On Walking

Advice to Writers is a nice little blog of quotes that I usually skim over in my feed. I remembered this quote from last December, though, after I got Fumu and he and I settled into a routine:

Writing is about talent and creativity, but it’s also about discipline – about the ability to sit yourself down in that seat, day after day, often after eight hours of work, and make yourself do it, day after day, even if you’re not getting published yet, even if you’re not getting paid, even if ABC is hosting an all-star reunion of your favorite cast members from The Bachelor and The Amazing Race. It’s a form of training that’s as much physical as mental in nature – you sit down, you do the writing, no matter what distractions are out there, no matter that you’re tired or bored or uninspired.

Being a dog owner requires a similar form of discipline. You wake up every morning. You walk the dog. You do this whether you’re tired, depressed, broke, hung over, or have been recently dumped. You do it. And while you’re walking, you’re thinking about plot, or characters, or that tricky bit of dialogue that’s had you stumped for days. You’re out in the fresh air. Your legs are moving. Your dog is sniffing the butts of other dogs. It gives you a routine, a physical rhythm, a loyal companion, and a way to meet new people when you’re in a new place. It gets your body used to doing the same thing at the same time – and if you’re walking the dog for half an hour at the same time of every day, it’s an easy step to go sit in front of the computer and create for half an hour at the same time every day.

JENNIFER WEINER

Going for a walk with Fumu is a different sort of experience than running. When I run I have my music on, I’m paying attention to my stride and my heart rate. I have a focus, and though I’m aware of my surroundings I’m not really taking them in. When we go for a walk, usually when the little monster wakes me up at 5:30, I am minus music, minus phone, and at that hour, minus many human-made distractions. It’s just me and a dog on an empty street, in the cool and quiet morning hours.

I’ve started noticing flowers blooming that I’m not sure I saw before. The trash from last night bunched up where the wind’s blown it into buildings. The buildings themselves, which were always sort of a vague mishmash of color and faint familiarity but now I look at in detail while Fumu dives into some bush to pee. I hear all the time–mostly on the long list of crime and legal procedurals I pop in and out of–how unreliable eyewitness testimony is. And I totally get it. We don’t see half of what we see. Our brain just filters it for us, paring it down to the most immediate and necessary detail, so we don’t smash our noses into anything or walk into traffic.

I can see why walking meditation is a thing. For someone who spends the above-mentioned hours after an 8 hour day of work trying to write what the world looks like, what people see, and how they interact with physical space, I don’t actually spend a lot of time observing what’s around me. Four years in the same neighborhood and I couldn’t tell you what building was one block down, or what the logo colors are on the convenience store on the corner, or which side of the street you have to be on to get up to the tram platform.

I don’t necessarily need to teach myself these things, but by paying attention to them, I’ll get better at describing a made up building down the block, or convenience store logo, or tram platform, or whatever else I need.

On Walking

Advice to Writers is a nice little blog of quotes that I usually skim over in my feed. I remembered this quote from last December, though, after I got Fumu and he and I settled into a routine:

Writing is about talent and creativity, but it’s also about discipline – about the ability to sit yourself down in that seat, day after day, often after eight hours of work, and make yourself do it, day after day, even if you’re not getting published yet, even if you’re not getting paid, even if ABC is hosting an all-star reunion of your favorite cast members from The Bachelor and The Amazing Race. It’s a form of training that’s as much physical as mental in nature – you sit down, you do the writing, no matter what distractions are out there, no matter that you’re tired or bored or uninspired.

Being a dog owner requires a similar form of discipline. You wake up every morning. You walk the dog. You do this whether you’re tired, depressed, broke, hung over, or have been recently dumped. You do it. And while you’re walking, you’re thinking about plot, or characters, or that tricky bit of dialogue that’s had you stumped for days. You’re out in the fresh air. Your legs are moving. Your dog is sniffing the butts of other dogs. It gives you a routine, a physical rhythm, a loyal companion, and a way to meet new people when you’re in a new place. It gets your body used to doing the same thing at the same time – and if you’re walking the dog for half an hour at the same time of every day, it’s an easy step to go sit in front of the computer and create for half an hour at the same time every day.

JENNIFER WEINER

Going for a walk with Fumu is a different sort of experience than running. When I run I have my music on, I’m paying attention to my stride and my heart rate. I have a focus, and though I’m aware of my surroundings I’m not really taking them in. When we go for a walk, usually when the little monster wakes me up at 5:30, I am minus music, minus phone, and at that hour, minus many human-made distractions. It’s just me and a dog on an empty street, in the cool and quiet morning hours.

I’ve started noticing flowers blooming that I’m not sure I saw before. The trash from last night bunched up where the wind’s blown it into buildings. The buildings themselves, which were always sort of a vague mishmash of color and faint familiarity but now I look at in detail while Fumu dives into some bush to pee. I hear all the time–mostly on the long list of crime and legal procedurals I pop in and out of–how unreliable eyewitness testimony is. And I totally get it. We don’t see half of what we see. Our brain just filters it for us, paring it down to the most immediate and necessary detail, so we don’t smash our noses into anything or walk into traffic.

I can see why walking meditation is a thing. For someone who spends the above-mentioned hours after an 8 hour day of work trying to write what the world looks like, what people see, and how they interact with physical space, I don’t actually spend a lot of time observing what’s around me. Four years in the same neighborhood and I couldn’t tell you what building was one block down, or what the logo colors are on the convenience store on the corner, or which side of the street you have to be on to get up to the tram platform.

I don’t necessarily need to teach myself these things, but by paying attention to them, I’ll get better at describing a made up building down the block, or convenience store logo, or tram platform, or whatever else I need.

Don’t Force It

I just finished reading a YA book that, because of the harsh criticism I am about to heap upon it, shall remain nameless. I don’t expect greatness from my YA (though in the case of books like Feed, The Hunger Games, and Graceling, they can still accomplish it). You have to judge a book by what it’s trying to accomplish. Someone could come along and read this blog post, for example, and say ‘Jordan totally failed at getting her point across’ or ‘Jordan totally failed at catching a fish.’ The first would be completely fair, if that’s what you thought. The second, though true – no fish have been caught this evening – is sort of stupid, because I wasn’t trying to do that, so of course I failed.

So looping back to books. I can only guess at the goals of this particular book I just finished. I think it’s a safe assumption, however, that the author was trying to a) craft a world that was not so absurd it prevented the reader from engaging with the story, and b) write a plot that made some kind of logical sense, where the progression from A to B to C was understandable.

These are sort of basic storytelling things, unless you’re doing some crazy surrealist nonsensical stuff, so I feel pretty safe in these assumptions.

To set the stage: This book takes place in modern day. Frequent references are made to pop culture icons, including Scarlett Johansen, Jon Stewart, and others. However, at some point in the history of this version of our world, a professional league of modern day gladiators was founded. This league is overseen by a kitschy Roman theme megacorp that enforces an infinitely long list of rules and regulations not only on the contracted gladiators (who operate not unlike boxers or MMA fighters) but also their wives and their families. You don’t just have to do what Roman Megacorp says if you’re a gladiator, you have to do what they say if you’re a gladiator’s wife or a gladiator’s son or daughter.

If the book had done a more artful job of crafting this Megacorp or the gladiator fighting league – modeling it more closely after actual ‘blood sports,’ for example, only with ‘possible death’ tacked on, maybe I could have rolled with it.

But there’s a fine line between ‘too far’ and ‘just far enough.’ And this book shot way, way over that line.

First, the Megacorp is painted early and often as some sort of fickle, evil manipulator of all in its domain, and almost always in a way that would result in a) bad press and b) completely negligible monetary gain. Do I believe there are, if not evil, at least morally bankrupt companies out there who will crush the happiness and well-being of individuals for their personal gain? I haven’t been under a rock all my life, so yes, that’s pretty feasible. Will these companies do this kind of crushing willfully when it gets them pennies and raises the ire of their customers and employees? Maaaaybe, but they probably don’t realize that ire thing is going to happen, and when it does they’ll back off a bit.

For Roman Megacorp, it isn’t so. When Protagonist’s gladiator father dies, Megacorp says he cheated in his match, strips him of his honors, takes the pension that they owed Protagonist’s mom, and sent her a note saying btw, we’re reclaiming your house and all your worldly possessions because you owe us some money for some arbitrary reason. PS, Protagonist’s mom can’t remarry, which has been her money making strategy for her adult life thus far, because it’s a rule in her contract as a gladiator’s wife.

There’s also an incident in which Megacorp sends a scissors-wielding, Alzheimer’s-afflicted father into the arena against his son, and some similar things that any idiot could see are a bad plan. I don’t know who’s running Megacorp’s PR division, but they need to fire him, grab a plucky young intern, and let common sense go to work.

But enough about them. Let’s get into my other big qualm with this book: The Rules.

As I mentioned, this book takes place in modern day. As such, readers are going to come in with certain assumptions about how the universe, society, the law, and people operate. You can tweak some stuff – if you couldn’t, there’d be no such thing as good alternate history, and Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series is proof there most certainly is – but you can’t go so far off the rails that the ‘alternate’ you’ve crafted isn’t immersive. And I say immersive (which spellcheck tells me I made up), not believable, because plenty of sci-fi, alternate history, steampunk, etc, isn’t ‘believable’ in the ‘could this really happen’ way. But many such books are immersive, in that they craft a convincing enough universe that when you enter a book’s logic bubble, you are willing to accept that people fly around on genetically engineered whales filled with hydrogen.

This book is not immersive specifically because of The Rules it heaps on the reader, often, to eliminate Protagonist’s logical courses of action and force her into a completely bizarre, illogical solution. The first instance of The Rules is her father’s money being taken – Megacorp creates some random new rule on the fly after he dies, and that allows them to take all his money. A Rule also says that Protagonist has to marry her father’s killer, that her mother can’t remarry, and that they all have to behave in a very particular, restrictive, and self-defeating way. As soon as a sensible course of action to overcoming her problems presents itself to Protagonist (or, more often, when the author senses the reader is going ‘but why doesn’t she just…’) a new Rule is instituted or remembered to eliminate that option and steer the plot in another direction.

I’m fine with rules in theory. Rules define organizations, societies, and the structure of a written universe. I’m not okay with rules that pop up when convenient, seem counter to the profit-making not-inducing-public-hatred goals of a for-profit corporation, and that no reasonable person, living in our universe with our legal system and societal norms, would ever agree to abide by.

Are there crazy pockets of society such as cults and other insular communities that have these kind of restrictive rules that run counter to an individual’s self-interest, but that people nonetheless doggedly abide by? Absolutely. But the key word there is “insular” – these kinds of rigid rules work because the people obeying them are isolated from other people and other options. Protagonist lives in Boston, goes to a public high school, regularly interacts with people who are not part of this culture, and is making an active effort to separate herself from the gladiator life. If they lived out in rural nowhere, if Protagonist only knew gladiator people, didn’t know how to function in normal society, didn’t have a job, and would never be able to speak to anyone she knew and loved again if she disobeyed these arbitrary rules, I’d go for it. But it’s made abundantly clear that’s not the case, and it’s even mentioned that Protagonist has a family lawyer. So I say, WTF. Not only are the Rules written and timed in such a way they were clearly made up on the fly to advance the plot, it makes no sense that our otherwise intelligent, plucky Protagonist would abide by them.

Seriously, this book could and should have been over by page one if Protagonist or her mom just hired a good damn lawyer.

In conclusion: don’t force it. Craft your world however you want, whenever you want, with whatever rules and social mores you want. It doesn’t have to be believable when measured up against the real world. But there needs to be enough internal logic that readers can accept that how things are and how things progress makes sense for the universe you’ve crafted.

The Future is Now

I went to the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in NYC on Tuesday to see their exhibit Why Design Now? National Design Triennial. The future is now, people. Or the future is when the exhibit’s designers, engineers, architects, et al get funding. For me, a lot of the fun of speculative or science fiction is making things up that aren’t real but just plausible enough. Thanks to the Cooper-Hewitt I can now pull out of my bag of near future knick nacks the following:

  • Widespread use of garden rooftops to reduce building energy use (imagine looking down on a city and seeing forests and street grids)
  • Clothing scraps/waste recycled into chairs (thanks Issey Miyake; this can also be expanded to a widespread culture of reuse, where things we previously discarded are obsessively repurposed)
  • Solar panels integrated into rooftop designs
  • bioWAVE and similar machines installed on the ocean floor to collect energy from currents
  • Magnetic/maglev trains (as seen in the late great TV show Caprica)
  • Towers that use the currents of rising hot air to generate energy
  • Increasingly convenient and carryable folding bicycles (the one on exhibit folded and could be rolled like luggage)
  • Use of vertical space for small-area farming (gardens up skyscraper walls, spiral towers with advanced drip systems as inner-city farms); especially useful as population growth bleeds into available land
  • Light boards powered by solar energy built onto building facades, allowing for advertisements (and maybe less sinister uses) everywhere
  • Bionic arms and other limbs that can be “wired” directly to a person’s nervous system using an injectable interface that finds its way to and implants itself in a person’s brain.

Sorry, no jetpacks.

 

Google Maps for Storytelling

If you are telling any story set in a place you aren’t presently at, or in a position to get to, Google Maps is infinitely useful. Power is set in an unspecified city in Hokkaido, Japan, and though its being unspecified lets me make up the layout – Lawsons goes here, department store goes there – I do like to get my bearings so it’s not as if I’m making up the whole island. Is it reasonable for a medium-sized city to be a half hour by train from smaller port towns? Yes. Google Maps tells me so, and also gives me the JR lines and train times.

It’s been a while since I was last in Japan, and the look and feel aren’t always fresh in my mind, either. The Street View has been a huge help in this. Sure, I have lots of pictures, but there are some details I just don’t remember. These everyday things caught my attention when I first moved there, because, from an American perspective, they were new and different. Though I grew used to them, and forgot about them, I’m writing again from an American perspective, and these little things are important to notice because the character would notice them. Traffic signs, public advertisements, sidewalk trees – and lo, pick a spot, and you can see what there is to see on Google Maps’ Street View.

Not the same as being there, and certainly making me miss Japan. But for now, separated by money, vacation time, and an ocean, an internet visit will do.