Plugging Plot Holes and Creating Brilliant Characters

January 3, 2010 at 5:37 am | Posted in Challenges, writing | Leave a comment

I recently read Grisham’s The Firm, which was fine, though I didn’t love it. Still, one of the strong points for me, was that Mitch, the main protag, behaved intelligently. He didn’t make the kind of stupid mistakes that drive me crazy in some books. He wasn’t blind beyond the point of reasonableness to another character’s flaws, or to the obvious disaster lurking around the corner.

This, in turn, raised what has been an interesting question for me: namely, what’s a writer to do, when working with a protagonist, or even a secondary character, who is smarter than she is? Which is to say, I’m no genius–so how can I approach working with characters who are supposed to be much cleverer than I am?

For me the best answer is to plot out the character’s actions–sketch out appropriate next steps, figure out flaws in my planning, and then think my way out of those flaws. That goes for other plot holes as well. There’s little that annoys me more, as a reader, than feeling that a writer hasn’t done this. It feels like the writer has taken shortcuts or gotten lazy in not looking for obvious flaws in the narrative and addressing them. It makes for far more difficult writing, but the results are exponentially better, and far more satisfying.

For instance–and this isn’t a matter of a character’s intelligence, but rather just of a plot issue that’s really going to screw up my self-imposed deadline, but needs to be addressed. In my current WIP, I was hurtling towards the final showdown, when suddenly it came to a screeching halt. I kept staring at the screen and getting annoyed with myself. Why wasn’t I busting through? Why wasn’t I getting these final scenes written? The end was so close I could taste it.

It was actually a discussion with friends–a Facebook thread (thanks, James and Andrew!)–that brought the “aha” moment I’d been missing. One of my friends remarked upon the archetypal quest paradigm and the importance of the journey, not just the destination. I responded:

“It’s true, re the journey itself. That’s where the insights are learned and gained, and the hero’s transformation takes place. But the finale is the test of those insights–where we see whether they actually stuck or not. There’s always the concern that the destination, in that sense, be worthy of the journey taken.”

And there it was. I had it. I sat down and wrote down each of the main characters’ story arcs. And voila! All my characters, EXCEPT my two main characters had great story arcs. All my secondary characters had cool, believable changes and developments in their emotional arcs. But somehow, in the middle of all those comings and goings, I had lost track of depicting those changes for the TWO MAIN characters! Embarassing, but it would have been more so, if I hadn’t spotted it. I don’t know that this sort of flaw is that obvious–it would more likely be a subtle sense of dissatisfaction, upon finishing the book. A sense of emptiness, like something was missing. And the thing that was missing is that my main female protagonist did not change or develop or do much of anything other than walk around, during the entire narrative (an exaggeration, but that’s almost how it feels to me, thinking back on it. Without that emotional underpinning and transformation, it feels empty). And that’s why the ending wasn’t coming–because she had nothing to test in herself.

Nothing had changed, so she was just going through the motions, in survival mode–acting rather than developing. Which is fine in real life–that’s what we do often enough. But we turn to story for something more than that. The catharsis/epiphany is in seeing that the transformation has worked–that the hero, having journeyed, and learned, has internalized the changes enough to be able to pass the final test.

So, no showdown. I don’t think it’s worth writing at this point. I need to go back and rework the scenes between my main female and male protags. The male protag’s story arc is better–he does change, but it’s not strongly enough drawn as it is, so that also needs to be brought out more clearly. I suspect once I fix that, the finale will write itself. Wish me luck!

As as for the question of writing about characters who are more intelligent than I am. It’s a conundrum all right–but again, by working through the steps, methodically and critically, I figure I can at least enhance the character’s intelligence. After all, he or she must figure out those solutions in a high-stress situation, and often has to think on his or her feet and make snap decisions, where I will have spent time, and many sheets of paper, working it out, and trying to eliminate the issues. In that sense, it reminds me a little of the LSAT. They say that most people, given enough time, can get high marks on an LSAT–it’s getting high marks in each section, with tight time constraints, and under the stress of a high-stakes exam situation, that’s the tricky part.

Listening to the Music of the Spheres: Arecibo

December 26, 2009 at 5:55 pm | Posted in Travels | Leave a comment
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When I was growing up, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos awoke my curiosity about the vastness of the universe. Eschewing jargon, it got at the core concepts of astronomy, speculations regarding extra-terrestrial life and the wondrously ungraspable scope of the universe beyond. It brought out the delight and the heady excitement of the possibilities implied by the vastness of space out there. I loved the idea of becoming an astronomer and even did a junior high school research project on radio astronomy, in preparation for my scientific career.

But, as the years went by, I discovered that Sagan’s portrayals were at the level of concept. The real, day-to-day encounters with the wider universe were via a language of complex equations and mathematics–and knowledge was advanced in tiny increments, with only the occasional burst of revelation.

I became drawn, instead, to the speculative worlds of sf/f. It was the human story that most fascinated me. I was intrigued by the things that remain common to all of us, and the things that shape us differently, from society, to society. What are foundational paradigms, and what are culturally-shaped perspectives? The lines between those two divisions fascinated–and continue to fascinate–me. My only return to the wonders of physics was via widely-accessible public lectures, or books like A Brief History of Time, which brought out the wonder of the quantum and the macro-worlds, without resorting to the daunting idioms of scientific jargon.

Still, I retained a fondness for those years of looking up at the night sky and being carried by a giddy yearning to know more–for that vertiginous sense of the vastness, and of our tininess. That sense of being poised on the surface a spinning globe that hurtles through space at extraordinary speeds. I still feel that sense of wonder and delight when I look up at the sky above. And so, when we had the opportunity to go to Puerto Rico, a visit to the Arecibo observatory was an absolute must.

The road to and from the observatory was often unpaved, twisting and turning through dense thickets–too narrow, in many places, to admit more than one car at a time. If you encountered another vehicle, you had to engage in the little ritual of determining who would pull over onto the shoulder and allow the other to pass.

On the way, we ate at a roadside place that served a hearty chicken and plantain stew on rice–our first encounter with plantains and that distinctive bananna flavour in a non-sweet context. It was tasty, though I ended up eating around the chicken (I’m unfortunately finicky about chicken). Then, back on the road in our rental car, bouncing and bumping our way through the daunting landscape as we crossed our fingers against flat tires or car breakdowns. No four-bar coverage in this vicinity. And then, a final turn, and signs, welcoming us to our destination.

The radio telescope is a vast dish, made of mesh, so the rain can fall through. Underneath, shade loving plants thrive. The surface of the bowl, like everything else, is subject to the entropy of the tropical climate–the discolorations of rain, humidity and the small mildews and fungii that propagate in such climates were starting to take their toll. And yet, it was still so impressive–this vast bowl, occupying an entire valley, in the middle of a tangled wilderness. Again, I felt that touch of wonder, that sense of giddy, excited yearning, as the strange, metallic construction conflated, in my mind, with the potential that it represented. This was our receptor for listening to the music of the spheres–our way of reaching out to the wonder of the ineffable vastness of the cosmos, one radio blip at a time.

On the road from Kingston…

December 22, 2009 at 5:34 am | Posted in Technology, World History, World of Ideas | 2 Comments

On our way back from a night’s stay in Kingston, we tried to stop in at a Canadian Penetentiary Museum in town, but alas, it was closed. As we were turning to leave, a red fox streaked by at a fast run.

Later, we stopped in at the Canadian Aviation Museum (or maybe the Canadian Airforce Museum?). I didn’t expect to be engaged, but ended up finding it fascinating. The planes themselves were the most interesting. They had a full-scale replica of an early flying machine. The wings were of stretched silk, the body of wood, with copper strips and rivets holding the separate pieces of luminous, varnished planks together. It had a single “ski”, instead of dual pontoons, for a water takeoff or landing, and the two wings had tiny little wooden pontoons at the very ends. The seats for the two riders were miniscule, and I cannot imagine even a regular-sized adult fitting into either of them, today.

The device, the gears, the rest of it was all lashed together with an exquisitely crisscrossed mass of thin metal cables. It looked beautiful–a strange mix of organic warmth (the wood, the silk) and rigorous, symmetrical structure. It also looked dauntingly fragile–those cables were thin, and I can only imagine the kinds of stresses they would be subjected to in flight. And nothing–no protective metal covering or any other kind of reinforcement to help alleviate that stress. A few, key snaps of cable and it all would come tumbling down.

Somehow, it felt like it had been pulled from a dreamer’s fancy–and, too, it seemed like a testament to the amazing, fragile wondrousness of our ability to imagine, and plan and then bring those imaginings into the world and to give them solid form.

We envisage dreams and nightmares both, and they come when called. This, at least, was a dream, though the nightmares came too–and were hinted at in other parts of the museum (the boys whose planes were shot down–who were immolated in midair, or lived out years in prison camps).

All this (and more), on the road between Toronto and Kingston.

Nested Narratives of Case Law: It’s Stories All the Way Down

December 21, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Posted in the Law | Leave a comment
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Well, it has been some time since I had any kind of opportunity to update this blog. I don’t know that I’ll be any more reliable in that regard, in the weeks and months to come, either. I started law school in September, at U of T. An amazing, wonderful, fascinating and engaging experience. Law school is pretty much all I hoped for and possibly more. I love reading the cases. They are narratives within narratives.

At the most obvious level, we find the story–often tragic–of the facts around the case being heard. Who wronged whom, who breached which contract, and so on. Sometimes the wrongs seem trivial, sometimes they’re a little bit humorous, and other times they are really, really sad. But this is human drama, at its core. This is story–true stories that are about the struggles and sufferings of real people. They’re riveting, and often deeply moving, at that level alone.

The next level of is that of the reasoning of the judge, as he or she tries to puzzle his or her way to justice. Sometimes the judgments read as crisp, clear, dazzling exercises in thought, revelations of insight or explications of method. Other times, they are dark, tortured and reveal another dimension of struggle and conflict, as you see the judge torn between the common law precedents–or the constraints of the statute–and the ruling that would be just in this instance. Sometimes the tension is between the justice of the moment, of the case at hand, and the clear concern that in using the precedents a certain way, and deciding the case a certain way, a new and dangerous precedent could be set, and the law could take a very problematic direction if left unchecked.

And then, there is the way the cases fit together–the way that subsequent judges look at the precedents, they way that they read them, and struggle with them, such that each case piles upon the previous ones as a tottering, precarious structure that doesn’t always fit well together, but somehow all manages to remain upright. It’s a beautiful thing, the way we try to bring order to the chaos of our complex, everyday interactions and the wrongs we do each other.

We try to bring order to it, but also want justice, and the flexibility to administer that, within the constraints of a fair system. As you can imagine, these are all ideas in tension with each other: the challenge of bringing order to chaos, with flexibility and fairness. And that tension shows, in processes that try to ensure that everyone gets a fair chance and are consequently ungainly and slow; in decisions that rub each other the wrong way, as society changes and suddenly past precedents begin to chafe; in decisions that show the conflict involved in trying to figure out how we should be treating each other, and against what standard that should be judged.

The rulings are messy because we’re messy. Any system that’s too restrictive and rules-based would result in more injustice than justice. So instead, common law moves, and bends and shifts this way and that, as it tries to find the just, middle ground. And that messy, tangled mass of rulings that are full of these subtexts of conflict are beautiful. They’re the imperfect reality that is a fuzzy reflection of our dream of justice–our dream of a fair society, governed by the rule of law.

Detroit Vlog!

May 25, 2009 at 2:38 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Here it is! Though, we’ve been in Chicago this past day or so–so I guess Detroit is old news. Hopefully the next vlog will be forthcoming soon–and getting progressively more professional-looking…

New Search Options, New Issues?

May 13, 2009 at 5:02 pm | Posted in Technology, World of Ideas | Leave a comment
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Slashdot | Google Unveils Search Options and Google Squared.

Google has apparently unveiled a couple of interesting new technologies that will allow for slightly different angles of attack in presenting users with search results. The first would seem to help categorize the results in various ways, while the second would compile the information gleaned, rather than the websites themselves.

It’s the latter that concerns me slightly. As someone who writes stuff and puts it “out there” on the web, I cannot help but wonder whether something like that will end up stripping away any final remnant of authorial attribution? Perhaps that notion is becoming somewhat outdated anyway? I don’t know.

The other, larger concern would have to do with context. We all know that information from the internet cannot be trusted. While having a “digest” type compilation of information searched, will make some measure of corroboration a little easier, stripping the info from its original context means that we might be less equipped to assess the biases that are underlying and mediating whatever information we happen to find. E.g. some info about an archeological finding that sounds somewhat plausible, until you look at the rest of the site and find that the author is a creationist.

Of course, people who worry about that will undoubtedly click through and check the sources for reliability or plausibility (in which case, I’m not sure whether the compliation would be of much use?). BUT, those who don’t will now have little to no chance of spotting any holes–as they might, just in passing, when navigating to the actual site. Skimming through the isolated, compiled information would likely mean that the more subtle biases in particular would be obscured.

Of course, this is pretty preliminary. Perhaps they’ve already thought of this and somehow managed to mitigate it via the interface itself. That would be a Good Thing–so let’s hope that’s where they’ve taken it!

It was, like, totally random

May 9, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Posted in World of Ideas | Leave a comment
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Wednesday night, Tom and I went to see a talk by Leonard Mlodinow, from Caltech, whose recent book, The Drunkard’s Walk, is in bookstores and available for purchase.

I haven’t read this one, but based on his talk, I suspect it would cover similar ideas to the book A Random Walk Down Wall Street, by Burton Malkiel, which I read a couple of years ago.

The “drunkard’s walk” refers to the notion that, as with someone really drunk who is wandering aimlessly about, things that are truly random cannot be predicted. Though there are some stretches where there appears to be a pattern to the progress, even these seeming “trends” are, in fact, just the results of cumulative happenstance. As with the monkeys and typewriters notion, sometimes even random processes will line up into apparently coherent and consistent strings. Sometimes even the random hitting of keys will result in recognizable words.

The Malkiel book applied this notion to the stock market for the most part, pointing out that while there was little evidence that attempts at pattern recognition in stock trends were actually borne out as being effective, there is plenty to support the notion that in fact the stock market moves randomly, like the drunkard out on an aimless stroll: he may know his general direction, but it’s difficult to predict, from one step to the next, where he will go. In other words, he felt that things like day trading were little more than guess work. And, while you can see certain overall trends, like the current widespread, cross-sector downturn, it’s impossible to predict when it will turn around, by how much and so on. His conclusion was that mutual funds are to be avoided, and that an investor’s best bet is to just go with an index fund, using something like the S&P 500.

Derivatives might well change things up a bit. A money manager who has figured out a clever way to use those to mitigate risk might be able to come out ahead more consistently–but I only say that because I haven’t read enough about the range and variety of derivatives, how such instruments would work, and whether there’s actually evidence that they do.

All the same, as regards the markets in general, I found the arguments pretty compelling. Mlodinow branched off into a couple of additional facets of the randomness concept, but otherwise covered similar ground. I’d certainly recommend the Malkiel as readable, interesting food for thought. If the Mlodinow is similar (and possibly wider-ranging, rather than focussing on how randomness relates to the stock market), then it might be worth checking out as well. Whether you end up agreeing or not, it’s interesting stuff. If you happen to have read either of these books, but remain a staunch proponent of technical or fundamental analysis, I’d love to hear your arguments against the evidence produced and in favour of your approach!

For the record, I’d actually still do fundamental analysis and likely even do a bit of “tech” analysis too–in that I’d look at the general mood of investors, to try to gauge whether it’s a good time to buy and whether the stock is close to bottoming out, or reaching its peak, before investing. It’s one thing to agree that the day-to-day movements are generally random, and another to throw out the whole idea of a downward or upward trend in markets. As Malkiel points out, if you have a long horizon (i.e. 20-30 years before you retire), then just investing in an index should do you fine. It goes up over the long term, generally performing slightly better than inflation, and so your money will grow.

But keeping aware of trends, wading in when the market bottoms out (or at least is considerably lower, even if it’s not quite at bottom) after a bust, then sniffing the air and selling off stocks after a sustained boom, seems likely to net you an extra chunk of change in the long term, cumulatively speaking. True–you might not catch it at absolute bottom (you may purchase, and then see your investment decline for a while), and you might not sell at the peak (it’s so frustrating to see the selling price climb ever higher after you’ve sold), but in general, you’ll have come out ahead of those who held on through the peak, hoping for ever higher gains, and then panic sold when it fell below the price that the paid for the stock.

For those not familiar with stock stuff, this is what most investment people would consider a conservative, or low-risk strategy. It’s not gonna make you rich overnight, but over time, you should have a tidy nest egg. Since I haven’t seen a lot of evidence (and I’ll admit I haven’t looked a lot) to support the idea that other strategies are actually effective and not just a matter of those randomly generated strings that look like actual patterns, that’s what makes the most sense to me. Other options seem rather a lot games of chance, rather than calculated risks–and I prefer the latter when it comes to my savings.

At any rate, lots of overlap between the two books. Given that, the Perimeter Institute talk was more a refresher on a few of the interesting conceptual aspects of randomness, rather than a mindblowing introduction to concepts never before seen by yours truly.

Springtime awakening

May 6, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Posted in writing | Leave a comment
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Standing by the creek, you can hear the quiet splash of water flowing.

Standing by the creek, you can hear the quiet splash of water flowing.

The scene I’m working on is resisting me—not quite sure why yet, though I just scrapped the 1500 or so words I had written on it and started it afresh from a different POV. That feels better, but the resistance is still there. I think it might just be loss of momentum—I have to push through and get back into it. But for now, I’m taking a brief “blog break.”

These past couple of days, it’s like my senses have been awakened with the spring. Not that I’ve been senseless before this, but in retrospect, my appreciation of the winter was all about the crisp clarity of bare, filigreed branches and starkly exquisite detail, against a cool palette of whites, blues and sparkling ice. It felt refined, aesthetic and cerebral, though my appreciation was no less profound for all that.

Spring is different. The Ontario spring is brief, electric, colourful—like a jolt in the arm. And suddenly, I’m noticing smells, textures, colour.

Breezes cool but not arctic, whispering across the bare skin of my arms as I pull up the healthy crop of garlic mustard that has sprung up under two of our trees. The air is redolent with the smell of garlic from the plants. The cold of the moist earth in my fingers as I get at the root and tug, gently. There’s either an exquisite sense of release, as the root yields and emerges whole, or a quiet, disappointing “pop” as it breaks off partway. Whereupon I sigh and move onto the next one.

One of the trees has soft, silken needles, like the pelt of an animal, and climbing under it to get at the garlic mustard feels like an embrace, its soft branches parting gently to allow me in. The other is spiky and harsh, its needles a pale, frosted green, as if it carries with it a touch of ice, even in midsummer. If I forget my gardening pad, then I dare not kneel or sit under that one—the fallen needles, branches and cones are sharp and leave splinters, often as not. But once I find the hidden entrance, where the branches are thinner, and sneak under its canopy, it feels like a hidden fortress. A quiet sanctuary. The dappled light shines through onto the layers of discarded needles, the breeze tickles my bare arms and I can hear the sound of the nearby creek plashing over rocks and branches, such that I simply have to pause and honour the moment, if only briefly. With much of the garlic mustard routed, I can now smell the bracing cleanliness of the pine itself.

Later, I sit out on our crumbling, overgrown terrace in the back, listen to the birds, and watch a languid, furry bumblebee browse through the catalogue of our bushes and tulips. The green of the moss is almost neon in its sunlit vibrancy, and the early blossoms of blue-purple periwinkle, yellow daffodils, red tulips and white trilliums entice me into the little grove beside our house, where I feel the rough, varied textures of the tree bark under my fingertips as I reach out to trunks and branches for balance.

So it is that the world blossoms, and along with it, my senses.

The tumbledown terrace.

The little grove, with daffodils and trilliums.

Imperial History of the Middle East in 90 seconds

May 4, 2009 at 9:54 pm | Posted in World History | Leave a comment

This looks to be a fascinating website. With the use of a timeline and a world map, the above video graphically depicts the different Imperial expansions that swept through the middle east throughout history–in 90 seconds. It’s really interesting to visually observe the scope of some of those empires, like that of Alexander the Great. To imagine that he conquered such a vast territory over the course of his short life, in a period where such distances would not have been easily traversed really fascinates me. Of course, as I watched, I was waiting for the Mongol empire–and truly, it was an impressive spectacle.

The website also has maps that show the history of religion as well as of various long-term conflicts.

Imperial History of the Middle East.

Urban Art: pavement stories

May 3, 2009 at 5:48 pm | Posted in Visual Art | Leave a comment

This stuff, posted by username “Chewie” is really cool. I really love the way he uses the cracks and fissures of the urban landscape as part of the setting or context for so many of the pieces. I really enjoyed the detail of the fellows on safari, hiding in the weed clump above as they observe the animals.

In the one below, I enjoyed the use of pebbles as rain!

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