Writing Emotions

One recurring comment in my recent beta round of Air Pirates was to add more emotion. "How does he feel about this?" "Can there be some sort of emotional understanding here, not just an intellectualization of events?"

Turns out this is hard for me. I'm not a very emotional person. I don't really trust emotions, and I've spent large chunks of my life ignoring them. So now I find myself Googling things like "What does guilt feel like?"

I guess my transformation to android is complete.

But I've learned a couple things which might help those of you who, while not fully cybernetic perhaps, have similar emotional inhibitors installed.

1) The Bookshelf Muse has lists of common external and internal reactions to tons of emotions. Scroll down the sidebar (where they also have details for various common settings, weather conditions, colors, shapes, textures, and even symbolism!). I do find many of the reactions to be more excessive than my characters usually are (big surprise there), but even so it helps me thinks of similar reactions my characters would have. This site is indispensable.

2) Put myself in the character's situation. I ask myself what I would feel were the same thing happening to me. I realize this sounds obvious to most of you, and even ridiculous that I'd even have to mention it. But understand that, were I in the same situations as my characters, I'd shut down whatever feelings I have and think my way through the problem.

Probably that's not really true, but sitting in my writer's chair--rather than a piss-scented prison cell aboard a pirate ship--it's hard for me to do anything but intellectualize.

Anyway, those are the only tips I've got. Like I said, I'm not very good at this. I bet you've got some tips though, yes?

How to Use TVTropes.org

TV Tropes is a fantastic site, collecting every story trope humanity has ever done, along with examples. If you've got a spare month or two (not a typo), I highly recommend heading over there. If you've never been, let me give you some tips on how to use the site.

1) Let it depress you. Start with some trope you're writing, say air pirates. Follow the links to all the interesting, related tropes--especially ones you thought were original--like cool-looking airships or the villain's airborne fortress that threatens to rain cannonballs on the goodguys. Come to the realization that there is NOTHING original in your story AT ALL. Quit writing.

2) Let it encourage you. After you've quit writing for a few years, realize that nobody ELSE is original either. That makes unoriginality okay (within reason). The goal in fiction is not originality, but to take what's been done and make it fresh and interesting again. To make it YOURS.

3) Let it inform you. Now that the tropes are no longer soul-crushing, find your favorite trope to see how it has been handled before, how it's been subverted, and how famous the examples are so you know what you can get away with. Come up with subversions of your own, or mix it with other tropes in new and interesting ways.

4) Let it inspire you. Stuck for ideas? How about the origin story of a Judge-Dredd-style adventure hero and his possibly-insane sidekick facing an evil tribal circus in the African jungle. If that doesn't work, just hit the TV Tropes Story Idea Generator one more time until you find something you DO like! And if it sounds too lame or familiar, just add ninjas (or samurai or pirates or mecha or whythehecknot all of them). Because it's AWESOME.

Are any of you even still reading this, or did I lose you like 15 links ago?

So You Want to be a Ninja...


THE BASICS. Spelling, grammar, punctuation--these are your katas, the fundamentals. Any peasant can throw a punch or toss together a grammatically correct sentence. You must know why it is correct. You must be so familiar with the rules that even your Twitter updates are punctuated properly. Only then can you improvise, creating your own forms by intent, not laziness.

WORDS. Words are your weapons, and you must become familiar with as many as possible. More than familiar, you must become adept in their use. A simple farmer can pick up a sword and make a clumsy effort at wielding it. You must be its master. And you must know which weapons are appropriate for each situation. A polearm is all but useless in assassination, as "puissant" and "scion" would find a poor home in the mouth of the common taxi driver.

With knowledge of weapons and katas, you would make a decent fighter, a writer of e-mails, a composer of persuasive essays. Any daimyo would be glad to have you among their common militia, but you would not be a ninja.

STYLE. Fighting is more than killing your opponent, and writing is more than words strung in the proper order. The samurai know this, and you can learn much from them. You must be aware of the clarity of your writing, the variation of sentence structure, the powerful techniques of imagery and metaphor. Writing is an art, not simply a means of communication.

With a knowledge of style, you could choose your own path. You could become a mercenary, writing for whomever would pay you. You could begin the path of the samurai, accepting their bushido and writing only the truth--news, non-fiction, and the like. If you seek a life of security and reputation, then perhaps the way of the samurai is for you.

Or you could begin the life of a ninja. To the samurai, bushido is life. To the ninja, it is a hindrance. The art of the ninja is lies and misdirection, surprise and subterfuge. To become a ninja, you must learn many techniques the samurai are not taught, master them, and make them your own.

You must learn the secrets of tension and plot, what drives a story forward and hooks the reader until the end. You must learn to create characters that are real, believable, and can gain or lose sympathy with the audience, as the situation dictates. You must understand the ways of dialogue to make your characters to speak without tearing down the lie you have constructed.

These are basic knowledge to the ninja, but they are only the beginning. Millions have gone before you. Most do not survive. The shinobi masters whose names you've heard are the exception, not the rule.

It takes more determination than you've ever known to become a ninja, but you can do it. I believe in you.

And if I'm wrong, it won't matter. You'll be dead.

Cooking for Nine

You may know I have an acute fear of failure. The kind that makes me terrified of stupid things--like small talk or mowing the lawn--just because I might fail at it. This, of course, makes writing and getting critiques rather difficult. Anyone who's been writing for a while knows you can't please everybody--even the best books have haters, and the unpublished more than most.

Turns out cooking for my family is good practice then. For a sufficiently large family,* somebody will always hate whatever you cook for them. And they're kids, which means they're just as honest as if they were hiding behind the anonymity of the internet.

For someone who's afraid to even play a friendly game of soccer, you can imagine what this does to my ego.**

But here's the bright side, and hopefully something you can use in your writing: no matter how strange or bad my cooking is, there's always at least one person that likes it. See, the converse law of "You can't please everybody" is "You will always please somebody."

It might be only your mom or your best friend, but it will be somebody. In order to get past the crotch-kicking that is rejection, you have to focus on that person. Internalize their opinion. Believe them. Honestly, it's the only way to keep moving forward when you feel like everyone else is cranking your soul through a sausage grinder.

Mm, sausage. Maybe everybody will like that...

* I don't know for sure, but I'd bet "sufficiently large" might even mean "two."

** It doesn't help that they're all Thai, so the foods I actually
like to cook are generally frowned upon.

That Can Be My Next Tweet! (also, Markov Chains)

I found this site via Keriann Martin, and I've been spending far too much time on it. It's a Tweet jumbler called That can be my next tweet! Here were some results it made from my Twitter feed:

(My next business venture)
Individually-wrapped bananas. I could tape record everything they know how to be as 4.99. Done.

(No, really. I clever.)
I really clever. Dreamworks is endearing themselves to buy those are not actually really need to really?

(In which I am apparently stealing from Firefly)
I was afraid of fixing Hagai's emotional arc today like Wash and Inara's banter in which is that?

(Poor novel planning)
From Reading? My mom was present when I think of a puppy? I think it's not a good inciting event...

(I think I know who drank the rum)
Shoot, with the rum gone? S.C. Butler says you're NOT looking for the rewards are not fame.

(A special message for Keriann)
:-D It's okay, Keri. You can compose wonderful stuff like a water bender. I just watch DIEHARD.

Okay, well I think it's fun. If those were lame, or my geekery posts aren't your thing, you might want to step back. I'm about to explain how this thing works.

It's a simple statistical model using something called Markov chains. Basically, you give the model some set of input text (in this case, your Twitter feed), and it uses that to generate a statistically similar output. For example, say you give it a very small input of 3 tweets:

Why is the rum gone?
Firefly is the bomb. Why is it cancelled again?
I'm gone, watching Firefly and drinking rum.

To produce output, first the model will randomly select one of the starting words: Why, Firefly, or I'm. (Why) Then it looks at what words follow that one. In this case, both instances of the word are followed by 'is'. (Why is)

Here's where it gets interesting. After 'is' comes either 'the' (twice) or 'it' (once), so the model will choose 'the' 66.7% of the time and 'it' the other 33.3%. (Why is the) Then again, after 'the' comes either 'rum' (once) or 'bomb' (once). (Why is the bomb)

Finally, when it reaches an end word--gone, again, or rum--it starts a new sentence using one of the random starting words, or it just stops, having produced all the output it's going to produce. (Why is the bomb. Why is the rum. Firefly and drinking rum. I'm gone.)

So there's your useless fact for the day. The model can be made smarter a number of ways, for example by taking into account not just the current word, but also the word before it (e.g. 'is' might be followed by 'it' or 'the', but 'Firefly is' will always be followed by 'the'). Also, notice the tweet jumble ignores @ mentions, URLs, and hashtags.

What are Markov chains good for, other than silly-sounding word jumbles? It turns out they're great for modeling thermodynamics or economics, for prediction in speech recognition software, for auto-generation of music. Spammers use them to insert real-looking paragraphs in an attempt to get past spam filters, and Google's PageRank is defined by Markov chain probabilities.

But I just use them to waste time with insightful tweets about publishing and Jesus: "Okay, how you can just heard of Publishing? Thanks for Jesus or not? Yeah, I'm quite okay with one."

Scams and Cons

Among other oddities, I've been researching con artists for my latest shiny. For some reason, these grab my attention, from The Sting to Matchstick Men to Ocean's Eleven. Here are a few of the more interesting cons I've come across.

In the interest of readability, the target in these cons is named Mark. The con artist is Carl, and his accomplice (if there is one) is Anna.

Dressed as a poor musician, Anna buys something cheap from Mark's restaurant. When the bill arrives, Anna tells Mark she left her wallet elsewhere. She offers to leave her old, beat-up fiddle as collateral, then leaves.

Later, Carl enters the restaurant and spies the fiddle. After asking where Mark got it, Carl says the fiddle is a classic and offers $50,000 for it. Mark can't sell it, of course (it's not his), so Carl leaves his business card and tells him to tell the owner of the fiddle of his offer. Carl leaves.

Anna finally returns with her wallet. If Mark dutifully passes on the message, the con fails (though with no repercussions for Carl or Anna). But Mark is greedy and desperate for $50,000. He offers to buy Anna's fiddle. Anna, of course, refuses, as the fiddle is her work, but she is finally convinced to sell it for a modest sum, say $500.

At that point, Anna and Carl disappear, with a profit of $500, less the cost of the piece-of-junk fiddle now in Mark's hands.

Anna mugs Mark, but Carl shows up just in time to save him. Now Carl has Mark's trust. With a bit of smooth-talking, Carl can get a reward or a favor from Mark--one that would make him more money than simply mugging Mark would have.

This one requires some charisma. Carl claims he can make it rain for Mark's crops (or that his medicine can cure Mark's disease, or that he can change the outcome of a sporting event in Mark's favor, etc). Mark pays up front, and if it actually rains, Mark believes Carl did it. If it doesn't, Carl convinces Mark he needs more time and/or money.

Like Rainmaker, but more about math than charisma. Carl sends out a free tip on some sporting event (say the first game of the NFL playoffs) to many marks. Half of them are told the Chargers will win, the other half, the 49ers. Whatever the outcome, half of Carl's tips will have been right.

The second week of the season, he sends out another tip, but only to those marks who received the winning tip from the week before. Again, half the tips say Team A, half say Team B, and in the end half of them will have been proven right.

He does this each week, until the day before the Super Bowl when he has a very small group of people who have received apparently perfect winning tips for the entire season. That's when he sells the final tip--who will win the Super Bowl--for $1,000 each.

The key to a good con is charisma and legitimacy. Maybe you imagine Carl as a sleazy, underhanded crook--easy to spot because he feels like a liar.


But for a con game to work, Mark has to trust Carl completely (con is short for confidence, after all). That means Carl is going to be the friendliest, most humble person Mark ever met.


Man I can't wait to write that character.

Anyway, what have you been researching lately?

How to Make Deadlines

Most of the time, I don't make deadlines for myself. I'm lazy. Instead I just keep plugging along, figuring 50 words is better than zero. While that's true, it's stupid of me not to set goals. I work BETTER with them, even if it's just to squeeze out another couple sentences because I'm almost there.

Until recently, one of my rationalizations was that writing is subjective. How could I set a deadline for something creative and unpredictable? Turns out that's crap. Two of my previous jobs were both creative (game design) and unpredictable (computer programming), but if I didn't tell my bosses when I thought a task would be done, they'd be pissed.

And you know what? I did do it. I set deadlines for tasks that were impossible to measure, and most of the time I met them. Here are three tips that (hopefully) will help me do it again, without the bosses who taught me these things.

1) Take your initial estimate and double it. It's human nature to underestimate how long a task will take. Unless you have strong data backing you up (e.g. you have written your last three novels in under two months), doubling your estimate will take care of this bias and give you flexibility when the unexpected happens.

2) If a task will take longer than two weeks, break it up into smaller tasks. Two weeks is about as long as most people can accurately plan. When a deadline is farther away, the tendency to procrastinate increases. Breaking a huge task up into smaller ones will keep the necessary pressure on and make your estimates more accurate.

3) Pay attention to how often you beat (or miss) your deadlines. This is how you improve over time. If you usually miss your deadlines, loosen them up a bit. If you usually beat your deadlines by a lot, maybe you don't have to double your estimates anymore. The longer you practice this, the better your estimation skills will be.

Remember, the goal of deadlines is not to make you work faster. The goal is to accurately estimate how long a task will take and to help you work at a consistent pace.

Granted, for most of us (myself included), "a consistent pace" and "faster" are the same thing. When I don't make deadlines, I tend to go on a writing binge followed by weeks of self-justified laziness. There's nothing wrong with taking breaks, but they should be intentional, which mine weren't.

Do you keep deadlines? Got any tips to share for those of us who can't even make them, let alone keep them?