Thursday, August 31, 2017

Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him

I've been getting stuck with needles a couple times a week. Blood draws, which they've gotten really good at and which hardly hurt at all. Injections of various things which, well, less so. I've also stumbled on a fun urban fantasy series, the October Daye books. Toby does blood magic, so she'd be seeing a lot of the stuff even if her approach to problems didn't end up with her bleeding out on the floor at least once a book. I've was also just offered lighting design on a new adaptation of Dracula. And I've been back to listening to the Writing Excuses podcasts, from which the biggest lesson this week for me is "go for the blood."

With all this blood around, how is it my writing of the past few years has been so bloodless?

Next post -- discovery writing and when it fails.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Inside, Outside

The peacetime Army has a little thing called a Field Problem. If they called it a camping trip you'd get the wrong idea. It is a grueling, intensive exercise that makes the regular rounds of barracks cleaning and ranges and inspections and PT something to look forward to.

My last regular Army field problem was in drizzling rain. The first night was 50% security, which meant that out of the four hours left before dawn after we'd set up camp, only two were spent sleeping. We'd dug deep foxholes in the stone-strewn earth and covered them with wet foliage and I slept in full uniform, leaning against one muddy wall with my boots in the cold water slowly filling our hole.

Eventually things eased off a little and I had a little time to read a paperback I'd stuck in one of the large pockets the Army so kindly provides. I've forgotten what it was, but the gist of it was the characters were slogging through a wet, dark, depressing world for most of the pages.

The drizzle tapered away to let in a little light and warmth at almost the same moment; the characters and I climbed out of our dark and muddy holes together.

I collapsed at work Friday (collapsed is a little strong a word; I felt weak and lay down on the floor for about an hour until I felt strong enough to drive myself home.) Saturday, I was almost too weak to limp across the street for milk. It got bad enough I gave up on the desk and computer and unfolded my futon.

And in the latest book on my reading list, the protagonist got herself poisoned. She was getting weaker by the chapter while I was lying in bed reading with a perfectly good Saturday going to waste outside.

More or less around the same hour, she found her cure and I felt at last the warmth of normal circulation returning and the weakness beginning to ebb.

Well, not completely. I doubt I'll be doing any long-distance running tonight, or even tomorrow. At the moment I'm just about recovered enough to draft a couple quick blog entries.

But the rain is over. At least for now.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Words are useless, Darling. Gobble gobble gobble gobble.

I know you've tried this; take a word, one ordinary word. Taxi, say. Then repeat it over and over again. It doesn't take long before it turns into a meaningless sound. Just a pattern of letters, a pattern of vowels and consonants, a symbol that has come unmoored from that emotional immediacy of meaning.

That's sort of how I feel about writing at the moment.

Or perhaps I should say, my writing. Or it might be even more accurate to say, some writing. I'm alternating the latest October Daye book with the first book of the Arkana series. The former is still a success at that prose trick; the words, the letters, the paper are a transparent window to the world contained within.

The latter is, sadly, not succeeding. I'm conscious at every step of the choices the writer is making, from choices of plot to choices of punctuation (and it isn't helping when I disagree with them).

The trees are getting in the way of the forest. Of course in my own work, I planted those trees. In any creative work there's still a lot of boilerplate. Even at the creative heart, the ideas don't appear like Athena, fully armed. They are pulled from the matrix of your experiences. Whether you chose to say you were "inspired by" or you "borrowed from" is up to you (I tend towards the latter, when I'm not going all out and saying I "stole" the idea.)

And, yes, even if there is an intangible inspired pure Idea somewhere at the core, that idea is fleshed out, the clothing and armor it wears constructed, whether in a fluid free-form process of nearly unconscious association or in mechanical construction, engineering with known and tested elements. And the difference between those two extremes is itself in the eye of the beholder; what seems mechanistic to me might seem a creative insight to an outside observer.

But that is probably beside the point.

What's bothering me now is that greater bulk that holds no pretension to coming directly from the muses, unsoiled by the ordinary world. What is bugging me now is all that boilerplate. All the naked mechanics of chunk of exposition here, chunk of dialog here. Of the necessary interleaving of speakers, of the cadence of sentences, of the rounding of every paragraph around a single idea -- all the way out to the basic story which is almost always there, regardless of the theme, the genre, the word it is set in.

Create a character. Set him in motion after a goal. Have his journey go through a place. At some point you are reaching into the box to assemble the building blocks and it hits you like mjolnir how few are the Seven Basic Plots, or how many the Greeks had -- whichever list you have, it is too few. And how much the creation of your characters starts to resemble those children's flip books where you mix-and-match head, torso and feet to make your own hybrid creature.

Yes, it is easy to make fun of the form. Easier still if you are trying to satirize a genre; generic fantasy; "A new evil has arisen. The black-flame steeds of the Dark Lord of H'gar thunder across the once-peaceful lands. All that stands in their way are a young bard, a willful princess, a failed alchemist and a thief. All will be lost unless they can recover...the Chalice of the Snow."

When you stand this far back, sure, everything blurs together. All urban fantasies are grey in the night-time. All stories were already told before Aristophanes had even started. And it feels so futile and so silly to worry about the details of yet another one.

So there has to be something in the particulars that makes it matter. We are in our hindbrains social primates with millions of years of watching each nuance of expression and body language to tell us who is angry and needs to be pacified, who found food and needs to be followed, who is receptive and should be befriended. Most of our media is endlessly playing pictures of these naked apes so we can watch others of our kind live and react and emote, and so we can learn and affirm from them what it is to be human.

It isn't a boy that meets a girl. It is this boy, this unique individual, this single happenstance of genetic chance and unique upbringing, that meets another happenstance of genetic chance and upbringing to struggle to bridge a just a little that unbridgeable gap between every unique I. The details matter. Every word choice matters, every cadence in the dialog matters.

If it is boring, it probably means that I'm not doing it right.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Orogeny recapitulates porphyry

Ah, research.

I'm into the "less research, dammit" part of the story. I'm skipping any rest stops, roadside attractions, or other touristing as I send my cast down the interstate and to the final location of the book.

All I wanted was a couple of words. Like "the red sandstones had been left behind for a muted, depressing yellow-ochre." Or something like that. But...what color is the area I'm traveling through?

Not a simple question. I'm thirty tabs deep now on the geology of the Colorado Plateau (of which the San Rafael Swell through which I-70 passes is part of), the various layers of Jurassic, Cretaceous, and earlier materials, the weathered remains of an anticline formed 60-80 MYA, the leaching of iron from exposed Navajo Sandstone, the unique endemic species, etc. etc.

I'm no geologist. In times past I had the illusion it might be possible to do world-building from the mantle out, to figure out the underlying geology and work all the way out to rain shadows and micro-climates. Well, the US is so damned geologically complex it is essentially beyond me to grasp enough of it to be able to paint the kind of broad strokes the template sentence above implies.

Still: the question of what central Utah looks like fails most of my tests; there is no kind of reproducible behavior involved, it ties into no politicized argument of which I am aware, is in short a completely neutral issue. I could say it was bright pink and filled with unicorn farts and it would only reflect on my willingness to do the research.

Yeah, but you's fun to read up on the geology. And, yeah -- how else would I find that the Planetary Society set up a station because parts of the swell are similar to the landscapes of Mars?

Peppermint and Lead

I've been reading the October Daye series of urban fantasy books. Found one in a "please take some books" pile, was just intrigued enough to try out sample chapters via Kindle and you know how it goes. I wouldn't call them great, I'm not even sure how much I enjoy them, but they are page-turners.

In those books, each person has a distinctive "smell" to their magic (in Toby's case, at least, this is as much part of her powers to read the nature of other Fae as it is actual scents). These scents are often appropriate to the kind of Fae and the personality thereof; Toby's magic smells of copper and blood (or at least it did, when she thought she was a half-blood Daoine Sidhe. Spoilers!) Tybalt, King of Cats (a little Romeo and Juliet reference there) smells of musk and pennyroyal. One villain smells of oleander and (!) sulphuric acid.

I'm still tasting peppermint and lead. I'm actually a little disappointed. There's a whole pallet of interesting sensations people have reported from the contrast agent used for a CT scan, and I got almost none of them. Even the "metallic taste" was muted (even if it lasted for far too long).

So far every test to try to track down my mild anemia and not-so-mild attacks of fatigue has come up blank. I've definitely got a low RBC count, with no explanation for why, and my cardiologist is seeing just enough in the various stress tests to want to discuss further (and more invasive) tests with me.

My current approach is to just work through the spells of fatigue. Not fight them (that usually ends up badly), and not give in to the urge to rest (unless it is the weekend -- explaining why I've been reading so many paperbacks). Experience says I'm going to hit a day when I can't even get out of bed, but until then it's pretty much just feeling tired and run-down from the moment I wake up each morning.

It is working, though. I'm getting my hours in at work, getting a little violin practice in every few days (when I'm not so exhausted I spend break hunching over a cup of coffee) and even a little writing on the weekends.

But I'm putting the last Holocrons on indefinite hold. Just trying to compose a post for the RPF that will lay it out honestly without being a bid for sympathy.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


Not a new thought.

But I was listening to radio coverage on yesterday's eclipse, and cicadas came up, and I found myself remembering the process of several sound designs.

Crickets and birdsong are part of that suite of sounds that tell the audience where a scene is taking place, indoor or outdoor, city or nature. They can describe a biome and an emotion; a peaceful meadow or a spooky jungle. And, of course, a time of day (excepting when those crickets or birds get confused by a solar eclipse).

But it is never so simple as just grabbing "birds chirping" from a free online sound library. Besides those little matters of audio quality and legal use, you need to particularize. Chickadees making a racket in a Soho pet shop are not the same as morning sparrows on a farmstead in Illinois. Not all library sounds are equal -- or equally appropriate.

Worse, most plays will have multiple locations, and multiple times of day. For something as simple as Bye, Bye Birdie I had three or four different cricket-and-night-insect backgrounds, depending on the time of day and the emotional mood I was going for; the background to the anticipatory twilight of a hot summer night prior to "Got a lot of living" is quite different from the one-AM still of the final tired chorus of "We love you Birdie."

But that's just primary selection. Then comes the next task.

Library recordings vary hugely in their equalization. Some of the birdsong I reach for frequently have huge (even oppressive) low-end rumble in them. So these need to be equalized and focused in to bring out the sounds you need without masking the stage action and dialog you need to preserve.

(A lot of them also have a huge white noise content. This comes with the territory; birdsong is outdoors sound and wind and background roar are always there. This is wide-spectrum noise, though, and pretty much impossible to edit out. You can only work around it).

Then you need enough so it covers the length of the scene. And starts and stops smoothly, without a jarring effect. Often the library samples you start with are too short. A little over a minute is typical for a library effect and ten minutes isn't unusual for a scene. And you don't want to simply loop (especially because the raw library effect will either start with a bang or will fade in and out leaving an obvious silence in addition to the obvious repetition.)

This is why I like layering several different tracks. I can duck them in and out and change how they line up to present an ever-changing picture that doesn't have so many obvious repetitions in it. (This also plays well with how I like to approach background sounds; to start them louder and more complex and drop them in volume and complexity as we move into the scene proper).

And we're still not done. Because birdsong, particularly, is pretty much defined as being stretches of silence separated by distinct calls. If you leave most library tracks alone, they will be too quiet to make a background track -- except at 1:03, when the bird nearest the microphone suddenly lets out a loud chirp.

I edit the sounds manually. I go into waveform view and "ride the fader" (as in adjust the amplitude moment-by-moment to smooth out the levels.) Audacity has a very nice "envelop" mode for doing this quickly and smoothly.

And here's the trick, and what ties back to the title of the post:

If I do all this, and do it well, no-one will ever realize I did it.

I've mentioned this before. It struck me, while I was listening to that radio program, that the majority of my creative work over the years has been exactly this sort of invisible work.

Hemingway famously tried to write so the words went away and all you perceived was the story. A fellow lighting designer shared with me the conundrum of the box set and the fireplace. The audience will notice a fireplace effect. But if you did your job right, a box set interior (a room in a castle, a hotel suite, whatever) will just look like a room. It will never cross their minds that giving the impression of light coming from chandelier and sconces and or the big bay window is really, really difficult to integrate with having everyone inside properly lit, easy to see, without too many distracting shadows.

(As my friend put it, you spend three days focusing that damned box set to try to control the shadows and the scoop shapes on the walls and so on. And then you plop a $15 fire log from Wallgreen's in the fireplace and plug it in and the audience goes "ooh" and "ahh.")

What little stabs I've taken in the direction of engineering is the same; a good engineering design does what it needs to do in the most direct way possible. A good design ends up looking simple and obvious -- a simplicity and obviousness that was not there when the design process was begun.

With a stretch, you could even include violin practice, since 90% of the job over your first couple of years is the not-making-obvious-mistakes part of it. Your skill is defined largely by how much someone doesn't notice how much (or, rather, how little) skill you have.

But, you know, it really sucks when it comes time to getting credit. For people to mention the sound design in reviews or in the big thank-you-everyone at the opening night party. For reviews, in particular, the only mention is when it went wrong. Never when it went right, because "right" for the bulk of the work is being invisible; the illusion that the singer and the orchestra just sort of showed up in perfect balance and clarity to every pair of ears in the house.

(And since your director and music director and producer and so forth have no freaking idea how much work went into achieving that illusion of transparency, and how fragile it is, they will go behind your back and change stuff and then blame you for when it "for no reason at all" suddenly sounds like shit.)

And it shows up when payday comes around, too.

(There's another example for the bucket; I've been listening to a bunch of archaeology podcasts, as well as the Writing Excuses podcast. The latter is properly engineered. If you just listen to the latter, there's nothing to hear; you just hear the people talking. Listen to the former and you get it; distracting background noises and huge level shifting that makes listening to a dialogue an exercise in daring and frustration as you keep racing to adjust the volume on your earbuds between "I don't know what he said" to "would she please stop blowing into the microphone!")

Monday, August 14, 2017

Senseless Violins

Man, my playing is bad.

I got in a good practice session today. Did nothing but try to get the bow straight, relax my death grip on the neck, get the right pressure on the stroke, and cross the strings over a scale.

A fascinating thing for me is how much it isn't like learning to ride a bicycle. There isn't a magical moment where you finally get the motion right, and after that it is much easier. The motion is always hard. You are always having to control weird little noises. The bow is always bouncing. You fingers are never perfectly on the desired pitch. Instead of not having to worry about those things, what you gain over the many hours of practice is skill in dealing with all these things as they happen.

So, yeah, the fact that you are consciously having the same problems but doing a better job of hiding them makes you your own worst critic. But I think I have enough background in listening to, mixing, working with musicians to recognize what a certain level of ability entails in the way of cleanliness of articulation, focus of tone, accuracy of pitch, and adherence to tempo.

Writing is an oddly similar task. You will always be aware of where the problems are, and only get better at hiding them from the reader. And there is an equivalent of muscle memory. Over the first years or first 100,000 words or whatever you have to keep stopping to check that you are in the right tense, the consistent POV. You are measuring paragraphs and counting lines so the pacing is consistent and there's a good balance of dialog and description. And, yes, outlining in great detail.

And over the next 100,000 words that stuff becomes basically instinctive. You can still pull it to awareness at any time, and tweak and adjust to meet the needs of the story, but you don't have to step out of the flow in order to make your verbs agree or check the Oxford Commas.

Which is good, because I've gone a little crazy on my current writing.

I'm excited again about writing for publication. The story I'm tinkering on won't take massive research or world-building and I have hopes I can get it done in a year.

But I do want to complete the Tomb Raider/Stargate crossover and put that away, rather than leaving it on a back-burner. So I'm adjusting the outline to let me conclude within the next four chapters (which, at my historical rate of progress, is about four months!)

And I also got re-invested on a simpler piece, "Sam I Am." A fluffy piece, first-person POV through the snarky, profanity-laced voice of a secondary character from the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. The only research I've been doing is looking up titles and directors of documentaries (it is a running gag; Samantha is canonically a documentary film-maker, so I've turned this into her version of the Junior Woodchuck's Guidebook; whatever the plot needs her to know, she conveniently remembers the details from a documentary she saw once.)

This would be so much simpler if I had my strength. Cardiologist is supposed to be contacting me this week. With luck, when he sticks a camera in there he'll find something that we can actually fix. Until then, I'm taking long naps immediately following work and there go all my productive hours....

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Can he swing? Listen, Bud, he's got radioactive blood

Well, not any more. Technetium 99m has a half-life of only six hours, and in any case a biological half-life of about a day.

I should really be logging this stuff. As of my blog entry of the 28th I was feeling full of energy. As of three days ago I've been in a slump again. Not helped by the cardiac and nuclear (well, also cardiac, but using gamma camera imaging) stress tests. Still, I'm dogging it out at work and putting in almost a full shift.

(And I'm going to feel a lot better -- one way or another) when I finally get the test results back.)

After four weeks of emails and phone calls I finally got the parts to repair my U-base. The wrong parts, turns out. But fortunately I'd thought to "throw in" a part I didn't think I needed. Which was of course the actual part at fault. So now I just have to decide whether to put the old pre-amp back in, or modify the bass to fit the new pre-amp, which sounds better and has a built-in tuner.

Hrm. Stated that way, it seems obvious. I just don't have a lot of time to be messing around with modifications. I'm having enough trouble finding time to keep up on my practicing.

Oh, and got offered another show. Lighting design for a new adaptation of Dracula. Even though I've been avoiding taking on any theater design work this year, I'll probably do this one.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Those who do not learn history...

...have an easier time writing a quick novel?

The character Sam Starfall (from the webcomic Freefall) once said, "My lies are more convincing when I don't know what's impossible."

Back when I was hacking out an artwork or two with Poser and Bryce (anyone remember Bryce3d? The textures were legendary. So were the render times) I was a member of a 3d art forum. And the same conversation came up over and over again; a (usually young) artist complaining they didn't want to learn perspective, color theory, the other basics of traditional art. Their stated reason? Because that would negatively impact their ability to bring out their own, unique, vision.

My usual rejoinder is that yes, Outsider Art is a thing, but most of us benefit from learning the rules before we go around breaking them.

But, as I get deeper and deeper into history, archaeology, and the classics, I'm starting to have more sympathy for the "Sam Starfall" school.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Roadie for the Elves

Enough fanfic. I'm ready to get back to a "real" novel.

I had an idea a little while back that got as far as an outline. And that's where it stumbled; the outline revealed I only had half a story. I like the setup, there's some fun ideas, but I don't know how to develop it.

(There's also a research problem. The setup is, baldly, that the Fair Folk are real, a group of refugees cane to the modern world...and they went into folk music. Which is not a new conceit (star example being Emma Bull's The War for the Oaks) but is still a silly fun idea. Trouble is, most people that would tackle this as an idea would know their folk music (particularly Celtic) and know their Irish and other folk tales. I've been exposed to the stuff but I'm only a quarter Irish by birth and a lot less by inclination. This just isn't, for me, writing from experience.)

(Of course my POV character is writing from experience. I could expound endlessly on live sound (like I do in these pages) but in a work of fiction -- urban fantasy adventure fiction with a comic twist -- a little of that goes a long way. )

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Moon Over Buffalo

Another old design.

This time I'm using Shotcut, a freeware video editor. Much nicer than iMovie for this sort of thing. It lacks the ability to do audio ducking or similar, but that's okay -- I would have spliced all the audio together  in Audacity or Reaper anyway, if I wasn't dealing with a bad mic and poor recording conditions anyhow.