Monday, February 21, 2011

Punctuation Schmunctuation

imageOkay, maybe I’m starting to reach for blog topics. It’s hard coming up with two of these every week. I’ve written something like 350 of these over the last few years, so after a while it’s hard to not keep running over the same old ground. But I think I’ve hit on one of those hidden gems that begs for a write-up: punctuation. Probably because it’s the most boring aspect of writing, yet it’s the one thing that seems to invoke the most passion.
This weekend, I almost got into a (another) punctuation argument with my critique group. About what? Single or double- space between sentences. A simple Google search reveals the answer: One space. Period. One space. Next sentence. However, about half the documents I review have two. I simply meant to remind them of the convention, because Word 2010 puts little green marks whenever I have a double-space. (Yes, I know I can turn it off but why?)
You would have thought I asked them to wear uniforms and salute. Use acid-free paper and dolphin-safe toner. Change the gender of their characters and call them Charley. I almost got my head chewed off. I just wanted to mention it and move on. “Uh, could you just use one space—” “NO! HOW DARE YOU SUGGEST THAT! NEVER! NEVER NEVER NEVER! We’ll settle this in the parking lot!”

Yowza. Like, who cares? I just want my green marks to go away. I’ve had other people yell at me, “IT’S DOT-SPACE-DOT-SPACE-DOT, NOT …! DON’T USE CURLY ‘ USE ' ! USE -- NOT —!”

Sheesh! Does anyone know what editors truly want in electronic submissions? This kind of reminds me of the old days of programming, before there were any standards and when you wrote code in the simplest of text editors. The huge religious argument consisted of “tabs vs spaces vs 2 vs 4 space etc.” When to indent, how to format comments, even down to something called “Hungarian” which is precise rules to name code variables. I’ve endured argument over argument over the name of variables that are used maybe a couple of times. Nowadays, all those arguments are moot, because “smart editors” use company-wide templates and force your code to comply to a certain format. These are called “code beautifiers.” Nowadays, if you want to know what a variable does, hover your mouse over it. Who cares what it’s called?

Does something like this exist for manuscripts, that fixes all the crap authors put in there? Or does any of it really matter? Should we just be cool with writers using spaces to indent paragraphs, using l instead of 1, (that’s little L if you didn’t notice) and hitting line breaks at the end of each line? When are we going to enter the 2lst century?

Guess I should be glad that I’m actually getting electronic copies instead of typed or—gasp—handwritten entries. (Well, I still get handwritten feedback, but there’s only one space after those sentences).

Friday, February 18, 2011

Don’t Be A Watson

watsonI’m going to talk about how the example of IBM’s Watson is a good object lesson on what not to do in your writing. Bear with me for a minute.

I was very impressed at how IBM’s creation Watson fared at Jeopardy. As a former computer scientist at places such as Google and Microsoft, I was actually more fascinated by Watson’s failures than its successes. Frankly, I was surprised that Watson didn’t answer every question correctly and faster than the humans. Watson missed obvious questions. To me, it seemed that the machine was great at trivia, the “fill in the blank” kind of questions. Things that any Google search can answer. But it failed at more complex problems, questions that involved things like metaphor and analogy, standard fare on SAT tests. It all led me to one conclusion:
We are still nowhere near achieving “artificial intelligence.”

Watson is just a machine, without emotion, drive, or ambition. I thought of a few questions I could easily ask it that it could never solve. “Who is standing to your left?” “How’s the lighting in here?” “Who does Ken Jennings remind you of?” “Fire! Please proceed to the nearest exit in an orderly manner.”

Yes, computer scientists have created something I call “programmed intelligence.” Intelligence in very specific domains, but as soon as you step outside the domain, the intelligence fails. Because “intelligence” isn’t just about recollection, computation, or pattern analysis. It’s much more about metaphor, symbolism, and relationships.
Think about a book for a moment. A book is really just a machine. It’s a Kindle with only one book available. The words are just dots of ink on the page that create letters. The letters form words, the words form sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Computers can be made to understand how to display and edit those letters and words, even spot incorrect ones. But a computer can never read a book and understand what’s in it. It can look up every word and phrase, but never truly comprehend the meaning, the story. And even a book can never judge your emotion reaction to the story and respond accordingly. There’s as much intelligence in Watson as in any book on your bookshelf.

There were other subtle things that Watson failed to do on Jeopardy. He couldn’t learn from his mistakes (yes, computers can be programmed to learn, but that’s the equivalent of fixing a typo). It seemed that the other contestants learned and began to challenge the machine on the third day. More importantly, Watson has no idea why he made mistakes to begin with. Watson has no insight, no self-awareness. Imagine if Alex Trebeck had said “incorrect” to Watson on even correct, obvious answers:
“Answer is: The color of the White House. Watson.”
“What is white?”
“Incorrect. Ken?”
“What is white?”
Watson would just hum along, completely oblivious. If Trebeck pulled that on Ken Jennings, he would storm off the stage or go after Trebeck’s throat.
So until we create a computer with emotion and true reasoning, we’ll never have intelligence, only super-fast trivia answerers.

So you’re wondering, “what does this have to do with my writing?”

The questions you should be asking yourself is, “How are my characters like Watson?” Do your characters react to their environment? Do they have their own agendas? Are they there just to provide other characters with information? Or are they living, reasoning creatures?

Another way to look at it is to ask, “What was at stake for Watson?” Yes, hundreds of computer scientists spent years on this project, but did Watson care? If there was indeed a fire alarm during taping, would Watson react? Do you think Watson really cared about how much money it earned? But every single character in your work cares about every interaction. There are stakes involved. They want something, and your other characters are either assistants or obstacles to those goals. Otherwise they are no better than the old books on your shelves.

So when you write your stories, keep one thing in mind: Don’t be a Watson.
NOTE: The writing content of this blog is moving soon! Check out the preview at The WriteRunner.

Monday, February 14, 2011


research-cat-lolcat-706798I don’t think I’ve ever talked about the subject of research in novel writing. Research is a critical part of any story project. Research can be divided into 4 broad categories:
  1. Genre – This means reading a lot of works in your genre. You need to find out what’s been done, and what are the standard tropes of your genre. It can also involve in-person conversations. For Steam Palace, for example, I attended a few Steampunk conventions where I asked a lot of questions of steampunk enthusiasts as to “what makes a story Steampunk.” Other sources can include blogs about your genre, magazines, and reviews.
  2. World Building – If there is any kind of historical context or setting to your story, it behooves you to research the area in question. If you are writing SF/F in a “second world” setting (not a real Earth setting), your research may involve mythology, scientific studies, and other speculative works. Visit the settings in your book, talk to the locals. If it’s a made-up place, find a real-life place that is close. Make the bridge of your starship something like the bridge of a decommissioned aircraft carrier that you can visit.
  3. Character – Whether or not you base your characters on real people, it’s always good to have an idea of who your characters are. Biographies, memoirs, and genealogy are all sources of characters. Learn what made them do what they did, and see how it can apply to your story. Some characters are mixtures of many people, some are just certain aspects. If your character is in a specific profession, talk to people in that profession. Make sure you do this research for all your characters, not just the main ones.
  4. Story – This one is a little harder to define. This is more about learning about story structure beyond the standard of your genre. But it also involves interacting with your writing peers, whether at conferences or in critique groups. Find out what are the characteristics of good writing, and explore various styles of writing. Learn what the best way to tell your story should be.
How much research is enough? I feel there is probably 2 main periods of research. The first comes before anything is written, when the story is still a concept. The second would be during the writing process, especially revision when you are trying to flesh out details. In terms of how much, I feel that if you are continually interrupted during the writing process to look something up, then you might want to dedicate a period of time to really understand your subject. But of course the actual amount of research will vary by subject and scope.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Coming Soon: New home for The WriteRunner!

Currently it's at
This will eventually be

I think I need to define what this blog is for. serves 2 purposes:

  1. This is where I can promote my writing. Excerpts, queries, etc
  2. Offer writing and publishing advice. will now become Dawn's Rise
For everything else:
  • personal posts about family and/or issues
  • non-writing activities
  • for-fun writing