Monthly Archives: May 2014

Tolerances

This past weekend, I went to the Bay Area Maker Faire, billed as “The World’s Biggest Show and Tell.”  There were a lot of really interesting things there, way more than I could have seen in a whole week, and one of those things that I missed (because I went on Saturday, and it happened on Sunday) was Adam Savage’s talk.  Luckily, we live in the information age, and it’s already up on youtube.  You can watch the whole thing on your own, though most of it is a question and answer session, but I’m mostly interested in something that Adam said in his semi-prepared speech at the beginning.  To paraphrase, he said that what separates novices from experts is knowing where you need tight tolerances and where you can get away with loose ones.

Adam was talking about this in the context of making things, but that, especially, resonated with me as a writer as much as a maker.  Precision of language is something that can make or break a story.  Knowing where you need to be precise and where you can be more vague is the difference between holding a reader’s attention and either boring or confusing them.  If a character, Bob, has been sitting in a chair and then leaves the room, you only need a loose tolerance in your language to tell readers that the character stood up from that chair, walked to the door, opened it, and left the room—you can just say “Bob got up and left the room,” or even just “Bob left.”  That’s a pretty loose tolerance, but readers don’t need any extra verbiage to get the intended meaning from that sentence.

You would need close tolerances, though, if Bob left the room without getting out of his chair: “Bob, still seated, rolled his chair across the room and out the door,” or “Bob half rose, still gripping his chair, and shuffled out of the door.”

The important part in both of those examples, though, is knowing what level of precision is required and keeping your language compact while meeting the informational requirements of your sentence.

All of Adam’s 10 Commandments of Making can be seen in the video below, and I think most of them can apply beyond making things, but this one lodged in my head particularly.

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Spurious Writing Prompt

Ok, time for a writing prompt, because I don’t know when the last time was that I posted one.  This exercise is inspired by an exercise I did way back in my freshman year of college (thanks, Gary!) where my class was asked to base a story around a picture selected from a book of pictures of mid-century America.  Rather than a picture, though, inspiration comes from a graph (yes, I know that graphs are pictures of data).

Specifically, your story should draw from any of the graphs at Spurious Correlations: a collection of curious statistical correlations generated by a computer from publicly-available data.

Correlation: 0.915876

Of course we know that correlation does not imply causation, but for the purposes of this writing exercise, it might well be more interesting to assume a causative relationship between the data.

I can think of an xkcd for almost any situation.

If you write anything that you want to share, post it (or a link—if you try to post a novel in the comments, it won’t make it out of moderation) in the comments.


Storium

Ok, yes, late to the party.  Right here.  Mock me, internet.

But if you haven’t heard of Storium yet, read on.

Storium is a freeform group writing roleplaying game.  No dice, no stack of rulebooks, just story, moderated by a narrator.  It’s one of those things where machine versus man…

Wait.

If you’re a narrator, you get to guide players through a story that you’re all writing together.  It’s like being a DM, only a lot more open, and better if you don’t plan too far ahead.

If you’re a player, you are telling the story, too.  You make it happen.

Oh, and a lot of famous authors are writing settings for the game when it launches publicly later this year.

While I’ve written about other games being good as writing prompts before, Storium is far and away the best game-as-a-gateway-to-writing.  I’m just starting a game with some of my close friends to get a feel for what Storium has to offer while conveniently getting their help to hash out some ideas I’ve had around a set piece.

Storium is on Kickstarter.  It’s funded.  They’re trying to make it to $200K in the next two days so that they can do Storium for Schools, which seems like an awesome idea.

Be there.


Late Starter

The phrase “In late, out early” is one that you’ve probably heard more times than you can count if you’ve ever taken a class on or listened to a podcast about writing.

And you’d try it yourself, really, you would, but you’re scared.  I know I’m too scared to take that advice as far as I need to often.  Yes, I’ve chopped off a first chapter or two, moving them to my scrap text files in case I need something from them later, but I’m always worried that I’ll take off too much, and my readers won’t be with me, when usually I’m too timid.  Yes, you can come in to a story too late, but I’d wager that what most people would think was way too late in their own writing is just about the right place to start for actual readers.  Because you need to trust your readers.

They’re not dumb.

I just started reading Wesley Chu’s The Lives of Tao, and his first chapter is daring in its execution of coming in late.  If I wrote that book, I don’t know that I would have been able to start so late because I’d be afraid that my readers wouldn’t get what was going on at all, but as a reader, it works for me 100% just getting thrown into the story.  Of course, part of trusting your readers is letting them self-select.  Your story will never be all things to all people.  If you’re writing space opera, no matter where you start, you’re unlikely to hook a reader who just isn’t into space opera (though you’re substantially more likely to hook them if you go in late than if you start with a huge infodump).

So.  Be brave.  Start your story where things start happening and not a moment before.  And if you’re interested in seeing a great example of “in late, out early,” you can check out the first chapter of The Lives of Tao here (Amazon).


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