Tag Archives: Mystery

Show Your Work

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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.

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Surreality Available Now for Pre-Order, Releases 12/8

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Surreality is coming out in five days!

Just in time for a little cozy winter reading (if Columbus finally decides to pick a temperature and stick with it).

After a whirlwind couple of weeks of formatting, proofing and making various grumbling noises at my computer, I am pleased to announce Surreality will be released 12/8. The eBook version is available from just about every online retailer imaginable, including many I hadn’t heard of. (Might want to do a post on Blio at some point, since a certain Mr. Ray Kurzweil apparently has a connection to it).

You can find links to many of the online book stores to your right or you can click here for:

If you buy from Smashwords, you get the book in mobi (Kindle), ePub (Almost everything else) and PDF (Literally almost everything) DRM free. If you’ve followed the blog for a while, you know I’m a fan of actually owning my eBooks, and Smashwords is one of the best ways to do it.

The print edition is being published on CreateSpace and is actually available now if you buy direct, and in a few more days on Amazon. I just got the proof a few days ago, and opening that box was pretty exciting. Thankfully, producing a print edition of a fiction book is actually pretty easy and affordable. I remember calculating for the fractal book that I would have to cut 100 pages and sell the book for $60 to break even (unless I went for black and white I guess).

Thanks again to everyone who supported the Kindle Scout campaign and this book throughout its production. Your support helped with motivation to get this done in the final crunch weeks.

 

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Surreality – Latest News

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As many of you know, last week Surreality was not selected for publication on Kindle Scout.

First off, I want to thank everyone who nominated the book, shared the campaign on social media, and just expressed your overall support. I got some very nice notes on Twitter and e-mail commiserating with me after the campaign ended. Overall I feel good for having run the campaign, and am excited to continue down the publication path for Surreality as originally planned. I’ll write a more detailed retrospective on Kindle Scout in the coming months.

So, the big question: When will Surreality be released and where?

Short answer: 1-2 weeks and just about everywhere. Pre-orders may become available sooner than that, so stay tuned.

I’m working on putting together eBook versions for Amazon, BN, and other channels through Smashwords. (Yes, John, that means you’ll be able to buy a copy through the iBookstore). Smashwords in particular is very exciting as buying from there gives you the book in all of the myriad formats, meaning you really own it.

For those of you looking to do your Christmas shopping, I’m also releasing a print edition through CreateSpace. I intend to enroll the book in MatchBook as well (meaning you can get a cheap eBook version if you buy the physical book).

Anyone who voted for Surreality on Kindle Scout will get a notification that the Amazon version has been released. All of the other editions should launch at the same time, so if you prefer to buy for the Nook, the iPad, the Kobo or the hootinannie, you’ll find the links on the blog (and probably all over Twitter and Facebook as well).

I’m really excited to finally be getting this book out to you (just in time for cozy winter nights, and actually a little faster than if it had been selected).

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Everyone in the room is a human being

Except for Gleebmork. But even s/he has feelings.

I wrote about 5000 words of the sequel to Surreality a couple of months ago, then put it down to focus on getting the first book out. Coming back to it, I’ve been kicking myself because of where I left the story. Specifically, I’m in the middle of a tough conversation between two characters that’s the setup for many conversations throughout the book. I have a pretty good idea of what the conversation is supposed to accomplish structurally, but have been having a tough time translating that into believable dialogue and body language.

I’m an only child, and we tend to think of the world in relation to ourselves. In the most extreme form, we believe that every conversation has something to do with us, and that everything that is happening is happening to us most of all. Most only children have this notion shaken up by something, be it a good friend, or getting married.

But the attitude can seep into a book without you even realizing it. Surreality and its sequel have a central character, and while it’s a third person narrative, we’re mostly sitting behind one head and one perspective.

It was kind of a simple thing, but part of what got the dialogue flowing better was to think about what the other character was thinking and feeling at the same time. What motivated them to initiate the talk with my character, and what do they hope to get out of it?

Detective novel dialogue can be very objective based, “I am grilling this character for information”, or “I am sorting through my thoughts out loud before having a brilliant insight.” Even in these situations motivations of the other characters are important, particularly if they intend to lie or hold something back.

Some characters will still be flat. We don’t need Willy the drug-dealer’s life story (especially since he isn’t a character in either book). Willy’s just there to tell us what he saw in exchange for us looking the other way on some weed that’ll be legal in the state in a year or two.

But for non-flat characters (i.e. characters not derived from Edwin Abbot’s Flatland), we need to be able to see the scene from their perspective as well as the main character’s. Maybe an exercise in getting that perspective is to write both versions of the scene, one sitting behind your main character’s head, and the other sitting behind the other person in the room. Then blend these two together into a single working scene.

I’ve never tried it, but it sounds like it would work, right?

What I do know that works is to just keep at it. Even if you only add a net 100 words to the scene on evening, you’ve made progress. Because this is a formative scene, I’m probably going to write and revise it several times before moving on, because it will be the basis for a lot of what is to come. I just have to take my own advice and not put it down for another couple of months.

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Recap

As I mentioned yesterday I’m getting a start on the next book of the Surreality series (2000 words so far) while I wait for copy-edits to come back on book one. Since this is part of a series, it has some dependence on events of the first book, though like most mystery stories I want you to be able to pick it up and read it without having read the first book.

Most ongoing series have some kind of reintroduction of the characters, establishing where they are now, what’s come before. Some authors choose to do this in a separate section, particularly long series with many recurring characters (like the Amelia Peabody mysteries). Others just try to drop in information through the narrative as its needed.

For the moment I’m taking this second approach, but its interesting trying to find a balance between info dump and leaving out relevant information. The rule of the moment is if it doesn’t play into the plot of the second book, don’t mention it. But there are a surprising amount of threads I’m picking up again, probably because I’m still coming fresh off the edit of the first book.

By book four or five I’d hope you’d know who the characters are, but mystery series have a long discovery period, refreshed with each new book or recommendation. Not everyone will go back to the beginning (though with digital books going to the beginning is a lot easier).

Do recaps bother you? Are they helpful even if you’ve read the previous books?

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Reviews: Starbucks Marathon

Sitting here in Starbucks typing this into a text editor since Opera refuses to accept any of the security certificates Starbucks is laying down. Still, I can get through a couple of reviews and post them later. This post in particular has some eclectic material so their should be something for everyone (if not always me).

Bang! Tango
Writer – Joe Kelly, Artist – Adrian Sibar

coverImage recently reissued this apparently classic work from Joe Kelly for wider distribution recently. I’ll start up front by saying that my interest in crime stories has been waning over the years. I really liked gangster movies and shows like The Sopranos more in my teen years, but by the time I was maybe mid-way through college my interest waned (though works like Road to Perdition can still grab me). So, I’m probably not the primary audience for this story.

Vincente Ponticello has built a new life for himself, away from the dark streets of San Francisco. But when Autumn breezes back into his life asking for his help, Vicente must find a way to put his old life finally behind him while preparing for dance competitions with his demanding partner Mel. Autumn’s the woman who ruined his life back in New York, when he found out she wasn’t really a she, at least biologically.

Perhaps the playful cover here makes a little more sense to you now.

This is a “sexy” book, with a lot of betrayals, lust, lies, money, and deviant behavior (not Autumn, but more the predilections of a mob boss who prefers pointed objects instead of his own member). As might be apparent, the story didn’t do a lot for me. It’s violent, and doesn’t really end well for anyone involved. The trajectories of most characters have been determined from the beginning and it can be a little difficult to tell if Kelly is really sympathetic to the trans community or is using it for shock value. The reactions of a prideful man like Vincente ring true, but are they really a perspective I want to read about?

I’d love to see Sibar’s work on a better piece. Each page uses a different color as the main motif, giving it a gray-scale quality while conveying mood. He also does a great job with illustrating the music of each tango, showing the words instead of the notes on the stanza flowing throughout the dancing action.

This is probably a story that will appeal to some of you. It’s well-paced, action packed, and well illustrated. But personally I found it a little too grimy for my taste.

(2 stars | Rounded down from 2.5)

Bad Machinery Volume 3
Writer and Artist – John Allison

coverAnd now for something completely different. John Allison is a master of the web-comic, writing series since 1998, and author of previous series Boom and Scary Go Round. Bad Machinery seems to have kicked it up a notch in terms of the quality of the art and the story-telling. It’s worth noting that there are some jokes that are set up in the beginning of the book that aren’t paid off until almost the end, which is several months in real time.

Though this is Volume 3, it’s pretty accessible to someone who hasn’t read the material before. Allison organizes his run of the comic into cases which run for a few months to nearly a year, then he takes a few months off before the next one. The structure seems to be less about the case, which in this case involves a series of fires set off in old buildings, and whether or not a mysterious and simple man who lives in the woods might be responsible, and more about the lives of three main boys and three main girls in the UK city of Tackleford.

There’s a lot of UK specific phrases and humor here, but there’s a handy guide at the back for anyone who might not pick up everything. I’m a fan of this sort of humor, so this kind of thing just speaks to me. Allison seems to have mastered one of the difficult skills of long-form web-comic story-telling which is to have each page feel like it can be self-contained without always having an obvious punch-line. The book version of this story-line seems to rearrange some of the on-line material, inserting some new pages, so this is probably the best and most definitive way to read the story, though I’ve pulled down the rest of the on-line material (which is about 8 cases now) for my own amusement.

The story is pretty silly and fanciful, but it fits the overall tone of the work. This book is worth it alone for the phrase “swit-swoo” and an embroidery of a tank.

(4 stars | More like 4.5, wish the dimensions of the book fit better on my tablet, but that’s web-comics for you)

Wizzywig

Writer and Artist – Ed Piskor

PrintThough published as a single graphic novel, this story bears some structural relationship to a web-comic. There are longer sequences, but many of the jokes and stories are told in two page comics.

Kevin (a.k.a Boing-Thump) is a burgeoning computer hacker and phone-freak in the early days of computers. He starts from using his perfect pitch to make long-distance calls, to pirating software to floppy disk, to inadvertently unleashing the Boing-Thump virus. The story is told through chapters corresponding roughly to a year of Kevin’s eventual incarceration, and flashbacks to his evolution as a hacker, and the lengths he would go to learn about machines and to evade the law. Most of the present day material is told by his best friend who broadcasts over the air to get Kevin out of prison, or at least for the FBI to come up with the charges to give him a trial.

The era of hacking portrayed here doesn’t really exist anymore. It was a time when anyone who was mechanically inclined, and could string together a few lines of code could get into some surprising places. As evidenced by recent data-hacks, security is something that lags behind a lot in the corporate world, particularly in the 1980s. Boing-Thump serves as an amalgamation of some of the more famous hacks and perceptions of hackers from that period. For us techies it’s great nostalgia, and for others it can even be slightly educational.

There’s some language and crude humor. Piskor’s drawing style renders Kevin as having an almost child-like cartoonish face, but the rest of the world around him is much grimier. Still the humor doesn’t feel artificial in this environment, as anyone who’s been on a few message boards or seen internet comments can attest. And the origin of the moniker “boing-thump” is pretty funny.

This is a long work, and it took me setting it down and coming back to it to get all the way through. I probably liked the early sections best before Kevin delves into helping real criminals, back when it was just about finding out how things worked. But the ending was worth the slog and even gets into a bit of a discussion of WikiLeaks and some of the issues that would lead to Edward Snowden.

Interesting side-note, this is one of the few graphic novels I can check out from my digital library. They may not have any DC or Marvel digitally available, but there are some gems to be found if you look.

(4 stars | At least read maybe the first 80 pages to see if you like it)

Incredible Change-Bots Two Point Something Something
Writer and Artist – Jeffrey Brown

coverThe copy of this from NetGalley was pretty lo-res, so I wasn’t really able to read one of the main story-lines, but this volume seems largely made up of miscellaneous material from a (web-comic?, indie?) parody of Transformers. If I was someone who’d followed the 1980s cartoon series, the jokes might have landed a little better for me. The art is imaginative, I personally like the golf-cart and microwave machines. A lot of what you’re getting here could come out of an artistically inclined sixth-grader who doodles in class, with writing to match. There are some romantic lines explored between a police car and a pick-up truck, mostly for some bad jokes about rust and dating.

Good for maybe a chuckle or two, especially if you like Transformers.

(3 stars | Rounded up from 2.5, wish I could’ve read it better)

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Friday Reviews: Out of body experiences

Every Friday I’ll be reviewing two books (usually comic books but occasionally something else). Today we’ll be looking at a woman thrust back into a life she thought she left behind, and a girl who’s left behind life.

Shutter Vol. 1: Wanderlost

Writer – Joe Keatinge, Artist – Leila del Duca

DIG031596_1Kate Kristopher is the last in a long family line of explorers, or so she thought. Ten years ago she watched her father die in front of her, and ever since she’s given up the adventuresome life. But on her birthday as she is visiting her father’s grave she’s attacked by ghosts with swords and a top-hat wearing pudgy robot. And that’s before three tiny mice try to put her in a crystal while a gang of lions fights to get her for themselves.

If you haven’t caught on yet, this is a bit of a fantastical world, and the storyline is much more about spectacle than necessarily moving the plot forward. del Duca’s art is amazing and will get you to stop and stare at many panels. There’s a good deal of humor both in the dialogue and in the imaginative creatures (particularly the assassin Richard Scarry sequence).

This book moves at a frantic pace, and while we do get some back story of their adventures together, there’s a lot more we’re left wanting to know about Kate and her father. We’re given some pretty shocking news in Issue 6 which seems to contradict information we just received in Issue 5, making it a little hard to figure out whether we’re supposed to believe Kate’s father is alive or dead. But Kate spends most of this book dodging explosions and gunfire to the point that when we get to the last third of the book which starts to have some explanation, we’re in need of the break.

It’s a little tough to figure out exactly how much of your big mystery you should give away in the first volume (or six months in comic book time), but I definitely want to know more, particularly about Kate’s extended family whom she only just discovered existed. I’m left at the end of this book not really knowing where Keatinge intends to lead us, but interested in coming along for the ride.

(4 stars | I want to see where this is going)

Mind the Gap Vol. 1: Intimate Strangers

Writer – Jim McCann, Artists – Adrian Alphona and Rodin Esquejo

AUG120486_1Elle Peterssen is young, rich and doesn’t remember who she is or how she came to be floating outside of her body. She’s not sure who to trust of her friends among the living or the comatose. The mostly dead are able to commune with each other in a world known as “The Garden”, though there’s a lot of question as to whether any of this is real or a figment of Elle’s comatose brain.

The art is sharp and realistic, comparable to titles like Revival and Morning Glories (for which Alphona does the covers). Elle has some ability to shape her reality, though most of the changes she causes are subconscious and not deliberate acts of will. The sequence where she remembers her attack as a series of wolves in hoodies attacking her as Little Red Riding Hood is a good example of this fantasy, not as wild as Shutter, but still capable of whimsy.

Why Elle and others are attacked and the exact nature of this Garden are still be revealed. Elle quickly learns that she has the ability to jump into the bodies of the about to expire, where she can gain a couple of minutes of movement and communication before passing back into the space between life and death. In this way she attempts to investigate her own attack and the forces that might be behind it including possibly her family and friends. A concerned doctor and her wife a cop also are drawn into the case and the suspicious behavior of the other doctors and Peterssen’s vitals.

Elle’s investigation of her own murder are comparable to sequences that Sally (a ghost) goes through in Being Human, and it does seem that Elle is developing comparable powers. Whether any of what she’s learned will be retrained when or if she goes back to her body is yet to be seen.

Sadly, this title seems to be on hiatus or at least on a very irregular schedule (only up to issue 17) so the full mystery may not be revealed, but the shocking reveal at the end of this volume is enough to get me to at least pick up issue 7.

(4 stars | Hope we get a complete story)

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