What’s in a (Pen) Name?

This month’s It’s Lit! discusses author names and why they are often pseudonyms.

One of the things not discussed in the video is just how ancient the idea of pen names are and how they are/have been used to denote multiple authors.

Homer’s works were probably written by many people, making Homer a pen name. Lao Tzu was also likely to be an attribution for the Taoist collection Tao Te Ching, based upon a semi-mythical founder of the philosophy and religion. The author favoured by business and military leaders, and people with aspirations to being serial killers, Sun Tzu, is believed to have never existed. Instead, decades or centuries of knowledge was collected under the name.

More recently, we see pen names being taken for collaborations. James SA Corey of The Expanse fame is the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Grant Naylor of Red Dwarf fame is actually Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon write under the name Ilona Andrews for their adventures in urban fantasy. And Tom Clancy is famously half-a-dozen homicidal monkeys taped together.

In all these instances, you can see why a pen name was utilised. Having two authors on the cover of a book is reserved for franchises, like James Paterson and Clive Cussler. The name that will sell the book is at the top in bold, and the flunky who actually wrote it is attributed somewhere they’ll be missed. So writing teams need a pen name. The more historical examples appear to be about attribution to a progenitor or (semi) mythical figure, either to honour the inspiration for later works (particularly from more oral traditions), or to collect work under one banner.

This makes pen names very interesting. Particularly as knowledge of the author/s fades into history. The art outlives the artist. Yet we still try to figure out who they were and how they came to entertain and influence us long after their passing.

Maybe one day our descendants will be arguing whether James Paterson was a real author or just a marketing brand for blooding new authors. Maybe by then the Clancy monkeys might have mellowed out a bit.

To some people, the idea of a pen name seems kind of weird. If I, a writer, am going to put countless hours of hard work and thought into my masterpiece, why wouldn’t I want to put my own name underneath the title?

But from Stephen King to Ben Franklin to …., who had their own secret aliases, to Mark Twain and Dr. Seuss, whose pseudonyms became so famous that they are remembered by their pen names and not their actual names, the nom de plume has a long and proud history in the literary world.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book vs Movie: How Themes Changed in Lord of the Rings

It’s been 4 years since the last post about Lord of the Rings. Let’s do this!

This is a slightly different take on the differences between the book and the film. Wisecrack have looked at the major themes rather than diving into all of the changes made in the adaptation.

When I last discussed the Lord of the Rings series (see here, here, and here), I heaped praise upon the adaptations. They were able to trim down the waffle and create possibly one of the best trilogies in film history.

I hadn’t previously given a lot of thought to the changes in the themes between the book and the films. Now that it has been mentioned, the character arcs in the film should have been more obvious to me. I also find the idea that the movies were (accidentally??) made to be more secular is interesting. Perhaps that change is as much to do with when the book was written versus when the films were made.

Given the desire to reboot and remake every intellectual property in the cupboard these days, maybe the next LOTR movies will be given an Avengers style makeover. Lots of quippy dialogue, everyone has lots of money, several of the lead characters spend time with their shirts off and arms bulging, and somehow there will be product placement everywhere.

Covid Writer’s Blockdown

Something I’ve been musing about for – checks calendar – YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME, IT’S ONLY BEEN A YEAR???

Sorry, anyway, something I’ve been musing about is writing during a pandemic. At the start of lockdowns, I remember hearing the buzz about how there would be a rush of book submissions to agents and publishers with everyone having lots of time to write. All those people who believed they had a novel stuck inside them now had enough time to pull out the scalpel and repeatedly stab themselves until they realised they should have taken their doctor more seriously.

But now we’re coming out the other side of that sunny optimism. Articles are starting to appear discussing how lockdown has equalled blockdown.

Punny terms aside, the article in The Guardian touches on much of what I’ve been thinking about without really understanding the issue. It hints at the problem without really spelling it out.

It all comes down to how the creative space works. You need to be able to let your mind wander off to the plains of [insert metaphor here, something really wankery that fits with us creative types] where your story can take shape. To let your mind wander requires a lack of interruptions, a level and type of noise that isn’t distracting, and you have to not be stressed (see my posts on these topics).

Now, what could possibly be getting in the way of creativity during Covid-19?

This is why the original articles talking about how lockdowns would lead to a splurge of novels always seemed optimistic to me. There were only superficial conditions for creativity, not the actual conditions for it. Just having kids in the house all day would be distracting enough to turn the best of times into the blurst of times. Add in working from home and the noted work creep that has had. Add in not working. Add in working on what is called the front-lines in a great reference to trench warfare – and how far away the generals are holding their tea party. Add in home-schooling. Add in stress, financial or existential. Add in feeling crowded in your workspace and then not leaving that workspace for weeks/months on end.

These aren’t the conditions for writing. These are the conditions for sitting on the couch, huddled under a blanket, mindlessly scrolling through social media in search of that sweet sweet shot of endorphins. Is it any surprise that baking sourdough bread, watching terrible Netflix original movies, and tidying the house became popular in 2020?

I recognised this early on and didn’t put too much pressure on myself to write. Sorry, rather, I didn’t put too much pressure on myself to write quality material. Writing wasn’t the problem. Having it resemble something that wasn’t a desperate cry for help or a tirade that would be combed over by profilers wondering why I’d committed such an unspeakable act was the problem.

I’m sure there are writers out there who haven’t had a problem with lockdowns and creativity. From what I’ve seen, dedicated workspaces for writing and a history of consistent writing habits (and being an empty nester) are helpful. But for the rest of us, creativity has been given all the wrong conditions to thrive, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

Or do be hard on yourself. Maybe we could have learned how to be creative under pressure. Maybe we do suck!

Book vs Movie: Death Note – What’s the Difference?

A bit of a change of pace for this What’s the Difference? with Wisecrack diving into the key difference between the Netflix version of Death Note and the Manga and Anime.

I was first exposed to Death Note via the Japanese live-action film adaptation. It was an intriguing and decent film (with some pretty dodgy CGI for Ryuk). That lead me to watch the Anime TV adaptation, which is excellent, if just a bit heavy handed. I have to admit to reading very little of the Manga because I kinda felt like the Anime had covered it really well.

When I saw they were releasing an American version of Death Note on Netflix, I was all over it. I didn’t expect the dense and loquacious Anime, but was thinking they’d remake the film adaptation with better CGI, no subtitles (because Americans don’t read), and star some former Disney child actors looking to do something gritty but lucrative to make sure the mouse didn’t throw their souls into the volcano under Disney Land. What we got was 90 minutes of garbage.

On the Wikipedia page for the American Death Note film, it is described as “loosely adapted from the Japanese Manga”. The word loosely is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that description.

The above video does a pretty good job of covering what the film does wrong. Not different, wrong. The film really does feel like someone saw that Death Note was successful, so they bought the rights, got a director to read the elevator pitch for the series (kid gets the power to kill people by writing in a demon’s book), and thought that was all they needed to do. Everything about it is a failure to understand what Death Note was about. The characters are shallow and lack any value to the story. The story lacks any substance. And they managed to turn one of the most compelling sequences from the Anime into a chase scene involving the wrong characters.* Because every American film needs a chase scene… In short, they made a bad film and an even worse adaptation.

The main thing to remember about Death Note is that they’ve already made a very good adaptation with the Anime.

* See this video that discusses the scene from the Anime I’m referring to.

How does Netflix’s Death Note adaptation hold up to the original?

The anime version of Death Note, which is a faithful adaptation of the original manga, is one of our all-time favorites. So how does it compare to the not-so-beloved 2017 Netflix version? Let’s find out in this “Book” (aka Anime) vs. Film: Death Note

Dune, The Most Important Sci Fi Series Ever?

This month’s It’s Lit! discusses the series that should have landed in cinemas this year. But 2020 had other ideas, being the giant indestructible spanner thrown into the works of regular functioning society. So let’s just talk about the books instead.

A couple of years ago, I finally got around to reading Dune. I had previously gotten my hands on three of the expanded universe books written by Keven J Anderson and Herbert’s son. Let’s just say that those novels made me question the sanity of my friends who kept recommending the Dune novels.

Fortunately, I got past the ability of publishers to milk a premise long past the death of the cow. Dune was an excellent story.

In my review I made allusions to the point made in the It’s Lit! video about how the first novel has the feel of the rise of a demagogue. Having not gotten to the sequels as yet, the deconstruction of that sound particularly interesting. Dune only hints at the idea of how getting rid of the awful the ruling structures and leaders would be great. Destiny is tied into things a bit too much, while it appears the sequels unravels this idea.

Does this make the original novel and larger series the most important sci-fi ever? I’m not entirely convinced. Some books have inspired real life advances in technology or society (although less of the latter). I’m not sure Dune has had that impact, unless there is a spice I should be using in my cooking I’m unaware of. That isn’t to say Dune isn’t a great book (I’ll hopefully have some insight on the series in coming months) nor that it wasn’t influential in sci-fi. The lone fact that it managed to show that sci-fi could be a bestseller, particularly in hardcover, was a wake-up for the publishers who rejected the first novel such that an auto-repair manual publisher picked it up.

The main issue will be whether the new movie will arrive and not be the disappointment the other adaptations have been.

The planet is Arrakis. Also known as Dune. And y’all, it’s a mess. December of this year, we were supposed to see the arrival of director Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation of the 1965 novel Dune, which had been previously (and rather infamously) brought to life by David Lynch in 1984, and again in a three-part miniseries on the SyFy channel in the early 2000s. Now many sci-fi nerds were both excited and nervous about the new adaptation directed by Villeneuve, but owing to the ongoing plague of eternity, the release has been pushed back to next year. So in lieu of that, y’all have to use this video to tide you over.

What is Dune? Why must the spice flow? And what is with all the sand?

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

The Fiery History of Banned Books

Time to talk about banned books again.

I’ve been talking about banned books here for quite some time. Australia does it, USA has an annual banned books week (1, 2, 3, 4), and without fail, the reasons for banning books are stupid.

If there is any one term to summarise why books are banned it is because something in the book makes someone feel uncomfortable.

Don’t particularly feel like discussing historical and contemporary racism in the USA, especially if this discussion highlights current social and personal failings to address the issue? Then ban Huckleberry Finn (or just drop it from the curriculum) because it uses the N-word.

Does discussion of sexuality and sex make you blush or feel inadequate for only knowing one position (facing west and thinking of England)? Then ban books that mention sex. Or nudity. Or sound like they might be.

Is the book you’re reading treat LGBTQI+ people as (shock horror) people? Then quick, ban that thing before anyone has a chance to empathise with a marginalised group and think that treating them poorly shouldn’t be happening.

Since at least 213 BCE, book burnings have been a reaction to the power of the written word. When roasting paper in a giant circle went out of style (at least in the intellectual sphere), the governments would take it upon itself to ban books. However, when we talk about book bannings today, we are usually discussing a specific choice made by individual schools, school districts, and libraries made in response to the moralistic outrage of some group. This, while still hotly-contested and controversial, is still nothing in comparison to the ways books have been removed, censored, and outright destroyed in the past. So on that happy note, let’s … explore how the seemingly innocuous book has survived centuries of the ban hammer.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Can robots write?

Machine learning produces dazzling results, but some assembly is still required

Shutterstock

Alexandra Louise Uitdenbogerd, RMIT University

You might have seen a recent article from The Guardian written by “a robot”. Here’s a sample:

I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”. But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions. I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column. My brain is boiling with ideas!

Read the whole thing and you may be astonished at how coherent and stylistically consistent it is. The software used to produce it is called a “generative model”, and they have come a long way in the past year or two.

But exactly how was the article created? And is it really true that software “wrote this entire article”?

How machines learn to write

The text was generated using the latest neural network model for language, called GPT-3, released by the American artificial intelligence research company OpenAI. (GPT stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer.)

OpenAI’s previous model, GPT-2, made waves last year. It produced a fairly plausible article about the discovery of a herd of unicorns, and the researchers initially withheld the release of the underlying code for fear it would be abused.

But let’s step back and look at what text generation software actually does.

Machine learning approaches fall into three main categories: heuristic models, statistical models, and models inspired by biology (such as neural networks and evolutionary algorithms).

Heuristic approaches are based on “rules of thumb”. For example, we learn rules about how to conjugate verbs: I run, you run, he runs, and so on. These approaches aren’t used much nowadays because they are inflexible.




Read more:
From Twitterbots to VR: 10 of the best examples of digital literature


Writing by numbers

Statistical approaches were the state of the art for language-related tasks for many years. At the most basic level, they involve counting words and guessing what comes next.

As a simple exercise, you could generate text by randomly selecting words based on how often they normally occur. About 7% of your words would be “the” – it’s the most common word in English. But if you did it without considering context, you might get nonsense like “the the is night aware”.

More sophisticated approaches use “bigrams”, which are pairs of consecutive words, and “trigrams”, which are three-word sequences. This allows a bit of context and lets the current piece of text inform the next. For example, if you have the words “out of”, the next guessed word might be “time”.

This happens with the auto-complete and auto-suggest features when we write text messages or emails. Based on what we have just typed, what we tend to type and a pre-trained background model, the system predicts what’s next.

While bigram- and trigram-based statistical models can produce good results in simple situations, the best recent models go to another level of sophistication: deep learning neural networks.

Imitating the brain

Neural networks work a bit like tiny brains made of several layers of virtual neurons.

A neuron receives some input and may or may not “fire” (produce an output) based on that input. The output feeds into neurons in the next layer, cascading through the network.

The first artificial neuron was proposed in 1943 by US neuroscientists Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, but they have only become useful for complex problems like generating text in the past five years.

To use neural networks for text, you put words into a kind of numbered index. You can use the number to represent a word, so for example 23,342 might represent “time”.

Neural networks do a series of calculations to go from sequences of numbers at the input layer, through the interconnected “hidden layers” inside, to the output layer. The output might be numbers representing the odds for each word in the index to be the next word of the text.

In our “out of” example, number 23,432 representing “time” would probably have much better odds than the number representing “do”.




Read more:
Friday essay: a real life experiment illuminates the future of books and reading


What’s so special about GPT-3?

GPT-3 is the latest and best of the text modelling systems, and it’s huge. The authors say it has 175 billion parameters, which makes it at least ten times larger than the previous biggest model. The neural network has 96 layers and, instead of mere trigrams, it keeps track of sequences of 2,048 words.

The most expensive and time-consuming part of making a model like this is training it – updating the weights on the connections between neurons and layers. Training GPT-3 would have used about 262 megawatt-hours of energy, or enough to run my house for 35 years.

GPT-3 can be applied to multiple tasks such as machine translation, auto-completion, answering general questions, and writing articles. While people can often tell its articles are not written by human authors, we are now likely to get it right only about half the time.

The robot writer

But back to how the article in The Guardian was created. GPT-3 needs a prompt of some kind to start it off. The Guardian’s staff gave the model instructions and some opening sentences.

This was done eight times, generating eight different articles. The Guardian’s editors then combined pieces from the eight generated articles, and “cut lines and paragraphs, and rearranged the order of them in some places”, saying “editing GPT-3’s op-ed was no different to editing a human op-ed”.

This sounds about right to me, based on my own experience with text-generating software. Earlier this year, my colleagues and I used GPT-2 to write the lyrics for a song we entered in the AI Song Contest, a kind of artificial intelligence Eurovision.

AI song Beautiful the World, by Uncanny Valley.

We fine-tuned the GPT-2 model using lyrics from Eurovision songs, provided it with seed words and phrases, then selected the final lyrics from the generated output.

For example, we gave Euro-GPT-2 the seed word “flying”, and then chose the output “flying from this world that has gone apart”, but not “flying like a trumpet”. By automatically matching the lyrics to generated melodies, generating synth sounds based on koala noises, and applying some great, very human, production work, we got a good result: our song, Beautiful the World, was voted the winner of the contest.

Co-creativity: humans and AI together

So can we really say an AI is an author? Is it the AI, the developers, the users or a combination?

A useful idea for thinking about this is “co-creativity”. This means using generative tools to spark new ideas, or to generate some components for our creative work.

Where an AI creates complete works, such as a complete article, the human becomes the curator or editor. We roll our very sophisticated dice until we get a result we’re happy with.




Read more:
Computing gives an artist new tools to be creative


The Conversation


Alexandra Louise Uitdenbogerd, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Let the soul dangle’: how mind-wandering spurs creativity

The Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer was regarded by his friends as a master in the art of mind-wandering. He could become ‘enwrapped’ in his own pleasant reflections, wrote the German humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, at which times Dürer ‘would seem the happiest person on Earth’.

Many of us are familiar with mind-wandering in a number of guises: procrastination, reflection, meditation, self-flagellation, daydreaming. But while some mental meandering seems fruitful, on other occasions it has the unmistakeable bite of a bad habit, something that holds us back from reaching our full potential. Reverie can be a reprieve from reality and a font of inspiration, yes. But equally familiar is the mind’s tendency to devolve into sour and fruitless rumination when left to its own devices, especially when we’re in the grip of depression, anxiety or obsession.

Can art itself be a useful catalyst for nudging us towards more helpful emotions and mental states? Whether in the form of literature, rap or abstract oil painting, many of us know we can improve the tenor of our thoughts by contemplating art. The Germans have a lovely saying for the benefits of keeping an idle (or idling) mind: ‘die Seele baumeln lassen’, meaning ‘let the soul dangle’. Now, the emerging science of neuroaesthetics is beginning to reveal the biological processes that sit behind such ‘dangling’.

To begin with, contemporary cognitive science has presented a vast amount of evidence that mental states send and receive ripples of cause and effect across the rest of the body. Think how your mouth might water when you look at a photo of a tasty chocolate cake, or how tense you feel when watching a suspenseful TV drama. Thoughts, feelings and emotions, whether aimless or deliberate, are a somatic cascade of multiple biological events. And it’s this cascade that art somehow taps into.

Galen, the second-century Greek physician, was well aware of the connection between mind and body. He believed that mind-wandering was the result of physical and mental lassitude, and so prescribed a regime of logic and hard, structured work to avoid it. ‘Laziness breeds humours of the blood!’ Galen is believed to have said. The assumption here is that concentration is a kind of psychobiological discipline, something we have to work at to stop our wayward minds and bodies from veering out of our control.

However, there’s an even older tradition from Ancient Greece that views daydreaming as a boost to our wellbeing. Galen’s Hippocratic forebears argued that mind-wandering was in fact the best strategy for guiding us back into healthy states. And modern-day research in developmental psychology has shown that children and adults who engage in certain kinds of mind-wandering actually display more cognitive flexibility, and perform better when called upon to exercise ‘executive’ functions such as problem-solving, planning and managing their own thoughts and feelings.

Neuroimaging – a method of ‘seeing’ the brain in action – has started to reveal the brain processes that correlate with these mental states. Far from falling idle, the brains of people asked to stay still and think of nothing in particular continue to fizz and pop in patterns of activity known as the default mode network (DMN). These activations are closely related to those engaged during self-referential thinking, the experience of the self, and intuition. Moreover, they are observed alongside activation patterns in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – the area typically associated with those important ‘executive’ functions. Strikingly, the greater the strength of the relationship between these two domains of the brain – intuition and executive function – the more creativity a person tends to display when asked to solve a problem. Brain scans demonstrate correlation, not causation; but even so, they hint at the possibility that reverie might help to prime us to think both productively and creatively by somehow cementing our sense of self, drawing body and mind together in a train of thought and biological action.

Art can be a catalyst for this sort of reverie, as well as a tool to regulate and control it. Both the basic properties of art (whether it’s in a minor or major key; the colours of a painting), as well as the complexities of its content (the lyrics of a song, the facial expression of a person in a painting), can induce reflections and emotions – and will invariably affect our body’s physiology. Thinking creatively, and engaging with works of art, have both been correlated with DMN activity – especially when people report that the aesthetic experience was particularly strong and meaningful to them. In these moments, our encounter with art seems to trigger an autobiographical daydreaming, a flow experience with a ‘me factor’.

Of course, art can also provoke unhelpful ruminative urges. Listening over and again to that song might not help you get over a heartbreak. But art-induced sadness doesn’t always make you slide into negative mental loops. In fact, art can help us adapt to the immediate source of pain by acting as a prop for emotional catharsis. We all know the strange, pleasurable, consoling feeling that comes after having a good cry. This experience appears to be precipitated by the release of the hormone prolactin, which has also been associated with a boosted immune system, as well as bonding with other people. The arts are a relatively safe space in which to have such an emotional episode, compared with the real-life emotional situations that make us cry. Even sad or otherwise distressing art can be used to trigger a kind of positive, psychobiological cleansing via mind-wandering.

History is full of examples of the relationship between reverie and creativity. Here is one, idiosyncratic example: the German art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) organised his library of 50,000 books with the aim of promoting mind-wandering. His collection was the kernel for the Warburg Institute in London, where we now work as researchers. Each of the library’s four floors is devoted to one of four themes – image, word, orientation, and action – and separated into sub-themes, such as ‘magic and science’, ‘transmission of classical texts’, and ‘art history’. Guided by Warburg’s ideas about what makes a good neighbour for a book, this unique approach to classification allows a withered 17th-century medical tome to cluster next to texts on mathematics, the cosmos and harmony. The shelves promote intellectual serendipity as you skip from the book (or thought) you thought you wanted, to another intriguing idea or topic that hadn’t even occurred to you.

Art appreciation is held in high esteem in most cultures and societies. It is often portrayed as a laborious cognitive exercise, but this is to forget that the arts provide an opportunity for intense emotional experiences, positive mind-wandering and psychobiological self-regulation. Dürer perhaps captures the activity of such inactivity best of all. ‘If a man devotes himself to art,’ he wrote, ‘much evil is avoided that happens otherwise if one is idle.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Julia Christensen, Guido Giglioni & Manos Tsakiris

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
https://aeon.co/ideas/let-the-soul-dangle-how-mind-wandering-spurs-creativity

Books to musicals

This month It’s Lit! looks at the source material that helps people burst into song.

It’s gotta be said: I’m not a fan of musicals.

Maybe it was the “Andrew Llyod Webber’s Greatest Hits” tape that infected our car stereo during long trips as a child. Maybe it is that for every good song in a musical there is three to twenty average to terrible songs. Maybe it’s that my idea of a musical begins and ends with Elvis movies (We’re Gonna Win This Race).

It appears clear that my appreciation of musicals is somewhat shaped by poor childhood experiences. These scars are real!!

Regardless, it is still interesting to see how the adaptations of books are very important in the creation of musicals. The writing process is obviously very complicated to take a book and not only capture the story in a visual form, but also write songs that don’t make you take a power drill to your ears.

Perhaps transforming books into musicals is the peak of book adaptations.

Some say that theater is dead, and that’s probably because most playhouses the world over are closed at the moment owing to a worldwide pandemic. and yet the musical lives on… on Disney plus — as the nation has been rapt with a filmed version of the Broadway smash hit, Hamilton.

This had us come to the realization that a lot of the bread and butter of musical theater is built off of books! And so, like every television program that starts looking for new ideas, it has finally come to this: The It’s Lit! Musical episode

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book vs Movie: Total Recall – What’s the Difference?

In this month’s What’s the Difference, CineFix look at Total Recall* and Phillip K Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

Can you believe it has been 30 years since the release of Total Recall? At least nobody invented Johnny Cabs in that time.

Many years ago I wrote a post discussing my thoughts about the differences between the first Total Recall movie, the remake with Kate Beckinsale (and some guy called Co-lin Faarill), and the book/short story. In it, I talked about how quickly the movies diverge from the book, essentially before the end of the first act (around the inciting incident). And then I went on to spend several thousand words complaining about the lack of massive biceps and extra boobs in the remake.

For me, this comparison of book to movie and remake shows just how far you can diverge from the source material whilst still retaining a lot of similarities. It also shows the strength of the original premise from Phillip K Dick, because even the remake of Total Recall didn’t completely suck, despite having Len Wiseman involved.**

I’m sure by the time the fortieth anniversary for the original movie rolls around, Hollywood will have released at least two remakes, a TV show, a Mars Lander tie-in short movie with a digitally recreated young Arnie, and a triple breast augmentation procedure.

* The first one, not the bland remake with the genocide of robots.

** The remake mainly suffers from being just that bit soulless. It doesn’t feel like anyone involved cared that much about the film, just that it was a good solid paycheque. As a result, they churned out a good solid action movie that is largely forgettable. Another one in the long line of perfectly adequate movies that make you feel like you’ve been robbed of the opportunity for something better. Not bad enough to justify your hate, but not good enough that you’ll forgive its flaws.

Some News:

I apologise for the lack of updates lately. I have several book reviews I haven’t gotten to, a couple of posts I’ve contemplated and then given up on, and a few of my regular posts (like this Book vs Movie series) that I haven’t published. This is partly sheer laziness and partly due to having taken on a freelance writing job for a magazine due out later this month. I’ll attempt to get back to weekly posts soon.

The Constructed Languages of JRR Tolkien

Let’s have a look at making up languages for stories.

I don’t know how I feel about constructed languages in fiction. On the one hand, it can be a great part of worldbuilding, something that adds another layer of realism or interest to the story. On the other hand, it’s a fake language that I’m going to skip reading because I can’t understand it BECAUSE IT’S MADE UP AND NO ONE BUT THE AUTHOR UNDERSTANDS IT.

Obviously, a lot of thought goes into worldbuilding, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy. Part of that will be trying to come up with interesting places that naturally derive the conflicts of the story. Where would it be realistic for a clan of ninja pirates to run a soup kitchen for homeless astronauts? What sort of world would allow a conflict between the soup kitchen and a basketweaving franchise run by outcast chartered accountants?* These are not easy things to construct in a satisfying and consistent/rational way.

Language is a natural extension of this worldbuilding. The ninja pirates are clearly not going to have the same slang or language as the chartered accountants. But they still have to be understood by the homeless astronauts. Does this require a language though? Does it even require rational slang? Is it going to feel natural to Ar and Eye through dialogue or is it going to feel annoying and distracting?

When all said and done, is this just backstory that doesn’t need to appear on the page? Often what happens is that because someone has put so much time and effort into creating a language (or other worldbuilding antics) they feel the desperate need to make sure every excruciating detail is given to the reader. Some readers may enjoy tolerate this, but others may sign the offending author up to be the chief target holder at the World Beginners’ Archery Contest.

As with everything in writing, good execution is key. Especially if you want to avoid just the execution.

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Funny meme is inaccurate**

Tolkien is widely regarded as the most influential author on the fantasy genre… period. But one of the less-discussed aspects of his work is the way Tolkien used constructed language in his writing.

Nowadays authors are constantly making up words and languages for the worlds they build, but Tolkien was unique in that he constructed languages first, and then created worlds so his fictional languages would have somewhere to live.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

This channel has an interesting series on writing craft and worldbuilding. The most recent video covered social structures that has some nice parallels with language.

* The answer to both of these questions is, of course, Florida. I don’t want this to sound mean to Floridians, but the latest “Florida man/woman” arrests news articles suggest if there is a place anything could happen, it is Florida.

** Had to share the meme, but a friend of a friend pointed out it is inaccurate, and that Amon Amarth are awesome:

Russell K
Yeah, hate to be that guy, but Treebeard had a name that “was growing all the time” – Treebeard was shorthand for hobbitish convenience. Tolkien had multiple names for most things, and it’s disingenuous for the OP to pick on just one. Mount Doom, for example, was Orodruin and Amon Amarth, a name so evocative it was co-opted by a melodic death metal band.

Book vs Movie: The Kingsmen – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix looks at The Kingsmen and it’s comic origins in Mark Millar’s comic.

While I can remember reading Mark Millar’s Secret Service, I can’t remember having enjoyed it. I’m not actually sure if I read the whole first run. I do remember thinking that it was an interesting if average take on the suave spy genre. 

Needless to say, I was somewhat surprised when The Kingsmen arrived in cinemas. Secret Service didn’t exactly strike me as worth adapting. Bond had been reinvigorated, Vin Diesel’s XXX had come and gone*, and Austin Powers had mined a couple of jokes to death over three movies. Did we need this movie?

Yes.

And it was a surprisingly good movie. Not to mention, it also manages to be an adaptation that, I think, improves upon the source material. I think the “Kingsmen” aspect, as mentioned in the video, was certainly part of what elevated the movie above the source material.

I think if there is anything to learn from Secret Service being adapted, it is that a good adaptation will fully realise the potential of the source material. That doesn’t require faithfulness, but rather an understanding of the themes and ideas.

* And then came back again. Why, I’m not entirely sure.

How much do we spend on reading?

A few years ago I published a table from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wow, you sure know how to party!

Thanks.

Anyway, that table highlighted how much Americans spent on reading per year. Because I’m a Nerdus scientificus, for fun I decided to collate the stats in a spreadsheet and create some graphs.

You are just one big party animal, aren’t you!

I certainly am.

So the first chart is a summary of inflation-adjusted US income, expenditure, entertainment spend, and reading spend by the average “consumer unit”. A consumer unit is obviously the economists’ way of referring to a living, breathing, thinking, cog in the economic machine. Apply the appropriate conversion factors for your country.*

Untitled-1

As you can see, US income and spending haven’t really changed in two decades in real terms. That’s right, despite more wealth having been created in the economy since 2000, the average cog in the machine hasn’t seen a change to their take-home pay. Sidenote: I noticed union membership is rather low in the US as well. Might be related.

Over that same time period, the spending on reading has declined. The line for entertainment wasn’t particularly clear in the above chart, so I made this second one.

Untitled-2

It could be argued that entertainment spend is roughly static over time, while reading spend is clearly declining in real terms. But the question is, what does this mean?

The obvious conclusion that Guardian columnists and other industry wonks will make is that (choose one or all to write your opinion column today!):

  • Kids these days are playing Facepage and Tweeters rather than reading books.
  • People have short attention spans and can’t handle reading decent books.
  • Too many people are Netflixing and Chilling.
  • Something derisive about gaming.
  • Blame falling education standards or immigrants or something.

Yes, the media landscape is more diverse now. This is a true fact, not an alternative one. But that doesn’t really explain the decline. Because reading also became cheaper over that time period. Amazon entered the market, heavily discounting paper books and shipped directly from the warehouse. E-books became a thing, which again changed the cost of buying books.

So you have to question how good a metric spending is to reading. Unless you are writing an industry opinion piece.

I also mentioned the lack of change in household income in real terms. It would be interesting to dig up some figures on financial stress for the average household over this same time period. And I’d posit that entertainment is more likely to involve passive forms, like television, than active forms like reading when stress is higher.

Another metric I’ve discussed before is the reported reading figures. Some of those figures suggest people are actually reading more now, while other figures of how much that is are less encouraging.

Ideally, the industry figures would be more transparent. That way someone could actually crunch the data and to track average individual book consumption and reading totals over time. Then we could put some opinion columnists out of work.

* By this I mean look at the currency conversions and think about whether you reckon your country-people would spend more or less of their household earnings on reading than an average American. More. The answer is going to be more. We’ve seen their leaders.

The Case for Fan Fiction

It’s Lit! is back and they have picked an easy subject to discuss: how Fan-Fic is actually awesome.

I wouldn’t really say I got my start writing fan fiction. Sure, I wrote some stories loosely based upon MacGyver and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But I’d say they were more homages to… Okay, they were fan-fic. Who am I kidding?

That paragraph essentially sums up what I used to think of fan-fic. I appreciated it, recognised it as a legitimate creative outlet, that it could be great fun to write, and that authors should be proud to have people passionate enough about the work that they are being inspired to write their own stuff. But at the same time, I saw it as what beginners did. It was really just for the writers, not readers. That it wasn’t “legit” writing.

It wasn’t worthy!

When Anne Rice was issuing cease and desist letters to her biggest fans, I thought she was a fool. What sort of idiot honestly thinks these fans are somehow ruining her characters and books?

But underlying this argument was the idea that none of those fan-fic stories was any good. Rice’s characters were safe from harm because no hack would be taken seriously compared to the internationally bestselling author. Those stories weren’t even available in real books.*

Then I had somewhat of an epiphany. An author friend made the argument against fan-fic from the premise of copyright and how fan-fic was low quality. They made a sizeable amount of their income from tie-in novels, the books that are licensed to a movie or TV show IP, and written to satiate fans who can’t get enough of the adventures. So you could see their points as defending their meal ticket. But after they made that argument, a professor of writing, who was a published author and also wrote tie-ins, pointed out how they also wrote fan-fic and how this wasn’t about copyright. This was about fans expressing themselves.

It is easy to say that copyright is being breached, despite the clear acknowledgement by everyone involved that fan-fic isn’t canon and isn’t even “sold” to people. No one picks up a Chewie and Yoda slashfic and thinks, “Can’t wait to see this will be in the prequel trilogy movies.” It is also easy to say that the people writing it are all hacks. Except we not only know that isn’t true (e.g. the above writing professor and award-winning authors mentioned in the video). And if these fans are working hard at writing lots of fan-fic, they are bound to become good at it.

So now I stand back and say: Fan-fic is legit.

I mean, where else will I read a steamy sex scene with cries of linguistically impaired pleasure and Wookie growls?

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For years writers of fan fiction were shamed, the butt of jokes, and even subject to copyright litigation. However, in the past few years, with the fan fiction writers of today becoming the published mainstream authors of today the past time is a celebrated benchmark of one’s climb to publication.

In the season two premiere of It’s Lit, we explore what happened and how fan fiction writers were able to come out of the proverbial closet of shame.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

* It was the 90s. If it wasn’t in print at your local bookstore, it didn’t exist. It certainly wasn’t going to overturn the canon.

Book vs Movie: Locke and Key – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference? looks at the comic book Locke and Key and its new Netflix series adaptation.

Okay, so not a movie as such. Get off my back!

I’ve had Locke and Key sitting in my digital TBR pile for ages. When they released the first omnibus, I got a copy and then proceeded to not read it. This was a problem with earlier digital formats of comics, as they had a habit of not working with the reader programs (I’ve discussed this before with Matt Hawkins’ comic series).

So it was only recently that I got motivated to read the first volume. And it was fine.

There is a lot going on with the story, with the world-building, and establishing the characters. It moves pretty quickly as well. And the art-work is on point to support the story (there’s a bit where an antagonist sees one of the supernatural characters in a photo that could only be in a visual medium). But I kinda wanted to read it as a novel rather than as a comic.

Development of a TV series has been in the works since the end of the second run (around late 2009). Fox had a pilot (2010), Hulu had a pilot (2017), and now Netflix has thrown money at something for Stranger Things fans. I mean, how could they not when it is written by Stephen King’s son?

I’m yet to see the series*, but I have an inkling that Locke and Key will work terrifically as a TV series. There is plenty of material to work with, there is depth (part of why I wanted a novel version, to spell it out), and the supernatural elements will be fun to see brought to life.

* This must be a first. I’ve read the book first and not had a chance to see the adaptation. Probably because we cancelled Netflix…

Book vs Movie: Eyes Wide Shut – What’s the Difference?

If you like Christmas movies, then CineFix have a book and movie for you in this month’s What’s the Difference?

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At the risk of offending Kubrick fans, I must confess that I do not care for his movies.

Now, before you launch into a flurry of keyboard mashing, I’m not saying that Kubrick is a bad filmmaker. It is clear that he was an amazing visual storyteller. But as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve always found Kubrick films to be somewhat bland.

That said, I can appreciate what he is trying to do with his films… Usually, this appreciation comes after some wonks with a film degree walk me through it (see video below). But that doesn’t really increase my enjoyment of his films.

As to the book, I’ve not read this one. It doesn’t sound like the sort of novel I would normally read, but would probably offer a more clear understanding of the themes of the story.

The top 10 books people claim to read but haven’t

There’s a famous quote from one of my favourite thinkers, Bertrand Russell, on reading. He posits that the two reasons for reading are for enjoyment and that you can boast about having read something.

quote-there-are-two-motives-for-reading-a-book-one-that-you-enjoy-it-the-other-that-you-can-boast-bertrand-russell-263575

Let’s face it, he was correct.

I’ve previously discussed the reading statistics that show we primarily read for enjoyment but also seem to feel obliged to read other books (particularly literary titles). Actually, I’ve discussed this issue a lot. The anecdata back this up, with early e-reader adopters being the romance and erotica fans who could now read on the bus to work. We just don’t like to be seen enjoying the books we enjoy.

So it should come as no surprise that people like to pretend they’ve read certain books. The Guardian posted this survey of readers (although I can’t find the source) listing off everyone’s favourite reading cred books, you know, the ones you claim to have read but fell asleep at page 2.

A recent survey of 2,000 people suggests that the majority of people pretend to have read classic books in order to appear more intelligent, with more than half of those polled displaying unread books on their shelves and 3% slipping a highbrow cover on books they’d rather not be seen reading in public.

The books most likely to be lied about are, naturally, the books most often filmed, talked about and studied in school (some of the respondents must have been lying since GCSE onwards). Are any of them in your pretend-I’ve-read/never-finished pile, or do you save your literary fibbing for Finnegans Wake and Infinite Jest? Share your guilty secrets below.

1) 1984 by George Orwell (26%)

I have actually read 1984. Some people like to announce that 1984 is our current reality, which shows they haven’t read it or are fond of hyperbole. I enjoyed it, but I can see how people would battle to read this one. Worth a read if only to see how people seem to mash 1984 and Brave New World together.

2) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (19%)

I got to about page 8 of War and Peace. I have no intention of revisiting it. People always talk about battling through it in small chunks because it is such an important and blah blah blah book. If it was really important it wouldn’t have been so boring as to necessitate reading it in small chunks.

3) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (18%)

I watched the old black and white film, does that count? No? Oh well, I don’t care.

4) The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (15%)

I’ve read this novel many times and hated it every single time.

Why reread a novel you hate?

Well, reader surrogate, The Catcher in the Rye is one of those “classics”. You’re meant to love it, or feel moved, or something. Smart people like it, so I must, ipso facto, be a dummy for not enjoying the brilliance of this book. So every 5 or so years I feel the urge to see if I missed something the other times I read it.

I don’t think I missed anything.

Although, John Green did manage to convince me of its literary merits via Crash Course Literature, not that I’ll bother revisiting this novel.

5) A Passage to India by EM Forster (12%)

I can honestly say I’ve never heard of this book.

6) Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (11%)

Okay, okay, I’ll come clean. I only read this book after seeing the first movie in the theatre. In my defence, I tried reading the Hobbit when I was younger and then realised I had so much more to live for and stopped reading.

I really enjoyed the book, but it was long and waffly and I can see why others wouldn’t actually finish it. The narrative structure in parts is also poorly done. In a modern book, those separate threads would be told concurrently rather than one thread at a time with big jumps backward for the next thread. Unlike some 1,000 page novels, this one is worth a look.

7) To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (10%)

I don’t claim to have read this one, but I haven’t actually gotten around to reading it yet either. I’ve even got two copies, a DTB and an ebook.

8) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (8%)

[Insert joke about book title being equivalent to reading said book]

9) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (8%)

I’m going to read the zombie version. I know, I know. Sacrilege.

10) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5%)

I’m not really interested in reading this. My wife isn’t a fan, but my sister is. No offence to my sister, but I’m taking my wife’s recommendation not to bother.

Bonus: Infinite Jest.

I recently started reading Infinite Jest and gave up. I mean, a book weighing in at one thousand pages had better have a gripping/engaging first chapter to encourage me. Wallace was lauded for this novel, but I think it needed to get to the damned point.*

tldr

The point I’d like to make is that there is no reason to read any of these books. Sure, some of them are great. You might enjoy some or all of them. You might hate some or all of them. But you don’t need to pretend to have read them.

And it is worth noting that many literary influences transcend their medium. You don’t necessarily have to read a book to have a working knowledge of the plot or themes. I’m reminded of a scene from Star Trek where one character criticises Picard for chasing his white whale. Picard acknowledges the point by quoting a relevant line from the book, a book that character hadn’t read. In that moment, despite Picard’s encyclopedic knowledge of the book, he needed someone else to point out the moral of the story.

Enjoy reading. Don’t feel as though you have to read.

* I’m not the only one who thought this:

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was a definitely finite jest: I think there might have been a good novel encased somewhere in all that dross of self-indulgence, like a Michaelangelo statue trapped in a slab of marble, but Wallace’s editor evidently couldn’t be bothered to chisel the thing out.

Serif and sans-serif fonts

Lately, I’ve been playing the submission game.

Let me rephrase that. I’m not talking BDSM, I’ll save that for another day. I’ve been submitting stories to various magazines. As part of this game – and it is a numbers game – there is the time-honoured tradition of every magazine having a slightly different requirement for one of the three standard manuscript formats. Which got me thinking about really sexy things, like kerning, justification, line spacing, indents, and whether my big capital I wears a hat or not. Reread that sentence with an erotic voice, and don’t you dare say bananas yet!

Now, I’m not an expert in formatting, layout, and graphic design. But since I have a blog on the internet, I’m apparently required to have an opinion on everything. Fortunately, I do actually have some experience with writing, editing, formatting, and laying out newsletters, ebooks, and webpages. Some of them even looked okay and used the correct their they’re there. I’ve even found myself in arguments defending the use of both serif and sans-serif fonts, which is like arguing over what colour black you want to wear to a metal concert (that’s a no-brainer: the darker one).

Anyway, there are plenty of anal-retentive science nerds like me who have gone and done research into what fonts work best for which applications. There are actually a surprising number of research studies on fonts and readability.

First, let’s define what is meant by serif and sans-serif fonts. (From Scribe Consulting) Consider the following characters. The first is set in Georgia, a lovely serif font. The second is set in Verdana, an easy-to-read sans-serif font.

serif sans-serif
    serif     sans serif

Notice the small decorative flourishes at the ends of the strokes in the left character. These are called serif. The right character does not have these strokes and is said to be a sans-serif font. Sans is the French word for without. So I could be currently sans-pants. Or I might be serif-pants.

The most common examples of these two font types are Times New Roman (serif) and Arial (sans-serif). Bleeding Cowboys would be an example of an overused serif font that is for try-hards, whilst Comic Sans is an overused sans-serif that shows a lack of taste.

Now there are some simple rules of thumb when it comes to using serif and sans-serif fonts, which are backed up by science. The first rule is that thumbs only hit the space bar once. The second rule is:

Use serif for printed work

Serif fonts are usually easier to read in printed works than sans-serif fonts.

This is because the serif makes the individual letters more distinctive and easier for our brains to recognise quickly. Without the serif, the brain has to spend longer identifying the letter because the shape is less distinctive.

The commonly used convention for printed work is to use a serif font for the body of the work. A sans-serif font is often used for headings, table text, captions, and ransom notes.

The third rule is:

Use sans-serif for online work

An important exception must be made for the web. Printed works generally have a resolution of at least 1,000 dots per inch; whereas, computer monitors are typically around 100 dots per inch. Even Apple’s much-vaunted retina display is only around 300 dots per inch — much lower than print.

This lower-resolution can make small serif characters harder to read than the equivalent sans-serif characters because of their more complex shapes. Yes, this does give you an excuse to buy a 4K monitor for your computer. Go nuts.

It follows that small on-screen text is better in a sans-serif font like Verdana or Arial.

Further reading: http://alexpoole.info/blog/which-are-more-legible-serif-or-sans-serif-typefaces/

Cool infographic:

serif-vs-sans-serif

Infographic from here.

7 Tips on How to Research Your Novel

I’m just going to say it: I’m comfortable with the label of nerd.

More specifically, I’m a Nerdius scientifica.

Being a nerd is more accepted nowadays, what with our bulging brains and chiselled knowledge. And the reality is that us nerds have a lot to offer, like research skills.

Writing requires a lot of research and writers generally fall into two categories in this regard: those who need to learn how to research, and those who took up writing to justify those dodgy topics they’ve researched. This post will hopefully help the former. But if anyone does want to know how much slack rope you need to hang someone correctly from your homemade gallows, I have a spreadsheet calculator for you.

I stole am reblogging a post from Writer’s Digest with a few of my own comments.

Ernest Hemingway said writers should develop a built-in bullshit detector. I imagine one reason he said that is because readers have their own BS indicators. They can tell when we writers are winging it. We have to know well the worlds in which our characters act. Readers don’t have to believe the story really happened, but they need to believe it could have happened. So with that in mind, I offer a few thoughts on research for fiction.

I’d argue everyone should have a BS detector. [Insert topical political joke here] But the important point to note is that a writer can’t be an expert in all topics, yet readers are likely to come from a wide background. So if you haven’t done your research thoroughly, readers who are well versed in a field will notice, which can ruin the book for them.

1) You can’t do too much research.  In the military, we often say time spent gathering intelligence is seldom wasted. The same concept applies in writing a novel. You never know what little detail will give a scene the ring of authenticity. In a college creative writing class, I wrote about how a scuba diver got cut underwater, and in the filtered light at depth, the blood appeared green. Though the professor didn’t think much of that particular story, he did concede he liked that detail. In fact, he said, “The author must have seen that.” And indeed, I had.

This point is both true and false.

Gee, thanks Tyson.

You’re welcome!

Okay, what I mean is that while you need to have done enough research to be able to include those little details that sell the story, at some point, you have to stop researching and write the damn thing. Maybe you want to be able to accurately describe what arterial spray looks like for your serial killer novel, but you can only research that for so long before you need to put down the knife and pick up your pen.

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2) You can write what you know. We’ve all heard it before. Experience may be a cruel teacher, but it is a thorough one, and experience is the purest form of research. Things you’ve done in life can inform your writing in surprising ways, even if your characters aren’t doing those same things. When I watch the old Star Trek shows, I can tell the creator of those stories knew something about how a military flight crew works together. He understood the dynamics of a chain of command, how a commander learns the strengths and weaknesses of his team, how those team members communicate and work together. Turns out that Gene Roddenberry flew B-17 bombers in World War II. Roddenberry, of course, never flew a starship. But he knew from experience how the crew of a starship might interact.

Soooo, about that serial killer novel… Pure research. No experience. I promise.

Writing what you know is one of those bits of advice authors receive that you can honestly shrug your shoulders at. It’s not untrue. If you’ve been involved in something as a professional you will know it better than anyone trying to research it. But it can also be severely limiting.

Take the example used. If Star Trek understands how military flight crews operated, why did it insist on sending the most important crew members on the dangerous away missions? Aside from the chance to shag the aliens, obviously.

I think the more helpful advice is seeking help from people who know. Go to forums, discussion groups, ask friends, put out the call on social media, cultivate contacts. The internet makes us closer than ever to experts, why limit yourself to what you’ve done?

3) You can do research on the cheap. If you can’t visit an exotic location, you can pick up the phone and ask questions. The worst that can happen is somebody thinks you’re crazy and they hang up. Then you just call somebody else. (Believe me; I used to be a reporter, and I’ve learned a lot by asking questions.) You can visit a museum, or a museum’s website. Develop an eye for small details.

While you CAN do research on the cheap you COULD still use your writing as an excuse for that holiday to an exotic location.* For your art. And tax write-offs.

The internet is the cheapest and best research tool ever invented. Things like Google Street View, location webpages, travel blogs, and that person you went to high school with who fancies themselves as an Influencer’s Instagram feed, all offer information from your desk. No travel required. The same applies to any other aspect of research.

But be careful. Your Influencer friend might be distorting the truth for clicks. That travel blog may have been paid content from a tourism company. And Google Street View may be tracking your data to target you with ads.** Lateral reading and critical research are key.

4) You can find anything on YouTube. Seriously. But you have to know your topic well enough to know how to search for it. In The Renegades, I have a character whose lungs collapse from a bullet wound. I wanted to find out how a medic would treat that condition. Sure enough, someone had posted on YouTube a video with detailed instructions on how to perform a needle decompression.

You can find anything on YouTube. If you want to know about how the Earth is actually hollow and filled with shape-shifting lizards who have roles in every government and are most celebrities, then YouTube has you covered. If you want to know how vaccines are a secret government conspiracy by the lizard people to depopulate the planet and make the survivors docile sheep ready for the coming invasion, then YouTube has you covered. If you want to know how white people are being replaced as part of a globalist agenda and the only way to stop it is by becoming a Nazi, then YouTube has you covered.***

Again, lateral reading and critical research are key.

5) You can find things anywhere. You’re a writer, so keep pen and paper within reach during all waking hours. You might get an idea from a news story on television, a song on the radio, or a Tweet from a friend. About a year ago, I was driving along on a warm day, listening to the radio with the windows down. An oldies station played “Wind of Change,” the Scorpions’ 1990 ballad hailing the end of the Cold War. I hadn’t heard that song in a long time, and I cranked it up loud. The power chords brought back memories of flying relief missions to Bosnia while based at a disused Cold War alert facility in Germany. Not really a pleasant memory–for Bosnia, the end of the Cold War brought something worse. But that flashback from early in my military career inspired a scene in the novel I’m working on now.

While I agree with this point, I think people get carried away with always having a pen and paper handy. A lot of the ideas you end up writing down are rubbish. The flight of fancy comes and goes. The things you write down should be the sticky things. That thing you wanted to look up, you’ll remember it if it was actually important.

6) You can use all of your senses. Find out what things taste like, smell like, feel like. Say, for example, you set your novel in Warsaw. Maybe you can’t afford to go to Warsaw, but you can go to a Polish restaurant. (See item number three above, about doing research on the cheap.) As you write one of your scenes, include a line about the texture and flavor of something your character eats. You’ve just made your writing more alive and authentic.

This is good advice, particularly with internet research. It is easy to look up photos of a location. Harder to look up what it smells like, or if the road is uneven underfoot, or if arterial blood feels warm on your skin. We’ve got roughly 20 senses, so your research (and writing descriptions) should reflect that.

7) You can leave some things out. If you do thorough research, you’ll find more material than you need, and no reader likes a data dump. In my own writing, I could bore you to death with the details of aircraft and weapons. But a very good creative writing professor once advised me to let the reader “overhear” the tech talk. Say, if my character punches off a HARM missile, that might sound authentic and pretty scary. But scary would turn to dull if I stopped the action to tell you that HARM stands for High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, which homes in on anti-aircraft missile radars. Who cares? The damn thing goes boom.

This is the most important point about research, even in science. Most of it doesn’t end up on the page. Nobody cares about the lab experiments that failed, they want to know about the results from the one that worked. Nobody wants to read your detailed and accurate Linux commands the hacker types in, sudo leave that stuff out.

I think the point of research is to better understand the universe we live in. For a writer, research will help to create more believable universes for their stories. It isn’t easy to tell the difference between good and bad information. It isn’t easy to know when to stop. And it is hardest of all to not brag about how big your research is.

* Ever notice that novels by successful authors are never set in boring locations? The characters are never having the exciting chase scene through the streets of Canberra, Adelaide, or Perth Australia, they are in Paris, or New York, or London. Funny how those places are regarded as top destinations for travel.

** Maybe? Try definitely. I said may because you can run tracking and ad blockers and deny cookies. Good advice to stop some… interesting ads coming your way.

*** I’m not even covering the worst and most obviously wrong conspiracies with these examples. Not even close. Two of those three examples are getting people killed.

What inspires me to write?

I’ve never understood this question.

Do people not get inspired to write? Are there people out there who wander around all day with no ideas, daydreams, random thoughts, or little voices whispering in their ears? Do they have those little ideas and then shrug their shoulders, deciding they aren’t worth writing down? Does the little voice whisper and people don’t think to document it for a potential future criminal defence case?

Maybe I’m just not understanding the question.

It was only last year that I was disabused of my hatred for the question “Where do you get your ideas?” Obviously, I buy them in bulk from Ideas ‘R’ Us in the Creative Mall in the Artist District. They aren’t cheap, but it’s where Dan Brown shops for his, so have to be good quality.

My friend and author Kaaron Warren did a seminar on where her ideas came from. It was a lightbulb moment for me. People weren’t asking where the ideas come from, they were asking what was inspiring the ideas in the book. How were those ideas being linked together and turned into a story? Essentially, walking the (potential) audience through being creative.

So maybe this question is more about the process of noticing something in your day to day life and how you reckon it could be improved with the addition of dragons – let’s be honest, everything could be improved with dragons… and ninjas. Now you’re thinking about how much fun it would be for your protagonist to ride a dragon over a city and genocidally burn it to the ground because you’re annoyed at… hang on, that’s terrible. What sort of hack would come up with that scene? Scrap that rubbish. I’ll wait for the next idea.

Maybe ninjas. Monkey ninjas. With wings. Who whispers in your ear, telling you to blow up the houses of parliament. Honest, your honour, it was the ninja monkeys who told me to do it. Right before they flew away.

NB: This post was originally written as part of a short story submission. Instead of a cover letter, they wanted a blog post answering one of the common author questions.