Ideas like cats

As soon as things get difficult, I walk away. That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you. If you try to approach a cat and pick it up, hell, it won’t let you do it. You’ve got to say, ‘Well, to hell with you.’ And the cat says, ‘Wait a minute. He’s not behaving the way most humans do.’ Then the cat follows you out of curiosity: ‘Well, what’s wrong with you that you don’t love me?’

Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

Lessons from Leonardo

Is it silly to draw life lessons from a biography of a singular genius from a different era? Ok, let’s get silly:

  1. To-do lists don’t just have to be the things you have to do. They can include the things you want to do, nudges to your future self to remind you not to drop a promising thought. What do you want to learn about or attempt? If you’re interested in how the muscles of the tongue work, think nothing of listing “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker” alongside “Pick up milk.” (See a picture of one of Leonardo’s lists.)
  2. Even geniuses fake it till they make it. When Leonardo wrote his famous job application listing his numerous and diverse skills, he emphasized his engineering ability, despite the fact that he hadn’t actually done any engineering. He was confident that he could—sometimes that’s enough.
  3. Surround yourself with the right people. If you find your hometown stifling, move to a different town. If your family doesn’t approve of you, form your own motley household. When you’re interested in something, find an expert and team up. It’s rare to see genius without scenius.
  4. Make money a servant, not a master. Don’t ignore the necessity, but feel free to ignore opportunities that are lucrative but boring.
  5. Publish what you write. This is something Leonardo illustrates by counter-example: He kept so many of his discoveries to himself, writing them down for himself but never publishing them, and science and art are poorer for it. Thankfully many of his journals have been made available in the modern era, but many things he discovered had to be rediscovered later rather than serving as a foundation for new knowledge. Show your work, even when it’s as modest as a list on your blog.

“You know it’s ‘content’ if the form is provided by someone else”

Sometimes it’s annoying when someone says something in two sentences better than you said it in several paragraphs, but this time I’m pleased:

A stray thought: the correct 21st-century definition of “content” isn’t “generic media” but rather “the specific kind of media designed for platforms and algorithms”. The clue is that “content creators” exist only on (for?) platforms.

Another: you know it’s “content” if the form is provided by someone else.

Robin Sloan, “Here is your liberal art

Characters in therapy

On their podcast Reconcilable Differences, John Siracusa and Merlin Mann discuss storytelling in prestige TV:

John: To make a good show, a satisfying show to watch […] it’s important for the characters in the show to have some level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness that is above what a mortal being could have, especially in the moment. Because you don’t have time to have fifty episodes in five years for someone to come to a realization. Instead what you have is one or two events that surround the issue in question and then you have the character on screen very economically say a couple of sentences that let you understand what’s going down and what their reaction to it is. No human processes things that well and is able to summarize that eloquently, nor would they let their inner monologue out that way. But on a TV show you have to. And that makes a satisfying and good TV show. Television and movies have to do that. The art of doing that is doing it in a way that doesn’t take you out of the moment and say “No one would ever say that.”


Merlin: It might not be something that a real person would say, but the test here is do we believe that this character would say this. You can’t always do a Citizen Kane-style two people acrimoniously across a breakfast table over the years with a timelapse to make a point. Sometimes you need to make a point in a more shorthand way.


John: Lots of these shows, they don’t necessarily include therapy like The Sopranos, but what makes for good drama a lot of the time is for it to be a bunch of therapy sessions informally with breakthroughs. Because that’s what we want to see. We want to understand this interaction and this dynamic and this turmoil and we want the people to be aware enough of their circumstances and what’s inside them to verbalize the condensed story of their life.

Reconcilable Differences #145: The Opposite Mistake, 50:45

As Merlin notes, there are certainly other ways of showing a realization or change of attitude—Citizen Kane has that breakfast table montage. And it’s not hard to think of literature or arthouse movies in which nobody learns anything. But most popular storytelling is based on the idea of characters changing, learning lessons, overcoming something internal as well as external—or, in the case of the tragic, finally recognizing something inside you when it thwarts you.

The time pressure they describe (“No human processes things that well and is able to summarize that eloquently”) is specific to prestige TV and other genres that are in a hurry, but the analogy about a bunch of informal therapy sessions with breakthroughs applies more generally. If the world is your character’s therapy session, providing prompts and hard questions, what breakthroughs is she going to have? What breakthroughs that we see are needed will she fail to have?

The difference between sad and tragic

The tragic sense derives from the realization that great misfortunes and failures and not merely imposed upon us from without, but are largely the result of our own tragic flaws. A tragic story is not merely a sad story. In a sad story the hero dies or fails in his enterprise or is rejected by his special love; the unfortunate outcome is brought on by enemies, poor conditions, bad luck, or some unexpected deficiency in the hero.

The tragic story has a different character. Its hero is engaged with extraordinary virtue and skill in a noble quest. He is defeated in this quest. The defeat is due in part to formidable external difficulties, but it stems above all from an internal flaw, a quality of character that is an intrinsic part of the heroic striving. The flaw usually involves hubris (arrogance, ego inflation, omnipotence) and destructiveness. The nobility and the defect are two sides of the same heroic coin. But genuine tragedy does not end simply in defeat. Although the hero does not attain his initial aspirations, he is ultimately victorious: he confronts his profound inner faults, accepts them as part of himself and of humanity, and is to some degree transformed into a nobler person. The personal transformation outweighs the worldly defeat and suffering.

Daniel J. Levinson, The Seasons of a Man’s Life

Two definitions of “dramatic”

If to be dramatic is to show characters dramatically engaged with each other, motive clashing with motive, the outcome depending upon the resolution of motives, then this scene [the stagecoach scene from Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding] is dramatic. But if it is to give the impression that the story is taking place by itself, with the characters existing in a dramatic relationship vis-à-vis the spectator, unmediated by a narrator and decipherable only through inferential matching of word to word and word to deed, then this is a relatively undramatic scene.

Wayne C. Booth, What Every Novelist Needs to Know about Narrators

An opportunity here for the writer to borrow from the critic. Feeling a lack of drama? Here are two places to look: at the relationships among the characters, and at the relationship between the characters and the reader. Motivations and stakes on the one hand; inevitability of the plot and prominence of the narrator on the other.

Branching stories and inevitability

Over the last few days I’ve come across anecdotes about writers having trouble writing branching stories.

Here’s the BBC describing writers’ experiences creating parser-based interactive fiction:

A good tool interface is only the first step in writing a good interactive story. We needed to find ways to help our writers learn to think about conversation as a graph, as well as a competition you can win or lose. Tracking variables and calibrating how much agency to give a player were both new concepts, as were ‘unwriterly’ tasks like dividing graphs to optimise memory usage.

And here’s Robin Sloan, who is at work on a game:

So here I am, reading Hero Legends, reading Pullman’s Grimm, rereading my own plodding Ink, trying again, producing nothing better, getting frustrated, and, honestly, despairing a bit, which is almost always a sign that you need to take a step back.

That’s what I did. I closed the Ink editor and, instead, just… Wrote Something The Normal Way. And, almost immediately, it worked. The whole scene tumbled out, in almost exactly the right voice, casually informing the reader that a year had passed, and another, and another. It moved up and down the ladder of abstraction. It became unstuck.

I wonder, is it harder to write branching stories because of the unfamiliarity, the fact that it requires forcing new circuits in the brain to light up? Sloan lands here, with his specific issue being that it’s difficult to travel up and down the “ladder of abstraction” while writing in a programming language.

And I don’t doubt it. But I wonder: Is this difficulty simply a matter of having more balls to juggle? Or does writing a story with branches also make you tie one hand behind your back by removing certain tenets that you can rely on when writing straight prose?

I’m thinking specifically of inevitability. From Elizabeth Bowen’s “Notes on Writing a Novel“:

Roughly, the action of a character should be unpredictable before it has been shown, inevitable when it has been shown. In the first half of a novel, the unpredictability should be the more striking. In the second half, the inevitability should be the more striking.

Inevitability is always hard to get right. But it stands to reason that it would be even harder to make several endings feel inevitable, or several ways to get to the same ending.

Or maybe inevitability is more a shackle than a crutch in the context of interactive fiction. What would be lost and what would be gained if branching stories rejected the tenet of inevitability? Would readers reject it as unsatisfying? Or, with no place to go, no reason to get frustrated at getting stuck in a loop or arriving at the “wrong” place, would the pleasures of ambient media rise to the surface?

Against worldbuilding

M. John Harrison writes:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

Via Robin Sloan.


Video game as Gesamtkunstwerk

Robin Sloan, in the first issue of his newsletter about making a video game:

Some days—not all, but some—I think video games must cerainly be the 21st-century version of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art” that draws upon and integrates all other forms. For Wagner, ca. 1849, opera was the Gesamtkunstwerk.

There’s a lot in this whole formulation that’s questionable, but here I will just plainly confess that, for me, its allure is not. In video games, you get to deploy story and prose and graphic design and moving images and music—you get to “play all the keys on the keyboard.”

This is interesting to me because, without knowing the word Gesamtkunstwerk until today, it has long seemed to me that film has been vying for this label—even to the point of incorporating the technology of games. It’s theater + photography + music + etc. But Wikipedia’s entry for Gesamtkunstwerk doesn’t even mention film, only opera, architecture, and visual art.

Meanwhile, video games arguable go further even than film, adding software to the list of incorporated crafts/practices/affordances/arts. Maybe Sloan is right. (Even when he’s not 100% right, you might have noticed that I consistently find him interesting. The “Robin Sloan” tag overfloweth.)

One last blockquote to share from this same newsletter, this one about why it matters that he’s calling his video game a video game:

As you might know, I produce a lot of odd-shaped digital projects; this thread from a fictional social network (?!) is a good example. I truly love making these things, but/and I am often frustrated that the only “critical response” available is what I’ve come to think of as the “nod of approval.” I like nods, and I like approval—but I like real engagement even more. When you’re producing work in a genre that consists of… only that work… it’s a tall order to expect people to like, invent a whole new way of talking about things… just to talk about your thing.

Just by calling something a game, you give people the framework—the permission—to evaluate it. To compare it with other things. To recommend it!

You’ll see, as this project progresses, that it would have been perfectly reasonable to call it “an extremely enhanced e-book” or a “super-duper interactive digital story.” I struggled with this for a long time; I am now over it. This is a video game.

As someone interested in making odd-shaped digital objects, I find this is a compelling argument.

Hand-wavy science fiction is the best science fiction

Consider this, found on a pink sheet from Robin Sloan’s Risograph:

As part of the process, my mother had answered thousands of questions basic and surreal, and also submitted to a full-body scan at a university three hundred miles south, the results of which—petabytes worth—had been transmitted to the lab near Toronto. That data wasn’t uploaded into the tree, exactly; but it wasn’t NOT uploaded into the tree, either.

He could have come up with some Star Trek-style gobbledygook about how the tree fibers were reengineered to bend like neurons through the use of an experimental Organic-Structural Mirror Ray—but why? The best science fiction is focused on people, not (fake) science.

See also: “Something like a HELICOPTER”