Things I learnt: revelling in numbers and elements.

Probably says something about how I’m wired, that I get much more joy reading about materials and physical sciences and the inanimate/inorganic world, than about the biological sciences and living things. And there’s joy in learning about mathematics too. What is there not to love about numbers and elements!

Working with them, though? Chemical elements are a part of daily working life, but advanced math isn’t and takes a bit more effort to enjoy. But, while meeting prerequisites for freshman undergraduate science, instead of taking the standard math unit for science majors that everyone else took, I chose the calculus unit for math majors. The professor was engaging and I understood things intuitively, but found it hard to apply them, worked like a dog to scrape up a pass, and have since forgotten everything from that unit. Yet, given the chance to revel in the wonders and confoundedness that is pure math, I could not pass up that opportunity then, and I still can’t. (Doing a degree in math and physics has been on my bucket list ever since.)

Elements!

Continue reading “Things I learnt: revelling in numbers and elements.”

Reviving a long-disused tongue.

I recently finished reading the first collection in
射雕英雄传 Legends of the Condor Heroes, a wuxia/martial arts serialized epic by Hong Kong author 金庸 Jin Yong.

This book is titled A Hero Born and is an English translation by Anna Holmwood; it captures the first nine parts in a 40-part serial. (According to Wikipedia, 射雕英雄传 has a character count of over 900,000.) I stumbled on A Hero Born while randomly browsing shelves in the local library. I’ve lived in Hong Kong but I’d never heard of 金庸, so my interest was piqued. Apparently he’s a household name there, who first published his stories as serials in the newspapers. I’ve since spoken to my handful of HK friends and acquaintances. All of them knew his name.

Through a combination of Wikipedia and Baidu, and my now more-intuitive-than-concrete grasp of Mandarin, I found 金庸’s complete serials/novels online in simplified Chinese, including 射雕英雄传 here. As good a time as any to practise reading and comprehending my mother tongue again.

I decided to read it out loud. It took half an hour, CN-to-EN dictionary in hand, to translate and read the first paragraph of Chapter 1. Though half that time was re-reciting it to help my recall of the characters.

Well… I already knew my Mandarin vocabulary has atrophied over the years, but the extent of deterioration is incredible, if unsurprising. Still, it felt like a slap in the face by an insidious kind of impostor syndrome.

Translation and recall is tough work, but this is worth persevering through over time. I’m thinking of transcribing the text by hand — after all, physically writing things does help with comprehension and recall. And perhaps, eat some serious humble pie and ask my Chinese friends to be language buddies.

And to think that my local library was the catalyst for all this. Aren’t libraries wonderful?

Storycraft learnt from recent novels read. 🖋️

(1)
From Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo: the gradual character revelation. Bardugo dribbles character development and revelations out across the entire novel. When one character trait is fully revealed, the same scene hints at a new character trait. And when that is revealed, a new one is hinted at. This continues for all the POV characters, well past the novel’s halfway mark; even into the climax and denouement are new character traits being revealed. This slow, “nested” revelations of character are the hooks that keep the reader engaged and engrossed, wanting to discover something new.

So I’ve been reviewing the character arcs in my novel. How can I stretch out the details and revelations of a character arc over time? Make a note of each scene where character development takes place, and structure the reveals/facts to reveal one thing but hint at the next.


(2)
From The Ladies of Mandrigyn by Barbara Hambly: how to introduce memorable characters and embed them in the reader’s mind from the first few words. Hambly is brilliant at writing vivid, memorable character introductions. The characters’ personalities shine through powerfully within the first sentence of their introductions. They’re unforgettable from the get-go… what’s more, their personalities continue to be strong and vivid as the story progresses.

I want to learn this sort of kick-ass character introductions. Does it involve developing 1-2 quirks for each character, and then amping them to the Nth degree? I’m still reading this novel, plenty of chance to study how Hambly does it.


(3)
From Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon: project management for a creative endeavour, especially Kleon’s advice on maintaining analogue vs. digital workspaces. This dichotomy is extremely powerful for segregating different sets of information, and more importantly: the mental gear-switch required to operate in those disparate sets.

I used to keep both the manuscript and the revision meta in the digital space. I’m typically well-organized, but for a long time couldn’t figure out why my creative projects always ended up in organizational chaos. Creativity can’t be fully tamed into a structure — I’ve made peace with that — but this chaos was actually crippling my productivity and causing much discouragement. Then I started handwriting novel drafts last year, and had an epiphany about coupling mental processes to physical ones.

Now, my novel manuscript is in the digital workspace, while the the notes that guide the revision process (the “meta”) is in the analogue workspace. Doing the project vs. analyzing the project’s progress involve different mental processes. Hooking the mental gear-switch to the physical, visceral movement between analogue and digital workspaces is incredibly powerful. Now that I’m physically recording the meta with pen-and-paper, I’m way more organized, and no longer struggle with switching mental gears.

I think I write about as many words in the meta as I do in the novel manuscript, if not more. But now it’s helping, not hindering. Just have to make sure that it doesn’t metastasize and overwhelm the creativity.


(4)
From recent, inconstant attempts to post handwritten quotes from my current novel, A Dirge for the Amphiptere: Dear God, my handwriting is atrocious. And the photos aren’t even straight. So woeful! Time to practise penmanship again!


Part One of A Dirge for the Amphiptere is finished. 30 days to revise 17,000 words. It’s light-years better than the previous draft. And I’ve learnt so much about editing and the craft of weaving the myriad strands of character, plot, setting, and voice altogether into a coherent story. Lessons on how to not reveal character backstory too quickly, but drip-feed it instead. How to saturate the storytelling with setting/world-building — and just when you think you’ve soaked it properly, just how much more that you can still do. How hard it is to create idioms and proverbs from scratch that reflect the gestalt of an entire culture. And much more.

Part Two is next. It’s three times as long as Part One. I’m sitting at the opening chapter, seeing at myriad ways I can change it to make everything — character development, world-building — richer. Didn’t someone say that editing was a bottomless well? Where you can keep fishing in, at the expense of finishing a novel and moving on the write new ones?

Must keep going. I’m not going to meet my February deadline for finishing the full revision. Shooting for end March. Camp NaNoWriMo is in April, and I want to begin something new by then.

I was reading Wikipedia with two browser tabs open. One page was on bretwalda; the other page was on spherical harmonics. I have no idea how I ended up researching both simultaneously.

Things I learnt. Bretwalda. Wynn, yogh, eth, thorn, ash. Spherical harmonics. Fourier analysis (transformation and synthesis). Deferent and epicycle. How to make compound words from machine, mechanic, machinist. Must watch “Ancient Astronomy” from The Great Courses (the library has a subscription). Must find more ways of describing an artisan.

On this day.

Currently editing. A Dirge for the Amphiptere, ~68,000 words. Edit into Draft 4. Daily target: 3 days per chapter, for 27 chapters. Deadline: end February.

Now reading.
Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo. Heist caper in a lush fantasy world. The kind of book that is simultaneously intimidating (would I ever be able to write something this good?) and stimulating (of course I can, just keep writing), and a great story to analyze and study for craft. 5 stars.

Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon. It’s given me a new perspective on how to use social media for showcasing creative work. I have an idea of what to do with my blog now. 4 stars.

Now playing.
Fallen London, and looking forward to the very-soon release of Sunless Skies.
Slay the Spire, roguelike deck-builder. Great for quick, fun gaming fixes with endless variety in each run. 4 stars.
Riven: Sequel to MYST, puzzle adventure. The first PC game I ever bought and played (when I was 13 years old), and has remained evergreen and beloved. I’ve finally discovered all the “endings”, and enjoyed the exquisite sound design and superb live-acting. 5 stars.

Great world building resources. A Manual of Gesture. An Outline of English Speech-Craft. (Both courtesy of @ayjay) The History of English podcast.

Recently learnt. Cynghanedd. Old English alliterative verse. Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie by Longfellow, written in epic verse (viz. discussion with fellow writer about poetic metre and conventions).
The Winchester rifle; must study firearm tech & dev over time. The Diolkos, a rudimentay railway in Ancient Greece.

Newly discovered. The joys of using fountain pens. I’ve never understood the obsession with stationery, but having tried out a fountain pen and inks over Christmas break, I get it now. Nevermore will I use cheap ballpoint pens again.

World-building inspiration for Savi and Nar… National Geographic Photo Contest 2018. A cenote is a sacred sinkhole in the Yucatán Peninsula. The Chixulub crater. The ‘stone forests’ of the South China Karst (link). Lake Hutt is a pink lake in Western Australia. Southern Min dialects. Written classical Chinese, and how it differs as a lingua franca viz. Latin in Europe. Grimm’s law and pronunciation shifts in the Indo-European languages. Stepwells in western India for accessing groundwater in drought.

On this day.

Books borrowed: The Brilliance of the Moon, Lian Hearn (halfway read). Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo.

TBR pile: So Brave, Young and Handsome, Leif Enger. Virgil Wander, Leif Enger.

Finished playing: Hyper Light Drifter.

Now playing: Dishonored. realMYST (Masterpiece Edition), on replay through MYST series.

Now writing: Crush the Serpent ‘neath Her Heel, NaNoWriMo 2018 novel. At ~160 pages / ~56k words / ~70% of plot. Deadline for finishing: end 2018.

Music: Soundtracks from Hyper Light Drifter and Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. PBS 106.7fm.

Now testing: Bullet Journal for diary-keeping in 2019. Bible Reading Challenge.

Next thing to test: Zettelkasten – world-building first, digital life archival if successful. Wonderdraft. Anthem during February 2019 beta.

Recently looked up: minesweeping, bomb disposal, Koppen climate classification, Chinese provinces.

To research: African agriculture, tropical savanna climate, steam power during Roman times, intersection of language, culture and geography (re-listen to History of English Ep. 15-18).

Podcast feed is filled with: The History of English, By Faith, What Have You.

To cook: Sorbet. Soba noodles, other things from Just Hungry.

Wishlist: Fountain pen. Robert Oster inks. The two Leif Enger novels I haven’t read.

Thinking about: Finishing Crush the Serpent. How to pray for M. Monsoon-level rains and the city in flood. Carols in the hospital. The absence of the bird, a sort of minuscule grief. Writing/self-publishing short course next year?
The perennial question about what to do with this blog, this apparently aimless, useless thing that has no place anymore in my mental landscape and workflow, but seems to persist and follow me around like a starved, stray dog begging for scraps of self.

🖋️ I finished writing my second novella, in time for NaNoWriMo.

I wrote my first novella, Strange Music, in July 2014, during NaNoWriMo‘s off-season event called Camp NaNoWriMo. That first draft was about 23,000 words and took 28 days to write. (The edited and completed version is now about 26,000 words.)

A couple mid-October weekends ago, I finished writing my second novella, A Dirge for the Amphiptere. The original draft was written in July 2016, also for a Camp NaNoWriMo. It took three years to finish, and its current state is approximately 60,000 words.

Why was it harder to write the second novella compared to the first novella? I once asked J. Daniel Sawyer, the host of the Everyday Novelist, my favourite writing podcast, for help. He replied in an episode: it’s stage fright. You have to let your subconscious mind drive your creativity. Which means you have to get out of your own way.

I listened politely but was a bit skeptical. So I set about proving Dan wrong. It took three years to learn that he was ultimately right.

The head game truly is everything. When I wrote Strange Music, I didn’t know anything; I had no clue how to and how not to write a novel, so I just went and did it. It was challenging, but there was a certain ignorance-is-bliss kind of flow to the writing. When I started Dirge a year after finishing Strange Music, I was no longer ignorant. I had some experience of what it takes to write a novel, and this knowledge kept me from finishing it — and all the other stories I wrote for NaNo but never finished.

Long story short, after writing and rewriting various versions of Dirge over the years (in between writing drafts of other stories), I set myself the goal to reach The End by the end of 2018. The story was getting stale and about to die on the vine if it wasn’t done. I tried throughout the year, and got 2/3rds and ~40,000 words through the plot to just before the climactic scene. But by the time I hit October, I was in despair and ready to put it to bed.

What saved my story from certain death was a group of people: my writing workshop. The workshop leader (himself a published author and freelance editor) gave me a deadline to present the finished work, and the other members (all amateur writers) were unanimously supportive. So… I put some measures in place, and went and wrote the rest of the story in the span of 10 days and 42 pages (~13k words).

I was shocked how easy it was to write the remainder of the story. Where did all the past angst and despair come from? But I’d always known the answer. I knew, deep down, that Dan’s advice was right, that I was just getting the way of my own creative mind by trying to build a scaffolding around the story. But my head refused to believe that. It took the school of hard knocks and three years of dickering around in circles to beat the conceit out of me, and reveal what I had to do to get out of my own way. In retrospect, it seems like such a novice mistake. But without the experience of desperation and having to be pulled out of my hole by my writing workshop, I wouldn’t have known what measures to put in place to help me beat the head game. So I’m consoling myself that those years weren’t wasted.

Writing is actually quite easy. It’s the head game that causes 90% of writer’s block and plot troubles, and makes or breaks a writing career. And if I don’t learn how to beat the head game, I will never progress and my stories will die. I think I’ve made progress in finding a solution.

~~~

NaNoWriMo has begun. I’m tired of unfinished manuscripts. This year my goal is to finish a full manuscript, even if I go overtime past November. And I’m determined to apply my experience into growing trees. No more of building houses!

I used these strategies to finish Dirge, which I’ll repeat for NaNo:

  • Write by hand. This will be the first year of handwriting a NaNo. I’m less tempted to edit when I have scrawly handwriting to wade through and not enough page space to insert edits. I averaged 300 words per page with Dirge, and it wasn’t too hard on the hands. So 6 pages a day should be enough to hit the daily NaNo wordcount. And if I put my mind to it, that can be knocked over in 2-3 hours.
  • Resist all reflex to plot/outline before the story is finished. This is my head game and how the Inner Editor manifests: wanting to plot and do character development and all this fun auxiliary stuff, instead of writing the infernal thing. The urge is even stronger when I hit a roadblock in the storytelling. The novella Dirge was strangled by all the plotting and char dev I did in my attempts to unstick myself, which only created more story complications, mental noise, and ultimately, a sense of despair and defeat. So, no more of that during NaNo. Not even make margin notes/reminders as I write. That can come later. Now the story needs to just get out.

I’m looking forward to this. I’ve always loved NaNo, especially since it encourages writing at a pace that leaves your conscious inner editor behind. Writing into the dark is nerve-wrecking, but it’s also exciting. At the end, I hope to have gotten further in my adventures in a writing career, and, for once, have a fully-grown tree to show for it.

🎮 I made a Twine game. Or: It is illegal to serve Hot Sauce to a Dragon in Granada.

It is illegal to serve Hot Sauce to a Dragon in Granada | mirrored on Philome.la | hosted on my site

This is my first time using Twine, and the first interactive fiction (IF) game I’ve ever made. So I welcome any and all feedback and opinions on Project Dragonsauce! (Because that title is a mouthful.)

Inspiration.

It all began with this writing challenge on Chuck Wendig’s blog, where everyone commented with a title for another commenter to “adopt” for a flash-fiction piece. Someone had posted this exact title, “It is illegal to serve hot sauce to a dragon in Grenada [sic]”, and my imagination instantly latched onto it. I originally wanted to write flash-fiction/short story as per Wendig’s challenge, but after a few abortive attempts, gave up, filed the title away, and didn’t do anything with it for a couple years. But a few months ago, when I was examining Twine and idly contemplating a foray into IF game creation, this title prompt came instantly to mind, and the entire storytelling/game structure resolved itself in that moment of inspiration.

And there: I had a story all ready to create in Twine. So I did. It took roughly 2-3 months of dabbling, in total probably less than a week of real-time work, to make a 5-minute IF game.

Process.

It took an afternoon to storyboard and write the text for Dragonsauce, and get accustomed to the Twine interface, which was very user-friendly. This was the easy part. After that, I spent several months on-and-off learning the basics of Harlowe (the scripting language beneath the Twine interface) and then scripting it to do what I wanted. I solely used the Harlowe manual to learn; somehow it never crossed my mind to look for YouTube tutorials, but reading instructions and then doing them has always been my default way of learning.

Lots of referencing the manual and trial-and-error: circling back and forth between things I knew how to script, and things I wanted to script but hadn’t reached that level of mastery yet. Rather tedious, but I’m glad I persevered through beginner’s frustration. At the end of this game, I think I’ve mastered enough of Twine scripting to know which references to look up, but will need to keep experimenting and iterating to get a real handle on Twine’s full capabilities. Solidly beginner, starting to move into the intermediate levels.

Being a gamer, particularly an avid player of text-based games, helped a lot with Dragonsauce’s design. I’ve played enough of Fallen London, Open Sorcery, Choice of Games games, and MU*s (the progenitor of both parser IF and MMOs) over time, to have internalized the infrastructure of interactive storytelling. The structure of Dragonsauce literally crystallized out of this melting pot. I knew what story I wanted to tell, and immediately knew how to organize it. I didn’t have to consciously “figure it out”.

Gameplay and story presentation.

Having written only novellas before, interactivity is the aspect of IF that I find most intriguing. How does one present stats to a reader and give them a way of tracking progress and change, while maintaining the integrity of a narrative? How to avoiding making this too explicitly game-y?

Dragonsauce was a particularly good story for learning Twine because it had a modular structure, and each module allowed me to experiment with different ways for a reader/player to progress through the story, and how I might present it narratively. There were only two fundamental stats for me (and the player) to manage, which made it easy to keep track of in the scripting, but still interesting as I got a taste of what additional variables can spin out from two stats (answer: a LOT if you don’t keep yourself in check), and what “balancing gameplay” means and involves. I think the three game endings are well balanced and hope they satisfy the player.

I got sucked into playing around with the scripting, to the point where I had to pull back and ask myself how this served the narrative, and how I can effectively present this as a story, and use storytelling to elegantly cover up the bones of gameplay mechanics. (And how much time I wanted to spend just dickering with an unfinished project!) All this experimentation meant that the narrative of Dragonsauce supports a core gameplay style, instead of vice versa. More game-y and less story-esque than I’d hoped, but I was using this story to learn Twine and its capabilities.

I’m pleased with what I’ve made, and like to think I succeeded with keeping the storytelling vibe while also effectively communicating game/stat changes through narrative. But I wonder what players think. (I would appreciate your feedback very much!)

What’s next?

IF and text-based games are the convergence of reading and gaming, two activities I enjoy, and any place of boundary crossing and convergence that stimulates creativity, tension and new ideas attracts me. I thoroughly enjoyed making Dragonsauce, and found balancing this tension between game and story very engaging. This is my first IF game, but I’m confident it won’t be the last.

Now that I’ve gotten a handle on Twine scripting, I would like to focus more on narrative and less on mechanics. So the next project is to develop a story and keep narrative as the main objective, and see how the Twine medium can support it.

I already have an idea kicking in my head, but it’ll have to incubate a bit longer as other writing projects are taking priority. (NaNoWriMo cometh!)  This will surely be a major project for 2019.

💡 Things I looked up today. Obsidian. Conchoidal fracture… apparently there are names to the many ways that minerals can fracture. Materials science (is always fascinating): malleability, toughness, ductility, brittleness, plasticity, shock. Why crazing happens. Water hammers, hydraulic rams.  Heron’s fountain, invented in the first century AD.  The physics behind water rockets.

Now, how to incorporate these ideas into a fantasy magic system…