24 March 2012

How to Write a Character that's Smarter than You Are

One of the most difficult challenges a writer has is writing a character that's smarter than the author. I've read many a book that advised against even attempting it, but I'm going to advise the opposite, because a smart character can be an incredible character.

Take the person of Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the most stereotypically intelligent character in literary history. His powers of deduction (and induction) are legendary, making leaps of intelligence that surprise and delight readers.

Writing a character like Sherlock requires three major advantages: the god's eye view, research, and a time differential.

The God's Eye View
The author has the god's eye view, meaning that you know objectively what's happened and happening in your world because all of its elements are created by you.

This means that you control both the events and their ultimate meaning, and can craft clever situations that seem to resolve themselves one way but which can turn out to resolve in an entirely different manner altogether. Such is virtually the premise of all Sherlock Holmes stories, to craft a situation which stymies the deductive powers of the reader, only to then makes Holmes appear brilliant by making logical inferences which turn out to be correct.

That he can do this seems incredible, and would be incredible for an average person in the real world. But, we should realize that he has help from the author, who, like god passing information to his chosen avatar, subtly helps Sherlock along when he gets stuck and ensure that no Sherlock story results in a deadlock with a missed outcome.

Taking Sherlock as our example again, we have a character who's presented as being incredibly knowledgeable about a multitude of subjects. So much so that he can make extraordinary logical leaps that probably wouldn't occur to others, and actually do so accurately. He is, in a sense, a Renaissance man, learned in various fields, who studies all sorts of knowledge simply for the pleasure of knowing, and the later application of that knowledge as well.

But you, as the writer, writing a smart character like Sherlock, will be the one that ends up doing the actual research to make your character sound like he knows what he's talking about. This can be a rewarding experience if you are personally interested in the topic as well. And, let's be honest, every writer worth their salt will end up doing a good deal of research before they publish a typical story, just as a matter of course. So, it will not be a foreign endeavor to you.

With enough research, you can make any character appear to produce extemporaneous elucidations on any topic at all, an astonishing feat.

Time Differential
But the biggest factor, I believe, is what I call a time differential. And it is the difference between how long your character has to act versus how long you, as the author, have to decide what course your character is going to take. Your character has only a moment or so. But you, as the author, have virtually unlimited time.

So, for instance, you may have a character faced with a particularly difficult situation. So difficult in fact that you have no idea how to get your own character out of that situation.

This is actually a very good place to be, don't give up and change the situation to make it easier, because it means that if you can resolve the problem that you'll come up with a solution that would not be readily thought of, and you'll make your character look like he spontaneously invented an ingenious solution exactly when needed.

When in fact it might take you a month plus some research just to come up with a plausible solution, only to make your character appear to invent it in two shakes of a lamb's tail.

Combining these three techniques, you can in theory write a character of any complexity and intelligence. Although, writing god as a character is still probably beyond anyone :P

The Genius Method of Creating New Ideas

I once read a good book on writing in which the author asks the question: "So, how do authors come up with those awesome plots where everything comes together in the end and creates a completely unexpected ending?"

His answer was: "I don't know."

But I know.

And I'll tell you. But first some background and setup:

There was once a PhD mathematician who solved one of the most famous problems in mathematics (I don't recall the exact nature of the problem, and probably neither of us would understand it in any case). It took him literally ten years of thinking about the problem from every possible angle to solve it.

And when he finally did, he explained to interviewers his process for thinking about this problem. It was simple, he said, he got up in the morning and began thinking about the problem. He carried it around in his head all day, thought about it while he ate, and with every article he read he tried to apply the concepts being discussed to his problem.

Other people thought him distracted perhaps, a bit weird, maybe even difficult to talk to--absent minded even. But they did not carry a problem with them like he did.

Another famous mathematician, Richard Feynman, followed the same technique. One his ex-wives said that being married to him was difficult because he was never fully there, he was always, always thinking about some problem in his head, even at the breakfast table, you could practically see differential equations flying through his mind.

My own father made a similar statement about me, saying that he realized that when I got quiet sometimes it was because I wasn't full with him, but thinking about this or that idea. So, I can relate to these other thinkers completely. And there is at least one idea that I've been thinking about continually now for 19 years at the date of this writing.

It all began with something that someone said to me back in grade school, a single sentence that is burned on my memory.

Ironically I can't remember exactly who said it, though it was an adult, only what was said. He said: "You don't own an idea until you write it down."

That thought stopped me completely, and I immediately realized it was one of the most valuable things I'd ever heard and I decided then and there to follow it. And since then, I have faithfully written down every idea I've ever had, since the age of 15.

I've discovered a side effect of this practice: it actually frees your mind to think of new ideas. And over the years I've come up with many bad or trivial ideas, some good ideas, and just a few absolute gems.

It is the gems that I carry around in my head all day long and am constantly thinking about, wondering how I could apply anything I encounter in real life to them.

Some of these are business ideas, some inventions, and others are story ideas.

Seeing a child playing might give me an idea for a character; watching a movie might suggest a scene to borrow and adapt; reading a book about writing may suggest a way to approach crafting an emotionally resonant theme in a story; being stymied by some problem might suggest space for an invention.

I can tell you right now that I am carrying around with me a nearly completed plot to the novel I'm working on now. The story lurks in the back of my mind, ever present, riding piggyback, always looking over my shoulder at what I look at, reading what I read, hearing what I hear, and soaking up constantly about 10% of my ever-present attention. And that's just one good idea.

I've got several short stories rolling around in there as well, some with more or less importance, and one in particular that I've made great progress on recently and which requires a near complete rewrite due to the rapid progress I've made on it conceptually.

Beyond that, it's perhaps scary to admit, but I've got two more entire novels, each designed to be the beginning of two independent series I am planning, each with at least a trilogy of novels behind them, and both of them real gems of a story, and each in various stages of completion.

And as I have ideas about stories, I write them down, maintaining a log-file of ideas as they materialize, which I can go back later and harvest for ideas as I write.

(And be sure to put a back-up strategy in place. I nearly lost all of my collection of writings to a hard-drive failure. Luckily, a sense of impending doom caused me to back them up the day before the drive failed.)

And that is how you come up with an amazing plot that creates a surprising inversion in the ending. By thinking about the story for so long, so consistently, that you out-think your reader. You consider all the angles. You don't settle for cliche plot or ordinary turns, you go beyond even your first, second, or third idea, and integrate all the elements thematically into a powerful ending.

This technique of carrying around your ideas with you continually is what I like to call the 'Genius Method', for it is how one becomes a genius. If there is a price for genius, that is it. You must devote yourself to a solution to a significant problem. Whether that is in mathematics, architecture, writing, or any other field. And when you produce a work of genius in the end, people may be amazed by it and they will think you're very smart. They will not see your devotion to a problem that led to your unique insights. They will simply label you a genius. When the truth is, anyone can be a genius, about anything.

The only thing that makes me sad is when I see stories about people who've taken the human capacity for genius, that everyone has, and spent it on frivolous things. Take Bobby Fischer, the renowned chess champion. Chess is ultimately unproductive, so he attained little more than entertainment value--which has some value to society in general, but is hardly the most significant thing he could've put his intellect to.

The Best and Easiest Way to Convert Ebooks for Kindle

I've played around with a few online services and the like, tried to turn this into that and that into this, trying to find a quick and easy service to turn various formats into Kindle's .Mobi format.

Well, I've finally found the easiest way, and it is awesome.

For one thing, it's free. Secondly, it's incredibly easy! Ready? Let's get started.

You will need to install only one piece of free open-source software. It's called Calibre, it's an ebook manager and reader, and it's going to do everything we need it to do, automatically. Works on Mac, Windows, even Linux.

Now that you've got that installed we need to add a book to it. You can do this in a couple ways: either hit 'Add Books' at the top left, or drag a book onto Calibre and it will auto-add it.

You'll see the book title pop up in the middle of the screen. Now plug in your e-reader, be it Kindle, Nook, or others, and Calibre will auto-detect your device. If you just want to read the book on your computer you can skip this step.

Select the book title by clicking on it once, and then at the top right hit 'Send to Device'. And you're done! Calibre will automatically reformat your book for the kind of file your device needs.

If you just want to read your ebook on the computer and want it in a specific format, you can use the 'Convert Books' button, top middle. In the window that pops up, check the right side and select the format you want, be that Mobi or Epub, etc. Hit okay, choose where to save it, and the reformat will begin.

Now, the first time I tried this I wondered why it seemed like nothing was happening. My book didn't show up where I saved it or anything. Then I saw the 'Jobs' counter in the lower right corner of Calibre's window. It can take about a minute to reformat a single ebook, so be patient. I wasn't that first time!

Why don't you now head down to Project Gutenberg, download some of those public domain classics you've always wanted to read and put them, in the space of a minute, on any device you like and in any format.

Hunger Games Movie Review (Spoiler Free)

Movie summary: The hunger games is about a young woman caught in circumstances outside her control, and ultimately the power of good to triumph over evil. The setting takes place in a near-future society in which twelve rebel provinces made peace at the price of giving up as tribute one boy and girl each year to appear in the Hunger Games--a battle royale to the death where only one can survive.

Jennifer Lawrence is lovely as Katniss Everdeen, the hero of the story, and virtual avatar of Artemis the Huntress. And unlike many media properties, the movie avoids the plague of turning female protagonists into kung-fu masters or some implausible equivalent. Katniss is an expert with a bow and arrow as a result of years of hunting for food for her family and friends. The result is a convincing character and a far more plausible plot that doesn't strain the bounds of believability. Nor does she suddenly become good at some skill in the few weeks of training they receive, another common trope which strains believability.

Similarly, though the story contains a minor thread of romance, the situation is not one-dimensional and does not insult your intelligence. There's no flash romance, but something far more significant.

I especially enjoyed the depictions of the oppressor society as especially decadent through the use of makeup and costuming. And the fact that the members of that society which we meet are not cardboard characters, but have lives of their own. The characters are fairly well drawn all the way around, making for a large amount of memorable scenes and moments.

The movie was well written, well acted, and well paced.

And the big question, does the ending pay off? Are you going to walk away satisfied? Honestly, the ending seemed just slightly odd to me in one respect, which I'll leave unnamed. I think the writer of the novel, Suzanne Collins, simply couldn't bring herself to carry out her scenario to its necessary conclusion, although she does make one character pay a heavy price for breaking the rules. I will say no more.

My recommendation: go see it, great movie.

And now if you'll excuse me, I need to go read the entire Hunger Games trilogy. Can't possibly wait for the next movie to show up!

Inversion Endings, Catch-22, and the Liminal Edge

As a writer, there are a few things that intrigue me, things that I try to pay close attention to both in other stories and in real life.

These include inversions,  the catch-22, and anything that rides the liminal edge, for all change must pass through a period of liminality, and story is change.

Inversion Endings
Have you ever read a story that had a soft, quiet ending? Maybe it's a very good story, and you're enjoying it. You get to that point in the story where you say to yourself, uh oh, there's only a few pages left; how is this going to wrap up?!

And sometimes, when the end comes, it's good, sometimes it's bitter-sweet, and sometimes it's a bit of a let-down.

But sometimes, the ending is incredible! In fact, some stories are composed of little more than an ending, the entire story being nothing more than a setup for the ending, such as the movie 'Sixth Sense'.

Sixth Sense created something called an inversion ending, accomplished by violating the viewers assumptions about the story they're reading. Once you realize that your assumption was radically wrong, you review everything you remember from the story and suddenly it clicks--you've been had and everything was different from what you thought was actually happening. Such an ending can be powerful the first time it's experienced, the literary equivalent of a pyrotechnic display, and generate a good deal of attention. But it may be considered the story equivalent of fast-food if the story doesn't have further redeeming qualities such as fine characters and a strong theme.

Stories with inversion endings can often be sniffed out by smart readers, which is a pity because readers will devalue any story they can outguess. Your best ending is a surprise ending.

Catch 22
More interesting than an inversion ending is the catch-22 ending. In this ending, a character is faced with choice, both of which result in equally undesirable outcomes:
A catch-22 is a paradoxical situation in which an individual cannot avoid a problem
because of contradictory constraints or rules. Often these situations are such that solving one part of a problem only creates another problem, which ultimately leads back to the original problem. Catch-22s often result from rules, regulations, or procedures that an individual is subject to but has no control over.
The term catch-22 was coined by Joseph Heller in his novel Catch-22. Initially this is based on the explanation of the character Doc Daneeka as to why any pilot requesting a psych evaluation hoping to be found not sane enough to fly, and thereby escape dangerous missions, would thereby demonstrate his sanity.
 A more abstract way to rephrase what a catch-22 is would be to say that a character needs to accomplish or be A, but in order to do or be A, they discover they need to have first done B. But accomplishing A is a prerequisite for B. Thus, they're in a double-bind with no way to proceed.

A very common example of a catch-22 is the problem some face when finding a job fresh out of college. Many employers require an applicant to have years of experience as well as qualifications. But, the applicant realizes that he has no opportunity to gain any experience at all if no one will give them a job in the first place.

Or say you decided to vacation overseas. You apply for a visa to enter the country. You're told that you need to have actually paid for accommodations in the host country before you will be granted a visa. But, why would you pay for accommodations unless you have a visa? You'd be out a large sum if denied entry.

A story with a catch-22 ending situation is one that readers will have a very hard time guessing ahead of time. The novel I'm working on now has an unfathomable catch-22 ending that I'm quite proud of :)

The concept of the liminal edge means the boundary between two things, it is the edge of a knife, the point of contact, the place where all things happen. All measurement requires liminality, requires a division into units, the edges of those units forming liminal boundaries, such as the space between one and two. When does three end and four begin? That ambiguity is the essence of the liminal.

In Roman times, property owners demarked their property with stone idols, making it a profane gesture to cross the boundaries of one owner's property. So seriously did they take this concept that property owners routinely created spaces between each other's property so as not to violate each other's religious property, resulting in unowned public spaces between property, which became roads in time. And the statues soon became fences. Thus began the liminal practice of the road, the commons between the owned.

Liminality can be seen in nature. Consider the sun, at her most beautiful in her liminal moments--at the sunset of dusk and the sunrise of dawn. Consider the hermaphrodite, a true liminal being somewhere between male and female, feared or revered in various cultures historically as a sign or manifestation of the divine.

Liminality is inherently tied to the concept of change, for in any change of state from A to B there must be a liminal state where neither A nor B exists but, in a sense, they both do. If you're writing a character who is sad but who has suddenly received joyous news, you'd be wise to describe not merely her sad look before the news and joyous look after the news, but an intermediate stage where the two emotions conflict within her and then one wins resulting in that final joyous emotion bursting forth.

So too, situations on mass scale display liminality and should be drawn with it in mind. Rapid inversions of fate are possible right at the moment of victory or defeat, and writing these in, with proper foreshadowing, is one of the best ways to surprise a reader. As such, one might write about the course of a battle, which it seems one side is about to lose, until their reinforcements arrive, the ones that had been lost weeks ago and that hopefully the reader had forgotten about.

In all becoming then, there will be found liminality. One might even write about a character whom is himself a liminal character, in fact these may even make the best characters. Shakespeare was fond of creating liminal characters through the use of disguise and costume, allowing his leading ladies to dress up as men, and vice-versa, and create all manner of confusion and trouble in this guise.

One of the characters I'm writing now is the son of two people from opposing societies. He's a liminal character, and thus the source of all change within the story, in which he acts as the lightning rod, using his dual-nature, a sort of dual citizenship, to violate taboos of both societies and perform that which would be virtually impossible for a member solely of one or the other.

The concept of the liminal edge then has many applications to writing, from the drawing of a character, to the description of all change, be it emotional change or any event the goes from not happening to happening.

20 March 2012

Where the Wild Things Are

We're in the midst of a modern gold-rush. And few realize it.

Can you see it? Understand what I mean?

Let's say you wanted to start a business, perhaps a restaurant. Realize that it's both a very risky and expensive endeavor, fraught with red tape and things out of your control. You'll spend literally $100,000+ one fixing up the location, installing new interior and equipment, hiring and training people, etc.

At that point your potential customer base is drawn from perhaps a few thousand people whom regularly drive by and therefore know you exist. There's so many places in my home-town I have never been inside that I sometimes wonder how they survive at all. But, these are situated on a main-street, such that a few tens of thousands might see them on an average month and try them out. If they can retain only a few regular customers from each group that walks in, they can thrive.

But why would you go to all that hassle, spend all that money, to reach a paltry customer base when you could spend next to nothing on materials costs and labor and reach a global audience online?

The modern gold-rush is the app market on smart phones and tablets, on the Iphone and Android models, and increasingly the Ipad and its Android facsimiles.

The trade off is that you must good, very good--you must compete, because you're competing globally. But product niches are endless, so you should not be afraid. Niche is scary because you're giving away much of the market, but when you have a global market, you will be much less concerned. Niches in a global market could mean -only- hundreds of millions of potential customers instead of billions.

Because competition is so strong and barrier to entry so low, the best way to compete is to unveil the new. There are a million restaurants in the world (literally), but they're insulated from each other by distance and convenience. Few will drive more than a few tens of miles for food. The incentive to create something new is not likely to ever change.

Apps are the liminal edge of the business-startup world today, the focus of entrepreneurism in silicon valley and much of the world. Russia announced it was going to create a Silicon Valley analogue within its borders. And nearly 50% of all investment money in the US is going to fund Silicon Valley companies, many with just a seed of an idea and one or more founders.

A startup incubator called Y-Combinator is a notable example, funding multiple teams of entrepreneurs at a time and collecting them together for mutual support.

I saw news recently that a finger-sketch game for Ipad is earning $100,000 a day for its creators.

App development is the modern jungle, the unconquered territory of the world, the liminal edge of modern development. It is the beating heart of Silicon Valley and a primal force for change in the modern world, as no one knows what life-changing development may arrive on the scene tomorrow.

One of my long-term goals has been to learn to program; there have been a lot of programs I have wanted to create for many years now. And I've begun that process, signing up for the first Udacity.com class of CS101, learning Python.

I'm about haflway through the class, finishing the third module, and I wholeheartedly recommend this site and course. It's free, no obligation, no cost to sign up--which is mindblowing in and of itself.

It's a weird feeling to have had virtually no experience in programming only a few weeks ago and to now being able to read code and understand its function, as well as write my own solutions from scratch.

They're still quite simple programs, but solving them is a joyful experience. That moment when your code finally performs as designed is beautiful.

I've been talking with a friend about forming a software company and chasing the app market. Since then we've been collecting app ideas and are very excited with a couple of very promising ones.