A short story I wrote in high school had some pretty eerie presaging of some of the stuff going on in the world of creatives right now.
I don't know if anyone's gonna believe me if I say this, but there was a short story I wrote in high school (and which I cannot find anymore, hence my sense you won't believe it) that had some pretty eerie presaging of some of the stuff going on in the world of creatives right now. For perspective, "high school" means 1988 or so.
The story was about the early stages of the making of a big-budget historical epic. The director and his writing team were using a relatively new tool to pre-visualize the project. It used footage from existing films that vaguely resembled what they were doing, and reworked it through a computer to more closely resemble something like their project. In other words, it was a kind of previsualization system, something they could use to render a rough draft of the movie for the sake of securing the financing they wanted.
I wrote that in 1988.
(Like I said, I don't expect you to believe me.)
Sound creative advice always seems like common sense in retrospect.
Steve posted about the use of the "CRAP" design principles -- Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity — by way of a book about design I'd not seen before. I was pleasantly surprised at how these four pieces of advice all just struck me as common sense, not terribly esoteric. These are the principles, followed by my own interpretations of them:
Much of the best advice for designers (and artists, and writers) always strikes me as being, in retrospect, a simple common-sense distillation of good taste. I emphasize in retrospect because sometimes you can only see what's right in front of you after you've been told about it — at which point you can see it, after the fact, in all the places where before your eye just skidded past it. It makes total sense in retrospect to keep related things close to each other, but if we are not in the habit of understanding why this is even a value to have, we don't do it.
This week's writing brought together my understanding of my new novel "Charisma" with the kind of momentum that made it difficult to stop and breathe.
This week I wrote what amounted to roughly the first tenth or so of the first draft of Charisma. This much progress startled me about as much as I think it did most anyone else who was following along. It wasn't just that I wrote that much of the manuscript itself, either, but writing that much of it stapled down some really big, important questions about what kind of story this is and what it is really about.
I had clues about such things before, thanks to the rough 30,000-foot outline I'd written before starting. But they were nothing more than that, clues. Actually getting the wheel to turn, the act of putting the words on the page that make the story happen to some degree — those things brought together my understanding of the story with the kind of momentum that made it difficult to stop writing and breathe. What was before a hazy picture, as if seen through bad glass, has now become a 4K resolution remaster.
Funny how all the intense skull-session stuff on my end only ended up being prelude to a couple of casual exchanges with friends that cracked the whole thing wide open. The discussions were about the nature of desire, chiefly how it's regarded in Buddhist thought — not as a sin, but rather as an energy, an espect of human existence that isn't exclusively "us". You are not your longings, but we live in a world that allows us to freely confuse ourselves with our longings, and is full of people who profit from that confusion. I then realized all this fed back into the story I was creating in a way I had not even seen myself at first, and in a way that elegantly resolved a great many questions I had about where the story could go, how it could get there, and what it would feel like when it finished.
My only regret at this stage, if "regret" is even the right word, is how elements of this story still resemble a little too closely some of the elements I also had in Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned. Maybe I'll be the only one who sees them. Maybe others will see them and I'll be the only one who actually cares. Or, maybe maybe maybe I'll find ways to differentiate Charisma that much more from AONO now that I have a fundamentally different theme expressed for it.
Really, I should quit worrying. I'm bloody excited. You ought to be, too.
Large language models aren't a good method for transformative creation, but they fake it superficially well.
By now it's obvious to most anyone how ChatGPT and other large language models amount to plagiarism as a service. That may not be what their intent was, but that's what they've turned into. People, me included, have good reason to be worried about how these things can be used to displace creative workers — not because they are that good, but because cheap replacements for human labor of any kind are superficially attractive.
What's been kicking around in my head is how drawing parallels between ChatGPT and what creativity actually is obscures the mechanisms by which transformative creative work is actually made. We've become so accustomed to devaluing actual human creative work, maybe it's no surprise this next set of adulterations comes so readily.
I'm calling my new book "Charisma" a work of cyberpunk, in the sense of "the street has its own uses for things".
An old joke in computing goes like this: the two hardest problems in computer science are cache expiry, naming things, and off-by-one errors. I think the "naming things" part definitely applies to writing, as two of the hard problems in fiction are titling your work, and — sometimes — figuring out what genre label to apply to it.
"Charisma" is now officially in progress, as I've written -- and rewritten -- what amounts to a first chapter.
Aside from blowing my toes off and stapling them back on again, this has been a shockingly productive week. Charisma is now officially in progress, as I've written — and rewritten — what amounts to a first chapter. This makes for an interesting anecdote.
"It’s best to spend zero time on what you could have done and all of your time on what you might do."
This piece of advice has been kicking around since 2011, but I only ran into it recently:
[I] watched an interview with famous football coach Bill Parcells. He was telling the story of how he had a similar dilemma when he began his Head Coaching career. In his very first season as coach, Parcell’s team, The New York Giants, was hit with a rash of injuries. He worried incessantly about the impact of the injuries on the team’s fortunes, as it is difficult enough to win with your best players let alone a bunch of substitutes. When his friend and mentor Raiders owner Al Davis called Parcells to check in, Parcells relayed his injury issues. Parcell’s: “Al, I am just not sure how we can win without so many of our best players. What should I do?” Davis replied: “Bill, nobody cares, just coach your team.”
... A great reason for failing won’t preserve one dollar for your investors, won’t save one employee’s job, or get you one new customer. It especially won’t make you feel one bit better when you shut down your company and declare bankruptcy. ... It’s best to spend zero time on what you could have done and all of your time on what you might do. Because in the end, nobody cares, just run your company.
Because the advice is clearly designed for and aimed at businesspeople, I did have to think about how applicable it is to other walks of life. It seems uncharitable to tell people at large that nobody cares your mother died or your son's in the hospital. The advice is aimed at people who stick their necks out but then expect others to absolve them of failure. Not everyone runs a company; not everyone agrees to take on the risk and work the hours. If you elect to do that, it's assumed you have thick skin and plenty of nerve, and can handle a hard landing.
But I think that last bit of advice ("It’s best to spend zero time on what you could have done and all of your time on what you might do") is universal. That feels like part of why I resist the temptation to go back and revisit older work: the effort spent would be better put to learning what I didn't do so well, and trying to figure out how future work can avoid those mistakes.
It also goes into, as you can imagine, what I am dealing with right now, where I'm trying to avoid sounding smart and figuring out better how to say things that actually are smart. It's better to think about what things I can discuss constructively and discuss them as constructively as I can, and less so lamenting (or resenting) all the things I didn't or couldn't.
On recognizing and curtailing contempt culture.
I bumped into another article worth sharing, about contempt culture in the world of programming. The dynamic should be clear to anyone who's ever been in a space where there are in-groups and out-groups. We, the users of Language X, are cool and hip, and the people over there who use Language Y are cretins. Except that this messaging does no one any favors when users of Y sincerely want to learn more about X, or where Y has aspects that users of X might actually benefit from if only they could sit still long enough to hear about them. But this stuff is not limited to programming, as you can guess, and I have made many of my own mistakes in this regard.
How I was the target of what might have been a botched phishing operation.
What with one thing and another, I forgot to mention something disturbing that happened several weeks ago, and which might be worth sharing so others know about it. And so maybe they don't freak out like I did.
Now I have to wonder: what else have I been saying unthinkingly?
After my faux pas, I got to thinking: How much else have I been blithering about in utter ignorance? And worse, how much else have I blithered about in ignorance and never realized it because I've been content to entertain an audience of maybe a dozen, tops? It was not a line of thinking I wanted to entertain, but once uncanned, those worms would not go back into anything except a larger can.
On my careless words about John Scalzi, et al.
I read back over the post I made earlier, and had a fresh sense of how easy it is to say something thoughtless about people who actually exist. This is one of those things that I've slipped into a little too easily in the past, and now it seems I've slipped into it again by letting my cynicism about things eat into the rest of my behavior. It's too easy to talk about stuff you know at second- or third-hand as if you own it.
It's even more depressingly easy to impugn motives, or to ascribe them to behavior that is not in evidence. It's even easier than that to do it to someone who isn't in the room, and who you have some reason to believe will never be in the room, because they seem to be way on the other side of things. And yes, it's still possible to believe in such things in the here-and-now, up to the moment you find the person you've impugned is now speaking straight to you.
There wasn't much I could do except apologize as directly as I could, annotate the post, and, well, feel foolish. Nobody likes the taste of their own foot. But here we are.
On the (black) art of book blurbing. [Updated]
ADDENDUM: I was informed that John Scalzi himself read this, and has discussed it here. I'm not removing this post, because I want it to stand as a record of my thought. There's no point in trying to scrub this stuff as the internet is forever, just learn from it. It was not a good idea for me to be that careless with names, and I apologize for my thoughtlessness. The original post is located below the cut. I also have a follow-up here. And also here, where I go into some more detail.
I still haven't finished the Shunga-Satori Behind The Scenes posts, and some of that is due to me having misplaced some notes I thought I had.
I'm looking at the list of things to do and wincing. I still haven't finished the Shunga-Satori Behind The Scenes posts, and some of that is due to me having misplaced some notes I thought I had from the early days of the book. Normally I'm a lot more organized than that: there's a wiki for the book, and everything should be in there, but ... it's not. I have the horrible feeling some of the stuff I wrote was originally written on another laptop which I've since decommissioned and forgot to copy everything over from.
These things happen. Sometimes I jot things down on another machine, or in another place, and they don't get integrated back into the main body of organizational work I keep for a given project. But they float around in my head, and so I walk around under the delusion that they're there, because where the hell else would they be?
I don't feel the purpose of Buddhism is to subsume others, or to make them over in our image.
The post I made the other day about Hua-yen Buddhism strikes me, in retrospect, as something I must interrogate thoroughly. I know full well there are counter-arguments to this worldview that are powerful and meaningful. I went looking for them, and I ran into this statement:
... I am not of the same body as someone I meet on the street, or my best friend, or my lover. Not only is this the case, it is essential to realize it. I agree with Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy that recognition and apprehension of the Other is the basis of the ethical relationship. If we believe that we are One with the Other than we are subsuming him, making him over in our own image. It is only in the recognition of our separation, face to face, and our recognition of our responsibility, the one to the other, that ethics can be born. War is not the result of a failure to recognize Oneness but a failure to recognize Otherness, and the inherent right of Otherness. It is the tyranny of Oneness that causes war, because it is the desire to destroy the Other and to reduce him to non-existence. The demand of absolute unity is the source of murder. The issue is basic. It is the right to exist. We can only recognize the right of existence when we look into the face of the Other and accept that it is not our own.
I don't feel the purpose of Buddhism is to subsume others, or to make them over in our image. I feel its purpose is to recognize that other-ness is quite real in the day-to-day sense — and as such needs to be respected in the day-to-day sense — but that within ourselves, in the places that meditation is designed to get us to pay attention to, those distinctions only arise and fall away in our own minds.
One of the real headspinners I ran up against when reading about Hua-yen Buddhism is the idea that things are the same because they are different.
One of the sub-branches of Buddhism I've been mulling recently is Hua-yen Buddhism, which I've touched on before but is one of those wells you can throw buckets down into endlessly. The core idea is that all things are interpenetrative, and that any differences between things amount to artifacts in our perception rather than them being separate, distinct "things". Yes, it makes your head spin, but in a good way.
No question: we all like to have some validation, somewhere, some time.
Writers are such sensitive creatures, we really are. We thirst for validation, but we actually don't need much of it to do well. Just every now and then someone to come along and say, "Hey, I read your book. I really liked it." I suspect anything beyond that approaches redundancy. Not enough validation and you either wither or turn inwards; too much of it and you become a performative and shallow. But no question: we all like to have some validation, somewhere, some time. It's just a question of where to get it from and in what form.
Another example of something I thought would mess me up more than it really did.
In the last couple of months of last year, when I was getting ready to move house, I ended up pitching a lot of things I'd dithered about keeping. One of them was the old manual Remington typewriter that had originally belonged to my dad, which I'd learned to type on and had composed a lot of very early work with. I'd hung onto it out of some foolish nostalgia for ages. It barely worked; years of bad storage had damaged a number of its parts.
I mulled the idea of taking it to one of the few surviving typewriter repair places out there and having it restored, and then somewhere in the middle of this line of thought I just picked up the machine and put it in the trash, and that was that. And for the longest time I'd resisted doing so because I kept telling myself, You'll regret it! Well, it's been five months since I did that, and I'm still waiting for a feeling of regret to arise.
I've had to work over the years to shed my preconceptions about the artistic process, because they were formed back when I was more of an audience member than a creator.
Sometimes I sit down to write a book and the whole thing just happens. Sometimes I sit down to write a book, and I just ... keep on sitting down to write a book. One outline, one treatment, one rundown leads to another, and another, and another. You think you know the story, and then you look at your story and you have nothing but nagging questions about it. Never a good sign.
You need to keep faith in the process, I tell myself again and again. Every time I've been in this exact spot before, the only thing that got me out of it was being diligent, being tireless, just revisiting what I had until I no longer felt like every element in it made me want to ask some variant of "Why don't they just shoot him?". Because, if I take more than six seconds to think about it, that's how most every book of mine has come about.