I am especially happy that CComment (which I switched to for the lightweight Ajax design and the fact that it didn't clutter up the bottom of my page with GIANT COMMENT WIDGET HERE) seems to have picked up the comments from JComments (my old comment extension, which had to be retired when its useless captcha permitted so much spam it rendered my comment feature untenable) all by itself, without even asking, so it turns out I haven't lost old comments. How nice!
The site rebuild / redesign is slowly happening, one teensy tiny feature at a time as I slowly get to them, a lot of them behind the scenes. I've been nailing down a simpler, more light-weight and mobile-friendly design that I want to use (much as I still love my layers-over-smoke-spirals thing, it's very heavy especially on mobiles and I think it's time for something new) and investigating which of the zillions of Joomla extensions both serve my purpose and won't block my upgrade to Joomla 3 down the path, and looking at some ways I can achieve some things I want to do that aren't currently served by existing extensions.
For the curious, next up on the list will be subscription options (newsletters, RSS--if there's another way you'd like to receive posts without having to navigate here, please do use the brand new comment system below and tell me! I'm still an RSS girl myself, but I'm happy to provide!) and social media sharing, the CSS redesign and a rather dull addition of necessary content (I am now running a techwriting business, after all. There should be more actual techwriting stuff here).
Then I have to figure out how I want to do an idea I'm really excited about, which involves posting free fiction and having fun. I don't want to say too much, because I haven't quite ironed out how it's all going to work, but it's my carrot at the end of a long-and-annoying upgrade process.Write comment (0 Comments)
So I had to have an MRI of my brain and eyeballs for Reasons. The MRI itself was uneventful. I changed into a giant purple cloth-paper bag, and they asked me if I've I'd ever had a pacemaker or brain surgery so many times that I started to doubt my own answers and wonder if I was, in fact, there for Alzheimer's. Then they put a cannula in my arm for the contrast dye they needed for one of the scans, and put me in the MRI.
It pretty much looks like it does on TV, except the rest of the room is not so gorgeous and glamourous as House MD's MRI room. There's also no way in hell you can understand more than about three words in a sentence when they speak to you, and I now laugh at all the mid-MRI conversations the doctors were having with patients. Nor is there, as far as I could see, a camera inside, though they do put a little mirror on top of your catcher's-mask skull-cage so you can see down your body and who's coming into the room.
It's not as claustrophobic as they make it look on TV. I'm fairly tiny as a person, and also not claustrophobic, but while the skull-cage is right in front of your face, there's plenty of room in the MRI itself.
Nor does it sound like it does on TV. Far from the classy "kerrrTHUNKTHUNKTHUNKTHUNK", it varies with the scan being performed, from a jack-hammer or machine gun, through a casino slot-machine, a number of seriously perturbed dot-matrix printers, a broken massage chair, and sounds that came straight out of a 90's rave or a crashed 80's game.
For the large part, it's mostly rather dull. Noisy, but dull. They give you headphones, which provides some entertainment in trying to guess what song is playing from what you can hear through the noise while the scan is running. But largely it's half an hour of lying very still to loud noises, rather like a hangover but without the fun beforehand.
But the cool thing? The really cool thing? The thing that had me completely geeking out about this? You get to take the scans home, and the scans are freakishly awesome, and awesomely freakish. And, for the truly squeamish, below the cut:Write comment (0 Comments)
New blog category, though I don't have an icon for it, yet. Whoops. This post is late because I've been completely distracted this week with a severe lack of sleep and a new programming project.
But: I got all excited about MadCap Flare 10's supposedly 'frameless' 'responsive' HTML5 publishing target. I was contemplating having to build my own skin to get around the many bugs in their existing HTML5 publishing, and the prospect of not having to build one ground-up was understandably appealing.
When I upgraded, to my dismay, I found there was nothing 'frameless' about this new help. I tried multiple skins--and maybe it's just the skins themselves haven't been updated, or maybe I never happened across the right magic one that had--but they all still used the iframes to load content, making said content invisible to google.
Not to mention, all the other bugs that had been there earlier were still there. I was back to writing my own skin.
Then I happened across a project called FlareStrap, which was attempting baby steps in the direction I wanted: removing the skin altogether from Flare by embedding the navigation and everything else in each published HTML page. It was incredibly rudimentary, hardcoding the navigation as an HTML list instead of using Flare's own published data, but it showed me the path of baked-in non-Flare navigation using Flare's master pages.
So I now have the beginnings of my own navigational system--no widgets, yet, that's this week's project. Nor have I experimented with a wacky project so that the parser can handle all the variations of how Flare might output its nav structures, but it's a good start.Write comment (0 Comments)
My brother sent me this a few weeks ago: a poster with the first sentences of classic literary novels diagrammed. Well, he sent me the link, not the poster itself, because randomly sending me a poster is generally considered weird, even for us.
I'd never encountered sentence diagramming. I went through school during the "they'll pick up grammar via osmosis, right?" system philosophy, and it was only because I took a structural English subject as part of my graduation subjects that I even learned about things like registers, gerunds, infinitives and modal verbs. And frankly I found it dull as donkeybones identifying all of those in texts (even though, I'll admit, the knowledge has served me well in both my careers).
If we'd done sentence diagramming like this, though (especially with the colour-coding, because who doesn't love colour-coding?), I think I'd have paid a lot more attention. It speaks to my cipher-loving brain cells. Apologies to those who suffered through endless diagramming in their formative English years, but I think this is pretty damn cool.Write comment (0 Comments)
Apologies for last week, random life happened. But something else happened too: I finished the plotgrid for the novella I'm about to spend the next two weeks writing.
It's a technique I developed in the last few weeks of Odyssey to help myself find the weak points in my story. I have a terrible habit of skipping over problems in my head because I really like whatever story-moment or logic is going on, or because I've just found an easy way to get from point A to point B and I don't want to have to rethink it. The plotgrid shines a harsh searchlight on problems that I'm quietly ignoring.
There's no special software, the grid in the photo was made using excel, printed out on 14 A4 pages and then sticky-taped together. You can use any spreadsheeting software, you can even do it in a word processor with a table, or you can do it on a whiteboard or a giant piece of paper.
I usually prefer the ease-of-editing that software provides, because I insert rows and move things a lot when I'm working this out, but YMMV.
What a plot grid shows
I know you can't read the grid. That's on purpose, because this is a work-in-progress and I don't share the details of WIPs when I haven't written them yet. But the grid is very simple:
Each row represents a significant moment in the story. Because this is a novella, rather than a short story, each row represents a scene (which is why some of the rows are quite large--a lot happens in the scene). When I plotgrid out my short stories, each row typically represents a plot-relevant decision or action by the main character(s).
Then we have the columns, which look at what's happening in each of these moments from different angles. From left to right across the top, I have:
- Scene number and location (just to easily track position in the time and place of the story.)
- Scene summary
- Plot events and character choices
- Causal chain
- Emotional logic
- Internal conflict
- External conflict
- Information setup
Some of these are really obvious, like the scene summary, and some are just housekeeping notes-to-self, like the time/space (scene number and location) and the information setup (stuff that has to be set up here because it's paid off later). The real meat of the plotgrid is the other columns.
Plot events and character choices
There's a common problem with fledgling writers where they have a great idea and a great world and cool stuff is happening... but it's all happening to the character. Or even worse, at them. The characters themselves are not driving the story forward, they're just reacting to it.
Reactive characters are, as a rule, much less interesting and involving, because they don't seem to have a goal, other than "make this stop happening and leave me alone". They don't want anything, they're not striving to achieve it, they're not taking actions to get it. One of the fastest ways to get a reader to identify with a character and tune into the story is to make the character want something they can't have yet. If stuff is just happening to a character, you lose that core involvement.
You can make a story about a character avoiding something, but they have to be taking steps to avoid it. So this column is where you look at your scene summary and you find what active choices the character is taking. What are they choosing to do. And keep a careful eye on whether all of those choices are "X happens so she does Y" - that's not likely an active character.
(Things do happen in a story that are not character actions and are perfectly fine. Typically, it's the inciting incident. That's why there's "plot events" in this column too. But you need to make sure your plot events don't outnumber your character actions. If this is a problem for you, I suggest splitting this into two columns, one for each, so you're forced to have real character action.)
Another common problem is that the events of the plot are not actually impacted by the character's actions. The classic example is Raiders of the Lost Arc--had Indy never become involved, the Nazi's would have opened the arc and been consumed anyway, so his actions actually had zero effect on the causal chain.
But even worse is when this happens throughout your plot. You can have things "just happen" at the start of your story (though it's better if there's a reason for them, too). But if things keep "just happening" it starts to feel all too coincidental, and the reader loses interest. Worse, they feel like you've wasted their time, because if things just happen anyway, then what the character did had no meaning, they might as well just have sat around staring at their toes. The whole scene they just read has no actual impact on the story, no point, and no reason to be there unless something the character did in it has a consequence later on.
If things can just happen, it negates the character's influence on the story. It's no longer about them, it could be about anyone who just happened to be there. So their choices (see previous column) have consequences. They chose to do something earlier (either immediately before, or much earlier, or possibly before the story even started) and now it's made things worse.
So, this column is: why is this scene happening, what actions did the character do that resulted in these events?
Emotional logic and internal conflict
Characters have reasons for the choices they make. And I'm not talking about the reasons that they'd tell a journalist, here I'm talking about the reasons they don't tell anyone, often not even themselves. The selfish, secret reasons, the reasons that make sense to their neurosis that they'd never admit out loud. "I did it so people would pay attention to me", "Because I wanted him to feel like he'd screwed up", "Because if she leaves me I will die". This is the emotional logic, the non-rational reason they made the decision. How is this action supporting who they think they are, in the state they feel they're in?
Internal conflict is the other side of that coin: how are they getting in their own way, here? Internal conflict is the dog with two bones: he wants both, but he has to choose only one. Sometimes it's two good things (choosing in a love triangle), or it might be a good thing vs avoiding a bad thing (he wants the girl, but he's frightened of rejection), or two choosing the lesser of two bad things (be honest and hurt the girl, or keep lying and feel like a cheat), or any combination where it's a difficult choice.
If this is an important moment in the story, you really need both. You need emotional logic to make sure the character is acting in-character (or appropriately out-of-character for the moment) and internal conflict to make sure this is a difficult moment.
External conflict and stakes
At the same time, generally the world and the plot are against them. What's trying to stop them getting what they want right now? How is the rest of the world trying to defeat them? The bully's going to hit him, the principle's given him detention and his Dad has grounded him for a month. Things he's going to have to overcome to get the girl. (I'm not writing a high-school drama, but the examples just write themselves here).
Stakes are what the character stands to lose (or win, but more importantly lose, because we like torturing our characters). What's at stake? If he doesn't meet her after school to explain things, she'll never speak to him again and he'll lose her forever.
Like internal conflict, if this is an important moment in the story, something should be making it difficult, and they should stand to lose something if they fail.
And the final tie-in. Your mileage may vary with this, but I'm a very analytical person and I love layers in my stories, and this is where theme comes in. This column is essentially a check-off of how the other columns are supporting my theme. If my theme is Love Requires Courage, then anything my character does that does not follow that theme (chickening out) should be punished by the plot. He's not learning the lesson he needs to learn, so bad things happen. Anything he does that is courageous should be rewarded, even if it's not rewarding him with the girl he wants (yet). (Maybe he impresses someone else and gets an ally in his quest).
If there are areas where I really can't find how it echoes the theme, then those sections of story are going to feel "off-message". The point of the story will feel lost, and readers will get a vague sense of not really knowing why that scene was there. So if I can't answer this column, I need to take a hard look and what's happening, and what choices the character could make instead that would support the theme.
Colour and structure
The colour-coding isn't strictly essential, as a side-note, but I'm a very colour-oriented person and it helps me to see the breakdown of major plot moments and when they fall. Here, the first two orangey rows are my first act. My second act, which is very large, and actually split into sub-acts to keep it structured, is the whole purple section from the third row down to the blue (the pink row in between is a kind of 'transition' scene, and technically belongs at the start of Act 2, but isn't really part of the Act 2 journey). The blue is the Act 3.
Side-note to the side-note: I've been asked by a few people how I did the colours in Excel. Near the direct formatting buttons (the B, I, U buttons you click to make something bold, italic, underline, etc) there's a button with a pouring paint bucket. This controls the cell background colour. The 'A' button next to it is for the font colour. Go nuts.
When you have holes and problems
Solving problems depends on which column your hole is in, but most of them come back to:
- Knowing your character better, to better understand their emotional logic, internal conflict or their choices.
- Making things harder for the character by making more stuff come back to bite them (causal chain and external conflict).
- Knowing what you want to say, to better understand your theme and character arc.
So, there you have it. Plotgrid 101.Write comment (0 Comments)
The upgrade is mostly-sort-of-kinda complete. That is, the essentials are done, and the site should function mostly-as-advertised, though some components had to be removed in the meantime, because there wasn't an upgrade path for them (read: the devs didn't bother to make a new version compatible with the new version of Joomla, so I had to remove those extensions or the migration would bork). Hence where my comments disappeared to (sad panda) and my sitemap (not a huge loss, for this site).
If you find anything fundamentally broken, please do let me know. I've checked things, but there are just SO MANY things that broke and were fixed and rebroken and jury-patched as I did this upgrade that I've likely missed some. My bio page has information on how you can get in touch.
(Edit: Oh, if it's broken in anything earlier than IE8, I really don't care. Not supporting that. I had to convert this template over to the new format, and reading through all the snarky, often-sweary comments for my million-and one IE-only CSS hacks reminded/reconvinced me not to bother supporting broken browsers.)
I say mostly-done, because there are some changes I want to make, both content-wise and design-wise, so they'll be happening as we go along--this is why this upgrade was a patch-together job, rather than a slow-and-steady get-it-perfect business. I'm going to find a new extension to handle my comments, and try out some other concepts I want to play with on this site, and I have a complete CSS-redesign slowly moving through the pipeline that will hopefully make this site a lot faster to load, as well as being a visual update. I like the design I have now, but I think it's time to move on--especially as this site is now going to be serving more than one conceptual master.
Thank you for your patience. Regular posting will hopefully resume soon.Write comment (0 Comments)