The Top Five Misconceptions of (Fiction) Writing

This post was originally intended for a different site, Since they never got back to me, I’m going to go ahead and post it here….

Which left me with another problem – what to blog? As a fan of science fiction I grew up with stories of time travel. When I was younger there were a lot of daydreams of going back in time and telling my younger self everything that I had learned. Now that I’m older I can see a lot of younger selves all around me, in the form of people traveling the same road I’ve already been down. So what would I tell me younger selves, if I had the opportunity? I would tell them about the misconceptions that I had when I was in their shoes.

1) Writing is a good way to make money. There’s something I still think is humorous. One book out and some of my co-workers at my day job are asking me when I’m going to quit. It would be nice if it were that easy. It’s been a long road to gain the necessary skill to get that first book published, and now I realize that I’m just starting out. The road is even longer than I had imagined.

When someone names all the authors they can think of, what they’re really naming is what I call the One Percent Club. The OPC’s are so dedicated and so good at their craft that their names are known commodities. They are the one percent who’s made it. For every name that can be listed, there are hundreds who will barely survive on what they make from writing; thousands who will have a day job their entire career, and hundreds of thousands who will never get that far.

2) Authors are artists. Here’s a misconception that should be obvious, but to a lot of people it’s not. Authors are not artists, they don’t get to wait for their muse to whisper in their ear. The author who waits for lightening to strike is going to wait himself out of a job.

A true writer gets up and he writes. Instead of going to visit his friends, he writes. Instead of going to the bar, he writes. When he goes to bed at night, he’s thinking about what he’s going to write the next day. I’ve even taken to carrying my notebook with me everywhere I go, so that when I’m waiting for the doctor, or mechanic, or whoever – I write. Sometimes, the next day, I throw it all away. And then I write some more.

If a writer isn’t an artist, what is he? He’s a craftsman, he makes things. Instead of using nuts, bolts, and cogs, a writer uses nouns, verbs, and concepts. He builds a story from the ground up, using a framework, and layering on POV and internalization. And then he sands it down until there’s no sliver for the audience to trip on. Then he polishes it some more, until it fairly glows.

Don’t get me wrong, someday somebody might call the work a piece of art, but a true craftsman knows better. There are supports, cogs and braces to make a sound structure. There’s trim to hide unsightly joints, there’s glitter to catch the eye, but not too much. In the end the structure must be usable. Too complex and it fades from memory, too simple and it’s boring.

3) I can educate the audience through my work. It would be nice to say what you write will mark the readers, will change the world, but I really can’t. Authors are part of the entertainment industry – those gallant people who seek to distract the common citizen from their daily life. We may well touch a person’s emotions, we might give them pause for thought, but most of the time, once the book is closed an individual will forget the sights, sounds and lessons within.

Again, don’t misunderstand me – I’ve read some wonderful books, even learned a few things from them. But the number of books I’ve read far outweighs the times I’ve kept some memory of them. And what a reader takes away from a story is often not what the author intended.

As a prime example, someone who read my book started talking about themes, hidden meanings, and deep thoughts. I finally had to stop him and explain – what I wrote was meant to be enjoyed, and it sounds like that was accomplished. Anything more came from them, not me.

Has a book ever changed the world? Yes, books have changed many aspects of the way we do things. But in almost every case, the book was never intended to change anything at all, it simply did its job so well that it started people to thinking.

In short, if the author is writing to change the world, the best thing he can do is put down his pen. A particular topic can make a wonderful backdrop for a story. Theoretically, as the characters learn more, so does the reader. What happens most often is the reader forgets such details as fast as he reads them.

4) My books are different. I think every author has a soft spot in his heart for his own work. After all, it is a purer voice than anything else he’s read. The timing is perfect, the structure just right. It is the best story he’s ever found. That only makes sense, it’s his work.

The author may not realize until he’s holding his book in his hands that it’s like all the others on the shelves. Whenever it is, at some point he realizes that they’re not going to jump off the shelves, they’re not nuggets of gold among piles of coal.

That is the moment he realizes he is one among many. The only difference in his work is that this time he knows the story from fist person, instead of third.

5) All I have to do is write a good book. Once upon a time that might have been a true statement. Unfortunately, in the modern age, with booksellers not putting up the advertising capital they were once willing to, a writer has to do more. At the end of the day, quality still counts. An author must be good at his craft. But he must do a lot of his own advertising as well.

When that buyer walks into the store, is perusing online, or whatever, he has to have a reason to pick up that book. A good cover helps, but the ideal target is to have the author’s name already planted in the mind of the reader. That’s where branding comes in. But that’s a topic that will have to wait for another day. For the present, suffice it to say that the modern author must be good at his craft, advertising agent, online guru, and so much more.

Artificial Intelligence 2.0

The central problem in developing AI seems to be the sense of self necessary to interact with the rest of the world as a separate entity. A problem I can understand. How does one program a sensation?

I can feel the clothes on my skin, but I cannot feel my skin on my clothes. Ergo, my skin is part of me, my clothes are not. I can command my fingers to move, and they do. I can command the book on the table to move, and it just sits there. My fingers are a part of me, the book is not.

It is this two state awareness that (I think) is the building block of everything that a person is. Sadly enough, because there are only two states, there’s no room for a middle ground. Black, white. Good, bad. Us, them. The bottom line of two state awareness is simply friend or foe. A very large part of the human mind is a complex system for identifying the difference. And even that can be simplified to a rule of thumb – like me is friend, different is foe.

And that leads us back to one of the fundamental fears of AI – would this artificial intelligence, realizing humans were different, declare mankind as the enemy?

On the other side of the coin, AI could ultimately lead to a new awareness of ourselves. With a whole new species out there minor variations like skin color, accent, and belief seems trivial. And they should. They are minor differences. But it’s that different that is fundamentally important to the sense of self.

Another aspect to consider is that humans had reason to expand their sense of self. Minor things like survival – food, water, and shelter. Procreation is also another need built into any living thing. A program, however, has no motive to do anything. It has no emotions to cater to, no biological instinct, and no death to face if it doesn’t do something. Each one of which begins a whole new set of problems.

Emotions might be the trickiest thing to imitate. While scientist can’t agree on how much, some percentage of our feelings are nothing more than the chemicals washing through our physical brains. Hence some emotional problems can be dealt with by treating the physical symptoms. Another percentage of our emotional make-up is nothing more than learned responses of both varieties. First hand learning we accomplish when getting burned, we reflexively remember that fire is bad/to be avoided. Second hand learning is a community thing. Our neighbors are afraid of leprosy therefore we should be, too, even if we don’t know what it is. And lastly, some part of our emotions are, what I’ve always thought of as, meta-learning. We see something new. We attempt to apply all of the filters we know, both first- and second-hand learning, and our current mood. If it’s similar to one of those, our reaction will follow that mode, even if it’s not appropriate. It’s that disturbing thought in the back of our brains that something is wrong about an object or person, we’re just not sure what.

Programming instincts – a need more fundamental than our conscious mind – could be interesting and could provide our AI with motive to start doing. But what instinct does one give a machine? Breathing is a human instinct, just as fighting to get air when we can’t. It’s more fundamental than our conscious minds, and thus thinking about doing it isn’t necessary. But if it instinctively seeks out a power source when it starts getting low on energy, what trail does it leave behind?

But these are my thoughts on AI and the problems that might be encountered. I would love to hear what you think some of the problems might be.

Politically Incorrect

The PC community and I go way back. I’ve simply never understood how changing the name of something could possibly make it anything other than what it already is. It’s almost like they’re saying the Committee for Pallid Ascendancy is somehow better than the Klu Klux Klan. Or being Housing Challenged is in some way less horrible than being homeless.

True, these terms do fall gentler on the ear, but is that really a good thing. The PC terms are supposed to strip away all of the prior inferences of the older, uglier terms. Unfortunately whitewashing a broken fence doesn’t repair the damage done. Especially if the old color will do.

Don’t get me wrong. Back in its younger days PC had a valid point – people should be aware of the subtext of the words they’re using. Probably one of the easiest and most obvious examples is blacks.

(Oh, wait. That’s technically not the PC term anymore. It’s Afro-American. But do yourself a favor, go ask a black guy what he thinks about that term. I imagine they’ll tell you the same thing a lot of black people have told me… which really isn’t repeatable here. Suffice it to say generally they’re not real impressed with the term.)

And just for the record I’m not Italian American, or Dutch American. Or any variation thereof. I’m American, born on American soil, no other country having a claim on my genes, mental state or property. You could even say I’m a native American, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

I’ll admit I grew up using a variation on the term negro. I thought it was a slang term for black people. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized it was an insult. And promptly quit using the term, along with a bunch of other words for various nationalities. That’s PC at its best.

But where PC gets carried away is assigning terms that aren’t acceptable to their assignees. Or asking people to change things when, at the time of their origins, the people involved dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s.

I personally hope teams like the Fighting Chiefs and Red Sox never change their names. At the time those teams were created the people sponsoring them went to the appropriate sources and asked them What do you guys think? And those sources gave them a thumbs up, and agreed one hundred percent. We may not like what our forefathers did, but we should have the courage to live with it. After all, we’re not going to ask Toys For Tots to change their logo when tots is no long a PC term.

Another good example is Native American. Do you know who the biggest detractor of the term is? The one it’s being applied to. American Indians don’t like the term… kind of the way blacks didn’t like the variation on negro. But we’re going to give it to them anyway? Whether they like it or not? Doesn’t that seem a little… thoughtless?

As for me, I guess I’ll have to remain politically incorrect.

Artificial Intelligence

AI is the hot topic in a lot of circles. Many people believe it will be the next big technological breakthrough. And movies like Transcendence (starring Johnny Depp) and Her (starring Joaquin Phoenix) suggests this breakthrough is right around the corner. One of the things I like about the topic is the range of emotions it elicits.

There are some who feels that AI will be the beginning of the end. Those people believe that the AI, upon realizing that humans exist, will immediately set out to destroy them. Why? Because humanity is the greatest threat to its survival. Of course, this assumes some instinct for self-preservation… something that may be required for intelligence to form.

Others feel like AI will be the greatest boon to humanity since the invention of the car. It could represent a cheap workforce capable of doing the mundane tasks that are currently assigned to people. The results would be a vast number of people who are freed up to pursue higher callings. Then again, these more inspired jobs may have to wait a bit while these newly unemployed figure out how to put food on the table.

Still others are of the opinion that AI is simply impossible. It was put best by this guy I know: God created man. Man does not have the power to create. He can fold, staple, manipulate but not create. It was an interesting reaction, and does bring up a thought-provoking question – what are the ramifications of AI to our self-esteem? If we can create artificial intelligence doesn’t that mean that our own intelligence could be a naturally occurring event, an accident of nature? But what about man’s Divine Right, his being the fulcrum point of nature? Perhaps he isn’t special after all.

And yet others have considered the problem more deeply. I once found a quote online, and liked it some much that I remember it to this day. I went back later to try to find it again, but couldn’t. (I’m not sure if that says something about me or online content.) But the quote went something like: Whether or not man can create artificial intelligence is not the question. But whether he would recognize intelligence when he saw it. And there is, perhaps, the crux of the matter. Anything we accept as intelligence must resemble our way of thinking at the beginning. Thereafter it is free to evolve in directions mankind would never, and possibly could never, evolve in. After all, man has certain inbound limits – biological necessities like sleep, food, death. This new intelligence would have none of these. Then again, since man created it, its sole goal may be to become as close to being human as possible. For all of the good and ill that might mean.