Monday, 30 July 2007

The Eternal Spirit

I wouldn't like this blog to become an obituary, not least because its title would assume a terrible irony.
I'm sad to say that my ex's mother passed away at the weekend, and I would like to share some thoughts and memories to show my respect.

My ex and I remain good friends, and her mother and I were, in many ways, kindred spirits. She had a soft spot for me, and I for her.
I was studying at Leeds Uni when she came to Leeds to stay in a hotel - this is going back some fifteen years and was perhaps the first time I chatted with her; she was very fond of staying in hotels, and of hotels in and of themselves. I think she found a freedom and she enjoyed the opportunity to meet and chat with new people. She showed me her room and dragged me across to the window. She was eager to see what I made of her view. It was dark, and the view was little more than rooftops and fire escapes. But there was a shady excitement, as though it were a window through to some clandestine city nightlife where crimes were committed and covert meetings were fulfilled. And the moon shone brilliantly about those darkened windows and alleyways. She was so pleased that I shared her appreciation of her view; she said that she knew I'd understand. She said that the moonlight susurrated. I was unfamiliar with that word, and she explained that it referred to a soft sound, much like waves lapping at a beach. I think she knew the word from a poem.

Ten years ago, I think it was the night before Christmas Eve, I went round to her house after having been drinking with her son, my friend. Everyone was in good spirits, and I remember that all was right in the world. Her small ground floor bedroom, which served as her lounge and her dining room too, was always cosily and dimly lit and warm. I stayed up with her as her son went to bed. She showed me her collection of cigarette lighters - every one had to be a different colour to all the others. On her walls, nailed into the yellowing and peeling wallpaper, were portraits of her beloved composers. Chopin was her favourite. In between the portraits and all along the mantelpiece, she kept postcards from her four children and her friends, and old photos, one of her father who, she later told me, took her to Germany at the height of the war.
She told me that she had long-since wanted to be a professional writer. She left the room and I sipped my coffee and smoked, and she returned with two cardboard boxes. The boxes were filled with poems and short stories, all typed on a typewriter. She sat in her chair next to the upright piano (which she could play magnificently) and explained that she had never shown these to anyone before and asked if I'd like to read one. I recall vividly the feeling of trust and honour she had gifted me with. She sorted through the first box and retrieved three or four pages and handed them to me and lit her cigarette. I read her story, of a love affair, of a young soldier and his girlfriend sitting at a table outside a café, and they drank coffee and they were saying their farewells before he would leave to go to battle. It was moving and I imagined that she had been the young girl.

About three years ago, I completed my first novel-length manuscript: a fantasy titled Tethered Light; the manuscript that I am now reworking. I took her round a box containing all 150 or so pages. It took her a month to read it through. Then she texted me to tell me, of course, how mad a publisher would have to be if they didn't shower me with adulation and money :o)
And she remains the only person to have read the whole thing.

She died of septicemia which is blood poisoning. It was very sudden. Her children were informed that she had been taken to hospital. They arrived at the hospital and spent the night with her and she was gone by morning.
Now they are dealing with all the practicalities and arrangements that go with death. And I wonder what they will think when they find those two cardboard boxes filled with her secrets and thoughts and desires and dreams. I wonder if they will discover a person they never knew. I wonder how they will feel reading her words and if their perceptions of their mother will change. I wonder how deeply her words will touch them and for how long they will susurrate.

She was a faithful and Godly woman and I'm sad that I never got to say goodbye or share another sherry and cigarette with her or chat with her about writing and Blake and Chopin or have her chastise me for not knowing a particular word.
She lived well and followed her heart.
Now may she find peace at God's side.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Rise and Fall

Sunset Bickham goes to some lengths to describe what is meant by scenes and sequels, equating the scene to the peak, and the sequel to the valley.
I'll try to paraphrase whilst retaining the essence:

Scenes are built from clear goal, conflict, bad development (disaster). In this way, protag has a goal (the clarity of which is of utmost importance); goal creates scene question (will protag accomplish x?); protag is in opposition with antag; reader is rewarded with a development, but a development that is incomplete enough or twisted enough to create or sustain anticipation.
Scenes are not summarized: scenes are filled with blow-by-blow, in-the-thick-of-it narrative, drawing out the conflict (and the agony).
Scenes are fast-paced. (Peaks!)

Scenes are followed by sequels.
Sequels are slow and, as such, probably need to be summarized. (Valleys.)
Sequels provide the protag's response to the scene, and are structured: emotion, thought, decision.
Yes, there we see the protag's decision, or choice, once again!

I spent my weekendly writing session refining my opening two chapters.
I tend to leave sticky passages when I encounter them, skipping them in order to keep my juices flowing. Which means that I need sessions like my most recent one in order to tackle those horrible, niggly passages that aren't working.
It was Penpa's reaction to the inciting incident that has been bugging me: And on this morning of sly wind serpents and crackling storm anvils, the light did not appear.

I've already clearly set this up on at least three occasions, so that the reader is in no doubt how bad this catastrophe is. The world will freeze and everyone will die. Most importantly, I've shown this as well as told (or retold) this. I've also quantified the countdown so that this is not some nebulous disaster: No more than two sunfalls.
(Sidenote: I've analyzed the scene in Mission Impossible in which Ethan and his gang attempt to retrieve the NOC list, running it through my anti-peril list, with fascinating results. I'll hitch this up later, but note how the dangers are shown: in particular, the condensation on the glass that drips upon the floor, demonstrating the sensitivity of the pressure pads, and foreshadowing the sweat building on Ethan's glasses. The condensation serves the same purpose at the Star Trek redshirts.)

Penpa's worst nightmare has been realized. So how best to address this valley? How long to spend on her response, and how to create this response?
My original solution wasn't good: it was a jumbled mixture of faux despair and anger, both largely told, and both swaddled in poetry. Yuk! I say. (I understand that it's not uncommon for the new writer to hide from emotions, burying the prose in poeticisms. You and I know that we must embrace and explore these emotions.)
Breaking her response into emotion, thought, and decision gives a useful set of bite-sized chunks that I could tackle individually. This relies on my understanding of her character.
1) EMOTION: Penpa does not stop turning the wheel that fires the machinery. She turns quickly and she turns slowly, and she turns frantically, never admitting defeat, never acknowledging that her nightmare has come true. The reader is shown her fear and her brave resolve. Even when she is exhausted, she falls to her knees and continues cranking the wheel; even when despair sets in and she succumbs to floods of tears, she continues to crank the wheel. And only when she has no strength left and Blinky nuzzles into her does she relent and drop her head into her lap.
2) THOUGHT: Children rarely accept blame. Whenever someone has been naughty at school, it's always someone else's fault. If my son were to, say, stub his toe, it would be my fault for, perhaps, being late with lunch or giving him the wrong coloured socks to wear. Such are Penpa's thoughts: she is angry and needs to blame someone; someone must take the responsibility for the broken lighthouse. Her self-pity would always quickly give way to anger and blame (until, of course, the end of the novel when her character has changed).
3) DECISION: Penpa summons her imaginary friend and accuses her of sabotage, providing me with a wonderful sounding board for Penpa's emotional outburst.

So we can see the rise and fall:
The scene builds up to the development, and the sequel descends to the response. If we deem our pace too slow, we can build the scene and/or summarize the sequel; too fast and we do the opposite.
How can we tell if we're moving too quickly or too slowly?
Jack reckons on gut instinct.
Still, it's nice to be in some sort of control.

(Etching by Albert Peia.)

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Control Switching

This idea of winning and losing control is beginning to fascinate me.
Anne Mini (Author Author) recently blogged of the enormous amounts of inexperienced authors whose protagonists are thrown helplessly from one situation to the next, at the whim of fate or other, never making decisions for themselves. Ricardo made a similar observation about his protags. And we hear McKee's voice: Character is revealed through choices made under pressure.

My son and I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark at the weekend. I had never noticed before how this control shifting dominates the movie. Indy is in control and then he loses control, and this switching flows relentlessly from the start of the movie to the end. And at the heart of these switches, we can see that choices are being made, almost always under the pressure of conflict and high stakes.

As I suggested recently, switching a single peril creates an irony. In this way, something frightening or hazardous might be imbued with humour (which adds dynamic emotional colour). Indy has a few big spiders on his back; his accomplice has dozens of big spiders on his back. Nazi throws Indy through truck window and attempts to crush him against jeep; Indy survives, returns, and throws Nazi through window and Nazi is run over. Bad guy poisons Indy's dates; bad guy's monkey eats dates and dies.

Here are just a few other control switching examples from memory (which should demonstrate the prevalence of this technique):

Indy explores with guides (Indy in control) -> guides betray him (Indy loses control). (Possibly the pinnacle of this occurs when Indy is on the wrong side of the bottomless pit with the golden idol, and his accomplice is on the right side of the pit with the whip.)
Indy bests traps -> boulder rolls after him.
Indy recovers gold idol -> Indy loses gold idol to Belloq.
Indy controls his class -> girl with 'I love you' on eyelids causes him to stutter and lose his flow.
Marion seems to have lost the drinking competition -> Marion recovers.
Marion's competitor appears to have won the drinking contest -> He collapses.
Indy controlled Marion (she was in love with him and he left her) -> Marion controls Indy (she has headpiece and decides to accompany him).
Marion is about to be tortured by Nazi -> Indy saves her.
Indy is pinned to bar with fire approaching his head -> Indy smashes bottle over enemy's head.
Indy is about to be shot -> Marion shoots enemy.
Nazi reaches out and recovers headpiece -> headpiece burns Nazi's hand and Nazi loses headpiece.

This continues right through to the conclusion:
Indy recovers and returns the ark -> Beaurocrats take the ark away to a safe place.
Furthermore, we could even consider Marion's offer of a drink to Indy as a final twist of control.

In this way, we can see a dynamic stream of conflicts snaking through the story with the balance for control ceaselessly shifting (change), which has the effect of keeping the viewer on tenterhooks.
(Btw, as soon as I typed that, I just had to look up the origins of tenterhooks :o)

Note how body language plays a large part in informing the viewer/reader of where the control lies!

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Friday, 13 July 2007

Beneath the Surface

It's E3 week which means that game devs get to release a few more scraps in order to appease fans and keep their games in the public consciousness. (Anticipation no less!)
Here's the first look at my single-player level and I'd be glad to share a few insider tidbits that I'm sure won't compromise my NDA :o)
We build the environments using polygons - meshes that are broken down into triangles.
These polygons are pretty dull, so we assign shaders to them. Shaders are like buckets of pictures and effects. The planks on the bridge, for example, comprise of a colour map (texture maps are projected or 'mapped' onto polygons) and a specular map (shininess) and a normal map which gives a faked 3D effect, lighting pixels such that they appear raised or indented according, in part, to the angle at which they're being viewed. Also in the shader, we assign material properties. In this way, the engine will respond with the correct effect when the polygons are shot at (so that wood chips fly off when wood is shot, and little clouds of dust puff up when dirt is shot at). Also, this property is used to discern the appropriate sound effects: so, for example, a player walking on a metal gangway will hear metallic footsteps.
The environment itself is static. However, we add props, and many of these are destructible and/or movable. Having built the bridge into the background, I then removed the railings into a discrete file. In addition to the undamaged railings, I broke up the geometry and created a replica of the railings from broken lengths of wood. When the railings are hit, the whole version is instantly replaced by the broken version, and pieces of wood explode apart. Each broken piece of wood is surrounded by an invisible physics object which is a cheap way of detecting collison, and from which the physics properties are determined: in this instance, I set the physics bodies to 'wood' so that the engine knows how these pieces should behave. Props are lit dynamically (so that the light behaves appropriately and the shadows move as they move), whereas the background has baked on light and shadows (called a lightmap).
You can see the hotel lobby in the background. I had to build this three times. These three instances are of different polygon counts and texture sizes and are called LODS (level of detail). In this way, when the player is a long way from the lobby, they will see just a handful of polygons on the horizon. In the pic above, the mid LOD is being drawn. LODS are triggered on and off as the player moves around the map, passing through invisible trigger boxes. As the player moves past the tiki bar, the lobby will be obscured from view; at that moment, they will trigger the change to the highest level of detail mesh so that, when they emerge at the top of the steps, the most detailed lobby is in place, ready for exploration.
All this is necessary in order to keep the visible poly counts below budget and keep the game running at a consistent 30 fps (min).
To this end, we also stream portions of the level in and out as the player moves around the map. Behind the lobby is a hotel courtyard and this is constructed from lots of hotel rooms. Whilst the player is in the pool area above, the courtyard has not been streamed in. However, I created 'dogleg' passageways between the lobby and the courtyard in which the lobby is dumped and the courtyard loaded in. These passageways obsure the view, and create points of no return so that everything behind can safely be discarded. Streaming in this way allows us to move away from loading times! (But it does create a lot of extra work for us artists. Boo.)
Hey, there's loads more in there, but much of it is utterly invisible to the player and only the effects are visible: collison walls create invisible boundaries; HDR settings create dynamic light-dark ranges that are location dependent; nav meshes and movement and defensive tokens are placed to aid the AI and make the NPCs (Non-Player Character) behave in an artificially intelligent and believable manner; portals and occluders control the visibility of various portions of the map; lightblockers hide seams and node naming conventions assign shattering glass properties ...
I guess, just like novels and icebergs, what we perceive is reliant on so much that we don't.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

A Spider Observation

Ever wondered how a spider spins a web?
Well, I was watching one the other day. I'm reasonably sure it was a garden spider.

1) It began with a Y shape.
2) Then it scampered from the centre of the web to the outside, and then back again.
3) Each time it returned to the centre, it added a section of spiral.
4) After some five minutes, it had all the spokes in place and a central spiral.
5) It then made a very neat spiral from the centre to the outside.
6) Finally, it worked back-and-forth, clockwise then anti-clockwise, filling in little portions of the web.
And the finished thing, created in 15-20 minutes, looked like this:

It reminded me of the golden ratio.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Danger! (My Anti-Peril List)

One of the many jobs of the author is to imagine perilous situations for the protagonist, and then to imagine ingenious solutions.
I've long-since wondered if there is some form of peril/anti-peril chart that authors work from. Gosh, that would sure be a useful tool!

A lot of interesting observations have presented themselves as I've compiled this list. I'd like to address them first.

1) Vary the emotional topography.
I've found that some films (and I've mainly been analyzing films) work on the flawed premise that the audience will be hooked provided that there is continuous, or near-continuous, danger.
Not so. A flat topography is a turn off; the audience becomes desensitized, and the lack of contrast makes for a predictable and tedious experience.
2) Control and reversal.
Peril is, in part, derived from control and lack of it. Protag is out of control and antag is in control. One of the most powerful techniques for building tension is to swap control. Deathtrap demonstrates this brilliantly!
Looking at my list, it occurred to me that each peril could be applied to either protag or antag, and that some of the best twists I've seen have been the result of one single peril being turned about, often multiple times. When the hunter becomes the hunted, an irony is created.
3) Pressure and stakes (MAGNITUDE).
Let us not forget Robert McKee's advice: Character is revealed through choices made under pressure. We can observe, too, that the audience's fear of the peril (anticipation/expectation) is directly related to its perceived effect. We should also bear in mind Sunset Bickham's advice: Exaggerate your characters! In this way, our villains are very clearly villainous. Our reader needs to know that the danger exists, and that it will accomplish all manner of horrendous things unless it is thwarted or averted (or undone, as we'll see in a moment).
4) Pace and anticipation.
Again, so many films rush through the perils. We know darned well that there is immense power in creating anticipation; if we carefully build up a peril, we also build the opportunity for an intense and fulfilling pay-off.
5) Failure.
Sometimes the protag fails to remove or avert the peril. This is a great technique for adding colour to the emotional topography.
And there is always a set of reset buttons at our disposal should we need them.
Timing is important in the failure: suspense is generated if the protag gets very close to success before failing.
6) Combinations and permutations.
Some of the best perilous situations ever created have been forged from clever, well-ordered permutations and reversals. Furthermore, Robert McKee recommends that we build up the perils and the pressure, creating increasingly high stakes as the story builds to its climax.
7) Layers.
I think it might have been Peter Cox who revealed that he advises his fiction authors to layer the perils. In this way, when one peril is resolved, one or more remain; the novel never stops to set-up a new peril.

So here it is, my anti-peril list.
You can come up with your own perils. Anything goes. I have a few peril classifications that I'm working on, but I'm not overly confident.
However, there appear to be classic solutions to perils, and that's where my interest is focused at the moment.
Please note that I'm using the words protagonist, antagonist, and threat/peril as catch-alls; I hope that this list still finds a cosy home in the cockles of your heart.
(Btw, please feel free to suggest anti-perils that I have missed. I'll keep this list updated.)

---Solvejg's anti-peril list ---

1) REMOVE THREAT; AVERT THREAT. (Threat does not come to pass.)

*Foreshadowed artefact to the rescue.
---Protag carries key around; protag finds a door!
---Bond is about to meet his maker in the centrifugal chamber, when he suddenly recalls that he is wearing a dart-firing wristwatch. [Moonraker]

*Broken artefact is mended/returned.
---Barbarella crash-lands on a planet and her ship is damaged, leaving her stranded - until she has help getting it fixed. [Barbarella]
---On top of the Empire State building, Doctor Who drops his sonic screwdriver. And then Martha returns it. [Evolution of the Daleks]

*To the rescue (aid arrives).
---Pursued and cornered by the King's men, a tiny clan of Scotsmen seem doomed, until Wallace appears with hundreds of warriors. [Braveheart]

*Bribe, blackmail, befriend, persuade.
---With a laser beam millimetres from his crotch, Bond persuades Goldfinger to let him live. [Goldfinger]
---The German soldier is captured and set to digging his own grave. When he is approached by Miller and his men, he begs for clemency. His pleas would fail, but for Miller siding with him. [Saving Private Ryan]

*Antagonist changes mind; antagonist loses power or control.
---Superman drains enemies' powers. [Superman II]

*Destroy/defeat antagonist.
---Indiana shoots swordsmen. [Raiders of the Lost Ark]

*Nature intervenes.
---Sun rises to kill vampire. [Misc vampire flicks]
---Martian invaders' immune system cannot cope with Earth's bacteria. [War of the Worlds]

*New knowledge or power.
---Having tried to shoot it and electrocute it and burn it, Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) eventually discovers that the Blob doesn't like the cold (Achilles heel). [The Blob]
---Rose looks into the heart of the TARDIS and absorbs unlimited power. [Parting of the Ways]

*Deus ex machina (no foreshadowing).
---Brian plummets from the tower and lands in a passing spaceship. [Life of Brian]

*False alarm; not a threat after all; mistaken identity; harmless.
---The Grim is not bad after all! [Prisoner of Azkaban]
---The Ood approach the Doctor and Rose, chanting 'We must feed!' However, having fixed their translators, it transpires that they were offering food to the Doctor and Rose. [The Impossible Planet]

*Hide; escape; trick/deceive.
---Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) covers himself with mud to hide from the Predator's heat-vision. [Predator]
---Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) tunnels to freedom from Shawshank. [The Shawshank Redemption]

*Threat goes elsewhere.
---The werewolf goes for Hermione, and then Harry attracts its attention. [Prisoner of Azkaban]

*Sidestep; ignore.
---Harry tries to rescue Gabrielle from the merfolk, but they intervene pressing tridents to his neck. Harry is next seen swimming to the surface with Gabrielle. [Goblet of Fire]

*Two negatives cancel each other out or make a positive.
---Dinosaur one attacks, and dinosaur two attacks, and dinosaurs then forget about protag and battle each other instead. [Jurassic Park]

*One positive affects multiple negatives.
---The Doctor opens a portal to the void, and millions of Daleks and Cybermen are sucked to their doom. [Doomsday]
---Billions of Toclafane are erased when Captain Jack destroys the paradox machine. [The Last of the Time Lords]

2) UNDO. (Threat comes to pass and is then undone.)

*Back in time.
---Superman turns back time so that Lois never died. [Superman]

---Van Helsing turns into werewolf, and is then injected with antidote. [Van Helsing]

---Doctor Who cheats death.

*Never really happened: dream, illusion, prophecy, coma, etc.
---Death on Mars dream. [Total Recall]

---Superman mends the broken dam, train lines, etc. [Superman]

3) LIVE WITH IT. (Threat comes to pass.)

William Wallace's wife has her throat slit and dies. This feeds his anger and he leads his countrymen into battle against the English. [Braveheart]

Max Ernst's Oiseaux en péril.

Thursday, 5 July 2007


Here's a scarecrow from the Doctor Who episodes Human Nature and The Family of Blood.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Ghost Girl

Nope, not another Torey Hayden experience.

When I awoke this morning, I could hear a young girl's voice.
Strange, I thought.
I listened harder, and my brain decided that my neighbour's daughter must be playing in my drive again.
I would've thought no more about it, except that the voice seemed to be repeating the same phrase over and over, every fifteen seconds or so.
Strange, I thought.
So I listened hard, and my brain decided that the voice was saying 'Ec-to-pla,' as though it were unable to complete the word ectoplasm. And I realized that the voice was coming from inside the house.
What would a young girl be doing in my front room at 6.15am, repeating the word 'Ec-to-pla'?
A reasonable question, my brain decided.
As I shuffled along the hallway, I could see a flashing red light, blinking on the wall in the front room.
Perhaps I left my computer on? my brain thought.
But I could see that the plug was removed from the wall-socket.
And I listened hard, and still the voice repeated the same sounds: Ec-to-pla.

Well, inside the lounge, I discovered that my son's age-old activity centre toy-game thing had been switched on: it was under a book, and presumably I had leaned on the book thereby switching the activity centre toy-game thing on (although how I didn't notice is another mystery).
When I lifted the book up, I realized that the voice was saying 'Let's play an activity,' which really is hard to equate to 'ec-to-pla,' and yet still my foolish brain had concocted this image of a ghostly girl haunting my front room, seeking absolution or revenge for unresolved issues of her tortured corporeal existence.
Brains are pretty cool the way they are so easily coerced into believing the most outlandish things.
Which reminds me: I really must send off that fifty quid registration fee to claim that million pounds I've won in some new lottery that I've never heard of before.

Monday, 2 July 2007

The Front-Line

Sometimes it's difficult making sense of what can seem like conflicting information.
I guess I'm like so many hopefuls: my philosophy is that, if I can imagine an inventive and compelling story and subsequently write it well, everything else will take care of itself. I don't much care for the other stuff. You may be surprised to learn that I'm no business guru (yes, well you might gasp).
However, submission time is fast approaching and I'm starting the preparations: Who do I send to? What are their submission requirements? How do I know when I'm ready to submit? What constitutes a good synopsis, or a good covering letter?
Yuk. Why can't I pay someone to sort all this stuff for me? It takes up so much of my very precious writing time!
Sunset Bickham is a nice man. He understands.
There is a theory that we need to thoroughly understand our market and study the trends and aim to fill the requirements of any given publisher. It's a business after all, right?
Sunset offers a ray of hope (see what I did there ;o)
Three years at least from concept to publication, he says. You don't really want or need to attempt to predict where the market will be going in three years, he says. You do need to be aware of your market, he adds, but you focus your energies on creating a cracking, irresistable manuscript.
So I'm being aware. I've found some good YA fantasy lists on Amazon, and am being aware of them and of which of them are current. I'll order a few of the ones I've not heard of and check out the language and content, and compare them to my work (for Pullman is considered atypical and not a useful yardstick).
Beyond that, I really can't concern myself. If I don't fill a niche, then so be it. I see no sense in worrying about things that are beyond my control when there are so many things that I can control and improve. I'm told that no manuscript was turned down because it had a few minor things wrong with it: manuscripts are turned down because they are poorly written or because the agent/publisher can't see a place for them, or can't get excited by them.
Head in the sand or efficient distribution of time and resources?
Stubbornness or focus?
I don't know, but until I decide otherwise, I'm going to keep honing the writing and studying the art of story-telling.
(I'm compiling a list, and categorising, obstacles and means/solutions at the mo and will post here when I'm done. Heck, it's what I do for fun, and if this ever stops being fun, I'll find something else to do and that, my maggoty friends, is the point :o)