# Tag Archives: Fiction

I’ve been reading a lot of math papers lately.

I’m a computer scientist by trade, and theoretically should be able to speak this language. In fact, we take so much math as computer science engineers that we can’t double major in applied math since that’s already built into our coursework (something that would have shaved at least half a year off my college life if I’d known it sooner).

Some of those later courses were tough, but even math students at the most basic level have encountered knowing the answer, but not knowing how to get to the answer. On a particular test problem where I ran into this situation, I wrote “Poof! And the magic occurs!” between the problem and my answer. Suffice it to say, that was insufficient explanation.

Math writing is inherently logical. You define your terms, make your propositions, prove your theorems, then move on to the next property of whatever you’re studying. The problem occurs when you forget to define your terms, or leave out a step, or assume everyone in the universe has the same base knowledge as you.

I spent at least an hour last night trying to figure out how to change Fibonacci words into generalized Fibonacci snowflakes. I was missing one crucial piece of information that I finally had to track down in one of the cited papers, that all the addition in these equations was mod 4. The moment of finally watching something work the way you expect it to can feel a lot like magic, but a lot of trouble might have been saved on my part if the author had bothered to work out the interim steps in the paper. There were many other places where they had done this, but this one lacking piece of information was right in the middle from one really cool graphic to another.

So how do we apply this more generally?

Constructing a story, particularly a mystery, is a lot like proving a math theory. You discover evidence, make some conclusions, and prove your theory. Sure, a good mystery has some misdirection. You don’t want the reader to arrive at your conclusion too quickly. But you want your solution, your ending, to be the satisfying and logical progression of what has come before. Put another way, you want your ending scene to be “earned” by what you’ve written before it.

The problem as writers is that we always know this universe of our story better than our readers, to the point that sometimes we don’t know if we’ve said all we need to make it clear to others. You may know a character’s motivation, but if you leave no sign of it in the book, then the reader doesn’t know why they should care. Bad mysteries often introduce a surprise villain at the end of the book, rather than in the first 20%, cheating the reader of the opportunity to engage with finding the solution.

I don’t think this means you need to beat your readers over the head with facts already in evidence. But if something is important to things you’re going to write later, be sure you’ve actually said it the once. Beta readers and editors are especially helpful in finding these sorts of flaws, as is having an outline where you work out all of these connections ahead of time.

And incidentally, and separately from the main point of all this, writing in a technical language is not always better than the vernacular. I understand that academic papers serve different functions and are targeted at different audiences than more general work. But math doesn’t have to be obscure. Part of the reason I’m slogging through all this work is to write something I can share with everyone. This is something to keep in mind when you’re tempted to insert a lot of techno-babble or overly sophisticated words into your stories. Sometimes telling a story clearly, plainly and succinctly is the best way to go.

Just make sure to show your work.

Filed under Writing

## Chasing Technology: Worse Than Chasing Aliens

What do we tell young authors? Avoid publishing trends. By the time you write a book on the latest hot topic, the trend has long since passed you by. This happens on a smaller scale in blogging, a news topic may be relevant to write about today, but be yesterday’s news tomorrow.

Writing technology into your story can fall into the same set of problems. The X-Files got its much anticipated return to television last night (I haven’t seen it yet, and probably won’t till next weekend, so no spoilers). I, like many others, took the opportunity of its return to start re-watching some of the old episodes.

Woo boy.

There’s two levels on which the X-Files engaged with tech, as a means of moving the story forward (i.e. a tool), and as the main subject of the story (usually the antagonist). In the tool category you just write what’s around today, which in the era of the X-Files was huge cell-phones, dial-up modems, floppy disks, and data cassettes (remember those?). Remember 90’s websites?

I’m not a fan of Jimmy Kimmel, but he did a pretty funny sketch about X-Files tech (see below):

When technology is the subject of the story, you run some risk of being dated. I actually think the upload story (Season 5’s: Kill Switch), holds up, since talk of the singularity is just starting to enter the public consciousness, whereas older AI episodes (Season 1’s: Ghost In The Machine) feel corny (even though malevolent AI plots are still a staple of sci-fi).

So how do we make technology stories feel less dated, while still having something to say about where we are with our relationship with technology today? Below are some brief thoughts, things I learned along the way while writing Surreality:

Technology doesn’t catch up everywhere: There are still people who use VCR’s. Police department funding is probably not at the level of what you see on NCIS and CSI (itself a now dated reference). You’ll get some grace for a little while, since not everyone is going to have an Occulus Rift, or even the latest tablet or smartphone, today.

Story matters first: Probably one of the reasons “Kill Switch” holds up (aside from being written by William Gibson), is the story. You could replace the orbiting laser platform with a drone strike, and the rest of the story would still hold up. The characters are interesting, the dialog is funny, and the style choices (the expert use of “Twilight Time”) make it unique and memorable. Sure we had virus programs written on CDs and lots of wires and huge cameras, but the core still works.

You can always revise: Surreality was written and rewritten over an interesting period. Social media went from something casual between a few college students, to pervasive throughout our lives, and provided on more platforms than you can imagine. You don’t have to know every variety of platform, but Twitter and Facebook have been around a while. Same rules apply here as they do when you’re building your author network, write what you know, don’t throw in something you think might be good if it serves no other purpose than name dropping.

Jump a little ahead: It’s probably not that hard to imagine some things that might be possible in a few years time. AI has been a staple of sci-fi since the 40s and 50s, and we’re still a long way from having a true strong AI, in the Data from Star Trek sense of the word. Attitudes about AI may seem dated, but the concept itself so far is evergreen.

Or a little behind: There are numerous indie games produced that capture the look and feel of classic games from the 90’s, down to the pixel art and MIDI music. A lot of tablets and phone games also go for this pixel idea. If a fictional game you’re writing about seems behind the times, it might be deliberate, a style and nostalgic choice. We may not ever be nostalgic for floppies, but we certainly are for records and old games.

The big take away here should always be, story comes first. Write a good story, and people will forgive that you talked about big desktops like they’re still a thing. They might even find it kind of campy, which is not a bad place to be. Certainly hasn’t been for the X-Files.

If you liked this, you may like my latest technological mystery: Surreality.

Filed under Trube On Tech, Writing

## Surreality – Arvo Part

Music has always been an integral part of my writing process, whether it’s selecting music to listen to while working, or choosing pieces to specifically reference in the book. Surreality actually depicts several musical pieces including a Massive Attack song for one of Ms. Klein’s performances, but my personal favorite is the choral piece that Keenan hears at the Palace Theater, Arvo Pärt’s Kanon Pokajanen.

The Kanon is a modern classical masterpiece, but its origins lie in centuries old tradition. The text is taken from the Eastern Orthodox Canon which consists of nine odes centered around repentance (thanks Wikipedia). The second ode, Moses’ rebuke of the Israelites, is often omitted from recitations and is not present in Pärt’s composition (a fact my characters discuss in context with the events of the book).

My first encounter with the work was accidental. I didn’t even learn to pronounce Pärt’s name correctly for many years. It’s ‘Pear+t’ like the fruit plus a ‘T’, not ‘part’ like the widget, or ‘par’ which incorrectly assumes that the ‘T’ is silent. A two-disc copy of the CD was in the library book sale when I worked there my senior year of high-school. I had no idea what the CD was, and it smelled heavily of cigarettes, but for a dollar I sated my curiosity. The first nine seconds of the disc are silent, and I remembering wondering if there was something wrong with it. I probably turned my boom-box (yes I was still using one of those in the early 2000’s) to its maximum setting, only to met with the full blast of an SATB chorus a few moments later.

Pärt’s style is very spare, borrowing a lot from Gregorian chant, and mixing one or two of the parts together in different combinations. Large sections are sung in recitative fashion (meaning one part sings and another repeats). It’s ethereal and reflective. The piece gets your attention, retreats to the heavens, builds to an midway climax, then lets you go gently.

Pärt uses silence to set tone. The initial silence emphasizes the contrast of the entrance, and further silences throughout allow the notes to fill the cathedral space in which it was recorded. I’ve sung in old churches only a few times, the most memorable being a trip to San Francisco in 2004. Notes can carry on for seconds, long after the people have stopped singing. It’s a particular treat to study how harmonies blend and produce all the overtones and magical things that can happen when voices come together perfectly. It’s spiritual, not just to listen to, but to experience when singing.

My character’s not as fascinated by choral music as I am, but I hope that the moment is a nice space to reflect on what’s happened in the book so far, and what’s coming next. It’s still one of my favorite scenes to read, and has been present in the book in one form or another since the first draft (though Pärt’s specific selection came later I think).

My latest book, Surreality, is available on Amazon and Smashwords or wherever eBooks are sold.

Filed under Books + Publishing, Faith + Life

## Surreality – The Ohio Union

The Union as I remembered it.

OSU Campus is still a big part of my life, and so it makes sense that it would creep into the pages of Surreality. Even though it’s been seven years since I last walked the campus as a student, I only live a couple of miles north and often find myself at some of the restaurants and haunts at the periphery. I went scouting for locations for characters and scenes back in 2013 and spent some time at the new Ohio Union plotting out some of the material for Chapter 15.

I was a student at Ohio State in the last days of the old Ohio Union. My memories of the new building are of a hole in the ground and most of the south oval being fenced off. Ditto for the library. The new Union is very nice, almost like an indoor mall, and is a lot taller and more open than the old relic I remember.

Most of my time hanging out at the old Union was spent in the basement with the lunch group from Men’s Glee. Wiegel Hall is pretty close to the Union, and we would all get food from either Sloopy’s or Marc Pi’s (or even better across the street at actual restaurants on High Street), then hang out with a bunch of tables pushed together. Ostensibly the space was for studying, but no one seemed to enforce any kind of quiet rules, particularly during the day. The campus radio station office was just behind us, though I never saw much activity around it. Maybe thirty years ago, the basement had been a bowling alley, though we only had a couple of old pictures to go off of for that theory.

It was gray, drab and boring, but it was ours. When the building was demolished a few years in we moved to the John Glenn center building (next to the Wexner). It was never quite the same (there were offices and we could only get so loud without attracting undesired attention). Now the basement of the new union is a brightly colored culinary space, with a real kitchen. Hanging out at the Union now is confined to the above ground spaces.

Campus in particular is constantly changing and it was fun to have my characters bump up against some of those changes, both as way to drive the narrative, but also as an excuse to check out what’s happening. So much of the fun of setting my detective series in Columbus has been finding new areas of town to visit, or seeing how old ones have changed.

Surreality, my latest technological mystery, is available now on Amazon, Smashwords, and other online retailers.