about themselves if they go through life not achieving such goals. On the other hand, some who do achieve their goal allow it to define them. They can’t very well separate who they are from: 1) their occupation, 2) their domicile, 3) their need to be in the public’s eye, or 4) their expensive toys. As an aside, several best-selling authors have mentioned that, despite their photographs on their books and at bookstores, most of their readers wouldn’t recognize them if they were alone in an elevator with them (as many have been at events such as workshops). So, if one strives for fame and fortune, perhaps writing novels is not the optimal career path.

I’ve been focusing my fiction work on characters who are complex and adapt to the events that influence their lives. They have multiple wants and priorities for fulfilling them. They can see opportunities when they present themselves. They also fail. In contrast, it’s easy to find many drama series on TV that have grown stale. The reason is clear: even though the characters appear to have their wins and losses over many episodes, they never really change. I insist on one quality for all my protagonists: they must learn from their mistakes.

 

OADA and the Routine

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In this post, I want to talk more about the OADA model for writing (see my August 25 post). The accompanying illustration shows more of what comprises OADA. While further OADA development is needed, this graphic introduces the ROUTINE SCRIPT as well as other stored matter that resides in our MEMORY. Let’s face it – no one can function without memory. Not only that – without memory we have no identity. Don’t believe me? Then talk with someone who has firsthand experience with the unfortunate souls suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.

When I sit at my computer and start writing with a fresh, blank screen I do what a lot of “pantsers” do: I think about my characters interacting with situations. I tend to think this way because that is how life unfolds to us humans. When folks hear about something happening to a friend or relative, only part of the news is the event itself. The rest of the news is how it affects them. For example, suppose Sam’s close friends know he lives paycheck to paycheck and is just scraping by. If they learn Sam was mugged by a street gang and his injuries will keep him laid up for a few weeks, their first thoughts revolve around his medical condition. Once they know he will recover, their thoughts shift to how will he pay his medical bills and recover his lost wages. The mugging was the event; being injured and penniless is the situation.

Another way to think about this example is that Sam has been temporarily removed from his routine (day-to-day) life and now faces new challenges. During Sam’s routine existence his OADA process pretty much ran on automatic. Sure, he still observed, assessed, made decisions, and acted; it simply wasn’t anything noteworthy. For example, he observed that it was going to be a cold day so he assessed that a light jacket was advisable. He decided to wear it, thus he grabbed his jacket and put it on. This routine existence is represented by the ROUTINE SCRIPT shown in the graphic under the MEMORY area. This doesn’t mean Sam doesn’t have hopes, dreams, plans, wants, and the like. It simply means all those things are stored another place in his memory, perhaps in the location called PLANS, WANTS, & EXPERIENCES.

Now, however, Sam is confronted with a new situation. Now his OADA process is running in high gear, thrashing around in his memory searching for ideas and options based on his experiences and knowledge. Sam’s mind, like most of ours, thinks in terms of questions: how can I recoup the money I’ve lost from missing work? How can I get money to pay my medical bills? How can I avoid another mugging – I didn’t have any money on me anyway?

Fortunately, Sam’s friends come by and let him know they can help with the bills. He has done a good turn or two for all of them over the years and thinks perhaps they can help solve his problem. Each of them gives him a slip of paper with the amount they can contribute. Luckily, Sam sees that his friends will indeed help him over the hump. With their help and his short-term disability income, it should be enough to get him back on his feet.

Stepping back for a moment, I don’t see that I have much of a story to write at this point. I don’t have anything against happy endings but I do want to avoid routine and predictable situations. The truth is that the day-to-day routine of our characters plays an important role in a story. It provides the backdrop, the reference from which we (as readers and writers) can recognize what’s changed. We can also better understand what the character is thinking and feeling when things change by knowing what passed for the status quo before the change.

I could build a story by making Sam’s situation more challenging. Let’s say he is about to divorce his second wife and will have to pay more alimony (he’s still paying alimony to his first wife). This pretty much means the help his friends offer is not going to get him where he needs to be. He has to consider more drastic action, like selling his car or subleasing his apartment and moving in with his brother Larry.

There are more options for Sam to look at, any number of which will cause him to depart his routine life. Then things will start getting interesting. However, I’m going to stop here with this example because it has illustrated my points.

There are two more points I want to make on this topic. One is that making changes in Sam’s life could eventually lead to his establishing a new routine. In other words, routines are not permanent but over time can be re-cast. This underscores an aspect of human nature: most days in our lives are, well, routine. The second point addresses the unique challenges that science fiction and fantasy writers face when they are worldbuilding. They have to consider what is routine in their world and what is not. Since their worlds are different from what we human readers know to be normal, they have to clearly make us aware of the distinction between routine events and the unusual.

 

OADA Model for Writers

Understanding human behavior in military operations has long been of interest to defense analysts. For several decades I made a living performing analysis and simulation of pilot performance and air combat for the Air Force. Our primary focus was on simulating the human decision making process. One process model we used extensively was comprised of four steps: 1) observe, 2) assess, 3) decide, and 4) act, or OADA. The general idea behind this and similar models is that, when we humans perform rationally, there are clear steps we follow. The first is to observe the situation around us; the second is to assess any changes in our situation; the third is to decide what action (if any) to take if a situational change occurs; and the forth is to take the selected action. Naturally, this is a continuous process we humans “run” in our minds over and over again while we’re awake. The most basic instinct of humans is survival and this process model supports the survival impulse.

As an illustration, suppose I’m walking down the left side of the street when I observe a truck coming towards me on the same side of the street. I initially think nothing of the truck, of course, unless I observe that it is being steered erratically. If its motion is erratic I quickly assess this information and decide to smartly walk toward the left, away from the street and to a nearby brick building. The truck now has my full attention as I observe its continued erratic movement. I move faster and notice an entrance into the building that I can duck into. I observe that the truck has not reduced speed and is now coming over the curb, heading in my general direction. As it does I run into the recessed entrance and try the door. It opens and I enter just as the truck’s front corner hits the front of the brick building and it starts to buckle. I jump as far into the building foyer as I can and, seeing a woman behind a large custom desk, yell to her to take cover as I crawl for the left side of the desk.

In the above example it is obvious that I’m continually observing the situation, assessing what has changed, deciding what I should do about it, and then doing it. When writing about a protagonist (or any character) in a story I find it useful to keep this OADA model in mind. Why? Because I can logically consider what my protagonist is thinking about and what s/he is doing. If nothing much is going on around him, he may be thinking about his goals (wants) and the plans he has developed for reaching them (foreshadowing). Or he may be mulling over events of the past (giving the reader a taste of backstory) or formulating questions or issues that will serve to guide his future activities. In other words, there are many things our characters can be doing and much of it goes on in their minds. Why is this so important? Because knowing this information gives the reader clues as to the character’s worldview and what meanings they associate with what situations. For example, a woman may be in a dangerous situation but feel that as long as her pet Rover is with her she can fend off any attackers. The reader may understand and even relate to this viewpoint but may have a different assessment of the situation. The point is the reader understands why the woman acts the way she does.

There is much more to say about the OADA model and ways to expand it to serve as a tool to help us writers navigate character behavior. This is the first of several posts I plan to write on the topic so stay tuned.