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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Logic Laguna

First, I would like to say that I am very much enjoying my story and that I am now past 27k words. I just hope it ends up at least 50k!

Now onto the main part of this post. I have always had a logical mind. I think things through from as many possible angles as I can. And I tend to do a good job getting all the angles. I blame my father, who is a systems engineer, and raised me to see ever problem with a series of inputs and outputs. All you need to do is identify ALL of those.

It irks me to no end when I hear a claim that has nothing to back it up, yet is accepted universally. This happens much more often than you might realize.

Let me give you an example. I recently saw a hand dryer that claimed it was more environmentally friendly and more sanitary than using paper towels. I would like to see evidence. Allow me to give you the inputs and outputs of each.

First, sanitation. Many models are now hands-free, using infrared or some other sensor to determine if someone's hand is beneath it. This is actually a good thing, if programmed correctly. They should stay on for as long as your hands are beneath, and you don't have to touch anything. In this case, there are no inputs (other than the flow of air), and the item is, indeed, as sanitary as you can get. There are other problems with this, but I'll get to that later. However, the model I looked at was NOT a hands-free version. It was one of the ones we all know and hate. Push a great big shiny (and usually damp) button to turn it on. Put yours hands beneath. Rub them until it turns off. Then, either rub your hands on your pants (which is very unsanitary) or turn it on AGAIN until it actually gets your hands dry. Then turn off the water and open the door. In the process of washing your hands, you have touched surfaces that dirty hands have touched 4 times since you rinsed the soap off.
Let's try a paper towel dispenser. some paper towel dispensers are, admittedly, terrible. Pull on one and you pull out a hundred or rip several to shreds. Others involve having to wind something that is wet to get the towel out. However, many allow the user to simply pull on a sanitary paper towel, not having to touch anything which has ever been touched by man before. Either way, you can then turn the water off WITH that paper towel AND open the door with it. Do this correctly, and you have touched 0 surfaces (or 1 surface, depending on the kind of dispenser) since you rinsed the soap off your hands.
So, unless your hand dryer is infrared, it is actually LESS sanitary.

Next, we'll tackle the environment. Now, this one deals with a lot more variables, so there really is no winner. However, as you will see, it is not clear cut and easy to define. In fact, the environmental impact may very well depend on where you are washing your hands.

Both products are made with many metal parts that all have to be manufactured in a factory. However, the hand dryer has decidedly more and more intricate parts, thus requiring more energy and resources (and designing) to produce. The hand dryer is then hooked up to the grid. If you have an infrared sensor in it, it will supposedly only turn on when actually in use, thus saving energy. The one caveat is that sometimes things other than a person with wet hands can activate it. However, most hand dryers still use the classic button. These usually have to be activated twice to actually get your hands dry. They will also often be activated and used for only a quarter or half the time it is on, then abandoned and left to just run (there is no way to turn it off). To heat a coil requires a good deal of energy, so every time someone uses your product, it is taking energy from the grid. This is in turn being provided to the grid by a variety of local resources. It could be that the only power plants near you are coal plants or oil plants. This means you just spewed quite a bit of waste into the environment. If you're lucky, you live near a solar plant, hydro plant, wind turbines, or a nuclear plant, thus not spewing anything into the environment (with nuclear, however, the waste must still be dealt with).

Let's look at this further. A nuclear plant? Really? Yes, really. Nuclear, despite common misconceptions, is remarkably safe. You aren't getting exposed, and you aren't going to see mutant fish like in the Simpsons. The waste is stored at the plant to taken elsewhere to be buried, where it is monitored by the NRC. It is contained and will not be affecting the environment, barring an act of God like a 9.0 earthquake.
But Spencer, why only power plants nearby? Surely the electricity on the grid is shared by all plants providing power to it! Not true. The fact of the matter is, the wires that we use to send electricity are not perfect and have resistance (ohms). This resistance means that for every mile or so of wire that the electricity has to pass through, so much of it is lost. Thus, a power plant can only provide power in a specific region. Anything beyond this region has more resistance in the wires than the plant can dish out, so none of it reaches that far.
So what are the most environmentally friendly power plants? Those which use renewable resources without waste products. These would be water, solar, wind, and geothermal, with wind and geothermal being the most environmentally friendly (due to the materials and power output). Water is higher if it is not given by a dam, because damming up rivers has a major environmental impact.

Back to the discussion. If you use a hand dryer, you are heating a coil AND powering a fan of varying intensities for a specific amount of time, all of which is drawing power. At the very least, it costs the establishment the bathroom is located in money in power bill. At the worst, you're also polluting the environment. And chances are, a good deal of that energy is wasted on an abandoned dryer.
Now let's look at paper towels. A paper towel is most likely created using paper from a tree that was grown in a tree farm. Paper... we should look into paper a little more.

An estimated 95% of the paper we use comes from tree farms. Tree farms are places where trees are grown row on row for the purpose of making paper. They are not home to many animals and do not provide much shelter, since most tree farms are fenced off. A tree is cut down, another is planted in its place. The owner will NOT allow his trees to all be cut down or he'll go out of business! We will ALWAYS have trees. In fact, by cutting down the trees in a tree farm, trees in forests are saved from the logger. Now, unfortunately, making paper is a dirty business, and so is cutting it down and transporting it. But on the plus side, planting a crap-ton of trees has several positive benefits to the environment. So it is hard to say just how much of an environmental impact it has. One thing, however, is certain. Recycled paper is bad. It is transported, bleached (it requires more bleach to get rid of the markings on recycled paper than it does to turn wood into paper in the first place), processed, and then repackaged and transported again. This puts TONS of chemicals into the environment, and the paper is only good for about one round of recycling before it would fall apart. Just buy new paper to keep the tree farms alive. Throw your paper out, especially if you live near a landfill that has methane collectors. Most of the negative impact from landfills is from methane, not used land, and paper is the biggest contributor of that methane. However, when paper breaks down, it helps to break down other things near it, which helps the landfill turn its junk into usable land. And with methane collectors, that greenhouse gas is suddenly being used to put electricity into the grid instead of polluting the air. Win-win.

So, back, again, to the argument. I usually only use one or two paper towels per visit; it is enough to get my hands dry. So, the REAL argument here is this. Does it cost more to your wallet and to the environment to power a hand dryer for two blasts or to produce two individual sheets of paper towel?

You know, my money is that hand dryers cost more.

And this, unfortunately, is not the only instance of a lack of thinking. It spreads to everything! Let's say you are emailed an important document. You want to keep it, so you archive the email. Let's say your entire office is "paper free" and depends on paperless products - i.e. electricity - to run. Does it cost more to send and store those emails or to just print it out and file it away? Emails are information that can only be accessed with a computer (which requires electricity). They are stored on a server somewhere, which must remain up and running and must dedicate some portion of itself to maintaining and retrieving that email's information. Often that email will be sent to several computers and servers, possibly all over the world (and some of those recipients you will probably never even know about). Now there are a dozen servers all dedicating a small amount of energy and storage to maintaining and retrieving that one email. If it is not deleted, enough of those emails add up until a new server has to be added - a server which could potentially hold nothing but emails that are never accessed. And to send the information back and forth, who knows how much energy is being sent through thousands of miles of wires and fibre optic cables. Your server may not even be in the same country as you (although if you are running a decent-sized business, this is likely not the case). Now suddenly that small email is taking a pretty decent amount of energy and creating a real, measurable environmental impact. You could, however, print the email, then fax it around. Now, I'm not saying this is "better" or that it is even more environmentally friendly. The simple fact is, I don't know WHICH is the better option. But it's not simple to see, is it? It would actually take some real work to figure out the TOTAL environmental impact of any given email.

And what about texting? That is sent to a satellite or a cell phone tower, and from there it runs just like an email. Your phone is essentially a computer that only takes electricity from the grid when you plug it in, but it is STILL getting its energy from the grid. Now think of the energy your phone uses when all you are doing is texting? Think of how many billions of texts are sent per day... per HOUR... around the world. Think of how much energy that takes.

These examples can go on and on and on. But what pisses me off the most is when someone who claims to (or actually does) hold some sort of authority makes a decision or publishes something without actually taking into consideration all of the facts. The Worldwatch Institute claims that 43% of all paper used comes from recycled sources. Ecology.com claims this is a good thing. If you actually take into consideration how much more pollution it takes to recycle paper than to cut down a new tree, this is actually a very BAD thing. You're not "saving a tree." That's bullshit. You are actually just taking money away from a tree farmer. When the tree farmer makes less money, he can't have as much land. And what does that land become? Not a forest, dear dreamer. It becomes a parking lot, a Wal-Mart, a factory, a strip mall... it becomes whatever the highest bidder for that land wants it to become. And I GUARANTEE that the highest bidder is not going to turn his investment into a forest. So no, you are NOT SAVING A TREE by recycling. You are just turning land that once had a tree into land that is covered in asphalt.

Now, I challenge you to counter these arguments. I believe they are sound, but if they are not, show me. Discussing these matters can only be good, for it is in friendly, informed discussion that we find the truth and disseminate it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Slowing Down

So first I would like to say that I am very glad this semester is over. I did not get the straight As I had been hoping for, but I think I did pretty well for a new father.

Now, somewhere in my psyche I figured that I would have tons of time with school being out. The day after my last final, I went to my brother-in-law's Commissioning and Graduation ceremonies. I did not even have the chance to get a Mother's Day gift for my wife!!
When we got back, my wife's maternity leave was up. I had to become the primary caretaker of Adelaide so she could work. And I will remain this way when she goes back to school to pursue her PhD. So far, taking care of her has taken most of my time. The time I haven't spent taking care of her has usually been spent doing various chores. Two days ago, we started a garden next to our house, and now we will have to put a fence to keep it safe from the rabbits that frequent our yard. This has taken a lot of time away from my writing.

Another thing that has taken time away is looking for work. I applied to about 13 jobs recently and had an interview for one of them last week, but no one has yet to call me back again. Hopefully, I will find something soon.

Admittedly, I have been distracted. I've been watching a specific anime whenever I feed Adelaide or find that, for some reason, I do not have access to both of my hands. And since it is a rather addictive storyline, I have sometimes found that I am watching it instead of writing. Likewise, I am still very interested in getting back to my gaming, which I haven't done in some time. These distractions all take away from my writing. So, I am going to have to learn to discipline myself.

Finally, I have hit what has been called the "Muddy Middle." This is the part of the story that is difficult to get through. If you don't have everything perfectly planned it, this is where you get stuck. Essentially, before things start heading towards the climax, and after all the characters and plot have been introduced, there is a dead man's land. You can't just jump straight to the downturn, or else you'll leave the audience too confused. A great way to deal with this literary swamp is to change gears and go into another storyline, a subplot. In my case, I have jumped into the love story. However, in writing this subplot, I have found holes I did not see before. And I have had to fill them in. This has also slowed me down.

So in essence, I have been trudging through the mud, slowly getting through these hardships. In a week I went from about 22k words to about 24k. That is my update. Next week I am going to try to finish the middle and get into the downturn. I'm close. I'm just one scene away to the downturn, but I have to be careful with how I put it together. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How time flies?

Ok, to be honest, time is not flying. In fact, it is crawling by at the pace of a lame snail. For my wife, however, time does seem to be flying by. This is mostly due to the fact that we have a child to care for now! For me, I am swamped with assignments and trying to make up a lost week. I have a LOT to do, since next week is the last week of classes. So, for me, I count the seconds before I am DONE with this and can spend some time at home and writing.

On that note, writing is actually taking off. Yes, I am busy, so how do I find time to write?

The bus.

I take a bus to school every day. It takes half an hour each way, so I get to spend at least a full hour doing nothing but sitting. So, I have begun taking my computer out and trying up my story. Since I already have the hardest part completed (the Action/Reaction part, which is the outline I am using for the story), I can really let myself just write! It's so therapeutic! Also, if I find I have time to myself and don't have access to the internet (which is needed for just about all of my assignments), I break out the computer and start to type. So, how much have I written since my last post?

16,725 words. That's about 38 pages single-space, or 76 double-spaced. All in my spare time and all since the birth of my daughter. I'm more than 1/4 into the story!

And after I finish, I am looking forward to having people critique it so I can rewrite and improve. I don't want a proofreader who just says what they think I want to hear ("Oh, it's good! I liked it!"). I want a proofreader who will metaphorically hold down my story, slice open its belly, and strangle it with its own innards. I do not pretend to think that my story is actually GOOD. However, I can make it good once I know what is wrong with it.

And, for you proof-readers/critics out there, there is a difference between proof-reading and criticizing. Proof-reading is a positive thing by which you help the writer. Show the writer where the weak points are, what the strong points are, how the pacing works, anything that doesn't quite work for you. That way, the writer can fix it. Criticizing is simply the art of insult. Come up with unique and inventing ways to put something down so that you sound so much smarter than the writer. Your goal is to cater to your own audience and possibly hinder the writer's. Some critics will also think up inventive ways of praising something they particularly enjoy (or are paid to enjoy). These are "professional critics." However, if you can be constructive in your criticisms, then the writer may be able to improve further works by learning what his audience wants. So, critics, please keep in mind that the writer wants to improve. For you. And if you just call the writer "the greatest generator of fluff since the cotton mill," you're not doing anything for your future self.

I digress. Rewriting is something I am looking forward to. I am already not happy with the beginning of chapter 8, so I expect it will take many proofreaders before I am satisfied with the work as a whole. This will likely take some time, but it is not to be rushed. however, I will finish writing it before I go back to edit anything. If I don't, I will NEVER finish.

When school ends, I will be looking for work and taking care of the baby full-time until my wife passes her comprehensive exams. Then I may return to school, provided I do not have a kick-ass job. During this time, I expect to be able to write a lot more. Regardless, it will still take a while.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Briefcase and Boogers

I have a new blog, everyone. The new bog will be the one I use to chronicle my life as a dad. This blog will remain my writing blog. Check it out: Briefcase and Boogers

So, not too long ago, I learned that you can make a LOT of money by selling ebooks on a Kindle. This is a really good thing. It will revolutionize the publishing industry and how authors make money! Finally, we'll make enough money to earn a decent living! It will take some time, but this is my new goal. I plan on writing some things to release on the Kindle and possibly the Nook! :) What do you think?

Last night I finally finished the preparations for writing my very first novel. It is entitled Sinister Love. Today, I shall begin the process of writing it. However, Amy is still pregnant (no baby yet!) and it's her birthday! So I don't expect to get much writing done today.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Webcomics 101

Some time ago, I fell in love with graphic novels. Now, I am not as avid a reader as I should be, and I tend to take a lot of influences from the books I read. There are many graphic novels that I have not read or that are on my "to read" list, including some big players like Maus and Sandman (although I have not read all of Sandman, I have read some of it, and most of the story has been revealed to me by my sister, who has read it). Regardless, I found that even huge, game-changing American graphic novels lack a certain dynamic. This is, of course, not universally true. Elfquest and Mage, for instance, have been masterfully done in all aspects. I think that, because of my love for movies and my love for graphic novels, I think in pictures. Some graphic novels are too influenced by the written word or by movies. They primarily consist of an 8x11 page divided into 12 or so equal squares, each depicting a scene. Although I am a huge fan of Watchmen and V for Vendetta (even before they were turned into movies - in fact, I am sad that they turned Watchmen into a movie as it was too good in graphic novel form and a movie could only bring it down), most action-packed or thematically dramatic scenes stick to this format. Again, not all, but a good deal of them. Further, they often have an excess of language within each frame. Unlike Japanese comics (which are starting to influence American comics, I think, for the better), plot points and characters' feelings are conveyed via word or though bubbles.

I digress. I have always thought in terms of pictures. Cinematography. What is the scene that I want people to actually see? What do things look like? What does the camera show and not show? And, how do I want it laid out? Just as food has a "mouth feel," so do comics have a "page feel." Wendy and Richard Pini, of Elfquest, wrote a book on how exactly they write the comics. In it, they describe using the frames themselves to tell part of the story. Although at the time it was still laid out on an 8x11 sheet of paper, the frames were not uniform squares. They were more dynamic, with larger ones imparting importance or small, quick ones showing fast action. She put them in shapes to draw attention to the knife blade, or to draw the eye up to the important part of the page. Many comics, nowadays, take some of these ideas to heart. They use them to make the page more interesting, to improve its "page feel." Who, after all, wants to read a page of dense images with dense, small print and muted colors?

Many webcomics, particularly the ones that are in the shape of a page and not a single strip, try to use this now. The images may be like pictures atop a black background. Or, perhaps, for a dramatic scene, there are no words and the entire page is cut into ragged, long frames. However, there is so much more comics can do ones they hit the internet.

Scott McCloud is a master of the art. In this comics trilogy, he shows you first how to understand and appreciate what is going on in comics. I'll come back to the second one in a moment. The third book, shown above, gives you a direction of where comics are going and what has happened now that comics have hit the internet. There is so much that I think it is a miracle he was able to fit it into a single book. The second book is a beautiful study on the processes and tools comics authors and artists have available to them, and how to utilize the media. Movies do not always do the book justice, just as books based on a movie are usually not as powerful. This is because the story was thought of in a different medium (print, screen). Comics is halfway between, and has special exceptions and rules all to itself. This is what makes it so powerful, but also makes it difficult to excel in.

I think that any story can be told in any medium. However, HOW you tell that story differs drastically. You may be the world's greatest author, but that doesn't mean you can visualize something an audience would be willing to sit in front of for an hour and a half. You may be the greatest director, but the only reason your book is successful is because it is living off your name; it would be unable to stand on its own merit. It is a rare talent who is able to traverse the media. Such talents, though, do exist. Michael Crichton wrote screenplays for his movies, just as Yoshitaka Amano's art has been used for animes, games, and comics (each of which is a unique medium).

Again, I digress. Webcomics has a unique advantage to comics in that there is no longer a page restriction. This not only means that your comic can be infinitely large (previously, no publisher would print it if it was that long), but each individual page can be any shape, size, or style that you want it to be. Furthermore, webcomics allow you to hyperlink. This new medium is called "Hypertext" and has been, until now, used only for websites and banking. The term literally means going beyond the text, or the makeup of the page. A hyperlink, as I'm sure you are aware, takes you to a new page. Http means "hypertext transfer protocol." But as a comic, hypertext changes in unforeseen ways. It is often referred to as "New Media."

For a while I have been trying to figure out how to utilize webcomics to their fullest potential. The biggest stumbling block is that I am not an artist. I cannot draw anything other than a schematic or something technical. Not that I am unable to learn, but a lack of time prevents me. Here are some of the ideas I have come up with. If you wish to work with me as an artist on these, please do not hesitate to get in touch. If you wish to steal these ideas, understand that I am only giving you the broad scope of things, and I will leave enough of the details blank that you will have to work your butt off to make it good.

-A comic that tells several stories over a single page... This page, however, is so large that it cannot possible fit on any single screen. Because of this, the user looks about the scene, for instance an overview of Central Park, and picks up bits and pieces of the story as they search.
-Using hypertext to create a do-it-yourself adventure through webcomics. The disadvantage is, you have to have completed every possible arc and page before you make it available to the public.
-Using hypertext and bitmapping to allow a reader to click on images, objects, words, or characters within a comic. Each one will take the user to some interesting side-information, and perhaps even side-plots that would normally remain unseen and untold.
-Disguising the story within the actual comic website itself. This would be akin to The Real Inspector Hound where the actual story is not what takes place in the play, but what takes place behind the scenes. Of course, this would involve links to other sites, such as facebook.
-A webcomic where the pages animate (this has been done by others, but I feel it can go much further).
-Tell a story involving time travel where, as the reader goes through the story, the "archives" change.

These are all interesting and not necessarily easy-to-pull-off ideas that I may never see come to fruition. Time has become a major, major constraint in my life at the moment. Even now, I am only posting on here because of Spring Break. I have returned to school to pursue a degree in engineering, and soon I shall become a father. I am trying to write my first novel and am working on a basic webcomic (nothing too special) with my brother. I should also be looking for work. At some point in the equation, sleep would be good, too. Perhaps, however, God will give me the opportunities to turn my ideas into something real. For now, they are only pipe dreams.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Putting together a story

Although not everyone will agree with me here, the truth of the world is that there is not just one way to write a story, or in particular, a novel. In fact, there are no right or wrong ways to write one. There are, however, good and bad ways. And if you want to get published or are a beginning writer, there are some standards and practices that are generally adhered to.

One of these is described in a book, Scene and Structure: How to construct fiction with scene-by-scene flow, logic and readability by Jack Bickham. In my research, I have found this to be one of the most commonly used strategies for writing a novel, a tried and true method. If you follow this method, and are a decent writer, and can dedicate time to your craft, and are willing to rewrite many, many times, then you just might get published. Only after you have mastered your story telling should you deviate or alter this formula. And a formula it is.

The idea is that an entire book is broken down into 2 parts: scenes and sequels. Jack's naming convention is fairly poor. I am currently an engineering student (that's right, I'm going back for a second degree) who loves Physics. So allow me to.. improve upon these names. And this is my blog and my writing, so I'm allowed to mess with it as I please. No offense, Mr. Bickham.

Here is the forumla for writing a novel separated into more easily understood parts. A book has two things in it that follow each other: Action and Reaction. Why he named them so poorly, I will never know.

An Action is a scene in the book in which something happens to drive the plot. This usually involves physical action and/or dialogue. There are many good rules on how to make Action work. It is essentially a mini-story in and of itself, with a goal (plot), a protagonist (the character who has the goal), and an antagonist (the character who wants to stop the protagonist; this can even be another protagonist). I say "character" here because in stories, characters can show up in a variety of unusual skins, such as a phobia, or a runaway truck. You don't want to end this mini story happily, so you have to know what the consequences are for failing. Sometimes, however, you can indeed let the hero get his goal, only to find out it wasn't what he was expecting (What do you mean this isn't the Mona Lisa? And why is there a map drawn on the back?).

But the structure of Action aside, we then follow up with Reaction. This is, quite literally, the reaction to what just happened. This starts with emotional response(s), physical response(e), then leads into logical thought. Again, I will not get into the details. But this is generally how we humans act when we are put up against something unexpected. And, just like in the laws of physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If your character just lost his jacket, make him react with an appropriate amount of emotion. If he lost his house or his wife, make sure the reaction fits. But this doesn't fit the size of the loss, it should fit the size of the loss for the character. If the Hulk loses his jacket, he might level New York. However, if a a serial killer just lost his job, house, and wife, he might not show hardly any emotion. To him, that isn't what is important. If you took away his bracelets of souvenirs, or let his kidnapped girl escape, then he might go on a killing spree. Keep the character in mind at all times.

Here, Bickham includes decision. I like to keep it a little separate so that it is easier to keep track of. Decision follows the logical thinking that just happened after the emotions subsided. "I lost my jacket, now what? I need that jacket or my wife will kill me. I suppose I could go buy a new one, or I could try to get my old one back..." Decision will lead inevitably to the next action, thus keeping the plot moving. Because what is integral to every action? It must move the plot towards the ultimate goal. And usually the next action is bigger than the last. Remember, however, that the decision may be a very easy one. "I have to go save Penny from the evil overlord or else.... she'll die!" Yeah, rest assured, Penny, for most characters there really isn't a choice here.

So this Action/Reaction or Scene/Sequel type of writing is pretty powerful stuff. I ran across it while reading the blog of a well-known author, and started to look into it a little deeper. I have not written a novel as of yet, but I am beginning one. And I think I will be trying this out from here on in. There's a lot more to it, so I recommend picking up the book or doing a google search for it, if you want to know. As for me, I will be keeping you all posted as to how this is helping my story progress.

And if you are enjoying my "How to be a thief" story, do not worry. I have not abandoned our friends. I have simply taken a break. You will see what happens next, trust me.

Friday, January 21, 2011


Ok, so they have announced that Bane and Catwoman are going to be in the next Batman movie. Now, I thought I was familiar with Bane, but I have to admit, I got most of my information from the animated series... which lies! Bane is actually extremely intelligent and is an anti-hero of sorts, only a villain in the beginning due to the effects of the drug called Venom that course through his veins. And after a while, he breaks the habit and helps clean up the streets of Gotham from a Venom-like drug.

All this research got me into some of the more recent goings-on in the DC Universe. As some of you may know, they have been revamping the DC Universe. They somewhat recently decided that there just weren't enough color rings, so they added a crap ton more. In general I think they did an alright job on them, though there are a few points about them I would dispute (each color ring corresponds to an emotion, and they have different effects on each other. The notable exceptions are Black and White - death and life). During this revamp, they used these "black rings" to bring back many old and obscure characters. And after reading through their descriptions, I realized 3 things about the writers of the DC Universe.

1) They have way too many characters and can't seem to let them GO.
2) The lesser-known (and some well-known) villains can get incredibly one-dimensional.
3) They are either extremely good at planning things ahead of time, or they are extremely good at making shit up on the spot.

In other words, the writers are doing an OK job. Not an excellent job, just OK. Then again, I'm not trying to keep an old, HUGE franchise alive while making tons of money. I understand that they need to connect with new audiences. But they seem to be doing it around a few basic concepts.
First, make the villains stronger and bigger and more powerful. The recent addition of Nekron as the most powerful being, trumping all the other "most powerful beings" is a bit... unimaginative. I like to call it the DragonBall Z effect. You can always SAY they're getting more powerful, but it means little and isn't really interesting.
Second, make the heroes stronger and bigger and more powerful, even if it means redefining old ones from the ground up. Nothing irks me MORE in a comic than when they find an old, forgotten character and make him suddenly IMPORTANT, as if, all along, he wasn't just a hero, but also the ESSENCE OF JUSTICE ITSELF. Now, I know they're also trying to keep interest in the older characters, but really? Just let them fade away!
Third, "killing" off major characters. Let's see, which characters have been "killed?" Superman - the anchor of DC comics... Batman - the other anchor of DC comics... Hal Jordan - one of the most popular characters... I could go on, but need I? Of course they will never truly kill off Batman (Bruce Wayne), Superman, or any of the other important characters. They are the bread and butter of DC. Perhaps they should stop with the one-trick pony.

It seems to me that the best use of old characters is in non-recurring, stand alone adventures/stories. What do I mean? Look at Sandman. He brought back tons of obscure and popular characters as they fit into his story, but did not make them overpowered or send them on rampages or even redefine them. And at the end of issue 75, Sandman ended, and the story was complete.

In fact, these stand alone comics which have little bearing on the on-going story of DC are much better. They allow for more imagination, better writing, and less of the preteen mentality. You cannot tell me that Sandman was written for a 10-year-old audience, but that doesn't mean 10-year-olders didn't read it.

Now, perhaps they feel that they must always make things more powerful. A sort of escalation in the comic world. I do not agree that this is the best choice for them, but do not think for a moment that I could not follow in their power-mongering footsteps. They can be power-hungry and STILL have good writing. I have had an idea for a... character (not necessarily a villain...) that could put their power mongering to shame, and he wouldn't even be God. When you get to these nigh-omnipotent ranges, you need to bring forth other limitations and motives in order to keep things... interesting, not just even more powerful forces and characters to deal with them. For instance, I could create a character that is literally immune to every power and effect in the DC Universe. Suddenly, he is uninteresting. No one would be able to "defeat" him if they wanted to. So... what would his origin be? If he is immune to the powers in the universe, in my mind that means he is either not from the universe or is the "embodiment" of it. They've done too much of this crap, so let's delve a little deeper. The character would actually be the essence of reality, and, as all things in this universe seem to have some form of an avatar, so would reality itself. That makes some sense, at least as much sense as any other origin story (and at least he wasn't Joe Everybody gone insane... why does insanity bring forth superhuman abilities?). As he is the essence of another multiverse's reality, everywhere he goes leaves a tear in their reality. Things would spill forth from this tear, and these things would be what the characters of DC would have to deal with. As we are talking a different reality, we're also talking things that are completely unique, with unique challenges and not just massive power. Eventually, someone (*cough*batman*cough*) would figure out what is going on. What would have brought this being to the DC multiverse? What would his goal be? Since you can't use powers or force to stop it, perhaps there is another way, a more subtle way. Would you want to stop it? Who would want to help it? What ARE its weaknesses? In my mind, this has immense potential for a host of new heroes, villains, conflicts, etc. And since it is one of the incredibly few absolutes in DC, to deal with it would require superior and less power hungry writing. You know, DC, you don't have to cater to the 12-year-old all the time. Why not give a treat for your fans who have grown up already?

Another thought was a character who simply is the writer. But he isn't the best writer. So he is trying to cover up his own plot holes. Granted, this would bring a little bit of comedy to the scene, but if done correctly, could be incredibly fun.

Now perhaps I am wrong. I am not intimately familiar with DC. Maybe they have already dealt with a being like this. Or perhaps the writing is improving. Or perhaps they really have killed off a main character who they have not and will not EVER bring back. Perhaps it is not really a soap opera with superpowers. If so, I apologize. I will be the first to admit I was wrong and this entire argument is fallacious. But if I am wrong, it would be a pleasant surprise.

So, world, what is your take? Do you think DC is getting too power-hungry? Catering to the wrong audience? IS the writing repetitive and poor? Have they dug themselves into a ditch and are frantically trying to get out of it? Do you also agree that they should just go ahead and make "Plot-Hole Man" who magically fixes all the errors, ambiguities, paradoxes, and redefinitions?

Monday, January 3, 2011

A rose by any other nomenclature...

How to name a character

What is in a name? How often do people truly think about the names of their most beloved characters? Is there anymore thought put into a character's name than just randomly selecting one in a baby name book? How do you name your characters?

The truth is, names can be very important. In writing, the names of the main and supporting characters are going to be repeated time and time again, and the characters are the primary vessel we use to guide our readers through the world and story we have crafted. So, you better believe that there is something in a name.

This post is going to dissect some of the usage of names in modern writing. However, there is more in naming than is dreamt of in my philosophy, so this is by no means a comprehensive study.

Let me begin by stating that I do not believe in "nameology" or "numerology" or any of their ilk, and neither do most writers. Nameology is the belief that your name actually MEANS something, can predict your future and lead to your happiness. It is also the belief that if you convince enough people that the garbage you are spewing is real, they will buy your book about it and you won't have to get a real job. If you believe in nameology, I do not intend to insult you... only your crack-pot belief. That being said, in writing, nameology is not as useless as it is in reality.

Many stories do indeed have characters whose names mean little or have only personal significance to the writer. While J. K. Rowling was coming up with the name for her main character, she chose Harry because it had always been her favorite boy's name. She even said that if she had a son, he would have been named Harry. Potter was the last name of a family that lived nearby while she was a child, and she always liked their name as well. But you can rest assured that there is more to the name than this, whether or not Ms. Rowling was completely aware of it. Imagine settling down to immerse yourself in a complicated world of fantasy with a boy from a background similar to yours. However, instead of naming this boy something simple and down-to-earth like Harry, the main character was named Reginald, Yehochannan, Yancy, or Aonghus. Unless this is your actual name, you would likely be turned off. Reginald has the connotation of being rich and snooty - not something people empathize with. Yehochannan, though a real name and not too hard to pronounce, is obscure, jarring, and takes up a great deal of room on the page. Yancy is a rare name that most young boys would see as "Nancy" and make fun of. Aonghus, along with many great Celtic/Irish names, is difficult to read and looks impossible to pronounce. Some names evoke strong emotions, so strong that they almost fall out of actual usage. If Rowling had named the main character Adolf, she would likely not be the richest author alive.

Some authors put a little more thought into their names. In Lord of the Flies, all the boys have simple, British names, and all of them are easy to remember and distinguish from one another. Piggy, one of the main characters, is obviously named after his looks, though one can rest assured that Golding knew pigs are very intelligent creatures. Ralph is Norse for Wolf Counsel. Like a wolf, he struggles with his nature. He shows alpha wolf traits by being elected leader and keeping the pack (of boys) together, for a time. Roger lives up to his name ("famous spearthrower") by becoming the executioner and torturer of the tribe. Finally, Jack's name has the connotation of being clever; a traditional character in many Germanic and English stories is the wily Jack, who appears in stories like Jack and the Beanstalk and has taken on the roles of Jack Frost and Jack in the Green (among hundreds of others). The name itself is based on John, which means God's Grace, or Jacob, which means "he who supplants." Considering what Jack Merridew does in the story, which meaning do you think Golding had in mind?

Next, there are the authors who pour over the names of their characters, and, I have to admit, I am one of them. Generally they fall into 3 categories: 1) names with connotations, 2) names with root meanings, and 3) new names. I will go through them individually.

Names with strong connotations, like Adolf, come with images built-in to the minds of the readers. Despite the personality of the character, the meaning of the name, or the time period of the story, using these names will draw parallels to their namesakes. A woman named Eve will evoke sensual, primal feelings, can involve innocence or innocence lost, and usually has something to do with beginnings. In Roman times, Lucifer was the name of the planet Venus, known as the Morning Star. The name itself means "light bearer." In Judeo-Christian tradition, Lucifer was the highest of all angels and closest to God, yet rebelled against God. Only in relatively recent years has this character and name been associated with the Prince of Hell, Beelzebub (who is actually a Philistine god related to Baal and seen as a separate demon by Christianity Proper), Satan (who, again, was originally an angel to accuses), or the Devil. Nowadays, you cannot get away with naming your child Lucifer, despite its benign origin. In fact, in 2009, a man lost custody of his 3 children after naming them Adolf Hitler Campbell, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell, and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell.

Many names, however, have less powerful connotations that can still bring great meaning and life to our characters. Jack is one of these names. They can have societal connotations or be used as inside jokes and references. If the name of one of your favorite people (real or not) isn't too outlandish, it can be a great way to pay homage to someone. One of the main characters (an alien) in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is Ford Prefect. Why would Douglas Adams name someone after a well-known British automobile? He explained that Ford had taken the name to blend in, having mistaken what the dominant life-form on Earth was. He had created a tongue-in-cheek satire on the prevalence of cars in human society simply by giving his character a funny name. Similarly, Rowling names one of her characters Luna Lovegood. Luna is the proper name of the Moon, and this brings a host of meanings and images that can help describe her, from lunacy to paleness.

Another way to name your characters is by looking at the meanings of the names. I personally enjoy using names with Latin and Greek roots. About 90% of the words we use can eventually be traced back to their Latin or Greek origins, though they may have to make a few stops on the way. By doing this, we can discover new meanings and origins of the words we use. I like to think of it as discovering the philosophy of our language. For instance, the root word of "ludicrous", ludus, originally meant play, sport, or training, and was used to describe elementary schools. The same is true for names. This can be as simple as looking at a baby name books or naming sourcebooks, most of which include the various meanings and origins of the names. For instance, Sophia means "wisdom," and Matthew means "gift of God." And there are many other languages to chose from! If you want to be able to look up names from all over the world, by meaning or name, I recommend using Behind The Name.

If you want to be able to create your own names, there are several ways to do it and still make it sound good. In some situations, simply stringing words that describe some aspect of your character (or poke fun at the character) can work well. Some examples of this are Neville Longbottom, Ford Prefect, or any of the 7 dwarfs. Speaking of dwarfs, in fantasy worlds, they usually have descriptive, simplistic, and often slightly funny names.
However, you may want to delve deeper into the world of naming than simply using words. Here is where learning other languages, or at least faking it, can come in handy.

The reason I enjoy using Greek and Latin so much is that I learned them in high school, so I tend to refer to latin and greek roots for words. When building the name of a character, I sometimes look for the greek word I wish to use to describe some aspect of the character and mutate it into a workable name. For instance, in one story of mine, a character has been gifted (cursed?) with seeing the truth. I chose to use the greek word "martureo" for his name, which means "to bear witness." After some fiddling, I came up with Marturin, an unusual, simple surname that might stick in the mind of the reader and still has some meaning (you may recognize the English word that stemmed from it, "martyr"). Many of the names (and word and phrases) used by Shakespeare (such as Desdemona) did not exist before he used them, and most of them have some vague root in Latin or Greek.

The last and most complicated way to come up with names for your characters is to develop the language or alphabet from which they are derived. J.R.R. Tolkien is famous for the depth and number of the languages he created, from which he derived most, if not all, of the names in Middle Earth. However, Tolkien was not only a celebrated writer, but an accomplished linguist (philologist) and skilled teacher. Creating your own language is not impossible, but it does take years of study and a passion for developing it. After all, most people have not mastered their native tongue. There are ways to cheat, but do not expect people to start teaching it to their kids.

If this is all too much, or you feel too limited by these guidelines, remember that there is no wrong way to come up with the names of your characters. It could be simply an artistic expression, an anagram, or a sound you fell in love with years ago. But do keep in mind a few basic rules.
1) Know your audience.
2) Make sure the names of your characters are not too similar to each other - or too foreign to the readers.
3) Be consistent
4) Keep the names relatively simple and pronounceable
5) Don't brag about your naming skills, particularly in your story

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A New Year - A New Resolution

Every year I make the same resolution, just like most Americans. And like most of us, I always fail to see it through to its completion. My usual resolution is to get published - a simple enough idea, though, as any writer will tell you, a daunting one. However, this failure can be very depressing year after year. So this year, I will do something different.

For starters, I am developing specific steps and deadlines with which to achieve my goals. The only way to actually reach them is to plan and carry out the plan.

Secondly, this year, 2011, is going to be different than any other in my life for a variety of reasons. And it will also be the busiest year of my life, I am sure. In March, I will become a father, and having a newborn is going to take most of my time and attention. Likewise, I have recently been accepted to Clemson University to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering, which will take up even more of my time and attention. If I have any left, it will be absorbed by the part-time job that I must find in order to survive on our meager earnings.

Because of this, I cannot make any grandiose resolution such as "getting published." It is not a feasible or even realistic goal in a year such as this one. Instead, I will make it my goal to write every day, if possible. It may only be five minutes, and it may only be in this very blog, but it must become a daily thing for me. If the Lord allows, I may find an agent this year as well, but I am not holding my breath.

As I started thinking about the new responsibilities that are soon to grace my plate, I began to realize how complex a person I really am. I was once told that a man only has time for one great passion in his life. Only now am I realize that this statement, although depressing, has plenty of truth to it. Along with raising a child, keeping the flame of love alive, chasing a degree, and working to keep bread on the table, I MUST find time for my own passions, or else I fear I may go insane. My greatest passions are writing and playing the guitar. I can do either for endless hours, and I am decent at both (although, after reading The Great Gatsby, I realize that I am excellent at neither). But everything has its parameters, its defining limitations, and time is almost always one of them. This year, if I am to write every day, my guitar may be collecting a fine layer of dust from time to time. But it has become a part of me, and I cannot simply give it up. Time management is going to be a skill that I will have to learn this year, along with self-discipline.