Dec 162014
 

Several years ago, I started working on what started out as a cyberpunk story world. I wanted some futuristic place of my own that would allow me to play with ideas I want to explore in the course of my stories and projects. I even wrote a short story set in that world to get the ball rolling. (I was still writing novel manuscripts at the time, so writing a short story was a pretty big deal for me.)

And then the storyworld became a notebook section where I would jot down random story ideas and worldbuilding notes. One would argue that allowing an idea this big to percolate is wise, but ultimately it wasn’t getting me anywhere. It certainly wasn’t getting me closer to having my own storyworld to play in. So, at the beginning of the year, I decided to start working on the various story ideas I’d been jotting down for years. Many of them combined nicely into what is slowly becoming short story collections.

There has been a problem, though. My world notes have historically been scattered across physical and virtual notebooks, many of them incomplete or not really thought out yet. That’s been a stumbling block because I tend to run into that problem while I’m in “OMG! Must write all the things!” mode, and stopping to take the time to resolve the scattered notes I need for a particular story has often been enough to stop all forward motion on the story itself. Not exactly productive.

It occurred to me a couple of months ago that I could organize as I go, that I could focus my worldbuilding efforts on what the current story needs versus what already exists for the world and handle it in these little bite-sized moments. When the story draft is finished, it’s much easier to go back through the current gathered notes and shake them out to match what has become the reality of the world. So with each story, the world becomes that much more solid, with a clear example of the world in action. It also allows me to test out world ideas and see how they would play out in a practical setting before making them a confirmed piece of the world.

If anything, it’s added another layer of experimenting and playing with my world, and really letting me get into how things work and how they got the way they are. The hardest part now…is keeping the timeline straight and keeping story groups in the right distance timewise from other stories.

Dec 012014
 

It’s always a good idea to shake up your practice, and so that’s what I’ve been doing recently. In my free time, I’ve been looking at what I’m doing, how it’s helping, if I even still need to be learning a skill, and then finding ways to change things up. In some case, I’ve been changing the activities I do for practice. In others, I’ve been switching around the blogs and podcasts I follow.

The activities part hasn’t been too bad. For both writing and voiceover, there are plenty of experienced practitioners willing to share what they know, what works for them. Wading through all of that knowledge to find things you don’t know or haven’t heard before, or to find practice ideas you never would have thought of in a million years, can be a lot of fun. There are some crazy, generous, wonderful professionals out there.

There are also some crazy, generous, self-conscious people out there. They tend to fall into two camps: those who are stalled out because they feel like they’ve learned enough and are fine with where they are (or sometimes a bit bitter they aren’t farther along), and those who just don’t have faith in their skills.

The first group is mostly harmless. They’re passing on information that was probably valid once upon a time, but has since fallen out of style for whatever reason. As you move on from reading or listening to their advice, you quickly find that the industry has moved on from that advice…and they probably did so ten years ago. So members of this group are stuck peddling out-of-date information, simply because they didn’t get the memo the industry moved on. Not the most helpful learning resource, but they’re often who you first encounter when you’re getting into a new industry. When you encounter them later on, you usually know enough to recognize the limits of their knowledge and politely pass them by.

The second group is harmful, and it’s not unusual for its members to be unaware that they’re being harmful. It’s also not unusual for its members to be completely aware they are being harmful. In this group, the problem lies with the character of the person. They often suffer from low self-esteem or little faith in what they can do, no matter how well they’ve proven to themselves and others that they have the skills at a level they want or need. So, they start sabotaging others by giving them bad information. The more aware ones become discerning, identifying those who are good enough to “threaten” their career  and focusing their sabotaging efforts on them. The less aware ones usually lose credibility and then spiral into out-and-out crazy. It’s occasionally fun to watch. (Just when you thought this behavior was reserved for villains of bad YA stories, right?)

What makes that second group especially problematic is that you really can’t know you’ve fallen in with one of them unless someone experienced with that person warns you or you fall victim to their misery.

I guess what I’m really wanting you to take away as you’re working on building your training path is to be mindful and diligent about who you’re adding to your collection of resources. Don’t be afraid to sample a wide variety of learning resources. Don’t be afraid to listen to other people’s tales of their experience, good or bad, with a learning resource. And don’t be afraid to cut ties gracefully when it’s time to move on from that learning resource.

Nov 172014
 

We’ve become a learning-phobic society. No, that’s not true. We’ve become a very literal society. School teaches us to find a missing number in a proportion; we fail to see how that transfers to our scaling anything. School teaches us how economic depressions begin; we slept through that class and as a result get to try that little experiment all over again.

Yes, that’s unfair. On both counts. But it points out one of the biggest problems with our current education system – We generally struggle to extrapolate, to recognize patterns, and then to recognize that we have a whole collection of internalized skills that would help us if we’d just stop and let them. (That’s kind of the point of school…strangely enough.) We just never learn how to transfer those transferable skills.

One area where this is abundantly clear is in what are now called the STEM classes – science, technology, engineering, and math. A whole set of disciplines dedicated to modeling, to observing, to playing with and experimenting with, to solving problems in fun and creative ways…and we so often shun their benefits. I’ve gone on ad nauseum about math’s role in enabling us with modeling and analysis skills. This time, I thought I’d tackle coding, which overlaps with math in many respects when certain math skills are taught as algorithms.

There has been a lot of discussion over the last couple of years over whether or not coding should be included in a standard school curriculum. On the one hand, not everyone will go into a profession that requires coding skills. On the other, you don’t want to encourage hackers. (Actually, you do. It’s the Black Hats you don’t want to encourage.) On the third, learning to code helps to build and reinforce algorithmic skills and the development of systems thinking. It can even open entertaining doors for an ambitious English class.

As technology integrates into more areas of our lives, it helps for us to gain as thorough an understanding as we can of what we’re dealing with. Understanding code as a pattern or recipe that software must follow can help us better interact with technology in our lives. It can also helps us better understand, create, and execute patterns and recipes in our own lives. Coding is about prototyping and iterating, teaching practitioners to draft, test, and edit in a more interactive manner than learning to edit any other type of writing does. This ability to interpret and act on patterns or recipes follows into a wide variety of real world activities. Plus, it’s really fun to tell a computer what to do with itself.

If you’re interested in learning to code, but are beyond your school years and uncomfortable with returning to a classroom setting, why not check out this coffee shop coding program? Then, see how many ways you can use those skills in their intended context and beyond.

Nov 132014
 

If I had a nickel for every writer (nearly every single one of them self-published or amateur hoping to be picked up by a traditional publisher) I’ve heard claim they don’t need to know grammar, I’d be a very rich woman. A writer, professional or working toward professional, who doesn’t have a strong command of grammar is like a carpenter who doesn’t know the various types of joins. Actually, s/he is more like a doctor who thinks s/he doesn’t have to learn all the muscle groups in the body.

You wouldn’t trust a doctor who couldn’t tell a tendon from a deltoid. Why should anyone trust a writer who can’t structure a sentence or paragraph? It sounds like a strange and downright ludicrous comparison, but it’s really not. When you decide to pursue a profession, then you need to actually learn that trade. That includes vocabulary, tools, and techniques common to that trade’s work. Otherwise, you’re simply playing at the trade.

For a writer, punctuation marks are not much different from a carpenter’s joins or fastening devices. Crafting sentence structure isn’t much different than correctly rebuilding tendon connections. When we don’t know what we’re doing, it shows it in the lack of clarity of what we’re writing. And that lack of clarity can completely torpedo our writing.

So, if you’re a writer staring at a grammar lesson (be it punctuation, parts of speech, sentence constructions, etc.) and you’re rolling your eyes and saying to yourself, I don’t need to learn this. That’s what editors are for., it is time for you to choose a different career path. You can’t be unwilling to learn the tools of the trade and expect anyone to take you seriously.

 

(It’s been one of those weeks. Does it show?)

Nov 112014
 

When I was in middle school, the average readability level for most newspapers and magazines was right around an eighth-grade level. By the time I started grad school, State of the Union addresses were clocking in at a sixth-grade level. This has been used as proof that we as a culture are “dumbing down”, but I think that stems from a lack of understanding, both of what it means to be read at a specific grade level and what we as writers are being told to write.

What does that mean? Let’s start with that first one: readability. There are a variety of tools for determining a written piece’s readability, most of them employing a complex formula that takes into consideration how many sentences are in the piece, how many words are in the piece, and how the words are distributed among the sentences. Some tools have their own scale that you just have to know how to read. Some base off school grades, which tends to be easier for us to understand. If a piece scores at an eighth-grade reading level, we expect the average eighth grader and anyone who has completed that level of education to be able to read and comprehend the piece. The idea (theoretically) is that as you continue through school, you should be able to successfully read and comprehend more complex pieces It’s pretty straightforward, and a bit expected.

For writers, readability is a great tool because it can help us analyze our writing and make sure what we’re writing is appropriate to our intended audience, and provides clues on how to adjust our writing if it’s too far off. Or it used to be (although I do know a fair number of writers who prefer to keep writing to a readability level). Somehow, we got stuck in this cycle of simplifying our writing. Writers are coached to select a handful of smaller words over a single longer word with the same number of syllables, to create simpler sentence structures. Supposedly, it’s to create reading that could be easily skimmed and digested in an increasingly impatient, on-the-go culture. And we might be.

But we’re creating another problem. Readability scores depend in large part on the complexity of the sentences in the measured piece. When we choose simpler language, when we choose simpler sentence structures, we lower our own readability. So, it’s not necessarily that we as a culture are dumbing down. It’s that we as a culture don’t necessarily have the time to engage with reading more appropriate to our education level.

The appropriateness of the content contained within those structures? That’s a different conversation altogether.

 

For those curious, this post clocks in at about a tenth-grade level. So does yesterday’s post. Saturday’s contribution to #SaturdayScenes, a YA story, clocks in at about a fifth-grade level. Guess I’ll be doing some heavy revisions.

Nov 102014
 

Last week, the weather finally provided an opportunity for my parents and me to visit the Lego exhibition at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. We had lunch at the bistro, taking advantage of the delightful crisp air by eating outside with families with young children and preschool groups. These kids were well-behaved dining companions, running in the grass off to the side when they needed to just be preschoolers.

Then, we went into the Gardens, where some elementary schools were enjoying a field trip. Maybe a little too much. His chaperone not in sight (she had walked out of the walled area her student group was in), a boy decided to spit into a koi pond right in front of me. My inner museum educator came leaping out. I sat him down, and the others got the chaperone, who then offered in his defense, “They’re just being children.” And I explained rather tersely to her that was the wrong response. Had the kids not been standing right there, I would have explained to her the consequences we’re now seeing from not holding children responsible for their choices or allowing them to experience consequences.

We got home, and I pulled up the school’s page to get the principal’s email when I noticed a huge anti-bullying banner, and I realized this school has a long road ahead of them. You see, bullying is caused by a number of deficiencies, one of which is a lack of respect. If you have no respect for yourself, for other people, or for things, you’re more likely to bully them. Respect is an empathetic practice; bullying is not. And case studies have shown it’s the schools that have taken steps toward incorporating character education into their school community that have experienced reduced bullying.

That’s one of the reason social-emotional curricula are slowly crawling into schools, fighting for time against the less-useful-in-the-long-run bubble-filling skill development. Respect, etiquette, coping with setbacks…these are all skills we don’t promote as much as we used to. And the way it’s manifested in our society is rather disturbing. The one key element that has been in common to many of the school shootings (and even some of the mass shootings outside of schools) has been the perpetrator’s lack of empathetic skills. They couldn’t cope with being rejected, so they dealt decisively with the problem. They weren’t getting the respect they thought they deserved, so they dealt decisively with the problem. They were suddenly held accountable for their poor behavior after years of getting away with “just being a kid”, so they dealt decisively with it.

This isn’t to say a kid who spits into a koi pond today and isn’t help accountable by the adult responsible for him is going to take a gun to his classmates tomorrow. That kid may look back on what happened, think about the way I did choose to come down on his chaperone, decide he doesn’t ever want to be seen the way I viewed her,  and take steps to become a great person. (You’d be amazed how many kids do just that – decide to not be like the adults in their life because they don’t like what they’re seeing.) The chaperone probably will never change and will continue to be a poor role model for kids desperate for good examples of how to survive in the scary world they’re eventually going to be part of because she probably had someone in her life making excuses for her rather than helping her take ownership for her choices.

“Just being children” doesn’t mean acting however you want, even when you know you’re misbehaving, and having no consequences. It means making choices about how to behave, learning the consequences of those actions, and then learning how to best handle those consequences. It’s part of the learning process best started when minds are pliable enough to be able to explore and figure out cause, effect, and making amends…or celebrations. Not all choice/consequence pairs are bad. But learning to surf those waves is much easier as a kid, and kids are perfectly capable of navigating if we give them a space to do it.

Nov 072014
 

This week’s post is going to be a little unconventional. Instead of posting five links to things I’ve found interesting or learned from this week, I’m going to share what I believe to be my first crossmedia project (since I don’t recall the Future of Storytelling class actually having us make one).

If you’ve been following along on the blog this week, you know DigiWriMo’s writing prompt this week was to tell in a story in three media. It took me until I stumbled across my magnetic poetry Tuesday night while looking for some way to make the visual component of my story that I finally found a story to tell. Here goes:

Step 1: Start the story in your primary medium.

Well, my primary medium is text. Writing, more specifically. So I wrote a story. I was going to use the magnetic poetry to spell it out, and then realized that would be blending media, and that wasn’t the point of this assignment. Instead, I posted the story to Twitter around noon Wednesday.

Step 2: Continue the story in another medium.

This was a little bit trickier. I knew I could just tell a story about this guy who has discovered taking selfies, but how was I going to create a video for it? (This was what led to the half dozen rewrites of yesterday’s post.) I soon realized I didn’t have to take a video. I just had to create a visual of this selfie n00b. And what better way to do it than to create his selfie? (One small problem: Small art mannequins don’t have as much mobility as would be helpful sometimes.) I posted this to Instagram Wednesday afternoon.

Tell me the truth. Does this make me look brooding and complex?

Tell me the truth. Does this make me look brooding and complex?

Step 3: Continue the story in the medium you haven’t worked in yet.

This one was simpler…sort of… All I had to do was write a quick story and record it. I have experience doing both, so it should have been relatively easy. Except it was pouring Wednesday morning, and I had to wait for it to let up enough to not be heard in my recording space. (I learned this lesson the hard way in Seattle.) Originally, I had thought to just tell a larger story about this character, but then I thought it might be fun to have an outside voice share their feelings on watching this character’s descent into selfie lunacy. I posted this to SoundCloud Wednesday evening. (Hopefully, this will post correctly. The preview’s not working.)

  And there you have it, a brief story about a character discovering selfies and the friend who just wants to help, told across three platforms. Ta-da! I hope you enjoyed it.

Nov 062014
 

The last type of media we’re going to look at in this brief overview of what I personally know about text, audio, and video is the one that scares me for no good reason: visual. Unlike its friends, visual can really be broken into two varieties: still and motion. What’s funny is that I have taken pictures most of my life, but when the conversation rolls around to visual media, my mind always goes to video, which I have limited experience with. So this could get rewritten a dozen times while I straighten out my own relationship with visual media.

Let’s start with still visuals. Pictures that, unless they are somewhere in JK Rowling’s wizarding world, have no motion to them. We’re talking about photographs and drawings, even holograms like those stickers we all used to love getting. They may be two-dimensional. They may have some sort of built-out elements. They may have some sort of perception or visual illusion layered in to make us feel like we are looking at something deeper than a piece of paper. They capture a moment in time; a group of them may capture several moments in time, telling a story of a significant event or a happy day or a butterfly’s first visit to a garden. They’re an expression of a moment, trapped in whatever medium we chose at that moment.

Then there are moving visuals, becoming more and more common as portable media gains more and more capabilities. There was a time, only a hundred years ago, when moving pictures were difficult to produce, requiring all kinds of specialized equipment and training. More, if the moving picture you wanted to create involved drawings rather than a kind of rapid serial photography. Because that’s really what moving visuals are – a series of changing still visuals delivered at a rate that allows a visual illusion called “persistence of vision” to take over and fill in the gaps in your mind. It’s really quite amazing. As a result, these moving visuals can be created on the frame-by-frame film reels, or an animated slide deck, or even just a stack of paper flicked rapidly to produce the illusion of moving images.

So, there you go. Three major types of media: text, audio, visual. Each with its own breakdown of ways you can work with it. Chances are, you have the ability to create with all three with nothing more than your phone. Not bad for a hundred years’ progress, yes?

Nov 052014
 

These next two media posts are going to be fun for me because they center on a big part of why I’ve had so many problems trying to decide how to redesign my blog. You see, I have only the vaguest way to classify them (creativity), despite the fact working with audio takes up a significant portion of my week. After half a lifetime spent teaching, I am now creating media. It’s a very weird thing.But we’re supposed to be looking at the audio flavor of media, so let’s do that.

Before I started producing audiobooks, I don’t know that I gave audio a second thought as a type of media. I danced to music. I sang. I was fascinated by cartoon voices. I loved sound effects and music cues that perfectly lined up with what was happening on screen. But I didn’t produce audio, so I didn’t think about how it came into being. After a couple of years of teaching myself how to produce audiobooks, I’ve thought about it quite a bit. At its most vague level, audio comes in three flavors: vocal, music, and sound effects.

I say “its most vague level” because vocal covers a lot of ground. A voice can speak. It can sing. It can make funny noises. But they aren’t necessarily produced the same way. I can do things while speaking that I can’t do while singing, and I can do things while singing that I can’t do speaking. (This is actually something I’m working on, because there are things I can do while singing that would make my speaking job so much simpler.) And while I make better space pistol sounds than, “Pew pew!”, I’m the last person you want trying to create vocal sound effects. Pretty terrifying admission for a working voice actor, but I am working on addressing my weaknesses.

Music covers some pretty decent ground, too. We’ve already addressed the vocal side, but there’s also the instrument side. And these days, you’d be amazed at what can become a musical instrument. What I find most interesting is that if you want to learn about the physics behind music and vocal production and how to use that to your advantage, then you want to read up on music production. If you want to learn proper recording techniques and tricks, then you’re far better off reading up on music if you want to make music or voiceover if you want to make a spoken recording.

Sound effects elude me. I’ve never tried to create them for a project. They can be produced by a human voice. They can be produced by somebody manipulating something in the same room as the microphone. (I’m not going to lie. I used to think it was pretty cool that thunderstorms in shows were created with metal trash cans. Sadly, I was not allowed to test this out on my grandmother’s metal trash cans.) These days, they can even be produced electronically. I assume that they’re produced under the same conditions as music, but I honestly don’t know.

Despite two years producing audiobooks and a handful of years before that producing the Dead Bunny videos, I really am still a beginner in creating audio materials. But for now, I’m breaking it down into vocal, music, and sound effects…because that’s pretty much how my inner voice actor breaks them down.

Nov 042014
 

Each week during DigiWriMo, we’re going to be receiving weekly prompts we can work with in addition to (or perhaps even influencing) our weekly writing plans. This week’s prompt has us thinking about cross-media stories, starting a story in our primary medium, continuing it in another media, and then wrapping it up in the third medium (which I somehow read as “the medium you don’t do”. I may be projecting there. Just a bit.).

It took me several minutes to realize “media” was being classified as text, audio, and visual. (In my defense, I hadn’t had my morning chai yet.) When I finally caught on, my first thought was, Wow! That’s leaving out a lot. And then I had my chai and started thinking about how I wanted to respond to the prompt, and realized that at its most basic level, media really does come in three flavors. But each of those flavors has its own options. For example, text comes in three varieties: linear, nonlinear with some sort of overarching connection, and nonlinear with no connection.

We’re all pretty familiar with linear writing. We’ve all read (or at least skimmed) a novel or chapter book at some point in our lives. Linear writing involves writing chunks that fall one behind the other in an order that either takes place chronologically or is meant to be consumed in the presented order. Novels traditionally fall under that first description, although I can think of some novels where backstory or alternate timelines are woven throughout the story. Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives are a wonderful example of this. My blog series on building a personal learning environment (PLE) is a hybrid example. The five stages of the PLE are in a chronological example, each stage requiring previous stages to be completed before they’re attempted, but the posts within each stage’s discussion are expected to be read in the order they were posted.

Without being actively aware of it, a fair number of us have experienced nonlinear writing with some sort of overarching connection. That’s pretty much the description of short story anthologies: a number of short stories brought together because they feature the same characters, setting, or theme. It’s also the branched narrative so common to interactive fiction and games that have a story element, where the reader can choose which parts of the story they want to experience.

Even the nonlinear writing with no connection is a familiar format when you think about it. Honestly, can you remember any English lit textbook that didn’t fit that bill? Stories, essays, poems, and bits of script, all smashed together with some study guides. I don’t know about you, but my classmates and I often giggled at just how disconnected the samples could be at times.

At any rate, there you go. Media comes in three primary flavors: text, audio, and video. Text comes in a variety of flavors: linear, nonlinear with some connection, nonlinear with no connection. Over the next couple of posts, we’ll see if audio and visual also come in different varieties.

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