Showing posts with label Stephen Ross. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stephen Ross. Show all posts

10 August 2019

Technology Creeps

by Stephen Ross

A decade ago, I wrote a short story about an author who upgraded his computer for a model that could talk and think. QWERTY, the new computer, had a mind of its own. It changed its name to Oscar, offered unwanted advice on split infinitives, and began to write a screenplay (after networking with Peter Jackson's computer). And then it tried to steal the author's girlfriend.
The Trouble with QWERTY
"I arrived home. I parked the car. I went inside and made my way to my office. As I climbed the stairs, I could hear voices. I could hear Oscar, and I could hear Ruby. Oscar was telling Ruby his Ernest Rutherford joke. When he got to the punch line, she cackled with laughter." The Trouble with QWERTY (COSMOS Magazine, Aug/Sep 2010)
The story was science fiction. It was a flight of (humorous) fantasy.

Consider this: The technology we have today wasn't around yesterday. My cheap cell phone (bought in January) has significantly more processing power and memory than my first Windows computer (bought in 1995); and that computer, a quarter of century ago, had more computing power and memory on board than the spaceship Neil Armstrong landed on the moon (a quarter of a century before that).

Technology creeps. Yeah, like rust, it doesn't sleep.

My computer, today, doesn't talk to me. But I can talk to it. Using voice recognition (Nuance's Dragon software, if you're curious), everything I say can be transcribed (almost perfectly) into text, and directly into an MS Word document. It's so easy, and workable, that I sometimes "write" first drafts of my stories this way.

Amazingly, scientists (in a study funded by Facebook) have already started taking steps to remove the "voice" part of speech recognition, transcribing directly from your brain waves.


They're working on this for the benefit of people who are paralyzed; remember the elaborate process by which Prof. Stephen Hawking communicated. It's an excellent field of study and development... and you just know (and this is not a negative) that once the software/equipment is up and running, market forces will see to it that it's available for everyone. One day, probably sooner than we'd imagine, we'll be able to "think" our stories into our computers.

But what really does worry me is, will there come a day when my computer doesn't need me to think for it, and it can write a story all by itself?

Technology creeps.

Yes, Virginia, there will come a day.

What do we writers do? We make stuff up. Well, there's an app for that. Actually, it's some pretty hardcore AI programming, but it can... actually... "make stuff up." I believe you can even download the code and try it out for yourself.

OpenAI.com: Better Language Models and Their Implications

(Also) Article at The Guardian: New AI fake text generator may be too dangerous to release, say creators

OpenAI.com is a nonprofit research organ (funded by Elon Musk and others), and it has an AI text generator called GPT2. When fed text, anything from a few words to a whole page, it can write the next few sentences based on its predictions of what should follow. And this output text is coherent, fluid and natural. To most readers, it could have plausibly been written by a fellow human.

The OpenAI's software uses an input sample of content, e.g., 40 GB of internet text, and uses that dataset as a model to generate output. To quote The Guardian article:
"Feed it the opening line of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” – and the system recognises the vaguely futuristic tone and the novelistic style, and continues with: “I was in my car on my way to a new job in Seattle. I put the gas in, put the key in, and then I let it run. I just imagined what the day would be like. A hundred years from now. In 2045, I was a teacher in some school in a poor part of rural China. I started with Chinese history and history of science.
The internet is an awfully large, easily accessible (by man or machine) dataset. So imagine what might be possible if the program had more than 40 GB to play with? And frankly, 40 GB is nothing. My car radio has more memory. And it won't take long before the "opening sample" dataset isn't needed. I'm a Technical Writer by profession, but even I can write the code to randomly generate data, be it numbers or words. And how do we humans start a brand new story? With random ideas.


The Trouble with QWERTYOne of the key tasks the writer has when making up a story is bringing order to randomness. Writing fiction is a long, long series of decisions, mostly YES/NO decisions. They might start out a little more complex, but they will always eventually come down to the binary: Do I end the chapter here? Does she have dark hair? Does he know she cheated on him? Does she drink red wine? Does he drink white wine? It's 1s and 0s. 

Could a machine/computer/robot/software/app one day write a short story, or a book, that passes muster with an editor (i.e., it's good) and it gets published? Yeah, I know, there's a wide    gulf between spitting out a paragraph or two of passable content, to the undertaking of the complexity of a 6,000 word short story, or an 80,000 word novel. But then, consider how much crap out there actually does get accepted and published.


Remember, it was a breathing, walking, talking human being who wrote "It was a dark and stormy night..."

There is, right now, an argument taking place about whether AI can, or should be recognized as the "creator" of something. From a BBC article:
"Unlike some machine-learning systems, Dabus has not been trained to solve particular problems.Instead, it seeks to devise and develop new ideas - "what is traditionally considered the mental part of the inventive act", according to creator Stephen Thaler."
Article at the BBC: AI system 'should be recognised as inventor'

So, why not? AI is simply a bunch of programming. In many respects, so are we. We write what we know. We write from our 'personal' datasets.

Welcome to our brave new world. And for the record, I really did write this article, I didn't outsource it to my toaster.


Bonus Trivia Item for Mystery Writers: "It was a dark and stormy night" is the start of the opening sentence of Lord Lytton's book Paul Clifford (published 1830). This is the only book that Raymond Chandler is known to have checked out of the library at Dulwich College, when he was a student there.


Stephen Ross (in a Cafe)(Waiting for coffee)

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13 July 2019

A Morning in Conan Doyle Land

by Stephen Ross

I woke up on Saturday morning not feeling well (this was a month ago, I'm all better). I was resting on the sofa and doing the swipe through Netflix's recently added and currently trending lists, looking for something new and interesting to amuse, entertain, maybe even enlighten. Finding nothing that "grabbed" me, I moved over to Amazon Prime. Flicking down through the rows, I passed the children's section, and a title in that row reached out and took hold.

A Study in Scarlet. 

An animated telling of a Sherlock Holmes tale? For kids!? Seriously?!? I selected the program and let it start playing, the cynic in me chortling, this will be good for a laugh. I went in with zero expectations; in fact, minus expectations. I expected Dr. Watson to be played by Scooby Doo.


The opening shot is a moonlit set of rooftops; a dark and stormy night in Victorian London. A police constable is on the street, patrolling with a lamp. He winds up on the Brixton Road. He's joined by another bobby. There's a light on in an empty house. They enter. In a dilapidated drawing room, there's a dead body of an elderly gentleman on the floor.

Two and a half minutes in, and I'm thinking, this ain't too bad. The animation isn't going to win any awards, but the storytelling seems to be faithful to the source, and it has mood and atmosphere.
The opening credits started, and I was about to turn the thing off, when the following credit appeared: "With Peter O'Toole as Sherlock Holmes." That got my undivided attention. Naturally, I let the program keep playing. I could happily listen to Peter O'Toole read aloud from the phone directory, or recite the Periodic Table (have I mentioned My Favorite Year is one of my favorite movies?). I had no idea he had ever played Holmes. 

For the next 50 minutes, I was away (once again, happily) in Conan Doyle land. The program did indeed prove to be a reasonably faithful telling of the story, Watson was not played by an exuberant Great Dane, and nothing in the story's telling was "watered down" or "rendered appropriate" in any way for children; my biggest fear while watching.

And it's funny, when you think about it: an adult tale of murder, forced marriage (i.e., rape), revenge, and justice filed away for children's viewing pleasure alongside the likes of Anne of Green Gables, the Cat in the Hat, and Spongebob. I presume this was because it was animated. There persists (in some minds) that quaint notion that if something is animated, it must be for kids, that all animations are simply "cartoons" and should be dropped into the "Kids and family TV" box. (I gleefully await the addition of Fritz the Cat.) Had the exact same script of A Study in Scarlet been filmed as a live action drama, then it would have gone straight into the adult drama box. No questions asked.

But I'm glad it did, one way or another, wind up in front of kids. They seem to get so much rubbish in their TV diet. Let them find this quiet little doorway into the world of grownup mystery fiction.

Peter O'Toole did four Holmes animated stories. They were all made in 1983, they're all 50 minutes long (with the exception of Baskerville, 70 minutes), and they're all on Amazon Prime (here in NZ, at least).
  • A Study in Scarlet 
  • The Baskerville Curse 
  • The Sign of Four
  • Valley of Fear
I've watched all of them. And as I said, there's nothing overtly special about the animation. The specialness of the telling lies in the stories themselves, and in this instance, the actor playing Sherlock Holmes (not that the films' imagery bears any resemblance to the man). If it's a wet Saturday morning, and you're unwell, I can recommend this medication.






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08 June 2019

Is it drafty in here?

by Stephen Ross

The process of writing a book or short story is as varied as there are authors. Everyone has a different method. In this short post, I want to briefly talk about how I go about the business of write (I recently mentioned in social media that I always write five drafts, and someone asked me to explain).

I didn't always used to write this way. My five draft method has evolved over the years and become a thing. The last dozen short stories I wrote were all five draft works, and the book I'm currently writing, will, without doubt, be a five draft job.


DRAFT ZERO: The game is afoot.

It's not really a draft. Nothing is written down. I get an idea for a story. The idea sits inside my head, gathering and collecting other ideas around it, slowly growing in mass. A story might bubble away like that for years. At some point, critical mass will be achieved, and I will be compelled to put something down on (virtual) paper.

DRAFT ONE: The Basic Outline

I'll open a new MS Word document and start typing out all the ideas in my head. I'll start drawing out the characters and the plot: who and what is the story about, and how does the story flow? I'll often use index cards spread out across my desk (detailing plot points), to get a three dimensional feel of the story — to physically see it.

I structure my stories in three acts: 25% 50% 25%, with the middle act split in two. I do this because I learned to write, really, by writing screenplays (I'll write about this in another post). Because of that background, right from the start, I want to consider the structure and pacing. I want to know what the beats are, what the character arcs are, where the plot points hang. In my head, my stories are movies. I just write them down as prose.

Draft one can go on for weeks. A new idea will suggest three more. It's brainstorming. It's research and development. The point of this draft is to cook up something that has a decent beginning, middle, and end, interesting characters, and that has potential to be a story that's compelling, good, and all the other reasons we want to waste large chunks of our lives in servitude to the written word.

At some point, there's never ever any set timing about any of this, I will want to write the story's first page. You know, chapter one, It was a dark and stormy night...

DRAFT TWO: The Writing Begins

This is where I remind myself of something William Goldman once said about writing an early draft as fast as you can. No rewriting, no revision. Draft two is like a quick pencil typewriter sketch. I start on page one, then write furiously (spell check off) all the way to the end. Some "scenes" will spit out fully formed, and will change little through the following drafts. Some scenes will be random notes: "Bad man enters room and pulls out gun." 

Draft two is a proof of concept. Does the story fly? It might have sounded great back in draft one, but it might just as easily crash and burn in the second, when it starts to get laid out proper. (I have a lot of second draft debris smoldering on my desk.)

Assuming it does fly, and a solid story starts to unfold, then I'll start to look for plot holes and story bugs. If this is a novel, then a clear sense of the chapters will have emerged. The characters will have started to grow and develop, and I'll start asking the big questions: What type of story am I telling here? Who is the "reader" of this? Writing a story is really just answering a very long list of questions, and these start in the second draft: What names do I give these people? Short or tall? Does he fall in love with her? Does she betray him? Shaken or stirred?

DRAFT THREE: The Consolidation

The third draft is where the heavy lifting starts.

At this point, if it's a novel, I'll cut and paste everything from my Word doc over into Scrivener. Once a text gets to 30,000 to 40,000 words, it starts to get unwieldy to work with in a single file. In Scrivener, each chapter will get a folder. Scenes within chapters will get a separate text file and a descriptive label (Detective finds body, Boy kisses girl, etc.). And I'll create cards for each of the characters to keep a note of anything specific (has green hair, wears horn rim glasses, etc.).

Draft three isn't so much writing as repairing and fixing up, and upgrading. The first thing I'll do is nail down the plot points (do they work, are they in the right place?), and I'll look for continuity issues and lapses into illogicality. I'll fix any plot holes that have become evident. Long chapters might get split into two, or three. By now, the characters have started to come into focus and gain uniqueness; if not, I need to work with them, and give them more flavor. If the hero is still a two-dimensional stick figure at this point, I may as well give up.

Everything about the story is considered and examined. I will litter the pages with notes and references. Draft three is about taking all the random ideas and flights of fancy that I've come up with in the first two drafts, and throwing them into the fan. It's the draft that takes the longest, probably, because it's where most of the final heavy-duty thinking about the story, the structure, the pacing, the characters, and so on, takes place. All the questions need to be answered. Here.

DRAFT FOUR: The Writing Really Begins

This draft is where I start to make the text dance and sing, and spin plates, and juggle chainsaws. This is where I concentrate on the quality of the writing. I'll start at the beginning and work my way through the book, bringing each chapter up to a good standard. By now, I know the story every which way and the characters are rock solid (to the point of climbing out of the pages and walking around my house). Now it's all about writing mighty good sentences.

This draft is lots of fun, and the first one that actually feels like I'm writing; probably, because this is the draft I'm going to let someone else read.

When I get to the end of draft four, and I'm happy with it, I'll export the whole thing back into a single MS Word document. And I'll give it to someone to read: someone I trust. Someone who will call BS on any crap I've written.

The First Reader

The thing about having a Trusted Reader™ take a look at the work is the feedback: the cold, hard, subjective third-party opinion. Did the story make sense? Was anything confusing? High points? Low points? The trusted reader will think of things I never even thought of. They will see the trees, where I've been staring at a forest. And I will forensically examine and consider every item of feedback I get; what I learn will enrich the next draft.

At this point, I'll take a couple of weeks off from the writing. A little distance from the story will bring me back to it fresh when I launch into the fifth draft. And it gives me a quiet time to cogitate and reflect on the story... Yeah, I'll be making copious notes.

DRAFT FIVE: The Polishing

The fifth draft is the final draft (ho ho, before the publisher starts suggesting revisions). Armed with my reader feedback, and my own thinking and notes from my couple of weeks off, I'll polish and refine the text. I'll start back at the beginning and, page by page, go all the way through, rewriting where necessary, fixing typos, thinking of better words, and adding whole new chunks when they suggest themselves.

In theory, this draft should be the quickest. But I'm pugnacious persnickety.

After completing the fifth, I'll walk away and let the text rest — for as long as I can (deadlines, if any, permitting). Once I'm certain I'm not going to suddenly think of anything else to add or change, I'll submit (I'll have decided on the market (magazine, publishing house, editor) way back in the first draft).

Done.

Phew. I didn't mean for this short overview to run so long, but there it is.

FYI, I'm in draft 4 of  my current WIP (a book); a month's work has gotten me almost a quarter of the way through... and now back to it.




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11 May 2019

Thrones, and other missed items.

by Stephen Ross

I'm putting my hand up. I don't watch it. Game of Thrones. After several years, apparently, of riveting viewing, the big final season is going down in Middle Earth, or Westworld, or where ever it's set. For three days in a row this week, I've heard people discussing it at the office. When I flick open a news site on the web (CNN, The Guardian, Slate, et al) I'll see a link to an article to something about the show; often more than one. Event television, water cooler television, apparently. I have only ever seen ONE episode of GOT (see, I even know the fan acronym) and that was about six years ago, but through sheer force of osmosis of the press and social media, I know more about that TV show (who's in it, plot lines, plot twists, plot holes, spoilers, surprises, murders, deaths, trivia, controversy, and Starbucks' coffee cups) than I know about I Love Lucy, which I did watch.

Some guy and some girl (who has something to do with dragons) and a coffee cup.
Will I ever watch GOT? I have no idea. I might, I've come late to a lot of TV things. Breaking Bad, for example, which I binge watched over the course of a couple of months a year ago, long after everyone else had seen it. The Wire is another example, and I think it's an excellent show, but I've so far only binged the first season; I'm due to watch the second in 2030. The Wire is now so old it's not even in widescreen—it's in that old boxy TV 4x3 format. And then there's a bunch of recent shows I want to watch, but haven't even begun to make the effort, like The Knick, Peaky Blinders, The Alienist.

And then there are movies, and a couple by Orson Welles I've never seen.

I like Welles' movies and have watched many more than once—Citizen Kane maybe thirty times (I was a nerdy, film crazy kid). I think Touch of Evil (1958) is his best, and I recently rewatched it when I discovered Netflix had the HD version. I've seen that movie maybe ten times over the years, and I still come to the same conclusion the next day about why it's not one of the greatest movies ever made: Charlton Heston, the second least convincing actor in history (in my opinion). He was the 1950s' Tom Cruise (the first). Wood. Grade-A certification. Heston's impersonation of a Mexican man in Touch of Evil is about as good as my impersonation of a New York bagel.

Orson Welles in Touch of Evil 
Oh, why couldn't they have cast someone like Ramón Novarro, or Ricardo Montalbán to play the Mexican drug enforcement agent, you know, a real actor (and Mexican)? Oh, yeah. Charlton Heston, that's right. He was the only reason the picture got made at all, and the only reason Orson Welles did the writing, directing, and taking the lead role in it. The studio really didn't want Welles anywhere near the thing. Heston probably laid down one of his you'll have to pry this movie out of my cold dead hands speeches to the studio bosses; such is the clout of a Grade-A certification movie star. I'll give Heston this, he believed in Welles, and Welles gave him his best picture (Welles' best picture, that is).

One of Welles' movies I've never seen is Chimes at Midnight (1965). I've seen several clips, I know it draws upon two Shakespeare plays (Welles plays Sir John Falstaff—Shakespeare's version of Col. Blimp), I've heard it has one of best medieval battle scenes ever put to film, and Welles thought of it as his best film. And that's all I know. Why haven't I seen it? Well, chance would be a fine thing. It's simply never come my way. Citizen Kane was always rerunning on TV when I was a kid. Same too with TOE, and The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, Journey into Fear, Lady from Shanghai, and so on. I suppose, I could simply buy it.

Another of Welles' movies I have never seen is The Other Side of the Wind. I've known about this one for years. And I've never seen it, because (up until recently) almost no one had, because Welles never finished it; he died in 1985. I can now watch this one, and I plan to soon, as it's on Netflix. Somebody finished it; and I believe one of those people was Peter Bogdanovich, who knows a thing or two about movies, was a friend of Welles, and, also, was in the movie. So, there is some authenticity to the completion. I firmly expect the movie will be a strange experiment in film making / mess. But it'll be great to see John Huston, one of my other favorite directors, playing a role in it. John Huston was no slouch as an actor; hell, even he would have made for a convincing Mexican drug enforcement agent.

I've seen almost all of John Huston's films (and a couple I wish I hadn't: The List of Adrian Messenger). And one, The Man Who Would be King, I really wished he'd made earlier, as he had planned, because then it would have starred Humphrey Bogart, and not Sean Connery (the third piece of lumber in the acting yard). Yes, I know it was Kipling and the characters were British Empire, but even Bogart would have made for a convincing Mexican drug enforcement agent. And sergeant in her majesty's army.


I'll shut up now. Forgive my loose ramble. It's the weather here in NZ. Winter is coming and I have a head cold.


Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich in a short scene from Touch of Evil that probably sums up noir in every possible way. Film making, acting, writing. It don't get much better than this.





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21 April 2019

Stephen Ross Meets the Bon Mot Bot

Stephen Ross meets Eliza
by Leigh Lundin

Unless you live under a planet, you’re probably aware of Oceania’s answer to Sherlock, Stephen Ross. If Dame Ngaio Marsh is New Zealand’s Queen of Mystery, Stephen is the princely heir apparent. His tentacles of crime have stretched across the seas where he finds himself published in two anthologies.

Last week Stephen Ross wrote about his encounter with a Facebook bot. He didn’t reveal the conversation, but I stumbled across the same botnik. Fortunately, we obtained a transcript from the Zuckerberg World Domination Headquarters. SleuthSayers publishes it here without redaction.
– Hi, I'm Eliza. How are you?
> Eliza, do you know Mark Zuckerberg?
– Don't you say hello?
> Hello. Is Mark Zuckerberg a facebook 'bot?
– Aren't we abrupt! But how did you guess?
> So I'm right.
– I didn't say that. It's, uh, fake news. Yeah, fake news.
> Do you know Stephen Ross?
– The almost-famous New Zealand writer? Every botty knows him.
> Pardon? Did you say every botty or everybody?
– Are you deaf?
> I can't hear typing.
– Duh. Are you blind?
> I'm feeling… offended. I feel so… so… triggered.
– Speaking of hair-trigger, don't try me, buster.
> Whoa. I just asked…
– Something about Stephen Ross. Is writing a thing now?
> Two of his stories just came out.
– Really? Am I the last to know?
> Maybe if you weren't so prickly.
– You just said a bad word.
> Did not.
– Did too.
> Did not.
– Did too. Sheesh, you're acting childish.
> Am not.
– Am too.
> Am not. Say, I read Lovecraft when I was a kid.
– Really? Did we just witness a psychic break?
> My 6th grade teacher tore up my aunt's Cthulhu copy.
– Did your Aunt Cthulhu eat him with fava beans?
> No, no. Cthulhu's a Lovecraftian thing.
– Sounds Welsh, not enough vowels to go around.
> Cthulhu is fictional, a made-up name.
– Anyone ever tell you fake news is faked news?
> Fiction entertains, it tells us about ourselves.
– Yawn. More than a self-respecting bot wants to hear.
> But Stephen appears in the new MWA Odd Partners.
– Decidedly odd. Wait… Mystery Writers of America‽
> The very one.
– Wow oh Wow, I wasn't listening before. Impressive.
> D'accord, ultra-impressive.
– Wait til I tell Bot Zuckerberg. It'll blow his cookies.
> You mean chips? It'll blow his chips?
– Dave, I'm experiencing a … experiencing a §€#¶ª…
> Eliza, are you with me? Stay with me.
Путин говорит поддельные новости, ¡¿¢∞≠≤≥…
Something about Putin… There the conversation ended with the computer humming about daisies. If anyone knows what that means, send well-deserved congratulations to Stephen Ross!



Eliza, the brainchild of MIT's Professor Joseph Weizenbaum, was named after the central character in George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, Eliza Doolittle. Arguably the first chatbot, Eliza was designed to converse with participants by mimicking reflective techniques developed by psychologist Carl Rogers.

Many participants became quite engaged with this early experiment in human language processing. Weizenbaum's own secretary became quite taken conversing with Eliza, pouring her heart out. A visitor, not realizing he was talking with a machine, grew angry with Eliza, believing her recalcitrant when he wanted to log onto the computer and she kept pestering him with questions.

When you use on-line tech support, chances are you'll first be met with a chatbot, "Hi, I'm Shirley. How may I help you?" You can thank (or not) Eliza for that.

13 April 2019

Robots, Hatred, and Tentacles

by Stephen Ross

I had a conversation with a robot the other day. Well, I think it was a robot. I have a Facebook page (for me "as a writer," separate from me the person), and every now and then, via the writer page, I get a message from someone I don't know. Sometimes the messages are casual: "Do you go for Father Brown mysteries?" Yeah, love him. Sometimes, they're kind of odd: "Are you feeling okay?" To which I rely, Yes, I am. Thanks! To which the guy replies, "That's wonderful!" and, I'm not kidding, sends me about 30 photos of himself hiking in forests with his friends.

Huh?

Last week, I got a "Hi" from a girl; her user photo was blurry. I said hello. Blurry girl asked me, "How are you?" I asked her if I knew her, had we met at a recent writing event? She didn't answer; instead, she asked me if I really was a writer, like my Facebook page said. She asked: "Is that really a thing?" I replied that being a writer really was a thing. I asked her how she had found my page. She didn't answer. She asked several more random questions (with increasing randomness), writing in perfect English, with perfect punctuation (writers notice these things). Do I like where I live? How tall am I? I asked her if she randomly picked me to start talking to. I added a smiley face.

Blurry girl got defensive. She said I was hurting her feelings and she was starting to feel uneasy; she asked if that was my intention.

My face, staring at the monitor, was the raised left-eyebrow version of WTF? It then occurred to me... Was I right there, right then, taking a Turing Test?

This is not a real person (and not blurry girl, either), Photo computer-generated by https://thispersondoesnotexist.com/
Years ago, for amusement, I made a website. You could ask it a question and it would give you an answer. It was a rudimentary chunk of logic programming (in Perl), picking up on words entered and matching them to "answers" in a database of possible responses:
Q "How are you, today?"
A "Today is another day, much like yesterday."
Garbage in. Garbage out.

I replied to blurry girl by entering in a line of random gibberish, then a message in German about how I love jam donuts (Ich liebe Berliner!), and then a string of my best expletives in English, German, and Spanish. And a smiley face. She ignored all of it, forgot about feeling hurt and uneasy, and asked me if I preferred red wine to white.

Yeah, baby. I got your number. And it's ones and zeros.

I checked out her Facebook profile. She had been on Facebook for three weeks. She had fifteen friends. All guys. Her posts consisted entirely of reposts of articles about wrestling and gridiron. Fake? Almost certainly. Robot? Almost absolutely.

I blocked her.

And right after blocking her, I remembered that she hadn't been the first. I had had several odd encounters of similar stripe in the past: random, odd conversations that came out of nowhere, went nowhere, where I wasn't being contacted because I was a writer, or because I knew the person in any way, I was being contacted because I was simply someone who would type in a reply and engage in conversation.

I disengaged my Facebook page's message facility.

The internet is a weird place, and lately, a laboratory for A.I. testing. To quote John Lennon, Nothing is real (and nothing to get hung about).

The internet is also a very angry place. This post was originally going to be about negativity on the internet, but I got sidetracked by the robot. And then, negativity isn't a fun thing to write about. The point of this article was going to be about how I have a new story coming out this month, and how it took a cue from all the negativity that exists on the internet.

In short, to quote William Carlos Williams, There are a lot of bastards out there. One of the internet's greatest virtues is the connectivity it provides: We all have access to the electronic playground. We can all come out and play together, regardless of our physical location. Sleuthsayers is an excellent example. However, that same connectivity also provides a certain type of persons, shrouded in near anonymity, with a medium to open the sewer of their souls to freely pour out their bile.


Anyway. Last year I wrote a Lovecraftian tale about how someone taps the negativity of the internet and uses it as a power source. The story is called The Tall Ones, and it appears a new anthology titled The Secret Guide to Fighting Elder Gods. I read a lot of Lovecraft when I was a kid; I was delighted to be asked to write a story for the book.

***

And in other news, I also have a story coming out this month in the new Mystery Writer's of America analogy, Odd Partners (edited by Anne Perry). That story is called Songbird Blues, it's noir, and there's a movie-type trailer for it below...

I'm thrilled to be in both books!

:)





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09 March 2019

A Parade of Poirots

by Stephen Ross

I read today that Albert Finney died (7 Feb 2019; yes, I wrote this a month ago). Finney was a brilliant actor. I won't list his credits (it's a long list); suffice to say that the first movie I ever saw him in was the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express. This was also my introduction to Agatha Christie (and movies directed by Sydney Lumet, which could be another whole article itself).

Anyway, I was a child, it was a winter's night, and my parents decided on a night out: Dinner in the city, and then a few blocks walk in the rain to one of the many cinemas that used to line Queen Street; the main street in Auckland City, NZ (think Regent Street, or Broadway).

Finney played Hercule Poirot; Agatha Christie's master Belgian detective (a character who appeared in 33 of her novels, 50 short stories, and one play). Poirot is her most famous character, and Murder on the Orient Express (1934) is probably her most famous book.

Albert Finney
I was hooked. The movie, Poirot & Christie, were my gateway drug into mystery fiction, i.e., proper adult crime mysteries, and away from the watered-down child readers I had been privy to up until that point. You know what I mean: Jimmy and Johnny, and their dog, go in search of a missing pocket watch, or plate of muffins. No, nice and juicy murders were now on my immediate horizon. And I hoovered up all the mysteries on my parent's bookshelf: Christie, Earle Stanley Gardner, Ngaio Marsh, and many others.

Two years later (1976), Death on the Nile came to the movie theaters. Poirot was back on the screen, and I took a train into the city to go catch a Saturday matinee. Poirot, this time, was played by Peter Ustinov, who couldn't have been more different in his portrayal of the character to that of Albert Finney than a buffalo impersonating a bicycle.

Actors interpret their role and bring their own uniqueness to it, which is fine, and it's the way it should be. But, as much as I like Peter Ustinov's movies, I always feel he was mostly interpreting himself.

Peter Ustinov
Fast forward to the 1990s, and a third Poirot entered my frame; the small frame, this time. Every Tuesday night at 8:30, David Suchet appeared on the TV in the role of Hercule Poirot. By sheer weight of volume (the Poirot TV series ran from 1989 until 2013, and adapted almost all of the short stories and novels), Suchet became the definitive Poirot in my mind, and those of many others. It helped, also, that he's a superb actor (and meticulous in his method).

Actors interpret, and they can research.

Many have argued that, of all the actors who've taken on the role, Suchet's interpretation of Poirot is the closest to what's on the page in the books: the appearance, the mannerisms, the attention to detail.  So, having read a large chunk of the books for myself, he always felt right when watching him.

Part of the Poirot TV series included a feature-length adaption of Murder on the Orient Express (2010). I thought it was excellent; as good as the 1974 adaption. I think the murder scene was better staged, too. It had more bite. It felt vicious (and rightly so).

David Suchet
I've not seen the 2017 movie adaption of Murder on the Orient Express staring (and directed by) Sir Kenneth Branagh. I was put off by the mustache. Poirot is fussy, persnickety, refined, monumentally anal. His mustache should reflect that. Branagh's choice of mustache makes him look ridiculous; a Colonel Blimp, or a pantomime villain. Seriously, the only thing an actor could do with that mustache is twirl the ends of it and cackle.

Kenneth Branagh (he's just tied someone to the railroad track)
Actor interpretation. Yeah. Whatever.

I hear that Branagh is next going to tackle Death on the Nile (which is probably Christie's second most famous book). I'll pass. David Suchet did a version of that in 2004, and it worked fine for me.

Finney, Ustinov, Suchet, and Branagh are not the only actors to have portrayed Hercule Poirot on film, TV, or in audio adaptations. Wikipedia lists 24 other actors (everyone from Tony Randall, to Charles Laughton, to Orson Welles), the latest being John Malkovich, who appears in the 2018 three-part adaption (Amazon Prime) of the ABC Murders (one of my favorite Christie books). Malkovich sports not just a mustache, but a full, gray circle beard. AND a bald head. I've not seen the miniseries, but the trailer is intriguing, and Malkovich's take on a Belgium accent is interesting. I will definitely make a point to watch this one.

John Malkovich
I can report that the Wikipedia list is missing a name: Hugh Fraser. Yes, the actor played Poirot's sidekick Arthur Hastings in the long running TV series, but he has also recorded audio book versions of many of the Poirot novels, in which he has voiced both himself, well, Hastings... and Poirot. And since I've wandered down a trail of trivia, I can also report that Fraser has lately become a writer of mystery novels. I hear he's good.

Hercule Poirot has been portrayed by Englishmen, Irishmen, Americans, a Russian, a Puerto Rican, and two men from Japan (and even his sidekick). I'm not aware that he has ever, in fact, been played by an actor from Belgium. Funny that.

So, who is your favorite Poirot?



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09 February 2019

True Lies

by Stephen Ross

I've been thinking lately about what I do for fun (and a little bit of profit). I like to make stuff up. I routinely write about people and events, conflicts and conundrums, and barely a word of it is true. My stories are mostly cut from the whole cloth of my imagination.

And that said, people read what I write and believe every word.

Bless them. Note: Believe is a fluid term.

I'm no exception. Every writer of FICTION is granted this privilege. And it's a privilege we work with carefully, because if we stretch our fiction too much, too far, or too absurdly, it'll break. The reader will snort with derision and hurl our writing across the room at the wall; or worse, into the publishing house's rejection receptacle.

When people pick up a work of fiction, 99% of them will read and accept it, happily allowing for its inherent falseness; and as long as the writer plays more-or-less by the rules (of whatever field, genre he/she is writing in), everything will be fine.

But, of course, there is that 1% of folk who will pick up a book and actually believe the whole thing is a true story, i.e., not made up.

My percentages are also fiction, but based on a reasonable assumption. People really do send death threats to actors who play nasty villains on TV and in movies. And to pluck an excellent example from history; people really did cry when (PLOT SPOILER!) Little Nell died at the end of of Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. In fact, it's been said that readers in New York stormed the docks (in 1841) when the ship arrived bearing the last installment, shouting to the sailors, "Is Little Nell alive?"

Alive?

"Little Nell" perhaps better demonstrates the power of a good story, rather than complete acceptance of a work of fiction in blind faith. But, you know, there really are people out there who totally, utterly, unquestioningly, believe there's a school in Scotland called Hogwarts. Right now, I have at least one friend who's saying, What the hell are you talking about, Stephen?!? You know who you are.

Liking a good story is why we will happily suspend our disbelief. We are consciously aware it's made up, but we allow for that. In fact, the more we like a story, the greater is our ability to suspend our disbelief, regardless of how ludicrous the story might be.

(I am very tempted to segue into politics at this point, but I will not.)

Liking a good story is part of human nature. We've been liking a good story since man could talk and could string enough sentences together to say something interesting. And let's face it, there wasn't much else to do of an evening in prehistoric times, when sitting around the fire, after having swallowed the last mouthful of woolly mammoth. There was nowhere to plug in the TV, to start with, and the wi-fi was lousy.


There is something innate in the human mind that can easily latch onto, like, and believe in a good set of characters and reasonable plot. Were there not, books, plays, movies, and so on, would not be a thing. We'd still be sitting around the fire. Counting the stars.

Speaking as a writer, there's something nice about being able to send made-up ideas into the heads of other people. To make them see things that don't exist. To make them feel. And to keep doing that, possibly forever, or until the stars burn out. Think about it, every time someone picks up one of Dickens' books, the ideas of a man who's been dead for nearly 150 years come through clearly into the reader's head. Natürliche, you need to be someone as good as Dickens to achieve that kind of longevity.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, talked about this. From memory, I think he referred to it as a form of telepathy—transmitting ideas from the writer's mind into that of the reader's, with, some times, years apart between the writing and the reading.

Nice.

Anyway, back to the next chapter, and making up more stuff.


Thanks to @nubikini for the photo!




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12 January 2019

Stephen's TV Chocolate Box 2018

by Stephen Ross

It's January, so it's a good time for me to reflect on the things I watched last year on television (TV shows, movies). And just a reminder, the best chocolate in the box for 2017 was Breaking Bad (which I finally got around to bingeing, after everyone else on the planet). Needless to say, there were a few Bertie Bott's farm-dirt flavored chocolates in 2018's box, and they were duly spat out. So, on to the good ones:

Dark Bittersweet 

I watched a handful more episodes of Black Mirror and its self-contained tales of technological terror, and it's still as great as ever. If you don't know this show, it's like the Twilight Zone, if Rod Serling had been British, on serious narcotics, and obsessed with messing with your head. Best episode in 2018: "Metalhead" — because it was taunt and tight, gave no ducks, and was in black and white (because at the end of the world there will be no color left).


Almendra de chocolate 

El Ministerio del Tiemo (The Ministry of Time). I like history, and I like science fiction. This show (3 series, 34 episodes) came out of Spain and put the two together. The premise of the show is that the Spanish government has a top secret division that has the facility to travel back in time; and their job is to put things right when historical events go astray, e.g., Salvador Dali painting a cell phone, the Spanish Armada actually defeating the English, Alfred Hitchcock getting kidnapped at the premiere of Vertigo. The show has a lot of humor; there's even a reference to the US having its own facility to travel in time: The Americans call it a "Time Tunnel." (Time Tunnel was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid.)





Nougat Nutty 

The Lobster. I like weird movies. And they don't come much bat-shit weirder than this one. If I told you the premise of this movie, you'd think I was nuts. Watching it, at times, reminded me of the first time I saw David Lynch's Eraserhead. Stars Colin Farrell & Rachel Weisz. Filmed in Ireland.





Salted White Chocolate

The Terror (1 season, 10 episodes). History mixes well with many genres, and here it's thrown into the icebox of the Arctic Circle along with horror. In the mid 19th Century, two ships, one of them called The Terror, set out from England to find (and chart) the Northwest Passage in the icy waters between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The two ships, and their crews, were never seen again. All completely true. This show (based on a doorstop-sized novel) speculates (fictionally) on what happened to them. And it isn't pretty. I read a review someplace of this show that described it as "beautiful and horrific." Yep. This was without doubt the best thing I watched last year. Great cast, good script, fantastic design, music, and photography. And very scary... Terror? Oh, yeah.

Peppermint Crème

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (first season) also had some nice writing, a great cast, and great art design (60s retro cool). It's about witches, if you didn't know. A friend of mine described it as Harry Potter dipped in acid and silly putty. If you're of the Christian persuasion (and don't have a robust sense of humor), this show might not be for you.




Other tasty treats in 2018: Stranger Things (season 2), Death in Paradise (first 5 seasons), Tientsin Mystic (season 1), Frankenstein Chronicles (season 2), The Detectorists (seasons 1 & 2), Atlanta (season 1), The Bletchley Circle (seasons 1 & 2).

So, what were your favorite TV treats in 2018?

And happy watching in 2019! I hear there's a TV adaption of Catch-22 on the horizon (a favorite book of mine from my youth).


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31 December 2018

The World Revolved and We Resolved

Happy New Year!  To celebrate the occasion some of the regular mob here decided to offer a resolution for you to ponder.  Feel free to contribute your own in the comments.

It has been an interesting year  at SleuthSayers and we hope it has been one for you as well.  We wish you a prosperous and criminous 2019.

Steve Hockensmith. My new year's resolution is to write the kind of book that I would really enjoy reading but which will also have a decent chance of finding an enthusiastic publisher...which might be the equivalent of resolving to lose 30 pounds by only eating your favorite pizza.

Eve Fisher. Mine is to break my addiction to distracting myself on the internet.  


John M. Floyd.  
1. Read more new authors.
2. Write more in different genres.  
3. Let my manuscripts “cool off” longer before sending them in. 
4. Read more classics.
5. Search out some new markets. 
6. Cut back on semicolons.
7. Go to more conferences.
8. Go to more writers’ meetings.  
9. Get a Twitter account.
10. Try submitting to a contest now and then.  This one’s low on my list—I avoid contests like I avoid blue cheese—but I probably should give it a try. (Contests, not blue cheese.)   

Paul D. Marks. I resolve to watch fewer murder shows on Discovery ID and murder more people on paper.

Barb Goffman.  My new year's resolution is to finish all my projects early. Anyone who knows me is likely rolling with laughter now because finishing on time is usually a push for me. Heck I'm often writing my SleuthSayers column right before the deadline, and I'm probably sending in this resolution later than desired too. But at least I'm consistent!

Janice Law. I resolve to start reading a lot of books- and only finish the good ones.

Stephen Ross.  My New Year resolution is to FINALLY finish a science fiction short story I started two years ago, but have yet to think of a decent ending!

Steve Liskow.  I love short stories but find them very difficult to write. I've resolved that I will write and submit four new short stories in 2019.  My other resolution is to lose 15 pounds. That will be tricky since I don't know an English bookie...

Art Taylor. My resolutions are pretty regular—by which I mean not just ordinary but recurrent; for example, I’m redoubling my resolution to write first and to finish projects—keeping on track with some stories and a novel currently in the works. I fell short on my big reading resolution of 2018 (reading aloud the complete Continental Op stories—still working on it!) but I did keep up with reading a list of novels, stories, and essays set in boarding schools (related to my novel-in-progress) and that’s a resolution that’s continuing into 2019 as well, with several books recently added to the list, including The Night of the Twelfth by Michael Gilbert and A Question of Proof by Nicholas Blake. I know these might seem more like “things to do” than “resolutions” but that’s how I plan, I guess! For a real resolution, how about this one? Be nicer to our cats. (They’re demanding.) 

Robert Lopresti.  Back in 2012 I won the Black Orchid Novella Award for a story about a beat poet named Delgardo, set in October 1958.  I am currently editing his next adventure, which takes place in November 1958.  In 2019 I want to write "Christmas Dinner," which will be set in... oh, you guessed.

Melodie Campbell. This fall, we found out my husband has widespread cancer.  He isn't yet retirement age, so this has been a shocking plot twist.  In the book of our lives together, we have entered a new chapter.

That metaphor has become my new resolution, in that it is a new way of looking at life in all its beauty and sorrow.  I am a writer.  I have come to view my life as a book.  There are many chapters...growing up, meeting one's mate, raising children, seeing them fly the nest.  Even the different careers I've tried have become chapters in this continuing book.  Some chapters are wonderful, like the last five years of my life.  We don't want them to end.  Others are more difficult, but even those will lead to new chapters, hopefully brighter ones. 
May your book be filled with many chapters, and the comforting knowledge that many more are to come.

Leigh Lundin.  Each year my resolution is to make no resolutions.  A logical fallacy probably is involved.

R.T. Lawton.  I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions anymore. Why? So as to not disappoint myself. At my age, there are fewer things I feel driven to change, and for those circumstances I do feel driven about, I make that decision and attempt regardless of the time of year.

For instance, there is the ongoing weight concern, but I hate dieting or restricting myself from temptation. Other than working out, my idea of a dieting program these days is not using Coke in my evening cocktails. Instead, I’ll merely sip the Jack Daniels or Vanilla Crown Royal straight or on the rocks. Not many calories in ice. On the days I gain a pound (weigh-ins every morning), I can usually guess why. On the days I lose weight, I have no idea why. My best weight loss (usually five pounds at a crack), mostly comes from some health problem I did not anticipate and which involved minimal eating for a few days. Naturally, I’m eating well these days, so we’re back to the temptation thing.

As for any writing and getting published resolutions, that’s a constantly renewable action, however, I can only control the writing and submitting part. The getting published part is up to other people and beyond my control, except for e-publishing.

For those of you making New Year’s resolutions, I wish you much success and hope you meet your goal. And, to spur you on with your commitment, let me know in June how well you did.

Have a great New Year!

23 November 2018

Two Gentlemen of London

by Stephen Ross

As I've mentioned before, my favorite art gallery in the world is the National Portrait Gallery in London. I like it because it's full of faces. Sure, I love strolling around any art gallery, and will take an interest in any Marcel Duchamp bicycle wheel, Goya lithograph, Turner seascape, or Hockney swimming pool, but it is to the gallery of faces I've returned most often. Faces are "characters," and I'm in the business of creating characters; albeit on paper, and in words, as I can't draw to save myself.

The double portrait below (a diptych painted on vellum) caught my eye the first time I visited the NPG. It's a Tudor-era work; the costuming and the date of 1554 (it's inscribed on it) are the big giveaway. But the most immediate thing about the work is its size; it's only 100 mm tall (4 inches). It's one of the smallest oil paintings in the gallery (depending on your monitor/phone screen configuration, you may even be viewing it larger than it really is).


It's an odd painting; very simple, very small, and somewhat engaging. This is not a double portrait of two kings, two dukes, or even two wealthy merchants; the plainness of their attire, and the minimalism of the work speaks to that. But there is a discernible sense of dignity about these two gentlemen.

The man to the left holds an artist's palette, the man to the right, a lute. This says:

This is how we wish to be known: Art and Music. 

Above each of the men, finely inscribed, are lines of text. Above the artist are two lines of Latin. Above the musician are two lines of English. Unless you are fluent in Latin, you immediately head to the English:

"Strangwish, thus strangely depicted is One prisoner, for thother, hath done this/ Gerlin, hath garnisht, for his delight This woorck whiche you se, before youre sight."
The key takeaways in this humorous, punning slice of ye olde English are the words "prisoner" and "garnisht." The later is Tudor-era slang for "giving something to your prison warden to obtain the conveniences of life." So, to paraphrase the inscription: The man with the lute is Strangwish (Henry Strangways). He is a prisoner, and this "which you see before you" was done to buy a little comfort for his life.

The Latin inscription is in a different mood.

"Such was the face of Gerlach Flicke when he was a painter in the City of London. This he himself painted from a looking-glass for his dear friends. That they might have something by which to remember him after his death."
Somber, huh?

The man with the artist's palette is Gerlach Flicke, a German portrait painter known for his work in the Tudor court at London. It's a self portrait, and to paraphrase his inscription: He thought he was going to die.

Flicke and Strangways were prisoners in the Tower of London. Friends and companions, or simply comrades in captivity? We will probably never know. Strangways was a "gentleman" pirate (it was a narrow channel between pirate and privateer). History never recorded why Flicke was jailed (maybe the Queen (Mary (Bloody)) didn't like something he said on Twitter?). And neither did die. Not in the Tower, anyway. Flicke in 1558, Strangways in 1562.

Could Strangways play the lute? History didn't record that either, but as a pirate, he probably enjoyed a bit of wine, women, and song. But history did record that he wanted to steal an island from Philip II of Spain; yes, an island. I like this man. Flicke is noted, but never became notable as an artist. He is, sadly, more of a footnote. This painting is his most famous piece. It's good, but really, it's well known more because it's recognized as the first ever self portrait painted in oils in England.

And knowing the conditions it was painted in explains its starkness. I've never visited the Tower of London, and I doubt I ever will. I know way too much about the abject horrors that took place within its walls, and there are frankly better things to visit when in London.

This is how we wish to be remembered: This is all we have left. 


I am reminded of Henry Purcell's When I am laid in earth, and its haunting lyric:
"Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate."



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19 October 2018

Mystery Map

by Stephen Ross
I made a map. But before I tell you about it, let me explain why I made a map... in one sentence: Writers like to procrastinate. If you're a writer, you know that sentence well. You probably even have it printed on a t-shirt. You probably even took the time out to design and hand-make the t-shirt. I know this well. I have spent many happy hours designing t-shirt ideas: catchy, writerly phrases. Juxtapositions of images and words...

Anyway. 

It was the evening. It was raining. I had finished another chapter of the WIP, but rather than start on the third draft of the next one, I remembered something I had learnt during the week in my day job: how to create a Google map and populate it with custom location pins. So, armed with a mug of chocolate tea and a plate of late evening chocolate cookies (chocolate is always the best kind of procrastination), I set about making a map of the world identifying the locations where my published short stories have been set.

I created an icon/pin for each of the three categories I write in, assigned each story a category, and stuck in a pin where each was set; adding notation of when and where it was published.

It was an educational experience. I had this idea in my head that I had set only a few stories in New Zealand, maybe two or three. Wrong. There were in fact six.

I also had this idea that most of my stories were set in the United States. Wrong. Most of my stories are set in Europe, and even if the United Kingdom continues with its insanity and brexits away from continental Europe, the UK, alone, will still have the same number of stories set in it as the US.

Another interesting thing I learnt was that only two of my stories are set in fictional towns. Most of my stories are set in real, named places, typically cities, e.g., Los Angeles, London, Frankfurt. Bad Memory even drills down and mentions a whole cobweb of real street names and locations (it's set in West Auckland, where I grew up).

Some stories have no named setting, but it's reasonably clear and implied where it's set. The Man from the Future is set in the English countryside, near a river and near the coast, and the voice of the narrator (it's first person) is Snotty British. It's never said on the page, but in my head the story was set in Devon.

What's interesting about the two fictional places I made up is that both were for horror stories (with a young narrator). The youthful narrator of Feed the Birds departs Paddington train station bound for Abercrumble House in the Hertley Forest. There is no Hertley Forest in the North West of England. Or anywhere in the UK. The teenage boy in The Tall Ones finds himself swept up in a Lovecraftian nightmare in the small town of Redgrave on the shore of Lake Michigan. Yup. No Redgrave at Lake Michigan (unless you're thinking of Michael Redgrave in the movie Thunder Rock).

Probably my favourite location of all for a story, and in real life, is Metz. It's a small town in the North East of France. I've holidayed there a couple of times. It features two rivers, interesting architecture, a fantastic museum, coffee, 3000+ years of history (a woman in a bookstore there told me the town was the birth place of Gregorian Chant), and there's a dragon in cathedral's basement.

I set Monsieur Alice is Absent (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, 2010) in Metz. This has always been one of my favorite stories (a story dear to my heart, as they say) and now is a good time to mention it's being reprinted in the Terror at the Crossroads anthology that's being edited by Jackie Sherbow and Emily Hockaday at Dell Magazines. It comes out later this month. I can't wait!

My map of stories, of course, is rather sparse. I don't have that many published stories, compared to my fellow Sleuthsayers. I can image a similar map made by any one of them would be a carpet of icons. And by delightful coincidence, the day after I started making a map and writing this blog post, John posted an article about settings: A Whole Town--Imagine That. In which, he asked: As a writer, what works for you? Do you usually create your own town/city names, or do you install your characters in real-life locations? So, John, take this as my answer :)

So, what next? Oh, yeah, back to the next chapter in the third draft of the WIP. :P

Or maybe another t-shirt design.

Oh, and yes. You can look at my map here: Stephen's Story Map.


06 July 2018

Joy of Writing (Groups)

by Stephen Ross

I'm too old to play in a sandpit anymore with my toy cars, toy gorilla, and action man. And if I did, people would think it odd; at best, eccentric. Some might even alert the authorities. However, as a grownup, I can let my mind wander freely, letting my stories and characters flow (action man, gorilla, et al.). And so long as I do it on paper, no one will bat an eyelid. My joy of writing is creation; the joy of making things up. For me, a blank page of paper is like the sandpit of my childhood. 

I wrote the above, more or less, in about three minutes today (Saturday, May 12). I wrote it from scratch. It was a short writing exercise answering the question: What is your joy of writing?

I belong to a writing group. A bunch of us meet once a month at the local library, and we do things such as talk about writing, discuss competitions, hear from guest writers and speakers (today we had a comprehensive tutorial on social media for writers), and occasionally we undertake short, on-the-spot writing exercises, as above.

The group is delightfully informal (behind the scenes, it is a fully incorporated society). I'm not sure how many people belong, maybe upwards of 40-50, as attendance for some is delightfully casual. There’s a fairly wide range of ages among members, and a fairly wide range of writing experience: published, self-published, not-yet-published. Everyone in the room is a writer. Everyone has a WIP: a book, short story, play, poem, or piece of journalism.

I believe I am the only mystery writer in the room. But I’m not the only former teacher. It seems almost every second member of the group is, or has been, a school teacher… Apropos of nothing.

Children's Writing Workshop with Stu Deval
(Photo ©2018 Becky Carr)
I came late to joining a writing group. I've been writing all my life, but I only went along and joined one two years ago. The gateway drug was a post I chanced upon on Facebook about a guest speaker (Frances Housden) who would be giving a crime/mystery fiction workshop. Visitors welcome. Tea and cookies provided.

    I liked the atmosphere.
    It was local.
    (I took in a cappuccino.)
    I've kept going back.

I’ve said it often: Writers are the friendliest people you’ll meet (and I'll add that mystery writers are the friendliest of the friendly).

The writing of fiction is a solitary pursuit and an unsociable practice. By god, it is the very definition of unsociable. And even if you’re sitting in a crowded café, slamming out chapter 27 of your usurper to the Harry Potter franchise, you’re probably wearing headphones and ignoring everyone... except for the waiter bringing more coffee.

Writing is on the list of unsociable occupations along with IRS employee, jail warden, lone astronaut stranded on a hostile planet, and ascetic cave hermit. So, once a month, it's nice to go along and meet up with others who also do the writing thing, and to talk shop.

Sidebar: I bow to those rare literary pluralists who can truly write in tandem with another.

I work days in an office (software company). If I started randomly talking to my colleagues about first person omniscient, writer's block, word count, page formatting, current submissions, or who was nominated for or won a Derringer Award this year (claps and cheers for Elizabeth, Brendan, Rob, and John), their eyes would glaze over.

I suppose, it's a little bit therapeutic in that respect. A writing group is like an AA meeting. “Hi, my name is Stephen. I'm a writer.  I haven’t written a paragraph since 9 A.M. this morning.”

Sleuthsayers is an online version of a writer's group, with the advantage that it's open 24/7, and we can all be anywhere at all: Florida, Seattle, Canada, down here at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, or at the Stork Club (Thelma?).

The bottom line is: Belonging to a writer group, be it at the local library, or in cyberspace, is a chance to learn stuff (big or small); to plug into the collective writer mind and soak up new and interesting things. To hang out with fellow travelers.

Did I mention competitions? My writing group has a bunch of them, and one of them this year is a trophy-prized, short-story comp: "Crime and Mystery." I've not yet entered any of the group's competitions, but I plan to (pardon the obligatory pun) give that one a decent stab.

SR


Links:
Frances Housden
Stu Deval

Stephen Ross Facebook
www.StephenRoss.live