I don't know, I've never Kipled

Reading at bedtime at the moment is the Just So Stories of Rudyard Kipling, on my Kindle. I had quite forgotten what a masterclass in storytelling you get from Kipling, and I am now seriously looking forward to the Jungle Book, and after that, the Girl (for 'tis she the audience) should be ready for Kim.

Weird Words #8: Substantive

It will come as no surprise that the meanings of substantive and substantial are very close.

Etymologically they are very closely related:

substantive (adj.)
late 15c., "standing by itself," from O.Fr. substantif, from L.L. substantivum, neut. of L. substantivus "of substance or being," from substantia (see substance). The grammatical term (late 14c.) was introduced by the French to denote the noun in contradistinction to the adjective, from L. nomen substantivum "name or word of substance."

substantial (adj.)
mid-14c., "ample, sizeable," from O.Fr. substantiel (13c.), from L. substantialis "having substance or reality, material," from substantia (see substance). Meaning "existing, having real existence" is from late 14c.

Both words derive from substance:

substance (n.)
c.1300, "essential nature," from O.Fr. substance (12c.), from L. substantia "being, essence, material," from substans, prp. of substare "stand firm, be under or present," from sub "up to, under" + stare "to stand," from PIE root *sta- "to stand" (see stet). A loan-translation of Gk. hypostasis. Meaning "any kind of corporeal matter" is first attested mid-14c. Sense of "the matter of a study, discourse, etc." first recorded late 14c.

So we can differentiate them only through their suffixes, as follows:

sufix forming adjectives from verbs, meaning "pertaining to, tending to," in some cases from O.Fr. -if, but usually directly from L. -ivus. In some words borrowed from French at an early date it has been reduced to -y (e.g. hasty, tardy).

-al (1)
suffix forming adjectives from nouns or other adjectives, "of, like, related to," Middle English -al, -el, from French or directly from L. -alis (see -al (2)).

The two suffixes are pretty closely related, but in common usage, -al generally suggests a stable state, whereas -ive suggests motion towards or metamorphosis.

As far as I can tell, this analysis helps very little in deciding which of these words to chuse in a given situation. Indeed, most dictionaries list them as virtually interchangeable.

Urban dictionary doesn't list either word.
Webster and Wiktionary list substantial under substantive, either as a synonym or as a meaning, but do not list substantive under substantial.

I suspect that this might corroborate my feeling that substantive is quite often used when substantial ought to be, that is as a vague expression of quantity.

As close as I am able to get to defining a difference between these two words, it is as follows:

Substantial is used when referring to a vague quantity that the speaker things is significant in some way:

"The shop made a substantial profit this year."

Substantive is used when referring to a quality of possessing substance - either concreteness or reality:

"The change of government policy will result in substantive changes in spending." In this example, nothing is being said about the size of the changes in spending; it is stating that there will be real changes.

However, as I have already noted, it is increasingly common to find substantive used in place of substantial. I suspect this may be out of a desire to sound less vague or more educated, or both. In the former aim, it succeeds, simply because less people know the meaning of substantive, and consequently assume it has a more precise meaning than substantial.

Generally, I would advise avoiding both words. Substantial because it is too vague, and substantive because it is both too obscure and too often abused.

"The shop made a satisfactory profit this year." is much more communicative.

"The change of government policy will result in changes in spending." is much more accessible.


How do I write a story?

Following on from my last post, I've been asking myself how I would go about writing a good story. I have already intimated on this blog that I have written some good stories, and some bad ones. Analysis of my bad stories has revealed the following:

I have a fetish for character creation. Each time I get a cool idea for a new character I go about creating and establishing them. Sometimes my character establishment is much better than the story that it is in. There are a couple of examples here.

The other problem is that I find it all too easy to set up a dramatic event: let's say a sudden confrontation between two characters; the discovery of an accident; a surprise arrival of an unexpected guest. I think of scenes like those very easily and I can write them with as much drama and emotion as is necessary. In my bad stories, I've started with a series of events like those, established some cool characters, and then tried to build a story around them.

I don't know how common this is. But I do know that for me, this doesn't result in a good story.

What does seem to work is when I go looking for the shape of the story first.The shape of a story can be as simple as a line. The story I posted a few days ago, Cosine, looked like this:

I hope that was fairly obvious. The shape of the story came to me before the story itself, but ended up dictating not just the fatal path of the main character, but also his physical path and the path of the arrow of time.

Not all story shapes are so simple. Sometimes they feel as detailed as landscapes; sometimes they seem like polyhedra - though seldom regular.

Once I have a satisfying shape, I can start looking for the people and events that are triggered by the shape, or that fit into it. Sometimes it's Euclidean, and sometimes it really isn't. With some stories I don't even know the genre I'm writing in until I start writing.

The classic story shape, the archetype of archetypes, is the Wheel of Fortune. It is a symbol that you find both explicit and implicit all through Shakespeare, for example.

For many hundreds of years the symbolism of the Wheel of Fortune ruled European stories, and for any given story you can mark the start point and end point on the wheel of each character. Those who were on the way up at the start are on the way down by the end; those who were high are brung low; those who were low raised high.

In the best WoF stories there is a strong interconnexion between the fortunes of all the characters.

Voltaire satirises this simplistic view of storytelling (among other things) in Candide*, where the wheel seems to spin out of control, sometimes in two directions at once.

Sometimes it is fun to try to draw the shape that a given story evokes in your mind. Wool, (books 3 through 5 in particular) with its dominant staircase, and its themes of power and responsibility, of stability and precarity**, inevitably is shaped like a shaft, and the position and direction of characters in the shaft symbolises their status, and their progress through the story, almost whether Hugh wants them to or not.

I'm not altogether clear on what the conclusion of this essay is. I'm aware that some stories seem to appear in the author's mind fully formed; I'm also aware that when it comes to my own stories, I do the best ones when I get the story first, and the characters, events, locations come after. I also know that I write good stories when writing on demand.

When I need a story that illustrates a particular point, anything from philosophy or sociology to spelling and grammar, I can write a strong story. Maybe the conclusion is personal then: that I write good stories when I'm not being self-indulgent. How about you?

* required reading
** the proper word is the horribly ugly "precariousness". Please promote my alternative.


The Tar Pit Puzzle

I'm finding increasingly with my regular clients that we spend a lot of time talking about the next book. I do this free of charge, and always will, both because I love to do it, and because frankly it's impossible to calculate an invoice for.

Anyone who wants story development advice is welcome to it, for free.

So what is it?

Like a lot of writers, I suspect, the first stories I wrote were what would today I suppose be called fanfic. (I still write fanfic from time to time, but my own writing has become a great deal more disciplined. More on that another time.) This is because it is inspired by having read a book or seen a play or a film and having thought to myself "I'd like to write something like that". As a result, I'd start with a genre, or a type of character, even a set of initial conditions (like a chemistry experiment), and start writing, and discover the story as I wrote.

This can result in a good story.

It can.


But as I learn more about stories, more about writing, and more about writers, the more I discover that writing this way requires a set of initial conditions. One set is obvious, I think: it requires a writer who has the age and experience of storytelling to be able to feel out a story as she goes, and who knows when and how to constrain the story in a way that will ensure its coherence.

Another set of initial conditions is less obvious, and sets a bit of a trap for the writer: many writers spend a number of years thinking about their first story before ever getting it onto the page. They work and rework it, live and relive it, and doing this has much the same effect as retelling it aloud; gradually the rough edges get knocked off, the redundancies removed and the tangents fall by the wayside; little by little the strong story becomes dominant, so that when she finally starts to write the story, she knows it well enough to follow it through*.

The trap is set; the writer has written her** first book, and it stands as a coherent and often deceptively simple story.

So she sits down to write the second book, and the trap is sprung: so much time, so much imagination, so much reiteration was spent on the first story that she knew it well when she wrote it, so there was precious little need for discussion, let alone planning or outlining. Not so the second book.

Many many second books come out without any clear theme, without a clear path or purpose, without an objective or central idea, or if they do it's all so jumbled up that reading it is like trying to identify an animal from the odd parts of its skeleton sticking up out of a tar pit. It might not even be just one animal. Often, it isn't.

At this point, one of my authors in particular is saying to himself "this is me, right?"

In reply to him, I can only say: "It's you at the moment; a few months ago it was someone else, and in a few months' time it will be someone else again."

What I do with a book you've already written, is to try to help you to reinforce the story, enhance the themes, develop and declutter symbolism, add depth to the characters and (especially), tighten the interdependence between character development and the story itself; and all this without having to tell you to rewrite the whole thing.

When you're learning to write, you aren't going to write a masterpiece.

Realizing should be liberating. You can, after a certain amount of hard work, say to yourself: "I made that story work. Now I'm going to move on." Keep doing that and one day you might find yourself thinking: "today I start work on my masterpiece."

It is important to just write. To get words onto the page. Nanowrimo is a really good way to develop your narration, your style, your voice. You should totally do it.. But it won't teach you a damn thing about what makes a good story.

What I do with a book you haven't written yet is help you to develop the story.

The development help that I offer, is all about discovering the story that you want to write. About asking the right questions, about finding the shape; about identifying the animal hidden under the tar. It can be a matter of drawing parallels with books you have read. It can be a matter of discovering your objective or identifying the theme that you want to explore. It can be a matter of identifying and explicitly describing the structure of the type of story you want to write.

But you don't need to talk to a specialist in story development**** to do this. You do need to have someone to talk to. Spouses can be good, if they have the patience. Parents, too, since they're likely to listen.***** Writers' groups and forums are good. It isn't other people's ideas and opinions that will help you develop your idea, though. It is your effort to articulate it. Each time you explain it to someone, you force yourself to turn a vague idea into a communicable explanation. That process will develop your idea for you.

Hmmm... am I talking myself out of customers here? I'll leave that up to my authors to reply.

I believe that until you have practised enough times to have really learned to do it, you can't develop a story alone. You have to have someone to talk to about it.


* think of Biggs Darklighter, and the whole evolution of the scripts of Star Wars Ep. IV.
** actually it's a bit of a cliché that this kind of process affects men more than women, though I only have anecdotal evidence of this myself. I don't happen to like using s/he, so I alternate between male and female imagined authors more or less at random***.
*** thinks: can you alternate at random?
**** you don't need to talk to me, either.
***** that came out badly. I didn't intend to suggest that spouses won't listen. Logically, though, they wouldn't have to. I'm just making it worse, aren't I?



My eight-year-old daughter, a very conscientious student, was revising her times-tables for a test this morning. She actually got up ten minutes early (without an alarm) so that she could have extra time to prepare.

As she was working through them at the breakfast table, she commented on how much she loves the seven times table, and it reminded me of the peculiar relationship that I had with those numbers when she got to seven times seven.

I always found the tables of the odd numbers easier to remember, and some of the products easier than others. Six times seven I could work out easily but couldn't memorise. Seven times seven was . . . special.

When I heard my daughter saying it, my first reaction was:

"Surely she's too young for that number?"

It was as if there was some innate mystery or adult danger associated with forty-nine; a rite of passage like fresh coffee, reaching the age of consent, or learning to drive.

So much so that my second reaction was:

"Where the hell did that come from?"

Forty-nine was a special number for me, not just because it was easy to remember, but because it was part of that special group of numbers that can only be divided by themselves, 1 and their whole number square root. Rarer than primes, and so both stranger and more precious.

I had forgotten about the borderline numeromania that had arisen from my mother's obsession with my sisters and my learning of times-tables. If we were in the car, she would ask us continuously throughout the journey. At other times, she would shoot us a surprise multiplication. Sometimes from the next room, or the other end of the garden. I think some of that fixation rubbed off on me, though it has waned over the years.

Last night, my daughter burst into tears when I told her to get ready for bed. Because she was worried that she would not have enough time to revise her multiplications. I think she's lucky that she doesn't have a special relationship with these numbers. For her this is just another opportunity to learn something (in which she takes enormous pleasure) and to please her teacher (which she seems to want to do without any discrimination – she'll try to please any teacher, regardless).

I wonder how I will feel when she gets to molar mass and empirical formulae, to say nothing of simultaneous equations.


Cosine, a short story

I've been thinking and blogging recently on the role of time and of memory. I have also been thinking hard about why the order of events is so important, and why jumbling them seems to work for some writers at some times, but not for others, or not at all times.

The inspiration for this story goes, however, to the BBC's dramatization of PD James' The Skull Beneath the Skin – a curious period piece in itself that both reviles and celebrates the classic English country house murder. The following story is in no way an English country house murder. Go figure.

Harry Dewulf

It began with a bloodstained nightdress. I thought—at first I thought—that it must have been an accident. But when I reached forward to touch her—I wanted to know if she was still alive—to feel some warmth—I felt the unexpected hard resistance of a knife handle. I have no idea why I took hold of it; it was slick with blood and I nicked my hand, inside the first joint of my forefinger. I expected it to be an irritation, but I soon forgot it entirely. I couldn't let go of the handle. It must have been some sort of horror, or fascination. Besides, she was dead; what difference would it make?

I slowly withdrew it, and more blood bubbled up. I don't know anything about anatomy, and that oversized nightdress hid much of the middle of her body, but wherever it was, it had been effective, and bloody.

I . . . didn't look at her face. You surprise someone like that; I suppose I was the one surprised; I hadn't expected to see anyone. I hadn't expected anyone, alive or dead. I turned back to the window, and wiped the blood from my hands on the curtain. My hand had stopped bleeding though there was an ugly livid mark. Somehow I still didn't want to give up the knife. I gave it a last wipe on the carpet before ducking through the window onto the fire escape.

It seemed hotter outside than it had been inside. I looked at the aircon unit sticking its arse out of the adjacent window; wondered if it worked better than mine did; it was silent. I realized I needed to keep quiet on the metal stairs; don't want to be heard or seen sneaking away from a murder scene, especially with a knife in your hand, presumably the murder weapon. But it is the lot of the petty criminal. You are so often somewhere that you should not be; it is so easy to stumble upon the scene of a less petty crime.

My feet faltered a little on the last flight of stairs and as I slipped and caught myself there was an ugly clatter as the blade of the knife caught on the handrail. I was suddenly reminded of my silly little injury, and lifted my hand to my mouth. It had begun to bleed again.

One of those irritating random thoughts: "my God, so many things you can catch from a transfer of blood!"

I climbed more carefully the rest of the way. I had to tuck the knife into my pocket—handle first—so I could hang from the lowest deck and drop to the ground just behind the dumpster that quite failed to be conveniently below.

Straightening up I withdrew the knife carefully, almost delicately, from my pocket. I stared at it for a while in the half-light. What possessed me?

Now I would have to dispose of it. I was "known to the Police", and they to me. I knew very well that the careful criminal builds an all too familiar edifice, that almost guarantees that he will be caught; whereas the carefree, opportunist. He can only be caught by chance. Noone can fight chance.

I set off along the alley, holding the knife with an air of casual curiosity, imagining that I had just picked it up; found it unlooked-for and unexpected, as was, indeed, true.

At the end of the alley was a pizzeria. Not one of those classy uptown joints full of businessmen making deals with mafiosos, nor one of those midtown joints full of wise-guys promising that the tomato-pie was as good as back in some old country they've never been. It was a rat-infested grot hole. I couldn't imagine the bums wanting to look for scraps in the bins outside a place like that.

I chuckled aloud. When you're homeless you have to be careful what you eat.

The point is that there was an open window to the kitchen, and through the window an open invitation in the form of an open dishwasher. One of those stainless steel ones that open both sides with a cloud of steam hot enough to burn your face off. A rack had just been loaded with utensils and dishes. I just leaned in and dropped the knife into the rack.

I just knew I was going to remember that bit of opportunism forever. Too good ever to repeat.

I went a couple of blocks before checking my reflection. I looked like every other man on the street: like a man who'd had enough of the heat and had gone out into the street and found it was no cooler. Not a trace of blood on me except, I remembered, that cut on my hand. It had stopped bleeding again.

It was another five blocks to my apartment building. I've always been used to the city but in America they do things differently. You have to go everywhere in straight lines. Maybe they think it makes you honest. Maybe it's why I turned to crime. If you grow up in the labyrinth of a medieval European city, you have to keep twisting and turning. All those wide streets, all those straight line and right-angled intersections. My internal navigator was still looking for the quickest route through a city with no straight lines, as if it had never learned that in this city there are only straight lines.

Like the line straight to jail. There were two cop-cars outside my block. For a few more paces I started telling myself I knew perfectly well they weren't there for me. But I was "known to the Police" and they were known to me. Best assumption? Someone ratted me out. But for what? Couldn't be anything too serious I hadn't done anything too serious. So why bother? Because someone ratted me out. Easy arrest, easy conviction. Something for the statistics. I'd oh-so-nearly gone that way before.

No prizes for guessing who. A criminal rival? I suppose you might say that. A jealous lover? Not jealous. Not all that lovely, either. Americans use the word so freely that it has no real weight in their mouths, but when I grew up, it was a word for a lady dog and it was just fine to say it if that was what you were talking about. And it was a word for a bad woman, and you could just about say it if you knew everyone listening was in agreement.

Bitch. The bitch ratted me out. Can't say I was surprised. A couple of things I think I knew about her from the very start. One day she'd rat me out for the sheer hell of it, and that she was a bitch.

Maybe that's what turned me on. She was all about power, but in the bedroom she gaily submitted. I don't mean some sort of S&M shit. I mean she did what I wanted. I didn't even have to ask.

And things had gone sour a couple of weeks ago. Something I wouldn't let her into. She slapped me around a bit. Still makes me smile to think about it. I'm sure there are plenty of men who'd rather die than let a woman strike them; others who'd hit back; others who wouldn't hit back but steadily have their confidence, their manhood—I suppose there is such a thing—eroded. I've been hit plenty of times, so it made me laugh that she was able to hit hard enough to split my lip.

Maybe I should have pretended to be bothered. Contrite. It's hard. I try not to be too controlled. You have to have your eyes open for the good luck, for the opportunities.

I did a smart about face on the pavement, imagining that I decided I forgot something but couldn't remember what it was, and then after a few paces found myself thinking I could do with something to eat.

My feet led me a few blocks back the way I came. I didn't pay really close attention to where I was. I try not to. It relieves the monotony. I dug in my pockets for a few dollars, then remembered why I didn't have any. Bitch.

I confess I started to feel a little anger at this point. I stopped and took a look at myself in a shop window. I looked overheated. Ragged. And thin. I like to tell myself I'm good looking but a long hot night and an empty stomach does a man's looks no good at all.

When I looked up I realized where I was. Her place was just a few twists and turns away. A straight line, ninety degrees, and another straight line. I started wondering. Would she be surprised to see me? At this time of night would she even be there? Bitch was probably out spending my money looking for someone else to bang her.

Perfect. Like I said, I'm a petty criminal. Mostly thieving. I liked the idea of stealing from her. Had a certain symmetry. Besides I knew the place. Easiest sneak-in sneak-out ever. And if the bitch was there?

The thought brought a little knot to my throat and I flushed hotter still, if that was even possible.

If she was there I'd have to give her a little surprise, and then take what I wanted. Give her a fright; rough her up a little.

It was starting to sound like one of those boy's adventure books from when I was a child; Dick Tracey . . . or was it Barton? But petty criminals do rough-up women. I'm pretty sure it's just the big-time players who rape them and then beat them to death.

My hunger had been replaced by a different sensation in my stomach. I ducked down the alleyway behind her block, and as I passed an open window—a kitchen or something—I gave in to the impulse to snatch through, quick as a snake, without breaking my stride. My hand brought back a kitchen knife with a smooth wooden handle.

Noone could have seen my little performance except from behind, but I still did what I always do; I imagined I just picked it up off the floor and was looking at it in puzzlement. I probably even looked around to see who might have dropped it.

I was "known to the Police" and they to me. I know how it works. You look guilty because you are; you are guilty because you look it. When they're questioning you the worst you can do is give answers. Explanations will always bury you. You have to be interested in something else. Last time they pulled me in I obsessed over the sergeant's jeans. They were green for God's sake! And completely wrong for his shoes. I told him so. It became quite the preoccupation.

Denying something is just the same as admitting it. The guilty usually deny. But anyone can get distracted. You can't be guilty if you're distracted.

Her window was a few floors up, and it was open. Or I could imagine it was open. All those aircon units hanging out the windows like Bruegel painted robots. Maybe he did? The dumpster was in exactly the wrong place to get up onto the fire escape, and I wasn't going to put my shoulder to it. I was already hot enough without having a shirt that stank of dumpster.
Handling the knife gingerly by the blade, I slipped the handle into my pocket, and without looking around to see if anyone was watching, jumped up and caught the bottom of the ladder. I knew from memory that it was chained up, so I pulled myself up until I could hook the side of a foot onto it. I was excessively conscious of that sharp kitchen knife sticking out of my pocket. Couldn't imagine what I needed it for, but it was part of the night's loot and I didn't want to lose it.

Getting onto the first platform was an effort. More, as it turned out, than I realized. As I got to the top of the first flight of stairs I was suddenly overtaken by dizziness and realized I was beginning to fall. I flailed out for the handrail and caught it, but as my hand slid down it must've got caught on a loose screw or something. The inside of the first joint of my right forefinger was torn and bleeding. It hurt.

I probably should have turned back there. But I wanted more than just to make the effort worthwhile and more, I realized, since I probably couldn't go back home now. I wanted to be sure that the bitch knew that I knew, and that she got hers in return for my getting mine.

There were three more flights to go, and I was feeling the heat. I had to pull the knife back out of my pocket because climbing the stairs was grinding the back of the blade into my ribs. I needed my left hand for the rail, so I held it in my right, pressing the handle into that irritating little wound as if to keep it from bleeding. It couldn't have bled much, as by the time I reached the top it was sticky, as much with sweat as with drying blood.

Her window was open. I wondered if her aircon was on. Be nice to clean the place out in the cool. I couldn't hear it above the roaring in my ears though. I waited for it to subside, and I was about to grab the frame and climb inside when I thought of my hand, all bloody. Nothing like leaving a handprint in your own blood. I couldn't see how much there was in the half-light, so I resolved to keep my hand on the knife, so that I wouldn't accidentally use it for anything.

Left-handed, I slipped through the window. The curtains were long, heavy and clammy; I tucked my right hand under me and pushed through sideways with my left; the curtains wiped over me like a dishcloth. As I turned and straightened up, a billowing white shape loomed over me. At first I thought it was another curtain, and I made to shove it away. I didn't need to look up at her face to know, and tried to shove her away, first with one hand, then the other.

That oversized nightdress hid most of her torso, and I really couldn't tell what I was pushing against. I only know that when the knife met with resistance I gripped it all the tighter, and slowly drove it in. The knife itself pushed back against me even as she fell away, and the blade slid back into my slick grip, cutting into the inside of the first joint of my first finger; I let go, and the handle of the knife was sucked into the excessive white folds. As she came to rest in front of me I reached out. Her body was hot and wet. Almost as hot and wet as I was; even the hard resistance of the knife handle was unexpectedly hot.

I wondered as I sat waiting; I guess I knew what I was waiting for. It came home to me as the half light revealed how it all ended: with a blood-stained nightdress.


Seeing the Wool for the Sheep

I finally got around to reading Wool, via the omnibus edition, and since singing its praises just adds another voice to a justified clamour, I thought I'd suggest, dear reader, that you take my approval and enjoyment for granted, and I'd write about the things that worried me in this book.

Warning, some of the statements in this post might qualify as spoilers. I won't give anything important away, though.

Wool is Old School SF for the aficionado, or possibly the connoisseur, possibly some other foreign word. It evokes the sociologically centered work of golden age names like Sturgeon, Kornbluth, Aldiss, Harrison, Bova, Silverburg, EF Russell, Bradbury; work that was largely buried by the cyberpunk avalanche and its concomitant wave of high-tech high action cinema that seemed to culminate in The Matrix; at once the apotheosis and antithesis of its own genre, echoing in huge halls the cramped and solipsistic worlds of the sociofuturologists of the 1960s.

I should probably frame that last para. It's intended to exorcise the pretentious twat that lurks inside every critic, no less me.

What worried me about Wool was not its stark vision of the future, nor its almost nihilistic commentary on the nature of man. None of the sociological stuff that ought to breed disquiet in the reader really bothered me. Wool is well aware of its own heritage, and its heritage is books and stories that I grew up with; it tips a nod to William Golding as well as Isaac Asimov (though thankfully Howey's computers benefit from transistors and silicon chips, so they don't take up quite so much room). For me, this was home turf. And that didn't detract from the suspense, the jeopardy, the excitement. I finished it at 3 am last night.

The following worries probably say more about me than they do about Hugh Howey's excellent book. I certainly hope so. I wouldn't want to put you off reading it.

1. The health and safety benefits of modular design and high replacement rates.

What worried me most at first was the staircase. I was initially concerned that its design was non-modular. There doesn't seem to have been a provision for swapping out worn or damaged stairs - not even the handrail. Not only is this an accident waiting to happen, but repairs will be extremely time-consuming and could have a severe impact on the economy. It would be a simple matter to make individual stairs from sheet steel using a specialized pressing and folding machine. They would wear out quickly but replacement would be a matter of a few minutes. As it is each stair is thick enough that it is possible for it to wear smooth, and therefore lose its nice safe planar profile. Which implies another problem: if the stairs go unreplaced for so long, the joints will be at extremely high risk of microfractures caused by repeated impacts - vibration fatigue which leads to catastrophic failure. This translates to a cascade of stairs suddenly breaking loose and bringing several floors worth of the structure down.

2. The quality of life of sheep.

Sheep need the outdoors. We know there are pigs in the silo - more on them below - but the presence of sheep is strongly implied, by the presence of wool. Indeed it is always to be hoped that a book with wool in the title will have at least one sheep between the covers.

Sheep are not known for standing around in barns, and most sheep species spend all year outside, different breeds tolerating different degrees of hardship. Maybe it comes from having lived in Wales, having Welsh blood, that I worry about the wellbeing of sheep that have to live underground. And I have grave doubts about the quality of the wool that would be produced without the constant stimulation of inclement weather.

3. Genetic diversity in Domestic Stock

Along with the humans, there are (among others), dogs and tomatoes. The domestic dog has a ridiculous amount of genetic diversity. Even a fairly small population (in the low hundreds) might well survive a few hundred years without developing severe congenital disorders. The domestic tomato has suffered from a reduction in diversity but efforts have been made in recent years to reintroduce greater diversity through targeted rebreeding with wild stock, which has an extremely high diversity. As long as the hydroponic farms maintain a healthy strain of wild stock, yields of domestic varieties should remain stable for a good long time, but I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable to guess at how long. Domestic pigs are in trouble. Perhaps not as much as bananas and vanilla, but trouble nonetheless. As with many meat species, genetic sustainability (sufficient diversity in the population to resist new threats (e.g. new viruses)) has been sacrificed for higher yields. The silo builders would have been smart enough to begin with as diverse a stock as possible, ideally representing as many domestic breeds as possible, along with representatives of both wild and feral breeds. This would likely make the pigs small, and bad tempered, but with a strong flavour and higher fat content. Pigs do tolerate confined living, especially if they are in contact with people. They are also a much more efficient recycler of dead people than burial.

4. Hydrocarbon economy in confined spaces

Building a silo on top of an oil well seems a pretty smart idea. Refining and burning it as fuel though, seems less smart. Hydroponics are carbon neutral, so you would already have to be producing oxygen for the people and scrubbing the air clean of CO2. This requires some pretty inventive solutions, all of which are net consumers of energy. So a significant amount of the energy generated by burning hydrocarbons would be used up generating oxygen to make it possible to burn hydrocarbons. This is quite apart from all the other products of burning. In order to avoid poisoning everyone with exhaust gases you would have to burn the fuel inside a closed system, and to prevent clogging you would have to use only the lightest fractions obtained in refining, leaving you with an enormous amount of waste oil to dispose of.

Oh, and one last remark:

How hard would automated lens cleaning have really been to implement?


On the role of memory: Part II

I've been agonizing over this since the previous post, as well as researching it in neurological texts and in the cognitive sciences, commentaries on them, and in philosophy. I haven't found any especially satisfying references, so* I'm not going to try to back up my synthetic hypothesis with weighty authority.

What I want to talk about is the past, the present and the future and how, or more specifically, when we experience them.

Below is my scribbled diagram of the "arrow of time" model of how we experience the universe.

This 'hourglass' model presents the Present as a single instant (of 0 duration) where we experience events (or phenomena or epiphenomena); the unknown future transforms into the certain and unchangeable past. (We can leave aside the curious fact that the mathematics of time makes no differentiation between past and future; possibly mathematics is as confused by the hourglass model as I am.)

As a model of history, the hourglass is fine. When dealing with large timescales it presents no real problems. but at very small scales, it does. We experience events as a continuous flow, one thing happening after another; when I see a bird fly past my window, I know it has flown from west to east because even in the fraction of a second that it took, I remember that it appeared at the west side of the frame and disappeared at the east, and crossed my field of view on a continuous vector from west to east. I have a sensation of seeing a bird fly west to east because in each Present instant I remember the preceding Past instant when it was slightly to the west. At least, that's the hourglass theory.

Consider laying the dining table. As you place a plate in each place, you hear the plate touching the table at the same time as you feel it touching at the same time as you see it touching.

Sound travels at about 340 m/s. Light travels at about 300,000,000 m/s. Nerve impulses travel at widely varying speeds, though 100 m/s seems fairly typical. Even over the very small distances between the plate and your brain, the difference between the visual sense and the other two is very very large. Large enough that if we really experienced events in a single instant as they happen, people sitting in the back row at the cinema would experience a substantial lag between seeing the actor's lips move on the screen and hearing them speak**. Why doesn't this happen?

This model leaves out the future altogether. When it comes to understanding our present the future is an unnecessary distraction. Indeed, you'll notice that I don't treat the present as a point here, because although in mathematics it may be, in epiphenomenology (the study of the nature of conscious and unconscious experience), the present is not a point. It's a sort of blur; your sense all get information at different speeds. Were pretty comfortable with the idea that the sense of smell is generally out of sync with the rest of the sense. My dog will chase a cat by following the cat's scent trail around the garden when the cat is in plain view in the middle of the lawn; the dog's present includes smell in a way that ours includes sight and sound; your brain is compensating for the different times at which the same information arrives by creating a lag; a lag that can sometimes be detected. What we call déjà vu is exactly this. And why? Because the only way that the brain can compensate for the variation in the speed of the senses is memory.

We are continuously remembering the present.

This is the only reason why reading works at all. As you read a sentence, the words go into a buffer, to be interpreted, converted into a memory of meaning, once enough of them are present for an experience sufficient to be remembered is formed. This is also the reason why jokes work; to save time (your brain is always trying to find ways to cut down on time and resources), you begin to predict what the memory will be before the joke is completed, but the punchline short-circuits your expectation, giving a feeling of giddiness as the memory has to change. One thinks of Jimmy Carr's infamous mosquito joke.

All this is the reason why you can write events out of order; why the editing of Pulp Fiction works; why it is even possible to start a chapter:

Sir Hargen was uncomfortable in the saddle; he had set of half an hour earlier after a hurried breakfast of indifferent eggs, having roused unexpectedly from a deep sleep, dreaming of riding in a carriage. And here he was back on his bony old nag.

It isn't always a good idea to do this, but it works. Once you've read the sentence you remember the events of Sir Hargen's morning in order.

Going back to my earlier post, I believe that this is why Bob's technique works, and the reason why Adam's technique, when it does fail, does so so spectacularly, is because the memory does not have enough time or information to fully form in the reader. The reader literally can't remember the details.

* oh all right: a nod to Daniel Dennett's "Consciousness <scare quotes>Explained</scare quotes>". The excellent Tom Stoppard play "Jumpers" includes a satirical treatment of the way that philosophers choose the titles for their books which seems to apply especially well to Dennett. But it is an entertaining book that certainly helps the student to think in the right way, (much like Wittgenstein), even if it doesn't really explain consciousness.
** in a big cinema, the sound would take something like a tenth of a second; easily detectable to us humans. The light would take a ten-millionth of a second; definitely undetectable.


Take your time.

I am not on the side of the author, nor on the side of the reader. I believe that the author has to fight his own corner, and in the brave new world of electronic publishing where noone needs to listen to professional critics any more (whose side were they on, anyway?), the reader has at last acquired a voice, with the result that some independent authors rewrite and republish—even entirely retelling a story—after listening to reader reaction.

I am on the side of the story.

Stories can take many forms, so knowing what a story ought to be is not a straightforward matter of applying a few patterns. My authors will know that I'm as likely to cite examples from Buffy and Xena as I am to cite Kipling or du Maurier, Homer or Chaucer, Shakespeare or Wertenbaker.

From time to time this editor comes across shining examples of what not to do when telling a story, and this post is about one of them.

Last night I stayed up a little later than I should have, watching a movie that in some ways I'm glad I watched. Which is to say that if I weren't a story editor, I probably would have said the n hours of my life I won't get back thing. (I'd never say that in a review, but informally or for comic effect I might say it.)

The movie was Babylon A.D. , a Franco-American Sci-Fi actioner from 2008. Cutting straight to the chase, the film got a metacritic score of 26% and rotten tomatoes gave it 7%. Those are not good scores. And well justified.

Some critics complained about shabby action sequences, and from the point of view of American audiences who are used to brassfests* like Heat or Total Recall, I can understand this; the two running battles are shot through crowds, scaffolding and parked cars, and choppy cutting means that the viewer sees very little detail of these scenes. This is typical of French action films, where (apart from car chases, that the French are if anything even more fetishistic about than Americans) big, complex or lengthy scenes of violence are often distanced from view by this sort of technique, in order to give more punch to key moments like the hero getting shot, which tend to be extremely graphic.

But that is cinematography, not storytelling. You could do that stuff differently and it wouldn't help or hinder the story.

The acting (as an aside) is mentionable at best. Michelle Yeoh acts her little cotton socks off, as always, and comes across as if about 80% of all her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Mélanie Thierry (the one whose eyes are on different continents) does a passable imitation of Elijah Wood, and Vin Diesel is indescribable. He has a quality in almost all his movies of "surely this guy is too smart to be playing that part?".

Actually what does for this movie is its treatment of its story, which suffers in equal measure from Xeno's Dichotomy Paradox and its usual corollary, back-cutting.

The dichotomy paradox maintains that before you can get somewhere, you must first get halfway there, and once halfway, you must then cover half the remaining distance before you can cover all of it, and once there (three quarters of the original journey), you must cover half the remaining distance again, and so on ad infinitum, HENCE you can't ever get there. Wikipedia probably explains it better than I do.

The manifestation of this effect in a story is (sort of) inverted. Sometimes it is caused by the writer realizing he has reached the halfway point and therefore seeing the end in sight. Sometimes it is caused by the writer realizing that the book is getting overlong. Whatever the reasons might be, in the third quarter of the book the writer takes half as long to narrate the same amount of action as in the first half, and then in the seventh eighth half as much again, and then in the fifteenth sixteenth half as much again, and so on. The pace of action accelerates exponentially as you approach the end, and as the pace of action accelerates, so the detail starts to go amiss.

There are big jumps in distance and time (which in the movies are glossed-over usually by giving the main characters a makeover and a change of costume). Plot details that would have made sense of the story are delivered with every increasing economy until they're no longer sufficiently detailed to be understood or recognized. Character development is inverted, as there is more an more action and less and less interaction, characters are gradually reduced to mere cyphers.

When the author realizes just how differently the first and second halves of the book come across, he goes back and begins thinning the plot and characterization in the first half in order to better match the second, and in order to avoid leaving Chekhov's guns and other dangling plot opportunities, until, like in this movie, there isn't enough detail in the first half for you to understand why anyone is doing anything, and it becomes a loosely strung together collection of rule-of-cool badassery punctuated by token tragedy, onto whose tail end Hollywood tacked an incomprehensible Shawshank ending**.

In the movies it is very very common to cut the details that make sense of the story, because producers are loath to cut scenes that cost a lot of money to shoot. Even if the actors take a week to shoot five minutes of dialog, those five minutes cost less than shooting 5 seconds of car chase.

In a book, you don't have the financial issue. Indeed if your writing is good and the story is strong, the longer it is the more value for money the reader will get. In theory. I believe that length is a much less critical issue than completeness. You can write a complete, strong, story in ten, twenty, forty thousand words. But if the story demands two hundred, then that is what it should get.

It can take a lot of discipline to keep yourself from rushing the second half, but the more books you write, the more you will realize that it is worth it. That the second half should take at least twice as long to write as the first half, because it needs to be twice as good. The Marriage at Cana (John 2: 1-11) has an important message for the writer: at the feast, you must serve the best wine last, because the most articulate critics are generally the ones that drink least.

* oh all right: a 'brassfest' is a film where everyone is armed with fully automatic weapons and there are lengthy action sequences that involve epic quantities of rounds being fired, scattering ejected empty bullet casings (brass) in all directions. Hot Shots Part Deux (a surprisingly enjoyable and gloriously silly sequel) has a scene where Topper fires his M60E3 for so long that he is buried under a pile of 7.62 casings.

** named after what is for me the worst final scene of any film, ever, a Shawshank ending is when there is a final optimistic or feelgood scene that bears little or no relation to the themes, atmosphere or general message of the rest of the film.


How does (and should) an author respond to story development suggestions

When story editing for novelists I sometimes come up with concrete suggestions for plot or character development. Faced with my suggestions my authors fall into the following general categories:

1) lalalalalalala I can't hear you
Nothing wrong with it, and I generally pick up on it quite fast. These ones often avoid reading novels in the genre that they write in for fear of being influenced. There seem to be lots of (good) reasons for this. Once I've caught on, I don't make any explicit or concrete suggestions.

2) That's an interesting suggestion.
They listen politely, but take my suggestion as an indication that something needs to be changed or added, but they will do their very best to do something other than what I suggested. I can keep suggesting things as it seems to stimulate their creativity, if only to avoid doing what I suggested.

3) Oh, wow, that would be great! Or I could...
In my opinion this is the type of response to cultivate. Not only does it make me feel worthwhile (which is nice), but I think that authors who hear other peoples' ideas and use them to develop their own ideas are the ones who remain fresh the longest. They're also the easiest to talk to. What's especially gratifying is when I suggest something to address some issue of plot or character, and in the next draft the author has created something that I would never have thought of.

4) That's what I was originally going to do, but then I thought it wouldn't work/people wouldn't believe it/it was too sad
You know who you are. I think of my job as one of serving the story, even when the author isn't. Several times in the last 12 months I've been digging around for what is wrong with a story, found what I think the story should be, told the author and had the author say "yeah, in the previous draft but one, it did that, but my mom/significant other/best mate/beta readers didn't like it". It's a bit like archaeology. I really believe that the original story, the right one, leaves enough traces behind that you can work out what it was.

5) Oh... ok.
Probably the hardest author to understand is the one who just goes away and does what you suggested. I always worry that they are being too deferential or I'm being too authoritative, and it's hard, after they've rewritten twenty-thousand words, to say to them "you didn't have to do what I suggested".

In general, an author who can pick and choose in accordance with his mood, between all of these responses, is the one who's going to improve his craft the fastest. If that is indeed your aim.

But be aware that the before the advent of the printed novel, the best stories could mature and develop through the response of the audience, each time the story was told. Each time you share your story idea with someone who isn't an author or editor, their responses and suggestions will be, and rightly, intended to push the story towards what they would like to read. Someone who is an author or editor will want to push the story towards what they think will appeal to readers, or will make a satisfying or elegant literary story, or goodness knows what else. I think that as long as you remember who you are writing for, you can make good decisions about what suggestions to take or leave, and how to communicate this to the suggester without upsetting them.