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Alt.Fiction workshops

I went to Alt.Fiction at the Derby Quad on Saturday last and it was great. From reading associated blogs and tweets (search ‘altfiction’ on Twitter), it seems most people went to panels or hung around in the bar talking to people. As an unsociable sod, I sat through all the workshops that were provided (except Horror; had to eat some time). Luckily, my daughter, Vicky (twitter), spent her time catching up so I learned about what people were up to from her afterwards.

10am, Fantasy, Mark Chadbourn
The room was full; about seventeen people in all, I think (see Mark’s pics here and here; some people missed off). Mark began telling us about the state of the fantasy market and that, after a few years of same-ish stuff, publishers are now looking for new ideas (so no more Tolkien-esque or semi-medieval worlds). He then told us to look inside ourselves for our ideas: use what we know or what we are passionate about. And it worked. He had us imagine a world based on what we knew well and then write ten lines about it: either starting lines, description or keywords. The first thing to come to my mind were the featureless faces of buildings where I worked when contracting in London so I worked up an idea starting from there. He then had us describe a character from that world, again in ten lines: who they were and what their key flaw was. Finally we had to write the plot in only two lines: what does the character want to achieve and what stands in their way. This was a good start to the day. Already, I had an idea for a series of books which I would definitely pursue.

11am, Science Fiction, Tony Ballantyne
Another full room (I’ll have to stop saying this; every workshop was pretty much full). Mark first handed out a sheet with an extract from Wikipedia on ‘incluing’. This is a way of avoiding the dreaded ‘info dump’. I have been accused of this trait in my short stories so was keen to hear what he said. There was some discussion around the room about different novelists’ ways of handling info dump and Tony read out some of the worst excesses from the Stieg Larsson books. He then handed out another sheet with some of the physical improvements that the Warhammer 40K Space Marines have had done to them. We then had to work in pairs to write up two of those improvements into a short piece of text. It was an interesting exercise.

12am, Dark Fantasy, Kim Lakin-Smith
This was, for me, the best workshop; Kim’s approach really got the creative juices flowing. She started out talking about dark fantasy and the ‘magic mirror’ that it holds up to the world to produce a ‘distorted reflection of life’ showing the ‘juxtaposition of human and monster’ in each of us. Next she looked at fairy tales, the origin of fantasy aimed at adults, and the darkness they used to contain (and how people like Angela Carter and Neil Gaiman have tried to reclaim that aspect). Kim then gave us a page of images of some archetypal fairy story characters: Baba Yaga, Anansi, Rumpelstiltskin and the Green children of Woolpit; and described them. We had to choose one of these characters to incorporate into a story. Kim then had us do four exercises:
1) Describe a street: any time period, any season, but at 3:30am.
2) One person is awake in the street, child or adult. Why are they awake? They are in the grip of a strong emotion. How do they feel?
3) They see our chosen archetypal character at the end of the street. How does the person feel about seeing this character?
4) The character offers them a way out of their earlier strong emotion.
Kim’s workshop approach had me working more intensely than I have done for some time. I may not write up that particular story but will try to recapture the feeling I had while in the workshop next time I start a story.

1am, pretty much wrung out by now, I retreated to the bar for beer, panini and a quick catch-up with Vick.

2pm, Screenwriting, Stephen Volk
Stephen kicked off by giving us each a page of script, saying that this was the industry standard way of presenting scripts and that the best tool for ensuring this standard was the Final Draft software package: not a cheap option (£170 from Amazon). He then read out a short story that he had written and the ensuing discussion focussed on what questions one would ask if turning this story into a film. Next, Stephen read from an original script of his, showing how the first few minutes, typically the title sequence, sets out the themes and tropes of the film. He then had us think about how we might open a film of his earlier short story and we discussed this for a bit.

3pm, Audio writing, Simon Guerrier
Simon was standing in for someone else so I was impressed that he came up with an interesting and entertaining workshop at short notice. Pretty sure he has done this before 🙂 He gave us all the beginning of one of the Doctor Who Companion Chronicles scripts, ‘The Prisoners’ Dilemma’, and had two of the workshop participants read the parts up to the title sequence (cue Dr Who theme tune!). We then paired off and Simon had us write our own starter scripts, with each pairing having to handle a different Doctor-Companion set. Me and my partner (sorry, forgotten the name: maybe that is why I never socialise) had Colin Baker and Bonnie Langford. The subsequent readings were hilarious with Simon commenting on each script. This was great fun.

4pm, Comics, Liam Sharp
Liam did not run a workshop, as such; he answered questions from the participants about writing for comics (of everyone there, only a couple of people were artists as opposed to writers, and both of them were writers as well). But the session did prove both interesting and insightful. I had never considered writing for comics before but am quite keen on the idea now. Liam talked about different ways to lay out the story for a comic and showed us several examples. I really wish I could draw 🙂

That was it for the day. I was completely knackered. I made my way around to the room where books were being sold but everyone was packing up. I managed to pick up a copy of Murky Depths. Afterwards, Vick and I made our way out for a couple of cold coffees. We both were interested in the later session on social sites for new writers but too tired to hang around. We’ll have to pace ourselves better next time.

On my way?

Yesterday I finished my second short story, well the first draft of it anyway. The first one was done a couple of weeks ago but I did not rate that a significant achievement. Firstly, doing something once does not mean I am going to stick at it: this I know from LOTS of previous experience. And secondly, it was not what I considered publishable, or, not worthy of sending off to a publisher. The story started well but ended up going nowhere. The one real significance of that effort was more that I finished it given that I was only about 3k words in when I knew it was not worth sending out and it ended up being 7800 words long. In the past I would have simply given up on it at that stage but writing it did teach me stuff about writing.

The second one felt right from the outset. I’d had the idea for some time, sitting in my very long list of ideas. When the first story was nearing completion, I looked into that list for the next one to start on because I knew that if I delayed even a little on starting the second, I might never do so. About the second day into thinking about it, I thought of a twist that made the story work, that better said what I wanted the story to say. That was when I thought the story would be worth sending out. Of course, that made me extremely nervous.

Halfway through writing the story, I thought of a way of wrapping it up that I hoped would improve it, that would let me keep all the action to a single day but still properly ‘conclude’ all the characters’ arcs. This, of course, made me even more nervous and I blocked for a few days. It ended with driving up to the motorway junction, grabbing a coffee, and sitting there until I broke the block. I finished the last 2400 words in two days.

Now, though, I look at the story and wonder if the plot ‘twist’ is naff and the mode of keeping it all to one day is overly pretentious. Ho hum! I guess I’m never going to be a very confident writer 🙂

Time to dig out the ideas list again (yay, Evernote).

Turing test ponderings

Andy has a post about the Turing test: how to determine between a software program and a human based on the answers it provides to questions you ask. Why would we want a machine to emulate a human being though? Yeah right, just what we need, a machine that can be prejudiced and irrational, that can give false answers to honestly posed questions, that can believe in the most patently ridiculous things, that can sulk and decide not to give any answers or that can look at the universe and its place in it and decide to fuse all its circuits. Hell, we can produce that sort of machine at the drop of a pair of knickers.

We want a machine that is more intelligent than us, completely rational, has access to all the world’s information but is still under our control. Would such a machine ever sound human? I doubt it and do not think we would care if it did. But we would not want to have to pre-code every part of this machine so it would have to be able to learn. Would such a machine be intelligent? or conscoius? Possibly the former, probably not the latter.

I guess it would be intelligent if it was able to pose new problems and seek out the answers to those problems based on methodologies it had come up with. This would be a truly useful machine. It would have to be able to learn about new fields, absorb the knowledge we already have, question us about our assumptions and, as I just said, pose new questions and seek their answers. Would it have to understand natural language? I don’t think so. Imagine an alien coming down to Earth, with whom we could only converse in some structured way: we would still consider the alien to be intelligent even if it ignored any questions we posed about its self.

What about a conscious machine? It would, I guess, need to be able to reflect upon itself, and its own thought processes. Maybe not conscious in the human sense though. We are only slightly conscious: we are unaware of the vast majority of the workings of our brains and bodies and only even aware of our own thoughts after those thoughts have already happened. A conscious machine, on the other hand, might be fully self-aware, able to reflect upon every aspect of its own internal workings. We would have to consider such an entity far more conscious than ourselves.

Does a conscious machine need emotions? It would probably need at least some drivers: to acquire more knowledge, say. This desire would be an emotion. Could it have positive emotions without negative ones? Could its emotions be separated from its physical parts and processes? Lots of interesting stuff here: how would we construct a robot mind?

Determinism 2

Not an answer to the problem posed at the end of my previous post of this title. Not a lot at all in fact. Background will probably be longer than post.

Am reading Ted Chiang‘s ‘Story of your life‘ from his book, ‘Stories of your life and others‘ and was intrigued by the mention of the variational principle in physics and its apparent teleological character. So looked all this up on wikipedia (see previous links) and followed link from there to stuff on quantum mechanics and the paragraph:

The Copenhagen interpretation, due largely to the Danish theoretical physicist Niels Bohr, is the interpretation of quantum mechanics most widely accepted amongst physicists. According to it, the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics predictions cannot be explained in terms of some other deterministic theory, and does not simply reflect our limited knowledge. Quantum mechanics provides probabilistic results because the physical universe is itself probabilistic rather than deterministic.

This led to my thinking that determinism is really only uni-directional (pretty much what I thought before but previous reasoning was based on the fact that we could never forecast the future since the forecasting would take longer to calculate than the future we were trying to forecast). But in a probabilistic universe, any given state of the universe can lead to a near-infinite number of future states because of that probabilistic nature. But once we are in that future state we can know that it was determined by the previous state.

I still don’t think this has anything to do with choice and responsibility. Personal choice cannot be squeezed out of the gaps in quantum probabilities and these would have the same effect on responsibility as a deterministic universe. Don’t think this gets me anywhere but worth slapping down.