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Meta the Book

May 1st, 2013, 12:01 AM

The world is changing. That’s sort of a trite thing to say, so let’s get a little more specific.

The world of literature is changing. Once upon a time, if you wanted to create something for the world to read, then you’d have to publish it on paper and disseminate it through physical copies. Now, if I want to make something available to be read, all I have to do is create a blog, bang out a few choice sentences, hit send and it’s just waiting for the world to see it. That doesn’t mean the world WILL see it, but that’s another story. However, there’s still something to books that makes them stand apart from blogs. By the same token, there are some things unique about blogs that make them entirely different types of experiences.

That may sound simple, but it leaves a lot unanswered. What are the differences? What do they imply? Are they irreconcilable? In reconciling them, would we simply create something new? That’s kind of what this whole project is about.

You see, I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I’ve got no experience in the matter. It’s hard to find the time, ideas, and publishers to put a book together. However, I’ve sure as heck run a blog. So, I want to write a blog about writing a book. The trick is, though, that the blog is the book. I’m going to collect the pieces of it and make it into something continuous. That’s not saying that blogs lack continuity, but there’s something special about a book. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. Everything in it is usually related to everything else, so all the pieces fit together. I know it’s printed on paper, but we’re still dealing with another medium. Blogs are continuous literary objects that evolve through time. They’re edited on-the-fly, so you can’t always go back and change things, because they’ve already come, been read and gone in the mind of the readers.

I want to marry these two concepts here to see what they can learn from each other. I want to see if this can be made into a book and, along the way, I’ll let you know what I find out. I’ll collect all the pieces together, timed and dated, and put them on their own page. That way, you can read them easily in a continuous fashion, since blogs always put the newest entry at the top and go backwards as you work your way down.

I’ll also be keeping a running tally of the word-count, so I know how long this has been going. I’ll find a way to turn the word-count into a page-count and let you know how long the book is. Then, maybe that’ll let us know when I should stop. That’ll give us our end and let me know what I should be writing about at the time.

Blogs happen over time, so feel free to leave your comments and ideas. If I end up using an idea, then I’ll integrate the comment into the page-text. So, you can see the evolving blog changing, even as the collection of posts on the page makes them more rigid and coherent.

You’ve probably also noticed that a book doesn’t include links. Sure, it includes pictures and references, but they’re not just a click away. I’m sure that will play a role, as well.

Alright, without further ado, let’s get this ball rolling.

Word Count: 582

May 9, 2013, 2:00 PM

However, the problem with rolling a ball is that, first, you’ve got to decide where you want it to go. So, in the case of this project, I took some time to gather some data and get a rough idea where I should throw it. You see, when I first described this project to some of my peers, I got three reactions:

Why do you have to meta everything?

Why don’t you just write a book?

What are you going on about?

Sometimes, I would get them all at once. Then, once I’d posted the opening paragraphs, I had to ask myself the same questions. Although I had been thinking about them since the inception of the idea, answering them with something approaching tangibility and cogency seemed beyond my grasp. So, I did some thinking.

First of all, if you got a chance to read my break-down of meta, then you’ll know that almost everything is already meta. Meta is a just a perspective you can use to make sense of a phenomenon that manifests from the culmination of the mechanical interaction effects of related systems. Geeze, that’s a mouth-full and not altogether coherent. Okay, if you envision the system you’re looking at as a tower with each set of systems (ideas, rules, mechanics, social graces, etc) supporting the ones above it, then using a meta-perspective is just looking down to see what the hell is holding you up.

I kind of addressed the book-thing already, but I wasn’t very clear. So, to muddy the waters further, I’m going to use a metaphor to explain what I mean. To me, a well-written book is a unified thing. Many of its components flow into each other. Now, that’s not always true, because we have things like anthologies and serials, magazine columns and diaries. These things are pretty close to identical reflections of what I’m doing here, the diary more than most, because what’s really important in this work is the spaces in between my posts. The posts are important, yes, but the blank spots in time impart unique meanings themselves. Since going back and editing would damage the integrity of the whole project, the author is an evolving process, as well. I’m sure there’s going to come a time when I’ll want to go back and rip all the words off the screen (I’ve hit that point already in some cases), but the book must go on. So yeah, this is a diary whose only special features are its topic and the fact that you get to read and comment on it. That being said, have you ever read a diary and looked at the gap between two dates and thought, “Hmm… that looks significant,” but not been able to nail down why?

If we could go into a little poetry analysis for a second, we might be able to make this idea a little more concrete. Without much of a segue, I’m a huge Doctor Who fan. Someday, I might have to gush about how brilliant and flexible the structure of the idea is, but what’s important here is that I also listen to Trock (Time Lord Rock). One day not so long ago, I was listening to An Awful Lot of Running by Chameleon Circuit… Okay, let’s be honest here… I was singing it while waiting for the bus, when I got to the lines:

He is like fire

Burning through time…

Now, music and poetry are technically different things, but they’re related enough to lend themselves to being analysed along similar lines. The difference here, though, is that lyrics don’t come with punctuation marks. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem. Context usually gives you enough information to figure out how you would write the phrase. However, in the case of these lines, it’s not clear whether the pause after “fire” is the result of the need for a comma or because of the rhythm of the music. So, you end up with a set of postulate phrases and no way to determine which one is the right one. In this case, the lack of specificity asks you to consider all possible interpretations. He could be like fire, and also burning through time. He could be like fire and literally burning time. He could be like a fire burning through time.  There are more, but you get the point.

The space between these two phrases is left undefined, but, when we hear them, we make sense of them through it. Similarly, the space between posts is a verdant land where any number of burning Time Lords in need of a good soak may pop up. A book provides the illusion of the unity of time by filling in the punctuation for us. Sure, you may have written that introduction three months before you ever touched the first paragraph, but, in the world crafted and edited by the book, that time doesn’t exist. The book is a process that is made to seem holistic, like it just popped fully-formed out of mid-air. The content of that book may not reflect that. In fact, it may be much like this project, but by compiling and concentrating it in one place and time, it loses the slippery free-form of an on-going process. Or, at least, something that has the illusion of an on-going process. I’m not about to go into the experiential difference, because I’m not sure one even exists.

Here, I’m talking about how the reader experiences the whole thing. As someone who writes, that’s my primary concern. Yes, the whole point of writing this is to work through the process of creation, but, for me, the point of creation is communication. If the very act of putting my work in a book changes how my reader approaches it, if just picking it up as a book alters how you approach it, then that’s something I’m going to want to know about. It may be a subtle difference, but small differences build into each other over time. So, I guess, being clearly understood is what I’m going on about (Iiiiirony!).

Word Count: 1605

June 4, 2013, 8:16 PM

This is the element of time that I was talking about. If you’re reading this post blog-roll, then you won’t feel the effect. For anyone else, it has been almost a month since the last time I posted about MB. It’s tempting the abandon the project and just write about writing. Although, honestly, that’s what this project is about any ways. So, we’ll stick with this framework for the time being.

In my attempts to parley my writing abilities into a sustainable living, I’ve spent quite a bit of time pitching story ideas or acting as a freelance consultant. During one of these forays into the potential literary world, I was pitching a novel idea for a zombie story. For the zombie-savvy, yes, I believe that there are still new things to be explored. Even with the semi-recent pop-culture zombie explosion, there’s still plenty to talk about. It was during a back-and-forth brainstorming session with my room-mate that I came upon today’s topic.

You see, my room-mate has a hatred for zombies that borders on the psychotic. Not the creatures, mind you, the concept. He’s vehemently opposed to the idea of a virus zombie, because he believes the science of it to be untenable. While I’m sure we can all agree that the science could only be softer if it were puréed on high in a diamond-tipped blending apparatus for several hours,  it does raise an interesting point about realism. I’m not going to defend his lack of suspension of disbelief, and I’m well-aware that the inclusion of the virus narrative is solely for the purposes of exploiting and exploring contemporary fears. However, it got me onto a certain line of thinking that’s perfect for MB.

Before you can write anything, you need to come up with a concept. While many of you will probably agree that this is both the easiest and hardest part of writing, it’s also the one that gets overlooked the most. As writers, it’s taken as a given that we’ll have a deep well of ideas and concepts to reach into. The truth is that we spend our entire lives developing and refining them. However, we rarely talk about the process. Yes, sometimes you just have to wait for inspiration, but professional writers get good at synthesizing them. Let’s talk about that topic another day. What do you do once you have an idea? You figure out the logistics of turning it into a story.

With the virus example earlier, my friend was being pulled out of the experience of zombie movies by an insistence on explanation. By linking a foreign concept to something the audience understands, viruses make zombies more intuitive. However, in a different way, it also makes them completely impossible for some people. We’ve spent hours arguing about the physical and metabolic changes that would be required to make a “walker” a possibility. Whether or not it is isn’t the problem. It’s that argument. If I’m thinking about how a zombie could be possible, then I’m not thinking about the horror of the concept. Really think about it. Outside of medical horror, what purpose does the virus explanation serve? How is that explanation more valid or engaging than none? Every zombie story already possesses a scene where the bite-transmission thing is explained, so it can end up adding very little. It CAN add a lot, but you have to be telling the right story. Given its pervasive nature, I can assure you that it is being included in stories where it’s unnecessary. In fact, including it can be damaging. The virus explanation is everywhere; now it’s almost colloquial. Now, you may actually have to spend time explaining that it’s not a virus. That’s a discussion for another day, though.

Sometimes, not explaining something can be the best thing you do. Or, using a symbolic archetype. Or, even, just making something up. There are an entire mountain of stories that would never get made if we insisted on explanations and realism in everything, both as readers and writers. Lovecraft’s strange geometries and eldritch lights are perfect examples of this. The ancient stories of the Gods or tales of the spirit worlds could be enlivened by an explanation, but it would have to be integral to the plot. Giving a half-hearted excuse is, ultimately, going to damage your story.

That being said, a little bit of the unreal can spice of an otherwise normal story. Let’s stick with the zombie theme, but go big picture on it. To be extra pop-culture friendly, let’s also stick with the one piece of exemplary zombie fiction that I think everyone should read: Max Brooks’ World War Z. In many ways, zombie stories have almost nothing to do with the zombies within them. Contemporary pop-culture theory states that you could replace zombies with any similar natural disaster and craft the same story. Zombie stories are about isolation and the break-down of the civilized world. They’re about when we turn on each other as the lights go out, but, also, about when we don’t. World War Z is a piece of political fiction that uses zombies as a catalyst to create a landscape of political exploration. The zombies are horrifying, but we are the horror.

That’s just true. Humans can be frightening things. It’s not always easy to pull out of us. It’s harder still to look at or admit. That’s why a dash of the unreal, the walking dead, is so effective in Brooks’ work. Simply creating a realistic world-wide epidemic or conflict would have raised too many other questions. It would have complicated matters without adding anything. Thus, we use zombies. Ever wonder why so many people have zombie survival plans? Well, it’s not just because zombies are cool. Really think about what that plan represents. Think about what it means. That will tell you what we’re scared of. This is what horror does. It’s the genre-space we put aside for the truly, literally disturbing. It’s hard to call the first half of World War Z anything but that. It details the worst sins of contemporary society in cleverly obscured detail. This is where he needed realism.

Max’s book would have suffered greatly if the politics weren’t at least believable. We’ll leave out the word accurate, for obvious reasons. His story was about real contemporary politics, something we’re all immersed in. So, that portion needed to be realistic. It was going to reflect us, so it needed to do so adroitly. Similarly, if your story uses zombies to explore viruses, then make sure your depiction of viruses is realistic. Research how they spread, mutate, interact with cells and multiply. Think about transmission and counter-measures. In other words, focus your realistic explanations of fantasy in the areas where they’re necessary to your narrative. Otherwise, it’s okay to let things be fantastic. Unicorns don’t need to evolve from horses. Dragons don’t need to produce fire through a chemical reaction. Serial murderers don’t need classic pseudo-psych back-stories. Give your concept some room to breathe.

Once you’re at the drawing board, really think about what your audience needs to know to make the story work. Think about plot-holes. Pitch to other people and let them tear the threads of your story apart, as long as they volunteer to help you weave it back together. That’ll let you know where you need to get real and where you can let an idea hang tantalizingly out of reach. After all, it’s not worth it to let a tiny detail throw off your whole story. Unless you want someone to leave your story with that niggling at them in the back of their head, be willing to leave it out.

Word Count: 2900

June 6, 2013, 4:39 PM

The thing about an on-going project like this, with an absolute record, is that it will change. All projects do, but here, you will see the seams. I’ve marked them in bold and pasted them with care. There’s nothing to hide, so there’s nothing to redeem me. I approached this with all the objectivity I could muster under the circumstances, but I’ve realized that this project is me. That’s the thing about a blog; it’s alive. I could try, from day to day, to disguise that fact, but you will see what I’m thinking through it all. You’ll read my thoughts, and, for those of you that are sensitive to this sort of thing, you’ll see me. So, I might as well embrace that fact.

I was watching Doctor Who today. I’m not a huge fan of Series 7; it requires some suspension of disbelief to truly enjoy. It’s a little too predictable, a little too in love with itself. That’s fine, though, because so, so many people are. It follows the traditional Conan Doyle method of mystery writing. That is, it gives you tid-bits of information, while leaving out the important bits. However, if you know the tropes well enough, then you can read the story. “Spoilers”, as our dear River Song would say. Ironically, the better you are at telling stories, the more likely you are to not be able to predict the ending. When you write books or tell stories, you slowly learn to see the narrative possibilities split off from each other into infinitum. What can a single symbol mean? Look up “Ankh” on Google. Remember, also, that the Ankh is metonymy for entire cultures and many philosophies besides. Now, look at a pen, a bag or a monitor. There’s potential unbridled in everything we see, if we look hard enough.

Given that range of possibility, the hardest thing for you to do, as I said last entry, will be to temper that potential. In the process, though, you’ve got to think about what it means. You see, while I make jokes about the usefulness of my English degree and others may scoff at its practical value, there’s something you must realize. The word is powerful. It’s not just written. Video games, music, movies, ads and comments; textbooks, reviews, novels, short-stories and manuals: they all contain the gift of narrative. They’re all forms of communication. They are, in essence, what we do as writers. An English degree may be a precarious thing on its own, but combined with a little knowledge, it’s a powerful tool.

So, think, what are you going to do? Be very careful. Through narrative, we teach people how to love. How to laugh. How to deal with trauma. How to approach pain. When to end a life. How to take one. How to use toasters and on which side the butter goes. We also let them know how it lands. Yet, you’re thinking this is hyperbole. People experience life and learn from that. Of course they do! That’s where our experience comes from, too.

What if you don’t know? What if you have to Google it? What if you’re reading a review? How about if you’re unsure about something? Have you ever been on the fence about something and been influenced by a good story? Have you ever captured a heart, made a friend or fallen in love through a story? With a story? If you’re on my blog, then I presume you like writing and reading; so, I’m probably preaching to the choir. I sure hope so, because what we write matters. How we write about things, doubly so.

When I watch the News or read an opinion piece, I can feel how they want me to feel. I know when they’re being alarmist; I can tell when they’re placating me. Not everyone can, though. More frightening, I still feel, a little bit, the way they want me to. Yes, there is an irony here, but I don’t want to scare you or stop you from writing your thoughts. Quite the opposite, I want you to write as much as you can. I also want you to think about what it means and what it can do. I want you to be okay with that. Because, if it’s written and read well enough, then you will change someone’s world. Just a little bit.

That’s why I love Doctor Who. The world is a terrifying place. Looking outside, there are forces and technologies at work that I can’t begin to fully understand. There are political intrigues and personal connections holding the world together and tearing it apart. There are stories and dreams that are horrible and false, beautiful and tragic, that run and define people’s lives. We’re approaching a time unprecedented; we are barrelling toward a future that no one person fully understands. Put your hand on the canvas of the world and you can feel the vibrations of it all. Society… the universe is a moving, living, shaping, wriggling thing. It’s absolutely terrifying, and we are such small, powerless, absolutely insignificant things.

Yet, we can alter things, send shock-waves through existence. We don’t have to, and we should consider why we do, but we can. Oh God, can we. Terrible and benevolent, we are.

What is it that I love about Doctor Who? What is its message? When it’s being created, by a writer mind you, and being watched, by us, what is it trying to tell us? Be brave. Don’t be afraid. Yes, the world is an Eldritch thing: an unspeakably complex, infinitely confounding thing, but that’s okay. We’ve got science. We’ve got words. We’ve got stories. Even if you’re afraid, especially when you’re afraid, we’ve got courage.

It can be hard to find work as a writer. It’s more difficult still to find what you want to say. It is infinitely more difficult than even that to maintain your integrity, your standards, in the face of everything. Sometimes you won’t. Sometimes, you’ll be true. Sometimes, you’ll sell out. Sometimes, it’ll be to feed your kids; sometimes, it’ll be to feed your ego. You will fail. But, that’s okay. It really is. You can learn from that. You can change things. You can count on the fact that another writer, of equal skill, exists that will oppose your words. Not all stories have happy endings. Not all of them have to.

So, don’t be afraid: write.

Word Count: 3966

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