Story Stoppers

Craft question of the day:

What stylistic error or other writerly sin is guaranteed to jolt you out of a story?

For me, a big one is when a first-person narrator’s language or observations don’t seem to match who the character is supposed to be.

The child narrator of Emma Donaghue’s The Room, for example, is supposed to be a normal 5-year-old (or as normal as a child raised in a garden shed can be). But one minute he’s using the sentence structure and vocabulary of a 2-year-old, and the next he’s using complex metaphors and concepts far beyond his age. Ultimately the narration became such an artificial device that I couldn’t forget myself in the story.

Another big one is plausibility. The narrator of S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep has a memory condition wherein she forgets everything that transpired during the day once she falls asleep. She’s figured out how to keep a secret journal for herself–but as the days pass, the cumulative entries of that diary have grown so ridiculously long that it’s simply impossible for her to have time to do anything before sleeping except read the journal! Gripped though I was by the premise, ultimately I couldn’t believe in the sequence of events anymore.

What are your story-stoppers?

Two Very Nice Opportunities to Indulge Your Curiosity

I received these two invitations today, both are open to the public. The programs sound like wonderful ways to charge up your knowledge of what’s coming in technology and learn how to more accurately portray technology for entertainment.  Sure sounds like Good Stuff for Spec-Fic Writers.

The College of Science and Engineering and the Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries present

Disruptive Tech: What’s New, What’s Coming, and How It Will Change Everything

Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012
7 p.m. — Lecture
8:30 p.m. — Book signing and coffee/cookies reception
McNamara Alumni Center
Memorial Hall
200 Oak St. S.E., Minneapolis

Presented by David Pogue, The New York Times tech columnist, host of “NOVA ScienceNow,” “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent, and author

As tech reviewer for The New York Times, David Pogue has a front-row seat for observing the blazing-fast torrent of new inventions. Hundreds of gadgets and technologies come down the pike every year, and plenty get lots of press—but he says most of it is junk.

In this fast-paced, funny presentation, Pogue will stick his neck out to predict which technologies will actually cause major, disruptive changes. He’ll display, discuss, and even demonstrate the technological advances—in personal entertainment, cellular tech, Web 2.0, and more—that will have the most impact on society in the coming years.

A book signing will follow the lecture with books available for sale courtesy of the University of Minnesota Bookstores.

The lecture is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Space is limited so register early! Seating is first-come, first-served on the day of the event.

To register or for more information, visit cse.umn.edu/publiclecture.

About the speaker:

David Pogue writes the tech column for The New York Times every week, and in Scientific American every month. He’s the host of “NOVA ScienceNow” and other science shows on PBS, and he’s been a correspondent for “CBS Sunday Morning” since 2002.

With more than 3 million books in print, Pogue is one of the world’s bestselling how-to authors. He has written or co-written seven books in the “for Dummies” series (including Macs, Magic, Opera, and Classical Music). In 1999, he launched his own series of complete, funny computer books called the “Missing Manual” series, which now includes 120 titles.

After graduating summa cum laude from Yale University in 1985 with distinction in music, Pogue spent 10 years conducting and arranging Broadway musicals in New York City. He has won an Emmy, a Loeb award for journalism, an honorary doctorate in music, and has been profiled on “48 Hours” and “60 Minutes.”

Writing Angry?

Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog often has interesting stuff on it. I don’t always agree, but it’s generally food for thought.

Case in point, the recent entry entitled “Write about what makes you angry“.

My take on it: what makes writing involving and meaningful, is that the author writes about things they feel deeply about. Anger is one way to feel deeply, but it’s far from the only way, so if you focus on anger, you’re limiting yourself.

Basically the same set of things make any decent person angry. As a result, certain topics — child sexual abuse, in particular — are seriously overdone. Anytime someone wants to depict a villain, the cause du jour springs to mind. The way you show they’re evil is that they’re a child abuser. A terrorist. A Nazi, if you go back far enough. I like my villains to be evil in complex and creative ways. If I see one more scheming CEO I think I’ll scream.

(My wife has learned that if she hears screams, she generally should respond, “It’s just a book, dear. Breathe.”)

A book that has a moral cause to champion, also is at serious risk of becoming a polemic. Rotten things happening to your characters is pretty essential, and they could be some of the things that make you angry. Getting out of or recovering from such a situation, or battling the people who caused it, could be an important part of the story. But if, in your mind, your enslaved protagonist a symbol for all slaves, you’re likely to lose some of that personal aspect of the story that brings it to life. They’re a person in a predicament. Their problems are their problems, not everybody else’s.

Write about what makes you angry. But also write about what you fear (actually they’re likely to be the same things, but fear is the truer emotion). Write about what puts you in awe, what you love, what you can’t make up your mind whether is good or bad.

Are you a good puzzle solver?

Do you like reading complicated mysteries, locked room puzzles?  Maybe writing them?

I have just the puzzle for you. 

Bob needs to send vital files back to Alice, his boss, at the Department of Saving the Earth.  These files contain the secret plans the evil aliens have hatched to take over the Earth, including the fact that Mallory has become a traitor, turning the Earth’s defenses over to the aliens in exchange for a beach house in the Hamptons.  Mallory,  using the powers of the evil aliens, can intercept messages Bob sends, and even inject messages of his own.  Bob can’t risk revealing that he’s onto Mallory and the aliens’ evil schemes.

How does Bob send the files to Alice in a way that Mallory can’t read what he’s sending and Alice can be sure that it was Bob who sent them?

It doesn’t sound too hard.  Bob encrypts the files and now Mallory, whose code breaking prowess is a little lacking–he skipped those classes in Secret Agent school–can’t read the file. 

Bob can use the super-secure file transfer program on his laptop to encrypt the file.  The file transfer program back at Headquarters will decrypt the file and put it into Bob’s Really Important Things folder.  Alice will see it there and save the world.

Bob’s super-secure file transfer program creates a cryptographic signature– a computation, using the secret key that exists only on Bob’s laptop–and the super-secure file transfer program back at Headquarters will check that signature, proving that it came from Bob, and using Bob’s ID, verified with the signature, store the file in the Bob’s Really Important Things folder.

But Bob’s super-secure file transfer program gives him two options–and here is the puzzle you have to help him solve–

A) It can create a digital signature of the original file, then encrypt the file, and then send both of those things to Headquarters (along with Bob’s ID so that the e-mail program can look up the correct keys to use to do the decrypting and signture checking).

B) Encrypt the file, then create a digital signature of the encrypted file, and send both of those to Headquarters (along with Bob’s ID so that the e-mail program can look up the correct keys to use to do the decrypting and signture checking).

Which should he do?  Can Bob save the world with either of these methods?  Mallory can intercept and manipulate the messages, but he can’t read them…

Time’s running out on Bob, should he choose A or B?  (No fair calling Alice on the phone and shouting “RUN!”)

Suddenly, all over the world…

Here’s a story I’ve seen a few times in my slush reading for Stupefying Stories. A few times; you have to know already that’s a bad sign. It goes something like this. Suddenly, for no reason, some miraculous and silly thing happens to everyone in the world – for example, everyone suddenly grows a second head. We then have about three paragraphs each about how this affects various people. Some consequences are tragic. Some are slapstick. There’s no explanation of how any of this happened.

I can understand the attraction; it’s fun to think about what would happen if…. The problem is that it’s only fun for the author. Being told about what would happen if, isn’t entertaining.

There’s not really a story there. The thing jumps from person to person like a stone skipping on water; and like that stone, there’s no depth to it. We never learn to care about any of the affected people, because we don’t have time with them. And generally, the characters’ reactions are very surface, too. The most interesting part of a miraculous event (assuming it’s not the end of the world) isn’t the direct effects, but the implications. As in, holy shit, the fact that this could happen means that we have to rethink everything we thought we knew. And you’re wasting my time with the comical predicament of the couple who can’t decide which head is married to which other one?

The miraculous event in a story like this is treated like the miracles in magical realism; people sort of accept it and just deal with the consequences, without considering the theological or scientific aspects. So, it’s not a realistic treatment; it’s allegorical.

I don’t have a beef with magical realism; it’s fine for what it does. What it does, when done properly, is use the emotional power of magic as a symbol to illuminate something else that’s going on in the story. If you use this treatment on something that isn’t symbolically relevant to the people who experience it, you’re wasting the power of magic on trivia, and instead just writing a story where people behave in annoyingly unrealistic ways. An event can’t possibly be symbolically relevant to everyone in the whole world on a personal level. Maybe if one person grows a second head, it’s to represent their deep inner conflict, so the heads can argue with each other. If everyone grows a second head, it’s just stupid.

Stories are personal. Stories are about people; they have to be more than silly what-if games. We need to zoom in on someone.

Cars Into Cows

She spells her name with too many dots, but Miina Äkkijyrkkä, from Finland, where they truly realize the importance of cattle, has found a new use for old automobiles. Why crush those things down for scrap, when with a little ingenuity and a large welding torch, you can convert them into giant cow sculptures instead?

I think my favorite is the reclining red one. It looks contemplative.

Hidden Government Scanners Will Instantly Know Everything About You From 164 Feet Away

From your friends at Gizmodo (http://gizmodo.com/5923980/the-secret-government-laser-that-instantly-knows-everything-about-you):

Within the next year or two, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will instantly know everything about your body, clothes, and luggage with a new laser-based molecular scanner fired from 164 feet (50 meters) away. From traces of drugs or gun powder on your clothes to what you had for breakfast to the adrenaline level in your body—agents will be able to get any information they want without even touching you.

And without you knowing it.

Great scare headline and really neat gadget to use in a story.  I scanned over the web site for the Genia Photonics company (http://www.geniaphotonics.com/business-markets/defense-and-security/terahertz-spectroscopy/) and, as expected, they aren’t quite as out of breath when describing their work as Gizmodo is. 

There are some scary invasion of privacy issues here.  I don’t have the link, but I recall reading articles about issuing police THz radar scanners with which they could assess whether or not passersby were armed and then react accordingly.  The article that I’m claiming to have read indicated that this capability would be considered an unlawful search and therefore the police could not be provided with it.

Not knowing how their devices work, I suspect that there are quite a few interesting technical challenges to be overcome before it can be used in a practical way.  Examples are calibration standards for the frequencies they are searching for (as molecular indicators)–are these hard to do or easy?

A few seconds spent worshipping at Google’s altar provided these links:

http://www.tstnetwork.org/December2010/tst-v3n4-192Recent.pdf   Chinese researchers reported work using THz detection mechanisms.  In their summary they say: 

THz spectroscopy serves as useful technique in identifying biological molecules and medicine, studying molecular structure and discerning some diseased tissues. Despite of that, a great many problems remain to be challenging.

They didn’t really elaborate on the difficulties.

This older (2006) article indicates the problem is the hardware used to generate the THz signals and to detect them–cryogenic cooling, other challenges depending upon the technique.  (http://spie.org/x13756.xml)

This abstract (http://orbit.dtu.dk/en/publications/terahertz-spectroscopy–yesterday-today-and-tomorrow(4ee74946-0af7-4621-9b56-e7a2f6269bae)/export.html)  indicates that things may have indeed progressed well after the 2006 reference:

THz spectroscopy exploits the farthest region of the infrared, at very long wavelengths. In this interesting spectral range we observe fingerprint spectra of explosives and other solid chemicals, we observe the interplay between molecules in the liquid phase, and we observe the motion of electrons in semiconductors. Bordering the microwave and optical regime, the THz region has traditionally been difficult to access. Recent technological developments have changed this, and today portable, high-performance spectroscopy tools for investigation of the THz range is available. In this presentation I will briefly outline the technological challenge for THz spectroscopy, give selected examples of spectroscopic applications, and demonstrate portable instrumentation for THz spectroscopy and imaging.

So, let your imagination rip–there’s good science behind some far out possibilities.