Sunday, October 14, 2012

Felix Baumgartner Breaks Sound Barrier

Unless you've been hiding under a rock today, you already knew that Felix Baumgartner made his parachute jump from more than 26 miles up, and made a maximum speed of 833.9mph - faster than the speed of sound - in freefall on the way down. Among the records he broke were Col. Joe Kittinger's altitude, freefall time, and freefall speed records. This stuff interests me - there's a scene like that in Irreconcilable Differences, of course, but really, right now, congratulations belong to Baumgartner and his team - including Kittinger himself - for a successful jump, a safe landing, generally not punching a very large, messy hole in the desert floor. -JRS

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Taos Toolbox 2013

Taos Toolbox 2013 is looking for applicants. What's Taos Toolbox, you ask? Well, you asked the right guy. Taos Toolbox is a master level writing workshop, taught by Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress at the Taos Ski area in New Mexico. The website for it is here:

I was at Taos Toolbox 2011. I came in with some chops. So did everyone else who was there. Even if it hadn't been for an advanced graduate course worth of instruction crammed into two weeks, even without instruction by writers who are some of the best in the business - Walter Jon Williams, Nancy Kress, and guest lecturer Jack Skillingstead - having two weeks away from my real life, workshopping my peers' work was incredible. I learned a lot just from those people - things like building magic systems that don't make me itch.

And then you get the instruction. How novels work, down on the nitty gritty level, and how to plan and execute them. What details you include for the sense of reality, and what ones you don't. How your plot advances, what it reveals about the story and when. There's much more, of course, but this was the stuff I went to Taos for.

Last year, when crowing about Taos, I used hypothetical examples. This time I'm going to lay out a personal example of what I got from the instruction at Taos.

All my training, lo these many years ago, was in short stories. When I wrote Looking Glass, it came out as a 50,000 word short story. It didn't even have chapters. Short stories are different animals, because you can keep the whole plot in your head and make it up as you go. I still like Looking Glass, but the plot is simple and linear. Cath and her team are attacked, she survives, they don't, and the rest is a quest for revenge and justice that goes like a traceroute from one node to the next until she finds the perp. The roadmap I had for writing it was simply that. The traceroute. I knew that kind of storyline would work for the story I was telling, because it's how Cliff Stoll put together one of my favorite nonfiction books, The Cuckoo's Egg. Cath's mom issues were one of those kismet things that fell into place during revision and made the book far better than its original, linear plot allowed. (Let's say I needed to do some nonstandard things with the fourth wall and needed to have set the precedent for doing so all the way through.) It came out remarkably well.

As I progressed to later work, it become painfully obvious that the more complex the plot I tried to invent, the more my existing planning was just not up to the job, and that a novel is just too big to try and keep the whole plot in my head. Finding the plot, asking, begging kismet to once again drop the plot element in my lap that would make the novel really sing doesn't work reliably. Brass and Steel is in the polishing phases now. There are 56 chapters in the current beta, as I go into the polishing phase of this novel. I wrote 69 other chapters that won't be in it. That's no way to write a novel. At Taos, some time in the first week, I was finally able to ask the right questions to tell myself what the novel is about. What the main character, Dante Blackmore wants. It's a redemption story. Dante starts the novel lost, and over the course of the novel finds some measure of redemption (and what that means.) Since Taos, the process for finishing the novel has amounted to chipping away anything that doesn't support that, and fleshing out all the missing pieces for how that is accomplished.

The future: At Taos, one of my fellow students and a very fine writer volunteered the novel she was stuck on up for storyboarding. I've never been one to pre-plan a novel that way before. It always seemed to me that it takes the joy out of writing if you know what's going to happen next. What happened amazed me. Really. Laying the whole book out on stickinotes on the wall gave us the whole flow of the plot, all its emotional beats, and also where it lost its way forward, and with the author of the novel, Walter Jon Williams, and the gang of us, we hashed out the problems and laid out a plot line that worked in four or five freaking hours. It took me over a year to really understand what Brass and Steel: Inferno wanted to be about. Storyboarding this other writer's novel let us see the emotional beats of the novel clearly, and tune them directly. In hours. I want that. Next novel: Getting storyboarded. I have stickinotes. I just need to find wall space.

Writing is hard. When the finished, published book looks effortless on rereading, it means you've done your job. Taos is hard. It's no mean feat to read, critique, and workshop and in part, write 197,000 words in two weeks, when you're also spending four hours a day in instruction. But if you're an up-and-comer, if you write and you've sold but you want to grow your talent, if you're stuck and you don't know why, do Taos. It's hard. It's not cheap. But it's worth it.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Simplepi Blogger Comment/Reply Processing

Just in case there're any simplepi users out there desperately searching (as I was) for how to deal with comments from Blogger/Blogspot, here's the code that works for me. I've broken the code into what should be legitimate PHP lines so wrapping doesn't look so dang bad on my website, but some sanity checking after cut-and-paste is probably in order. The actual PHP code is available in the downloads section of my website in functions.php. (Scroll all the way down.)

//I'm not sure why I had to put the namespace link in this tag when all the other get_item_tags calls don't need it. I know it does not work without that namespace link, however. Took quite a while to find where Blogger actually got that xml from.

$temp= $item->get_item_tags(
//Blogger puts all kinds of useless crap in their post_id field, so while get_id is a standard method, we have to do a bunch of explode processing to sieve it out. There are probably better ways in PHP, but I learned LISP at a young and impressionable age, and this is the LISP way. Don't throw away the temp array, as we need other elements from it shortly.
$postid=$temp[2]; //this one is the post id.
$temp=explode('.',$temp[1]); //this one is the blog ID. 
$blogid=$temp[0]; //Now set the blogid to the value we need.
//with those values gathered, we can generate the url to link back to the specific article reply page. We could probably also generate the reply feed url and feed that to simplepie, but why make work for ourselves making our own reply page?
//Now we have all the pieces we need to dynamically generate the html for a Comments: /somenumber/ link that points to the Blogger replies page. It's straightforward PHP from here.

I don't normally post code snippets in my blog - it's not that kind of blog - but I stood on the shoulders of giants to get simplepie working in as little time as it took, and this was the one bit I had to figure out for myself. -JRS

Monday, October 8, 2012

Web Site Changes

As promised, I've finished the website changes. Other than the sudden appearance of book reviews in the area that used to be just my blog feed, there shouldn't be any major differences. You can subscribe to both the blog and book reviews (goodreads) RSS feeds on the front page.

Under the hood it's a different story. I've finally gotten switched over to simplepie in place of the antediluvian magpie, and simplepie's ability to handle and blend multiple feeds is why my reviews are now showing up in the blog window.

re: Twitter: I was going to hook Twitter in the same way, and in fact the code is in place to do exactly that, but it's turned off, as I have yet to say anything of much substance on twitter. Plus, I know some folks who like blogs can't stand twitter (I lean this way myself, but I'm getting over it), so for now they'll stay unblended. Look for me on twitter as Ubergeek72

There is, as they say, one more thing. All the pages in this site now pass w3c validation. I went through and fixed all those & signs in cut-and-pasted URLs, fixed where my dynamic HTML wasn't closing tags, and a hundred other little things.

As always, if you find bugs, please let me know.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

In which I prove I'm not dead.

So yeah, it's more than three months since I last posted to this blog. I've been head-down, banging out Brass and Steel: Inferno. Since I finished it in May, I've hacked about 10,000 words out of it and put a couple thousand new words in. Hopefully that's the end of the heavy revisions (replotting, etc). I'm also beta-testing my Firearms: A Quick and Dirty Guide for the Non-Shooting Writer document, version 2. And finally, I'm doing major surgery on my website to switch over to simplepie to aggregate this blog, my goodreads RSS feed, and twitter, so watch for those changes on the website coming soon. Also starting to cook ideas for Brass and Steel II in my head. Hoping to start storyboarding it out (new technique I learned at Taos) this week. I was at ChiCon 7, but participated very little (my wife and I were both not feeling very well, and the ChiCon folks didn't invite me to any panels when I offered.) Met up with a bunch of the Taos Toolbox 2011 gang, including Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress, our instructors, which was a lot of fun. Many pictures, especially of the Hugo ceremony, can be found here: Click These Words. Yes, new DSLR is sensitive enough to use the 500mm catadioptric lens under stage lighting. :) Finally, I will be attending MileHiCon again this year, and I am on panels. More info on that here as I continue to dig out. -JRS

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