Not all of them work as planned

Successful pranks are heard about. Unsuccessful ones are buried in the sands of time. Here is one from more than a half-century ago.

 ###

I entered Dave and Larry’s dorm room and saw Dave was alone, reading from a book of plays into a tape recorder. (Remember, I said over fifty years ago). He and Larry were both trying out for the annual school play and were recording their voices so that they could tune up their auditions.
 
I asked Dave if he knew a mutual acquaintance’s phone number. He stopped the recorder.
 
“No, I don’t, but Larry might,” Dave said. He started thumbing through Larry’s little black book.
 
“Hey, here is an interesting entry, ‘Diane – met on the bus from Bakersfield’. Hmmm. I don’t remember Larry every mentioning anyone named Diane.”
 
“Me neither,” I said.
 
And so, the germ of the prank was planted.

###

Dave was in his dorm room alone and reading from a book of plays into a tape recorder. The phone rang. Without turning off the recorder, Dave answered.
 
“Hello. No Larry is not here right now. Can I take a message?”
 
A moment of silence, then . . .
 
“Tell him that Diane, the girl he met on the bus from Bakersfield called and that it is urgent that he call back as soon as he can. Right, got it.”
 
Another pause.
 
“You sound upset. What’s the matter?”
 
A longer moment of silence.
 
“Oh, my gosh! That’s horrible. You need help right away. No, I don’t know when Larry will be back. But, I can help. Tell me where you are, and I will get there as soon as I can.”
 
After a few more moments, Dave hangs up the phone, and dashes out of the room, still leaving the recorder running.
 
Then another friend and I walk by the open doorway.
 
“I never saw Dave move so fast,” I said. “And look, he even left the recorder on. I enter the room, rewind the tape, and turn the recorder off.

###

Several hours later, Larry returns and turns in for the night. At around 3 AM, Dave, reeking of liquor, slams open the door, turns on the light, mumbles something incoherent, staggers across the room and falls into Larry’s bed on top of him.
 
“Dave, what are you doing?” Larry exclaims. “Turn off the light and get in your own bed!”
 
Dave stands, mumbled something more, clomps over to his own bed, falls into it, and apparently passes out.
 
Larry calls out for Dave to turn off the light, but gets no answer. Grumbling, the roommate turns it off himself and gets back to sleep.

###

So now, the bait has been set.
 
In the morning, Larry will confront Dave about what happened to him the previous night. He was such a mild manner guy, after all. The behavior was totally out of character.
 
Dave would deny everything.
 
Then some time later, when Larry was doing his play practice, he would turn on the recorder and hear about the phone call.
 
He would confront Dave a second time, but Dave would stick to his story. He had never stayed up pass midnight, and that was only when he was cramming for an exam the next morning.
 
Larry would then call Diane, but of course, she would deny everything as well. She never placed a call at all.
 
And then . . .
 
Well, that was enough preparation. What happened next would just naturally evolve from Larry’s reactions.

###

So, the next morning, Larry went off to breakfast while Dave apparently was sleeping in. Dave waited in the room for Larry’s return so that things could get rolling.
 
But Larry did not return. Evidently, after breakfast he went directly to his next class.
 
A day passed, and then another.
 
Finally, Dave (and I) could stand it no longer.
 
“Say, Larry,” Dave said. “Are you still using the recorder in preparation for the auditions?”
 
“Yes, I am,” Larry said. “And oh, about that. When I turned it on. I heard some of yours but rather than moving down the tape, I just started recording over it. Sorry.”
 
And that was the end of that.
 
Well, even so, an evening of prank planning was still better than doing homework.

An untold tale about Richard Fyneman

When I was at Caltech, Richard Fyneman, the renowned physicist, gave a one-hour seminar each week entitled Physics X. It was not in the catalogue. There was no college credit. You just showed up in the lecture hall and Fyneman would ask, “OK, what shall we discuss today?”

He was a great lecturer. With no preparation ahead of time, he would explain some hard to understand aspect of physics that was wonderfully clear. You took notes furiously, because a half-hour or so after leaving the hall, the brilliant insight that you thought you now grasped would begin to fade.

I remember to this day that one time on of us sitting in the audience said something like the following:

“Professor Fyneman, suppose you are in a spaceship going very nearly the speed of light. You are flying parallel to a long mirror extending far into space alongside you. You look out and see your reflection in the mirror.

“Now it take some time, not much, but some time for the light from your spaceship to travel to the mirror and then bounce back to you. This means that the reflection will not be exactly aligned but lag behind slightly. Since you, yourself, are going so swiftly, the angle would be noticable. You would have to crane your neck to see your reflection.

“So by measuring the angle of the lag, you could then figure out how fast you are going, and that would violate Special Relativity.”

“An interesting problem,” Fyneman said and retreated to the long blackboard behind him. He drew a chalk line from left to right and turned to smile at us, “That is the mirror,” he said. Then somewhere in the middle of the board, he drew a little crude spaceship, a beam of light exiting from it and the reflection coming back.

Then he calculated for a few minutes and presented the results of his calculation, an equation for what the angle would be as a function of how fast the spaceship was moving.

“Very good, young man, you are right. You can tell how fast you are going. Special Relativity is wrong.”

There was a stunned silence. How could this possibly be? Special Relativity was a fundamental cornerstone of physics. It had been around for almost sixty years. Validated by scores if not hundreds of independent experiments by the greatest minds in the world. How could an undergrad, a freshman no less, come up with a thought experiment that crashed everything down?

For a few moments, no one dared speak. Then Fyneman cocked his head to the side and returned to the board. He corrected one of his intermediate equations, fixed up the results and turned back to address us. I made a simple error. The angle is independent of the spacecraft’s speed. Special Relativity is saved.”

Everyone laughed at what had just transpired. Of course, no freshman was going to bring all of physics crashing down. If I or anyone else in the room had come up with the formula for what the lag angle would be, we would have checked our work probably a dozen times before making any pronouncements to a room filled with other (aspiring) physicists.

On further thought, what had happened was pure Richard Fyneman. The utter unlikelihood of a freshman coming up with something that would completely upset all of physics must have never entered his mind. Instinctively, he just followed where the equations were leading him. And to me, that was an example of what it took to make true breakthroughs, to be a Nobel Prize winner – ignore the shackles that constrain our thinking onto paths that have been traveled many times before. Who knows what wondrous thoughts might then result.

© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy

Skylark Three

What? You say. You’re not going to devote any attention to an out-of-date, poorly written, politically incorrect novel, are you? The protagonist even commits genocide!

Well, yes I am – with a focus on what it has meant to me rather than its flaws. You can find out what others think of the book by looking at the reviews in Goodreads.

First, some background on the story. What you will read here is not even slightly accurate, even more over the top than the original, but it is the way that I choose to remember things.

Skylark Three is the second volume in the Skylark trilogy by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, first published in 1930. It features as the hero, Richard Seaton, earth’s most intelligent man — and fastest draw. The villlian of the series, Blackie Duquesne, is as fast as Seaton with his right, but a shade slower with his left, and that made all the difference.

Seaton, being earth’s most intelligent man, uses 1920’s technology to build the Skylark, a spaceship in which he zooms all about the galaxy. In Skylark Three, he discovers the bad news. The Fenachrone are coming! These guys are so evil they even blow up entire planets just for target practice.

Being earth’s most intelligent man, Seaton realizes that our technology infrastructure of the 1920’s is not sophisticated enough to produce a weapon to stop the Fenachrone. So, for roughly the first two-thirds of the novel, as I hazily recall, he visits planet after planet, searching for the advanced technology base that he needs.

Finally, he arrives at what looks like a promising one. The inhabitants are ecstatic. Richard Seaton has come to save them! They give him a lab to work in. Early in the morning of the first day everyone watches on TV Seaton enter the lab to start.

They stay glued to their sets the entire day, seeing the exterior of the lab and nothing on the inside. Finally, around 5PM, Seaton emerges. The entire planet goes wild in celebration. They knew that Seaton was good, but to build the weapon to defeat the Fenacrone in only a single day — unbelievable!

The reporters swam him. “What is the weapon?” they ask? “A brain liquefier?” “A transmorgrifier?” “An incredible shrinking ray?”

“It has only been one day,” Seaton says. “I don’t have the answer yet.”

“What, are you crazy?” “What are you doing out here?” “The Fenachrone are coming! The Fenachrone are coming! They blow up entire planets for target practice!” “You should be back in the lab working harder. What are you doing out here?”

“Well, first of all I am going to relax with a few cocktails while my wife serenades me with a violin concerto or two. She is quite accomplished, you know. Then, a quiet dinner with her, and after that, off to bed for a good night’s sleep. I will be back in the lab the first thing tomorrow morning.”

“But the Fenacrone are coming!”

Seaton paused for a second.  “You just have to pace yourself,” he said.

[Spoiler alert] Surprisingly (?) Seaton does come up with a weapon and almost single-handedly blasts into atoms every last Fenacrone, man, woman, and child.

Anyway, that is how I choose to remember the book. I don’t dare reread it because I know I will be disappointed.

###

So what does this book mean to me personally? Well, for thirty years I worked at an aerospace company, helping to build data processing software for some of our national assets. These systems were one-of-a-kind, doing things that had never been done before. As such, there seldom were models to copy. Everything was new from the ground up.

The process started with a Request for Proposal (RFQ) sent out by the government to companies that seemed to be qualified to build a brain liquefier or transmorgrifier, or whatever.

To respond, each competitor assembled a team of engineers whose specialties covered one of the technologies possibly needed for a solution. Nobody had a Richard Seaton on their staff.

Each of the engineers wrote a first draft of what he thought would contribute to a final solution. Everyone’s writings were posted on the wall for everyone else to read. (This was decades ago. Personal computers and networks had not been invented yet).

Then, armed with the knowledge of what others were doing, each engineer wrote a second draft that attempted to make the whole proposal more coherent.

“Oh, I see you are using two-step logon verification in your section on the operating system. I will mention that in my write up of the Operational Concept.”

This process was iterated, gradually improving the proposal document towards the goal of being understandable and making sense. The writing staff shrunk with each cycle; fewer and fewer engineers took over what they now understood from less able ones who had good ideas but could not convey them clearly.

Eventually, the time was up. The proposal had to be in the government’s hands by a deadline or the contractor could be disqualified from even being evaluated at all.

Most of the time, more or less, this process worked. The final submittal was good enough that the contractor, at the least, would not be embarrassed by what he was handing in. And who knew? What was submitted just might be good enough to win. After all, all of the competitors had the same challenge.

On a few occasions, however, the iterations did not work. There were many cycles, of course, but as the deadline approached, somehow, the words became no better integrated than they had been at the start.

On a few (thankfully) such occasions, with only, say, seventy-two, hours left, I had been the last engineer remaining, and the proposal was a complete mess. It would be an embarrassment to submit. And not handing one in at all was not an option. Both of these choices ran the risk of being dropped from the bidder’s list for the next RFP.

Then, with fewer chances to bid, work would eventually dry up. The more qualified engineers would leave for other companies. The less talented ones that remained would be even less able to respond adequately to whatever RFPs did come in.

In my over-active imagination, over a span of a few years a death spiral resulting in complete collapse of the company was a distinct possibility. The weight of the world was on my shoulders. The needle on my stress meter pinned itself on the right, deep into the red.

And in those situations, I recalled Skylark Three.

What I had to do was a mere pimple on the face of the adversity that was handled by Richard Seaton, I realized. He stopped the Fenachrone, for crying out loud. They were the ones that blew up entire planets for target practice!

And how did he do it? Put in an honest full day’s work, have a calming dinner, a good night’s sleep, and start again fresh the next day. If he could save the entire galaxy from the Fenachrone, the guys who blew up entire planets for target practice, then certainly I should be able to handle my petty problem as well.

I did knock off at 5 PM even though there was only three days left, got my sleep and continued to work through what had to be done the next day.

Self-delusion? Sure it was? But remembering about Skylark Three was what got my stress meter back into the green.

© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy

Novel writing rules – part 3

Previous blogs discussed the two of three books dealing with rules for writing novels. In this one, I talk about the third — The Fantasy Fiction Formula.

As I presented before, the situation is summarized by the famous quote by W. Somerset Maugham –

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Nevertheless, I plunge on.

The Fantasy Fiction Formula (FFF) is written by Deborah Chester, author of over forty novels and a professor at the University of Oklahoma. As might be expected, unlike the first two books discussed here, one does not have to dig a bit to find what is relevant to writing fantasy novels. Indeed, for anyone starting out, I think FFF is required reading.

The scope is encyclopedic, covering the usual topics of story structure, characterization, viewpoint, etc. The material is dense and would take many readings to be absorbed fully. A beginner might well be overwhelmed and perhaps start that first novel on some other day.

One thing in particular that I liked was Chester’s use of examples. Reminiscent of the format for newspaper bridge columns, she first illustrates the incorrect way to accomplish a writing goal and follows it with a much better way from her own writing.

There are rules aplenty in FFF, but unlike Contagious and Save the Cat, they do not serve as chapter titles or section headings. Instead, they appear in the text without fanfare as part of the ongoing exposition. So, my goal here was not one of twisting rules as presented to make them relevant for novel writing, but instead to detect them when they were encountered. It was like a treasure hunt, extracting pithy gems from the surrounding matrix.

What I found is presented below. I make no claim as to its completeness. I am sure that I missed many more ‘rules’ than I discovered. And presenting them without the surrounding context does them no justice at all. The serious fantasy writer should read the book from cover to cover. No, that’s not quite right. The serious fiction writer should read FFF from cover to cover.

The beginning

“Get your protagonist into trouble in the opening sentence.”

Not the first chapter, not the first paragraph, but the opening sentence! Chester does not pull any punches to soften what she has to say.

In the first few paragraphs, “introduce the protagonist, the story goal, and the central story question.”

In the first thirty pages in addition to the above, present:

“A clearly established viewpoint

Setup of story situation

Location and time of day

Introduction of immediate antagonist

Scene action and conflict

Hints for later developments

Small hooks to grab reader curiosity

First complications”

In the first paragraphs! In the first 10,000 words! This strikes me as a pretty tall order, but Chester asserts that it can be done and easily.

Characterization

“For your protagonist, select four or five positive traits…and then mix in a couple of flaws”

Complexity of character “is achieved when a character’s inner problem or flaw is in conflict with that character’s external situation or behavior.”

“True nature is revealed by what a character does under stress”

“George R.R. Martin’s popularity notwithstanding, its best if you avoid tacking an ensemble cast of multiple protagonists until you’re an extremely skilled and experienced writer.”

Scenes

Chester has an interesting take on the basic elements of a novel — narration, scenes, and what she calls sequels. She devotes several chapters to discussing scenes and sequels, and I found them to be the most instructive part of FFF.

Scenes are “confrontations between at least two characters in disagreement over a specific objective.”

“Every scene. . . is designed to remove the protagonist’s options, one by one, until the protagonist has no choice but to face the villain in the story’s climax.”

“Following a scene,…it is necessary to give your readers a breather. You do this by allowing your protagonist some processing time, plus a chance to react to whatever hurtful things have been said or done to him.”

“Dialog advances plot by stating the scene goal.”

“Never shift viewpoint within a scene.”

The middle

“…you can’t set up a novel with only one, super-huge, overwhelming plot question…and nothing else…You need more than that because no matter how clever or intriguing it is, if that’s all there is, readers will grow tired of it.”

The ending

“[The] protagonist is cornered and faced with a moral dilemma. All the options are poor but the protagonist must choose one and act on it according to his or her true nature”

Glossary

“Don’t even think of adding a glossary at the end of your manuscript. You are not Mr. Tolkien and do not rate his privileges.”

Now, I learn this! The second editions of my three books are already going to press. One of my motivations for producing them was so that I could include glossaries. Some readers of Master of the Five Magics complained about the usage of archaic architectural terms in my description of the Iron Fist castle and that detracted from their enjoyment of the novel.

And once I got rolling with glossary entries, I discovered that it was a lot of fun to include expanded material on other little grace notes in the text. Oh, well.

###

As I said, the list above is only the tip of the iceberg, a sampling of ‘rules’ that happened to resonate with me. What gems did you find? I would like to see your comments.

© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy

Novel writing rules – part 2

My previous blog discussed the first of three books dealing with rules for writing novels. In this one, I talk about the second — Save the Cat.

As I presented before, the situation is summarized by the famous quote by W. Somerset Maugham –

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Nevertheless, I plunge on.

Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, is a book about writing screenplays. As one might expect, not all of the material there applies to novels — things which have a much broader scope. But I think it is an interesting exercise to examine what is presented through the lens of a novelist.

The first five chapters cover many aspects of screen writing:  developing the logline, ten movie genres, characteristics of the movie protagonist, and so on. There is a lot well worth reading there, even for the novelist, but for my purposes here, I will focus on chapter six: The Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics.

Immutable Laws — is that on topic or what!

I found that some of the immutable laws apply to novel writing and some did not. Here’s the roll call

Save the Cat — applies

“The hero has to do something when we first meet him so that we like him and want him to win”

When I look back at some of the reviews of my first novel, Master of Five Magics, written over thirty years ago, I am struck about some on the comments that said that the hero, Alodar, was driven, competent, etc. but he was also arrogant — not a likeable character.

Now I never had Alodar kick old ladies out of the way or stomp on babies, but there it was — arrogant. Who knew?

Shortly after finishing my read of Save the Cat, (within hours)  my wife and I saw the movie “Me Before You”. In the very first scene, the male protagonist is hurrying off to work, and as he crosses the street is hit by a car and becomes a paraplegic. But in a single line tossed off to his wife as he had left the apartment had been something like, “I will take care of dinner tonight”.

Wow, I marveled. He had saved the cat!

In the second scene, the female protagonist who would eventually become the caregiver for the injured man tells two women standing before her counter at a bakery  something like, “They have fewer calories if you eat them standing up.” The customer guilt is swept away. She too had saved the cat!

Thereafter, I paid much closer attention to the structure of the movie than I had ever done before, and was agog at how much advice of the book had been followed in the screenplay. The movie was written by the author of the novel, which is unusual I guess, but either Jojo Moyes was also a reader of the book or she has incredible screen writing instincts.

So why not go ahead and save the cat in a single protagonist centered novel? It only takes one line or so, and if no big deal is made of it, it should only help.

Now, before reading Save the Cat, I had already finished my revisions to the second edition of Master of the Five Magics, and it was cast in concrete for the production process. I hurriedly reread what I had written in the new Chapter Two, and to my relief, coincidentally there happened to be a line or two that might qualify as following the rule.

Yes, cat saving is definitely something to be aware of when writing a novel.

The Pope in the Pool — applies — but how does one do it for a novel?

Bury the “backstory or details of the plot that must be told to the audience in order for them to understand what happens next.”

Well, OK. No argument on the validity of this one. But how does one do this? How does one bury essential information so that it does not get in the way?

The book does go further than just stating the rule. It presents a technique that works for movies — have some interesting visual going on for the viewers to watch while the explanatory words are happening as a voice-over — like the pope taking a swim in the Vatican City swimming pool.

Double Mumbo Jumbo — doesn’t apply

“Audiences will accept only one piece of magic per movie”

This is a rough one to follow in a fantasy novel, although it probably has merit for a more general audience. What Snyder is saying is something like – “Magic, OK. but magic and aliens, and time travel and …” is definitely not OK.

Laying Pipe — applies

“Audiences can stand only so much pipe”

Snyder defines pipe as all of the initial setting structure that is necessary in order for the story to get off the ground.

My reaction to this was, “of course, but in so doing one is creating downstream problems that in movies are solved by Popes in the Pools. Not so easy to follow in an novel.

Too Much Marzipan — maybe applies

I suppose that all of us writers aspire to be more than just formula hacks — churning out prose that does not have literary value. So we introduce little tidbits along the way and they all tie together in the final satisfying reveal of what is actually going on.

Perhaps having something like:

The nursemaid who vanishes when the castle is stormed and Destiny’s Darling is kidnapped. – Turns out she secretly was his aunt and gave him a crucial power needed in the climax.

The sword that could never be drawn except in uncontrollable rage? – It was forged from no less than steel taken from the ruins of the castle.

The feather he wore in his cap? From his guardian wren who had sang at the protagonist’s cradle side

that are all crucially needed for the hero to defeat the dragon in the end.

Snyder says, “You cannot digest too much information or pile on more to make it better.”

Clearly, I was guilty of this in Master of the Five Magics. My editor, Lester del Rey, in analyzing the first draft of Master of the Five Magics said something along the lines of

“OK, you have set up five types of magic in detail and have Alodar move from one to the next. But why? What is the purpose of all of that?”

So for my second draft, I wove back in the threat of demons and what the wizards had prepared as a defense. It answered del Rey’s question, but at the expense of a huge long exposition at the end of the book, violating Snyder’s rule.  I knda liked what I did, but perhaps it was too  much marzipan.

What would I do differently now? I do not know. Even after reading Save the Cat, I don’t know.

Watch out for that Glacier – applies

Snyder says that the danger to the protagonist always has to be imminent. Gradually getting closer just does not hack it. Heros need challenges right here and now. Sure, the aliens are going to be here in a decade or so, but right now, he has to deal with the boa constrictor that is swallowing him. If he is in a movie for which the danger is not immediate, Snyder’s instinct is to yell out in the theatre, “Watch out for that glacier!”

The Covenant of the Art – applies – but, gosh, everybody

Every single character in your movie must change in the course of your story”

Well, sure the protagonist must change. However, except for the bad guys who remain bad, Snyder says that everyone else must change. That’s a tall order.

Keep the Press Out – does not apply

Do not have exposition or advances in the plot occur though the actions of the media.

Summing up

These brief paragraphs do not do Snyder’s book justice. It is a very enjoyable read. Totally unacademic in tone, breezy, funny, and chocked full of examples. While I was reading it, I found myself repeatedly thinking, “That’s why I enjoyed that movie so much,” or “That’s why I did not.”

A treasure trove of advice for the novelist as well as the screenwriter. Highly recommended.

Next time I will be finishing this series by discussing The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy

Novel writing rules – part 1

Many how-to books have been written on novel writing, and most aspiring writers probably has sampled many of them. But as we all know, although they can provide guidance, no set of hard and fast rules exists. If they did, computers would write everything and we all would be out of a job.

The situation is summarized by the famous quote from W. Somerset Maugham –

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Nevertheless, guidelines and so-called rules are good to know about. At the very least, provide a checklist one can check their writing against to see if some additional tweaks can change something that might be good into something that is great. In that spirit, this blog and the two following will discuss three books

Contagious by Jonah Berger

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder,

and

The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester

The first two are not how-to books for writing a novel, but I have found it helpful to look at them through the lens of an author rather than that of the intended audiences.

###

Contagious –Why Things Catch On, is an exploration of what causes certain products, ideas, and behaviors to be talked about more than others. Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. I found the book to be quite informative and entertaining. It is filled with examples from real life and backed up by quantitative research.

As Berger explains, things go viral because of word of mouth (well, duh!). But quite surprisingly, only 7 percent of word-of-mouth occurs on-line. Most of it happens in face-to-face conversation. From his research, Berger concludes that something going viral possesses one or more of six important characteristics of contagiousness:

  1. Social currency: — makes us seem more interesting to others.
  2. Triggers: — is connected to things in our environment that recur repeatedly
  3. Emotion: — creates an emotional response
  4. Public:–  is visible to others
  5. Practical value:– is useful
  6. Stories: — is communicated by telling a story

Of course, to understand the details of what each of these labels really means, you would have to read the book. It was published in 2013. But for a more recent simple example of why someone engages in word of mouth, consider the explosion of interest in Pokémon Go by almost everyone. A person talks about Pokémon Go because:

  1. He can tell others how many Pokémon he has captured and where he found them. He shows he is playing the game well. — Social currency
  2. Every time he picks up his cellphone, he is reminded of the game — Triggers
  3. He has a feeling of nostalgia  about when he was much younger when he plays the game. — Emotion
  4.  He sees all these other people walking around that are also staring at their phones – Public
  5. He feels good that he is exercising. After all, exercise is a good thing – Practical value
  6. He can tell others what happened last night when hundreds people converged on the coffee shop. — Stories

###

OK, Contagious is an interesting read. However, what does it have to do with writing?

Well, think about it. Books are products marketed and sold primarily by word of mouth. So, the question arises — what can an author do to give a novel one or more of the six characteristics that increase its chances of going viral?

The following is the result of a mental exercise of trying to apply what I learned from Contagious to writing fantasy novels. As you will see, nothing I came up with is earth shaking; all are just little tweaks. I did not discover one of the three unknown rules of novel writing.

But the exercise of looking at things through the lens of a writer seems to me to be a good thing to do.

Social currency

Berger discusses three subcategories in Contagion: sharing a secret, relating performance in playing a game, and passing on something remarkable.

Maybe someone else can see how to incorporate one of the first two concepts into the act of writing, but I didn’t. The third, however, presents possibilities.

Berger gives the example: “A ball of glass bounces higher than a ball of rubber” – a fact to relate to a friend. As authors, we probably all have a store of such trivia stashed away in our heads. When I read about bouncing balls, one immediately came to mind from over five decades ago. It was “Mouse milk costs over $300 an ounce.”

Thanks to the Internet, I was immediately able to verify this and learned that mouse milk did cost over $300 an ounce, but that was in 1947. Now it is down to $1 an ounce – probably due, I am guessing, to the improvement in mouse milking machines.

Now, it probably is a challenge to work mouse milk into a fantasy and make clear to the reader that the cost being talked about is for our own world, but I think the basic idea is a good one to keep in mind. In sword and sorcery, for example, there is a lot of medieval weapon vocabulary that might be of interest to a reader and something to chat about with a friend. In my first book, Master of the Five Magics, I used a lot of words dealing with the architecture of castles. After all, literature elucidates as well as entertains.

Triggers

Marketing lore for writers tells us that a part of a well-orchestrated campaign prior to the publication date is to get many on-line reviews. There are many websites that talk about how to find on-line reviewers, politely ask them if they are interested in reviewing your book, and (under the radar) get agreement to trade reviews.

One piece of advice that struck me about review solicitation, however, was a discussion of the mental attitude of the reviewer. Does one really want someone to comment on what you have done, not because he freely choose to do so? Would not he feel an obligation to make the review a little more negative so it is “well-balanced”?

Yes, yes, even negative reviews are worthwhile. Berger comments that for new or relatively unknown authors, negative reviews increased sales by 45%. But, one of the key points of Berger’s chapter on triggers, however, is that the more powerful triggers are recurring ones, not ones that just occurred once and then were done.

That suggested to me that perhaps something to consider is solicitation of reviews all right, but not to bust a gut for a new book’s rollout. Instead, after the book has been out there and, presumably, got some good reviews at the outset, then periodically and continually start asking for more. If bad reviews are good for sales anyway, then a steady stream of them perhaps could help one’s book ‘break out’ and go viral. The repetition of reminders is  the key.

Emotion

Of course, all writers hope that what they have written is good enough that a deep emotional response is generated in the reader. From the standpoint of going viral, however, the results of Berger’s research concluded that not all emotions are equally effective in generating word of mouth referrals.

He lists the ones more likely to contribute to virality are: awe, excitement, amusement, anger, and anxiety. Ones least likely are contentment and sadness.

Interesting. Action/adventure novels do strive to create excitement and anxiety. Humorous novels are fun to read (and hard to write). But awe? It ranks right up there in the experimental results, and I had never considered it in the context of fantasy.

How does one create awe in a fantasy? I don’t know. But perhaps this is what in science fiction refers to as “a sense of wonder”. If so,Berger is saying fantasy should strive to create the same feelings as well.

And sadness is not so powerful? A well-written tragedy might well generate a deep feeling of sympathetic grief in the reader. But from the standpoint of word of mouth, sadness is not a strong characteristic. Evidently, few people want to be identified as a communicator of downers.

Public

For books, this is a hard one. Book reading, by in large, is a solitary activity. You might just eat up a L. Ron Hubbard decalogy, but no one watches you doing it.

So I did not come up with something for this characteristic. Well, as Berger says, not all six are necessary.

Practical value

There are possibilities here. Yes, as authors we want to write great stories – great escapes in which the real world is left behind. But inserted into the stories can be mini-stories — tips that can apply in real life as well as fantasy. These do not have to be long elaborate things that drive the plot, but such things as, well maybe — how to distract someone’s attention away from a doorway…

Buy a strip of caps for a cap gun (do they still make these things?) and some air riffle bbs. Wrap a cap around a bb and place them in the middle of a small square of tissue that is about 1 inch on a side. Gather the four corners of the square together and twist until the bb and cap are firmly secured to one another. Smooth out the tissue above the twist into a flowing tail. Make a handfull more of these the same way.

Then when the collection is tossed into the air near the target, the light tissue tails and heavy bbs will force the caps to hit the ground first. There will be a pop-poppa-poppa-pop sound, and the target will turn to investigate what is causing the noise. While he is distracted, you can now rush through the door. Remember, you heard it here first.

Stories

Well, of course, the novel itself is a story. One does not want the whole thing given away when one reader is talking to another. But how about something like the backstory of one unusual character — not critical to what transpires, but something that is interesting to talk about.

For example, perhaps someone like Gladstone Gander…

Carl Barks, the cartoonist of many of the Walt Disney comics invented Gladstone Gander in 1948. He was the world’s luckiest duck. (How he was both a gander and a duck was never explained).

In one adventure, Gladstone was sunning himself at the beach – on his back, completely relaxed with his hands spread out. palm down on the sand. Donald Duck and his three nephews show up in order to look for a large ruby lost the year before. The ducks agree that one-half of the beach is Gladstone’s to search and other half Donald’s.

While Gladstone does nothing but continue to sun himself, Donald and his nephews sift all of the sand in their half of the beach and find nothing. A new deal is agreed to. Gladstone allows Donald to search half of his half of the beach but anything that they find must be split 50-50.

Still no ruby. Another deal allows Donald to sift half of Gladstone’s beach that remains unexamined, but for only one quarter of what is found. And so on. Eventually everything has been searched except of the ground directly under the gander. Donald gives up – totally exhausted after all that work and nothing to show for it.

As Gladstone rises from the sand to join the others, he feels something under the palm of one of his hands. Yes, it is the lost ruby. Well, of course, he is the world’s luckiest duck.

Gladstone was never a central character  in any of Bark’s work, but he was well remembered and talked about.

OK, exercise over. For me, it was a fun thing to try. Six more things to think about when writing the next novel.

Next time, I will be discussing Save the Cat.

© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy

The joy of kite flying

As a youth, I found a special joy in flying kites. Not in just getting one up into the air but in seeing how high and far away they could become. Somehow, there was a special serenity in leaning back against a tree while a breeze was blowing and doing nothing but watching my sentinel in the sky.

Nowadays one can spend a serious amount of money buying fancy kites of various designs. Some are made of plastic and others of cloth. Some have fancy non-aerodynamic shapes but boldly display superheroes or cute little animals.

In my day, kites were purchased from the local dime store. They came in two types: diamond or box. The diamond kit cost ten cents, or maybe it was fifteen, and the box kite considerably more.

The diamond, or Malay, kite consisted of two sticks of balsa wood, one about two thirds as long as the other and bound together by a single loosely fitting metal band. You rotated one of the sticks until they were at right angles to one another, forming a simple cross.
Malay

The sticks were packaged rolled up in a very light paper shaped like two triangles placed together base to base. A small strip of each outer edge was folded and pasted over a loop of string that ran around the circumference. The string was visible at each of the four corners of the kite.

Both of the sticks had notches in each end, and the four exposed portions of the string loops were inserted into them. If one pierced a small hole in the paper covering near where the two sticks crossed and tied a kite string around the vertical one, the kite was reputed “ready to fly.”

Well not quite. Although the diamond kite was touted as a tailless kite as originally assembled , in my experience, it was a very poor flyer.

Many of the small plastic kites available today have the same characteristics. If the wind is too light, then it is impossible to get the kite high enough by running to escape the turbulent air near the ground caused by nearby buildings and trees. If the wind is too strong, the kite’s inherent instability causes it careen around and eventually crash breaking the sticks or ripping the plastic or whatever. There is a sweet spot when the wind velocity is just right and the kite will fly, but it is extremely narrow.

From time to time I wonder how many times a parent has taken a young child to a city park planning to introduce them to the joy of seeing their possession defying gravity and soaring into the sky only to give up in frustration after a few dozen failed attempts.

Yes, the wind has to be strong enough that the weight of the kite can become airborne. But more than that, the kite must be stable in all three directions of motion – pitching up and down, yawing from left to right, and rolling from side to side.

If properly rigged and the wind is strong enough, however, a simple diamond kite can be launched by simply holding it front of you with your back to the wind, gently releasing it and letting it rise.

Yaw

The first thing to do is attach an additional string on the backside of the kite running from one end of the horizontal stick to the other. The length of the string is shorter than the stick itself so that the it becomes bowed in a gentle arc.

Bowstring
Now, when the wind is blowing on the kite, what is called a dihedral angle is produced. A single flat surface is not presented to the wind but two slanted ones. If, because of a swirl of the air, the side of the kite on the left of the vertical stick is pushed away from you, it presents less surface to the wind. At the same time, the rotation causes the right hand side to present more.

Then there is greater wind pressure on the right side than on the left, and the kite rotates back to a position in which the forces are balanced. This is a perfect example of what engineers call “negative feedback” — a system automatically correcting itself when things get out of whack.Dihedral

The more you bow the kite, of course, the more stable it becomes against yawing to the right or left. However, at the same time, less and less surface area faces the wind and the ability of the kite to lift diminishes. A modest amount of bowing is all that is needed for most kites.

Bowing a kite is no secret. Although the diamond kite is reputed to be of Malaysian origin, the Japanese were bowing their kites for centuries as well.

Pitch

The second thing to do is to disregard any instruction to attach the kite string to the kite at only a single point. If a gust of wind hits the larger triangle of the kite below the point of attachment, there is nothing to stop it from continuing to rise until the entire kite presents very little surface to the wind, and it starts plummeting to the ground. Another gust catches it as it falls and crazy things begin to happen.

Two points of attachment should be used and not just one. Attach a short piece of string to the vertical stick about half way between the horizontal one and the top of the kite. Attach the other end halfway between the horizontal stick and the bottom. Finally attach the kite string itself to this new one producing a triangle when the wind blows.

Bridle

This bridle, as it is called, also creates a negative feedback. If a gust blows on the bottom half of the kite, the tension in the lower portion of the string becomes greater than the upper and the kite is righted.

Bridle strings too are no secret. The only tricky part is adjusting the point where the kite string is attached to the triangle so that the angle the kite makes in the wind is a good one. Attach too high and the kite flies to horizontally and has little lift. Attach too low and it has too little lift as well.

Roll

This one is the killer. Kites sold in stores nowadays have a few little ribbons of plastic streamer hanging at the bottom that serve no useful function at all. The purpose of a tail is to stop the kite from rolling. In my day, the conventional wisdom was that it was the weight of the tail that prevented a kite from starting to pivot from its upright position and start to rotate about the kite string. A length of knotted rags, the heavier the better was the thing to use.

The thing is that if you want a kite to soar so high that you can barely see it, adding a lot of weight is not what should be done. The wind is what holds everything loft, the kite, the tail, and the kite string. The less weight devoted to the kite and tail, the more that can be used to lift string.

I don’t remember if I thought of this myself or one of my parents told me what to do. But here is the secret that will you a champion kite flyer in the eyes of your friends.

Get an old bed sheet, one, say, about eight feet across. Starting at one edge begin tearing a half-inch strip of material away from the sheet. However — this is the important part — do not complete the tear. When you get to about an inch from the other side, stop what you are doing and begin another tear about a half inch separated from the first and going in the opposite direction. Do this about six or seven times and complete the final tear all the way across.Tail

 

Now you have a light tail that is about 50 feet long, but with no useless knots. It will produce sufficient wind resistance to rotational forces that your kite will be stable against rolls.

The Endorphin Rush

On a blustery day, take a properly built diamond kite to an open area. Lay out the tail in a straight line on the ground. Put your back to the wind and slowly let your kite leave your hand. Watch it majestically rise into the air with no twitching, no bobbing, and no rotation — a stern monarch of the sky. Let all of your string out until it can barely be seen. Get a comfortable place to sit and marvel at what you have done.

PS

In the modern age, there are restrictions against flying kites weighting more than five pounds above 500 feet. Near airports, this applies regardless of weight.

© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy

The Counter

I finally have finished all the paperwork associated with the shutdown and dissolution of Alodar Systems, Inc. I now can devote full time to writing and blogging. As a start, here is something that resides down my memory lane — long before smart phones and video games.

In my senior year of high school, despite all attempts to put the last visible signs of boyhood aside, occasionally some toy would come out of nowhere that was just too irresistible to ignore.

One day a pal of mine brought to school a little counter that had come off some large machine or another. It was a small cylindrical can about an inch long and a half inch across with a square slit on the side through which one could see portions of six wheels with digits on them, just like the odometer of a car. A short shaft came out of one end, and when you twirled it between your fingers, the unit wheel slowly turned. Ten turns of the unit wheel caused then ten wheel to turn one number and so on.

At recess, one of our little group set the record for number of turns in five minutes, about a hundred or so. For several days, we traded the counter back and forth, slowly pushing the record to new heights, exercising our fingers for endurance and steeling ourselves to ignore the cramps as we twirled the shaft feverishly.

After recess in math class one day, one of us had an inspiration. He took the worn down nearly circular stub of his eraser and crammed it onto the shaft. The teacher was not looking so he quickly stroked the eraser across his desk. When he was done, his eyes widened. The total had increased by ten with a single stroke!

Quickly, he ran the eraser across his desk again and again. A series of brrruuuppps filled the air and the teacher turned from the board to see what caused such a strange sound. My friend easily covered the counter with his hand. Only streaks of eraser dust gave any hint of anything out of the ordinary.

The teacher returned to his lecture, and with more discretion, my friend spent the rest of the hour stroking the device across the desk boosting up the total. At the end of the period, we all clustered around to see what he had done — an increase of almost a thousand for the hour.

Another of us grabbed the counter as we headed for the next class. Getting thirty in five minutes was no longer an interesting challenge. So for the next few days we spent each class hour with one of us stroking the counter across the desk as fast as he dared, again slowly pushing the record higher and higher.

One of us took the counter home for an evening and returned the next day somewhat bleary eyed but proudly displaying a total that was ten thousand higher than when he had received it. The challenge at this new level spurred us all onward, each one taking it home for a day and bringing it back with the change in the number of revolutions greater than ever before.

When it was my turn, my parents were away for the evening. I stroked the eraser across a table for a while but could see that it would be a long evening before I could come close to what the others had done. Looking around the room, I saw my Mother’s sewing machine and in particular the little rubber wheel that one pushed against the bigger chrome band at the end of the machine when threading a bobbin.

I turned on the machine, reved the machine to full throttle, engaged the bobbin winder and pushed the eraser up to contact it. The little counter let out a high-pitched whirl of protest. The unit wheel spun so fast that individual numbers were undetectable. The counter grew hot in my hand, but I gritted my teeth and held on. For some twenty minutes, I kept at it and finally when my fingers could stand the heat no longer I stopped and looked at what I had accomplished.

The next day, with a grin of satisfaction,  I gave the counter to Carl. I had counted over one hundred thousand in a single session! After steering the subject around to how much sewing our mother’s did and establishing that Carl’s mother did not have a machine, I told him what I had done, confident that my record would stand, “It is all a matter of gear ratios,” I said loftily. “You see, the bobbin wheel turns much faster than the big wheel on the machine and the eraser much faster than even that.”

The following day Carl returned with a sad look on his face. Opening his hand he dropped into my palm twisted shards of metal. On some of them, I could see the remnants of wheels with numbers on them. He had taken the physics principle to heart, propped his bicycle up on blocks so that the rear wheel could turn freely and got his little brother to peddle as fast as he could while he put the eraser up to the tire. If a four-inch sewing machine wheel could produce one hundred thousand revolutions in an hour, a twenty-two inch bicycle wheel could do even better.

It certainly could. The centrifugal force was so great that the counter was literally blown apart. The toy was broken and it was time to move on to other things. The old saying that the only difference between a boy and a man is the cost of his toys is not exactly true. They don’t have to be all that expensive.

© 2016 Lyndon M. Hardy