Sunday, July 31, 2016

July's Writing Prompt [Amazing Stories]: Two Worlds

Every night, while you sleep, a coin is flipped. When you wake up, you wake up in one of two worlds.

(from Jarek Berecki via Dribbble)

Here's my writing prompt for July on Amazing Stories.

There are two worlds: one above ground and one below ground. When you wake up each day, you wake up in one of the two worlds, each with a 1/2 probability. You retain all your possessions, all your relationships, all your obligations, all your rights… but you can’t physically move them between worlds. There is also no contact between the two worlds.

There are almost infinite possibilities. Are the two worlds remotely similar? Is your occupation, social status, location, etc. the same in each, or wildly different? If you have children, how do you allocate child care duties?

You may favour one of the worlds. Maybe you'll fall asleep each night praying you'll wake up in one... or maybe they'll be so similar you'll be indifferent.

Having the same people in each world means you're likely to have certain commonalities, like language. Beyond that, anything could happen every time you shut your eyes...


I admit some Slice 'N' Hook influence here. I hope I'm among many in that being my favourite computer game.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Raichu for President

From time to time, I share my Quora answers on this blog. I think now's one of those times.

Raichu for President!

The lovable evolved mouse (pika?) arguably has a better case than any other Pokemon. Popularity and thunderbolts combine well in this volatile political climate. I've even included a press release explaining the popularity of the Raichu camp.

What's next? A Pokemon Leadership Convention?

Monday, July 25, 2016

July's Book: The Street Lawyer

The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
Thriller (1998 - 449 pp.)

The Street Lawyer is John Grisham's ninth book. Its main character, Michael Brock, is a young antitrust lawyer who has a change of heart after almost being shot by a crazed homeless man. He leaves his 800-lawyer firm to work in a poverty law clinic where he can help the homeless, learning from a poverty law veteran named Mordecai Green. Brock's marriage is falling apart, the streets of Washington DC are frigid in February, and Brock's old firm is after him. I won't spoil any more.

The most convincing parts of the story are Brock's divorce and the homeless shelter scenes. Brock and his wife Claire have numerous tense interactions, such as when Brock first broaches the subject of leaving his old firm (137-139), but the reader gets to see that she still cares about him when he's in the hospital. (190) Sadly, Grisham abandons the divorce storyline, with Claire mentioned only in passing for about the last half of the book. Brock's new love interest Megan isn't developed nearly enough to properly replace Claire in the story.

The homeless shelters and soup kitchens are tougher for me to envision than romantic tension but I got a feel for how they might look and who might be there. Brock visits a few, first alongside Green, then on his own. Brock feeding a four-year old boy in one of his first soup kitchen visits is one of the book's more touching passages. Brock's interview of Paul Pelham (237-242) is loony but entertaining, like quite a few parts of the book.

The lack of realism doesn't bother me; if I wanted a realistic legal story, I'd simply ask a lawyer about his/her practice. My disbelief ceased being suspended a few times, though. One is that Brock is able to practise poverty law so quickly. He appears to have spent his entire career to that point in antitrust, yet the 14th Street Legal Clinic has him practise family law, social security law, and even do a personal bankruptcy. Bankruptcy law especially is so technical most lawyers wouldn't be able to practise it. In the real world, Brock would have to report himself to the proper licensing authority. This is inexplicably never discussed.

The writing is sometimes great, sometimes poor, and usually a bit above average. The Street Lawyer is a page-turner, as advertised. Grisham's description of the initial action scene kept me wanting to know what would happen to characters I'd never seen before. The emotional climate of the conference room - "If the nine of us had a vote, Rafter would be the first sacrificial lamb. Eight to one."* (7) - shows Brock's ability to stay witty under (literal) fire. Nonetheless, adjectives and adverbs are sometimes used where storytelling would have been better, and Grisham is a good enough storyteller to make those moments interesting. A line like "she seemed perfectly content sitting in my chair" (260) doesn't say what seeming perfectly content entails. Is she smiling? Maybe looking around the room, considering she isn't that familiar with this office? Why is she "seeming", rather than simply being, perfectly content? There are also a few hackneyed phrases, such as "greasing the skids", (55) "spellbound" (237) and "in full swing". (267) For all the variance in quality of Grisham's writing throughout the book, the last line is a great one: "I didn't dare think of the future; the past was still happening." (449)

The only moderately educational aspect of The Street Lawyer consists of basic facts like how many lawyers work at big firms and what they made back in 1998, which areas of law a poverty law clinic might practice, and so on. This book is well-suited for a flight.

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 2

*This musing really has a "Case of the Speluncean Explorers" bent. I wouldn't be surprised if Grisham's read it.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Mountain Lions: A Return to the East?

Yesterday, the Washington Post published this story about the idea of repopulating mountain lions to their once-native habitat in the Eastern United States. The article states:

If mountain lions returned to their eastern U.S. range, the study found, they could prevent 708,600 deer-vehicle collisions, 155 human deaths and 21,400 human injuries over 30 years. That would save at least $2.13 billion, the authors said.

Here's a picture of mountain kittens:

(from SPCR)

Whether this would qualify as introducing a species is rightfully up for debate. There are often devastating impacts of introducing new species. Then again, reintroducing old species may not have that same impact. Then, some animals are just terrifying.

Another issue is whether the apparently overly deer-afflicted areas should allow for laxer hunting laws. Venison's one of my favourite meats. Should we be the predators?

Regardless, I think the debate's been opened about what an American ecosystem needs to perform at its best. Now that we're ingrained into the territory, this is a productive conversation. Is a wild cat more effective than a gun?

Obviously, no one wants a deer crashing into a car. It doesn't work well for any of the involved parties. Reintroducing mountain lions may be a good solution. I hope it is - they're beautiful animals.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

What It Means to Write a Novel (My Version, At Least)

The meaning of the novel is dynamic, not static. Since the start of the novel craze with Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), novels have been seen as everything from cultural artifacts to learning devices to cheap entertainment. Somewhere in between, there's pop culture, spinning a yarn around the fire pit, and thinly veiled allegory about things much of the readership can't possibly understand. As merchandising opportunities, they date back at least to the aforementioned Pamela.

Then there's a different category of books. They may seem difficult at first. Alternatively, they may seem easy and fun in a way the initial readership hadn't anticipated. They may defy their genres. They may defy concepts like "plot". Whatever they are, they look unfamiliar in some way.

They're not just stories or escapes. They're inventions.

A quick summary of what I (try to?) write is from, of all unexpected places, a book on 19th-century Europe that was first published in 1970. (It's not a bad book if you need a quick overview of the period, although its appraisal of Austria's non-role in the 1863 Warsaw Uprising is baffling.) In any event, here's what historian Norman Rich has to say about the artists of the day:
"Nevertheless, many nineteenth-century artists whose works have stood the test of time remained outside the mainstream of popular culture - not necessarily because they were in revolt against society, although this was often the case, but because they followed their own artistic bent without regard to popular taste. The production of this group of nineteenth-century artists was distinguished by the desire of its creators to experiment, to discover new techniques and forms of expression, to explore new dimensions of human experience. In this respect the innovative artists of this era were akin to the scientists and inventors, who must after all be regarded as artists in their own right." 
Norman Rich, The Age of Nationalism and Reform, 1850-1890, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1970, p. 54.
In everything I write, my goal is to be less like insert-formulaic-novelist-here and more like Thomas Edison. I am an inventor of concepts and a creator of worlds. (Not like this, of course.) It's well established that books can be character-driven, plot-driven or setting-driven. What can go into each of those? What can a character be? What can a plot be? What can a setting be? In each story or book I've written, I've looked at one or more of them.

  • In Void (2011 - unpublished), the entirety of the book consists of letters written by one character. I also include a matrix, a probability problem, a flowchart and a word search. The interweaving of different media in one novel should hopefully serve as an inspiration to anyone sick of all novels being the same.
  • In I Drank the Toxic Cocktail (2012), I openly question where a plot should start and end. What is the question the story answers? Who is Fairly, why is someone named after an adverb, and why is he chosen for the challenge? Does any of it matter? I also borrow heavily from Gregory Kavka, including in the story's title.
  • In The Knight and the Princess (2013), I absolutely mangle genre and plot. It's a medieval fantasy/puzzle book. The two titular characters are never shown together. One of the main characters is confronted by a mysterious jester who presents him with a Mensa puzzle. The story ends with a question mark. Whether or not it receives a warm welcome, maybe it'll inspire someone else's greatness.
  • In State of Sin (2014/2015 - not published yet, but hopefully soon!), the book is based entirely on the setting. The main plot point is a federal election. There are 24 narrators (29 in what will likely be an extended version). No character physically appears in more than one chapter, although certain prominent characters are mentioned in multiple chapters. Genre changes from chapter to chapter, with everything from bathroom humour to an I Am Legend-like story that takes place in a city somewhat like modern-day Detroit. How and why does the world function the way it does, and why are the characters telling their stories this way?
  • In The Love I Feel Is a Burst Inside (2016 - currently in the editing stages), I debut a style I call literary hyperrealism. It takes after the works of famed writers from 1890-1930 as diverse as Oscar Wilde, Henry James and William Faulkner, but then reinterprets them in light of newer works like The Night Circus. Character-oriented movies like My Dinner with Andre or When Harry Met Sally factor in as well. These influences combine in a short, fast-paced novel that sees its characters' conversations go on bizarre but relevant tangents. The third-person narration zooms in on every facial expression they make. What do Simon and Victoria teach each other about the nature of reality, even as they struggle with their feelings for each other?

No one novel or short story is the same. Each is the result of a mad scientist-style literary inventor stretching the bounds of what the medium can be. That's how it is when I write, at least.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

My Latest Quora Answer on Self-Publishing

Yesterday, I was asked to answer this question: "What is your opinion on self-publishing? Are these books not as good as books from publishing houses?"

This is what I came up with.

The short version is that I think self-publishing is like a lot of life: it's what you make of it. Fiction writing is unregulated. Anyone can write but not everyone can write well. It's a craft, it's difficult, and it's important to get right. Self-publishing requires research about the publishing industry, including such mundane things as proper formatting, and also the will to see through the other non-literary aspects of releasing a book.

You can find me self-published on:

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Maple Leaves: The Pictures

Toronto over Canada Day weekend is a great place to be inspired to take pictures of maple leaves. There are certainly enough of them - species there include Norway, silver and sugar.

I had the pleasure to go for a walk yesterday and snap a couple pictures of these beautiful, patriotic plants.

Here's the lucky sugar maple leaf I found on the ground and carried with me home:

Here's a close-up I took of a Norway maple:

Leafs jerseys have generally echoed the silver maple, as they do now, but the 11-pointed design from 1970-2016 more closely resembles a sugar maple leaf. This 1970-2016 was chosen to look more like the Canadian flag and less stylized. The Canadian flag's maple leaf was chosen for its visibility in turbulent wind conditions, not for any arboreal reason, so North America's historical sugar maple enthusiasts may need to temper their joy over this one. From that last article: they're "sylvan beauty" indeed!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Happy Canada Day 2016!

I apparently have a thing for Canada Day. (And Canada!)

I also, unbeknown to however many faithful blog readers I have, like Google's special search images. They've ranged from cute to fascinating in the past.

Today, it's this:

(I'd cite this image as being from Google, but that would just be stating the obvious, wouldn't it?)

I've sadly never seen the Northern Lights despite having lived in Edmonton. I love the red and white banner, the animation is great, and those colours really shine through.

This September will also mark the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. I can't imagine that'll be as widely celebrated, though.