Archive for June, 2003

Flipping Leaves Again

Monday, June 30th, 2003

Sometime in July is my third-year anniversary as a fiction writer, so this seems as good a time as any to turn over that new leaf again, finally get serious about my writing again, write those 1,000 words a day that all the experts recommend again, submit some more stories to be rejected again, and so on.

The only new part of my resolution is reviving my NaNoWriMo habit of posting a daily word count in my blog. (I guess it’s not technically new, either.) Feel free to mock me if I slack off.

Atlas Shrugged (III)

Sunday, June 29th, 2003

A few technical problems bothered me in Atlas Shrugged - for example, the characters were constantly giving one another (and occasionally inanimate objects) highly meaningful looks. Dagny conveys no end of meaning to her lovers by a look, as they do in return. Even the bad guys have their share of evasive, I’m-not-looking looks.

A few highly meaningful glances are fine in a novel - say, three. Ayn Rand is a violator of the rule of three. She used the word “zero” too many times in fifty pages. She explained certain philosophical points more than three times, even setting aside those famous fifty pages.

She knew the rule of show-don’t-tell, but in Atlas Shrugged it seems to have morphed into show-and-tell. Maybe this is just a matter of taste, but I prefer a lighter hand. I’d rather she implied the meaning of the meaningful glance and let me figure it out or not on my own. The Fountainhead seemed to have the lighter touch.

Atlas Shrugged (II)

Saturday, June 28th, 2003

Ayn Rand once noted that the modern heirs of the Romantic tradition in literature - that is, genre fiction such as spy thrillers and mysteries - tended to have problematic heroes. Such things could not happen to such people, she said, meaning that the exciting adventures of the plot were impossible to reconcile with the bland Everyman characters.

This is not a problem with her writing. Rather, Atlas Shrugged is overloaded with heroic heroes and evil villains. Perhaps because her notions of both good and evil are unusual, the characters tend to blend into one another, feeling the same joys or fears (the good feel joy and the evil fear), having the same reactions to the same events, and so on.

The Fountainhead has a great advantage over Atlas Shrugged in this regard, because that shorter novel has room for only one of each Randian type - the Hero, the woman who will eventually see the heroic light, the man who should have been a hero but went wrong, the penny-ante bad man, and the truly evil man. It’s also an earlier work, from when Ayn Rand saw more of a possibility of human variation; in Atlas Shrugged everyone starts out farther along the road to good or evil, and the entire world is forced to make a choice in the end.

The problem of good and evil characters comes up even if you’re not writing your own personal apocalypse. Ayn Rand thought most Christian fiction (by which she meant Hugo and Tolstoy, not Lewis and L’Engle) failed on both counts - that the Christian ideal had proven impossible to project into a fictional hero, and that the corresponding villains frequently ended up as strangely sympathetic characters. She based her own characters on a different division of good and evil.

Her evil characters in The Fountainhead are quite successful, in that it’s only the , dying flashes of goodness within them with which the reader sympathizes; they are otherwise despicable yet still believable. There isn’t much good left in the bad guys of Atlas Shrugged, yet they, too, avoid the twin bad-guy perils of being unbelievably, even comically, vile, or on the other hand, being attractive or sympathetic characters.

Roark is an engaging hero in The Fountainhead because he simply is the way he is, out there in the open for all readers to observe. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged are all so busy off-screen saving the world from altruism that it’s the people stuck in the middle, Dagny and Rearden, who become the protagonists by default. It’s telling that the real hero goes unrecognized for two-thirds of the novel, though it’s done very cleverly.

The great danger of good guys is that their very goodness will make them blander than their moral inferiors - not the bad guys in this particular case, but the characters who haven’t yet seen the egoist light. When there’s no one of interest caught in the moral middle, the bad guys can outshine the good guys. This has been going on from Lucifer’s speech in Paradise Lost to Khan’s (recycled from Melville) in the twenty-third century.

It’s not clear whether the writer has to change the definitions of good and evil in order to avoid the problem, but that approach worked for Ayn Rand.

Atlas Shrugged (I)

Friday, June 27th, 2003

I blogged a while back that Atlas Shrugged was a sci-fi novel, but I didn’t give it a real review. I needed something long and distracting to read over my recent Weekend of Kitsch, and now the novel has gotten me thinking about several topics: the decay of civilization, the difficulty of writing a convincing bad guy, the similar but less-known difficulty of writing a convincing good guy, showing and telling, and the eternal question, But is it sci-fi? It may take me a few entries to cover it all.

Last things first: Atlas Shrugged is science fiction with a vengeance. The plot is an extreme version of the hard-sf standard in which the insightful inventor/scientist goes up against the ignorance of the bureaucrats and wins. Our Hero has invented a mysterious new motor, and Our Other Hero has invented a new metal that’s stronger and lighter than steel. It has been noted that Atlas Shrugged is a kind of [alternate] history, being set in a subtly different U.S. somewhere around the 1930’s. Most of the rest of the world has already succumbed to socialism or communism.

Atlas Shrugged is also a disaster novel. I enjoyed watching the U.S. fall apart piece by piece - not because I have anything against my country but because it was done so well. Like most genre fiction, the novel has a complex plot in which all the little accidents add up to one very big one, whereas in real life, all the little things falling apart never seem to lead anywhere. The Concorde flew its last flight for Air France today (British Airways will stop flying them in October), NASA’s solar airfoil crashed in the Pacific yesterday, and the escalator at my T station was broken for half the week. Although it’s shocking to see Ayn Rand ravage the U.S. with a plague of fictionalized MBTA bureaucrats, at least she puts the poor country out of its misery by the end of the novel. I’ll be stuck with the MBTA forever.

Individually Wrapped

Thursday, June 26th, 2003

I discovered a flaw in my clever scheme for handling the move-induced renumbering of my blog entries. Due to the oddity of MovableType search templates, my search results were formatted with pad=”1″, while my other blog templates don’t use padding. The upshot was that the search result links were broken.

The best solution for this sort of thing is to use individual entry archiving. I didn’t use them back at Freeshell because of their limit on the number of files per account. That’s no longer a problem here, so I’ve added individual archives with user-friendly file names, based on Anders Jacobsen’s instructions. Check out the permalink to see one in action.

This change will break yet more links, but I have a clever scheme to fix them…

The Plot of Fiction

Wednesday, June 25th, 2003

The most striking piece of advice in Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction wasn’t the news about the muse - although I’d never formulated it quite that way to myself, the previous entry does more or less reflect my relations with the elusive muse. Plot is another matter altogether. Though (or perhaps because) I share Ayn Rand’s belief in the central importance of plot, I’ve lost many a bright and promising story to the blight of sudden plot failure. Now I know why:

[The Art of Fiction, pp. 37-38]
When you construct a plot, the first event to figure out is always
the climax. Suppose you have an idea for the theme and subject of a
story but have not yet invented the climax. Then do not start to
outline the story from the beginning. If you set up a lot of
intersting conflicts and seemingly connected events without knowing
where you are going, and then attempt to devise a climax that
resolves it all, the process will be an excruciating mental torture
(and you will not succeed). Therefore, in planning your story, get
to your climax as quickly as possible. First devise an event that
dramatizes and resolves the issues of your story, then construct the
rest of the plot backward, by asking yourself what events are needed
in order to bring your characters to this point.

This is a good example of the process of final causation. In
order to judge what incidents to include in your story, you have to
know your purpose in the story—i.e., your climax. Only when you
know this can you begin to analyze which steps, each serving as the
efficient cause of the next, will lead your characters logically to
this decisive event.

There is no rule about what element has to be the first germ of a
story in your mind. […] The only rule is that you have to know
your climax (in dramatized terms) before you start to outline the
steps by which to arrive there.

So far, I’ve had as little success thinking of the climax ahead of time as I’ve had trying to wade out of the mire of an unplanned plot, yet I still feel that this piece of advice is the secret to finishing my pile of abandoned stories. I must pester the muse with my plot problems until she comes up with a suitable climax.

That Spark

Wednesday, June 25th, 2003

Seema posted an interesting quotation from The Life of Pi. Here’s the crux of the quote:

Your theme is good, as are your sentences. Your characters are so ruddy with life they practically need birth certificates. The plot you’ve mapped out for them is grand, simple and gripping. You’ve done your research, gathering the facts — historical, social, climatic, culinary — that will give your story its feel of authenticity. The dialogue zips along, crackling with tension. The descriptions burst with colour, contrast and telling detail. Really, your story can only be great. But it all adds up to nothing. In spite of the obvious, shining promise of it, there comes a moment when you realize that the whisper that has been perstering you all along from the back of your mind is speaking the flat, awful truth: it won’t work. An element is missing, that spark that brings to life a real story, regardless of whether the history or the food is right. Your story is emotionally dead, that’s the crux of it.

My contention is that the above situation is impossible. If you have the right theme, plot, dialogue, description, characters, and style, then you have a story. Nothing is missing. Writing isn’t magic.

If, on the other hand, your story doesn’t gell, then you have to conclude that one of the parts has gone astray - say, the plot doesn’t fit the theme or the dialogue doesn’t fit the characters. In particular, a story that’s emotionally dead must have either dull characters, an uninspiring theme, or leaden prose.

I’ll combat the depressing quote above with an inspirational Ayn Rand quote from The Art of Fiction. I was pleasantly surprised by her views on the muse: she believes in it and that it is the subconscious, but she also claims that the muse can be influenced, primed, and eventually forced to produce that elusive spark. Here is how to do it:

To master the art of writing, you have to be conscious of why you
are doing things—but do not edit yourself while writing. Just as
you cannot change horses in the middle of a stream, so you cannot
change premises in the middle of writing. When you write, you have to
rely on your subconscious; you cannot doubt yourself and edit every
sentence as it comes out. Write as it comes to you—then (next
morning, preferably) turn editor and read over what you have written.
If something does not satisfy you, ask yourself then why, and
identify the premise you missed.

Trust your subconscious. If it does not deliver the kind of
material you want, it will at least give you the evidence of what is

When you get stuck on a piece of writing, the reason is either that
you have not sufficiently concretized the ideas you want to cover or
that your purpose in this particular sequence is contradictory—that
your conscious mind has given to your subconscious contradictory
orders. […]

The solution is always to think over every aspect of the scene and
every connection to anything relevant in the rest of the book. Think
until your mind almost goes to pieces; think until you are blank with
exhaustion. Then, the next day, think again—until finally, one
morning, you have the solution. Do enough thinking to give your
subconscious ample time to integrate the elements involved. When
these elements do integrate, the knowledge of what to do with the
scene comes to you, and so do the words to express it. Why? Because
you have cleared your subconscious files, your lightning calculator.


Monday, June 23rd, 2003

I’m still dreaming. You can see the new, 64-bit, faster-than-a-speeding-PC PowerMacs at Apple, but new G5 PowerBooks have yet to be announced. I can’t buy a PowerMac - I’m just not the boxy type - so this could be a long wait for me unless my old G3 dies of shame.

[An aside to Veronica…] Never, ever let mom talk me into doing that again. It was a nightmare of kitsch and cattle, and I don’t mean the milk-producing kind.

The 970 Cometh

Thursday, June 19th, 2003

Rumors are flying fast and furious about WWDC 2003, the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference next week. Rumormongers expect announcements of new PowerMacs and possibly PowerBooks based on the long-awaited 64-bit PowerPC 970 chip from IBM.

New hardware looks like a sure thing - a German shop is already advertising it. (See the Mac in brown wrapping on the right side.) 3cmug is hosting a countdown timer until Steve Job’s keynote address at WWDC Monday afternoon at 1pm (Boston time). You can catch the keynote at the Apple Store at the Cambridgeside Galleria, though not at the new store in Chestnut Hill.

You won’t see me there, unfortunately - I have a day job. I may run down there afterwards if they really have PPC970 PowerBooks in. I think the guy from As the Apple Turns will be there updating by wireless. I’ll be away this weekend, so if all goes well, my next entry will be Monday night from a new PowerBook.

A girl can dream…

Moving Day Again

Wednesday, June 18th, 2003

Well, the post ID’s have been laundered and the blog has moved again. (Previous moves were from Blogspot to Freeshell and then from Blogger to MovableType.) Look up at the location bar and you’ll see that you were transported to the new host without even knowing it. Blog-related links should work, but almost all non-blog links are currently broken - check the main page on Freeshell if you need something that isn’t here yet.