Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Week That Was

I spent most of the last week in a class for my job. It was really a terrific opportunity to learn things applicable to my job and useful for my personal and professional development. Sometime during the week, I remembered a conversation I had with my then-boss when I was a little baby engineer. He said he was going to take an American History course at a local college. When I asked why, expecting him to give me a well-roundedness, or management-degree argument, he said "Because I haven't learned anything in a while."

Hmm. I've been chewing on that in for a dozen years. This was someone who made his living researching and applying new technologies. And he was telling me he hadn't learned anything in a while. In a sense, I guess this was a well-roundedness argument. It also sets the scale for what he considered a "learning".

Lately I've been drawn to topics that require research moreso than I've been in the past. Been putting them off because I "haven't had time" to learn about them. That sets a scale, too, doesn't it?

Friday, July 22, 2005

Jersey Music

Since the grand total of my own literary output this summer has been -- wait, let me count -- zilch, let me leave words behind entirely and direct you to two musical events of note if you're in my neighborhood:

Maureen started a series about the New Jersey Music Hall of Fame. The first inductees have not been mentioned, but the pool of artists in contention is huge. NJ Music is as varied as NJ Poetry. Which tells you something.

And on the not-quite-ready-for-the-hall-of-fame list (because they have day jobs and just don't get to play much anymore, it seems) are the fine folk folks at Broadside Electric. I had the good luck to spend some time on stage with one of their ranks back when we were whippersnappers. He played the leading men. I yelled a lot and got pantsed. Some things never change. Anyway, Broadside Electric is helping build a Bridge to the Future in August. The show features an awesome line up. Plan to go. I'll remind you.

Finally, if I may, though many have already said it better: Goodbye, Scotty.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Game-Making as Creative Writing

I happen to agree with Bruno Faidutti that a good game is a good piece of writing. A good new game requires enough of a plot to be captivating to new and old players. This is especially the kinds of games I like to play: involved strategy games that expect one to spend hours learning rules and hours playing by them (and, if you're like my friends and me, hours arguing about them).

In the current issue of The Games Journal, Faidutti says:

Like a film or a novel, a game tells a story—but a story which changes with each game. Like a film or a novel, a game is inspired by all the works (books, films, and mostly other games) which have preceded it, and is part of a cultural tradition through references and quotes. This is definitely why I consider role-playing games, undoubtedly the least technical form of gaming but by far the most social and literary, to be the quintessence of gaming. There are of course technical and mechanical aspects in creating a game, testing and adjusting various systems, but the same applies to films and novels, neither of which are considered technical creations.

Children, especially, require a story to hold their attention in a game. Even a classic game like Sorry! takes on an added dimension when, instead of pawn chasing pawn, it's Peter Pan stomping on Captain Hook.

Well, it does in our house, anyway.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

In Your Own Words

Jilly links today to an article on a scam vanity publisher who "illustrated" an aspiring author's books with photocopies of the Berenstain Bears. Reminds me of a particular incident back at the college literary magazine: a "writer" submitted the lyrics of Perhaps Love and Annie's Song as her own poems. I don't know if she thought we were ignorant or idiots or if she was playing a joke on us. None of the editorial staff knew her, so the last seemed unlikely.

Sometime later, we included a list of "things we don't want to see" with the weekly call for submissions we ran in the school newspaper. I think the list looked like this:

Amazingly, we got more submissions from this person after this call. She did alter the name she submitted under though; she added an unusual middle name.

Anyway, this comes on the heels of hearing from a poet who read for me a couple years ago that a publisher who'd had his second manuscript "approved" and tied up for a year abruptly took down a website, disconnected phones and tried to disappear, except he happened to catch her before she could do so.

I suppose I can understand the disappearing publisher - that's simple embarrassment. The Berencopy Bears are simple greed. But what would prompt a person to represent the lyrics of a song that had only recently been on the radio (this was 1986 or 1987) as their own? And if you were going to do that, wouldn't you at least pick a song that didn't debut as Muzak?

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Science, Speculation, Introspection

As usual, Maureen's got another angle on things with her discussion of War of the Worlds. You should go read her summary (especially if you're from the Garden State), but I'll hit a couple key points for you:
  • War of the Worlds isn't about War. Or The World.
  • Don't mix death rays and Martians with Tuesdays and Morrie.
  • Science fiction is fiction based in science.

The last bullet derives from her Writing Prompt: "Write a little sci-fi story that has to do with some scientific fact that you know. (I learn most of my chemistry from the Food Network.) Make the science the solution to or center of the story. War of the Worlds? CSI? MacGuyver?"

This straightforward prompt gets at a huge point. I think it was the great Robert Heinlein who said (paraphrasing) he didn't like the phrase "science fiction"; he preferred "speculative fiction" because he was merely looking forward to futures that were entirely possible and writing about them. Bingo.

A great deal of science fiction simply isn't. I'm an original Star Trek fan, but very, very little of that original series was science fiction. Gene Roddenberry didn't even consider it SF; he called it "Wagon Train to the stars". Here's how you can tell: If the technology is integral to the story, and the story cannot exist without the techology, you've got science fiction. You could also apply a rule that you must change/enhance/eliminate one of the laws of our universe, thereby creating a different one. I think I've talked about this before.

But this new angle creates what I think is an extraordinarily useful question set for evaluating your own work:

  1. What am I trying to create? (narrative poems? speculative short stories? romance novellas?)
  2. What structures and styles defines what I am trying to create? (rhyme? use of dialogue? pages of exposition?)
  3. What have I included in my work that fits that definition (form? bug-eyed monsters? Prince Phillip's sweat-moistened pectorals?)
  4. What have I added that is different, special, and interesting to that definition? (??????)

This gets back to having to have a definition of poetry, but I'll hold off on rehashing that for a while....

Thursday, July 07, 2005

From Businessweek via Jilly, public-sector managers realize the value of clear writing" :

"You have to be able to write, convert an idea and turn it into words," said Bob Kerrey, the former U.S. senator and governor from Nebraska, who is chairman of the commission.

In public office, "I read things that were absolutely incomprehensible," Kerrey said. He shudders to think how Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, published 229 years ago Monday, would have read in standard, government-worker bureaucrat-speak.

"It would be 10 times as long, one-tenth as comprehensive, and would have lacked all inspiration," Kerrey said."

This is at least as big a problem among technical professionals, and I think there's a critical learning that leaks out of the non-fiction world to affect us all. Writing gets circular when its purpose is to prevent people from doing the wrong thing, as opposed to enabling them to do the correct thing. Many technical and business writers are so concerned about make sure no one misses the learning that they approach it from all possible angles, inevitably confusing themselves and their audience. If only more writers took a true teaching approach: Make the learning simple and available, and help the audience find it on their own.

Frankly, this is where my own poems fail most often. I'm so concerned about the clever bit that I overpackage it. And I'm a fiend for clever endings. The poems of mine that have been received the most positive feedback are generally the ones I've thought "weren't quite done". This explains in part why it's usually been the "filler" poems (the one or two I use in a submission package to complement the one I really think the editors will like) that gets selected for publication.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Maybe If They Just Read More?

In P&W's "The Contester" column, Kevin Larimer talks about fairness in the aftermath of the fall of Foetry. Being a bookless novice, I know I'm an underinformed opinion on this, but there's a critical point here that I haven't seen get much airtime: Judges are more likely to prefer poetry that adheres to influences they value, no? Consider the Best American Poetry series. Sure many of the names remain the same, but you can see the links between the poetic "style", if you will, of the editor and that of those appearing for the first or second time.

So why are we surprised that even in blind judgings there would be stylistic and experiencial links between judges and their students? I know that I've entered contests because I felt a particular affinity or respect for a certain judge. And I know that there are some fine poets whose work I admire who'd think mine was simple and boring, and frankly I wouldn't submit for their judgment.

I guess my point is this issue is more compliated than a set of guidelines from CLMP can cure. As long as judges show preference for the work closest to their own, the appearance of conflict is inevitable. Which is why I find Ron Silliman's post today so very interesting, reaching as it does into a school of poetry he dislikes to find a poet whose practice in that school he does like. If you separate the skill from the experience, create objectivity based on construction and craft, the value of similarity would diminish, no? Am I way off base?

Openness is of more value than rules. Rules without openness will be without impact.