The final arc of my #SaturdayScenes project Chasin…

The final arc of my #SaturdayScenes project Chasing Normal is now available on @wattpad: bit.ly/CNArc8

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Storytelling Through Artifacts

When I was in grad school, we had an assignment where we had to create a lesson plan around an artifact. I had been teaching in museums for several years at that point, so I had experience teaching with and through artifacts. But we also had the Summer Solstice party coming up.

That spring, I had gotten into a bit of a mythology fact-checking fight for a show introduction I was writing for the planetarium attached to the museum. So, the education curator, who happened to be the professor who assigned the artifact lesson plan, asked me to put together a little storytelling program for the party. I asked if the stories I gathered and presented counted as artifacts, and she said, “Absolutely.”

I was the only student in that class who had to present their artifact lesson plan to a public audience.

My classmates couldn’t wrap their mind around the idea of stories as artifacts. But I wrapped each story in its context, with a bit here and there on the science of solstices, and the audience and professor loved it.

I’ve been thinking about that assignment a lot over the last few weeks while I’ve been working on my object for the Sherlock Holmes MOOC. We’ve picked an object to develop into a smart clue for a live, collaborative crime scene, but we’ve also been working on the object’s story and weaving that into a wider story with other students’ objects. It’s been this collaborative storytelling project, in a very odd way.

But it’s made me think about what I knew as a museum educator, what I know as an amateur cultural anthropologist: Artifacts tell a story about their time and place. Something doesn’t have to be old to be an artifact. The device you’re reading this on is technically an artifact. Scary, huh? What story does it tell? Is that scarier?

Oh, the random things you think about while working on storytelling projects.

Stage Week for the Interactive Media Designer

The first public playtest for the MOOC is this weekend, so this week has been a little crazy. The instructors are testing out the technology. The class participants are testing out the crime scene scripts and learning the app we’ll be working with during the playtest. It’s busy…and crazy…

And it totally reminds me of Stage Week. A really insane Stage Week.

I hadn’t thought about it until my team was setting up for what the instructors have called a “tech rehearsal” Thursday afternoon, but Stage Week and a late-stage playtest really kind of do have some things in common.

For example, nearly all of the ballet companies I danced with had classes at the studio, and then performed at a local theater they had an arrangement with. We would spend months practicing in the studio with markers for where things were known to actually be at the stage or with the understanding we were going to be in a larger space. But we wouldn’t actually get to practice on the stage itself until the week leading up to the performance, where things may or may not have transferred smoothly and changes happened on the fly in the middle of rehearsal.

Because we’re a distributed class, this MOOC kind of has that same vibe to it. We’ve been building crime scenes and clues for a month in whatever digital or physical space works for the team. We are playtesting our scripts this week through Periscope in spaces that may have absolutely nothing in common with the actual space where the game will take place. We’re running into problems, and our only chance at practicing this in the actual space will be watching players test everything out through Periscope.

No, I’m wrong. This is actually more nerve wracking than Stage Week, now that I think about it.

We’re also running into problems with the various tools that will be employed during the playtest, and still prepping as if those glitches will absolutely be worked out by the time the first playtest runs Saturday afternoon. We have some backup plans. Just in case. I feel like I should be more nervous, but I’ve been through too many Stage Weeks to be anything more than mildly curious to see how things work out.

Yet one more example about how skills and experience gained in one field can benefit you in another.

Friday Five: Pet Peeves Edition

This week’s Friday Five is going to be of a different nature. Instead of links, I’m going to address some of my pet peeves…mainly because they’ve all come up one time too many this week.

1. This one has actually come up one time too many over the last few months, but that may be because I’m starting to hang out around more writers who are either convinced they’re revolutionizing the writing world by serializing their stories, or who hate those who are jumping on this newfangled serialization bandwagon. (I’ve seen some polarized discussions in my time, but this one… Whoa.) Serial writing in not new. Not by a long shot. This shouldn’t seem like such a revelation, given the long-time existence of literary magazines, but apparently it is.

2. We live in a world where marketers are trying to make everything “go viral”. I guess they all missed the part where our society tends to react to viruses by trying to eradicate them with antibiotics and such. But this need to make sure everyone sees everything leads to people being exposed to the same ideas, the same news, the same everything. Many of us have our own mix of interests that we pursue, which helps us differentiate our own experiences and knowledge from others, but at the end of the day, being exposed to that much sameness can lead to an apparent hive mindset. Among writers, this can look like someone has stolen your work, when really they’ve just drawn similar inspirations from the same source material and produced their own take on it. And honestly, everything’s a remix anyway.

This is not to say there aren’t legitimate cases of plagiarism, but it’s not quite as rampant as some would have you believe. This is part of why I’m writing the Copyright Primer. The more you know, the better you can respond appropriately to things.

3. In that same vein of trying to produce same experiences, your way onto a path is not necessarily the One True Path. This is especially true in creative endeavors. And again, it comes back to that whole “we each have our own interests which leads to a differentiation in experience and knowledge” thing. And it’s good. It’s how we get a diversity of perspectives on a set of ideas, knowledge, and experiences. It’s fine to offer your origin story or advice based on your own experiences, but to behave as if your way is the only way says a lot about you as a person and as a creator.

4. Fairy tales were never meant to entertain children. In fact, they were never meant for young children. They developed as part of the oral tradition, providing education through warnings to older children preparing to face adulthood. So, the originals can be a bit…scary…and definitely inappropriate for your average seven year old. However, one of the signposts that a child is shifting into their next phase of development (known to educators and psychologists as their second sensitive period) is the child seeking out stories that scare them. Children in this phase are realizing that there’s a big world beyond their front yard, and they’re scared of what that might mean. So stories that show other people, especially kids closer to them in age, meeting something scary and moving past it brings them a bit of comfort as they level up.

There isn’t a fifth point this week, but I will offer this advice. Consume what you want in terms of entertainment. Create what makes you happy. Develop your own goals, and your own steps, and your own learning path. Consult everyone from beginners to masters, and then take what resonates with you and use that to strengthen your own path. Don’t worry about what someone else is doing unless you’re collaborating and trying to make sure your parts intersect well. And don’t worry too much about being “original” because it’s all been done before. Find your own voice, and don’t hurt others in the process.

See you next week!

Friday Five: Eclectic Writer Edition

As so many of us do at the end of the year, I spent time last month cleaning out various physical and digital spaces. You know how it goes when you clean out spaces you haven’t touched in a long while – you find all sorts of garbage and treasures long forgotten. I found a nice little pile of links I thought strung together nicely, both with each other and with my goal for fitting a steady writing practice into my voiceover schedule this year.

There are posts here for the undiscovered, the newly published, and the veteran, so enjoy!

1. John Scalzi, past SWFA president and friend to writers new and established, wrote this great article almost two years ago (a really long forgotten treasure!) explaining to new writers facing their first contract just how powerful their position is in negotiations. If you’re pursuing publication, you will want to sit down, read this, and mark it up.

2. Many writers have their own method for organizing their writing. Some prefer physical notebooks and binders; others digital notetaking apps. But I’m always interested in hearing how other writers organize their work because you can often pick up a trick or two you may not have thought of before. Wendy Van Camp’s Novel Reference Journal isn’t anything new to me. I do the same thing digitally on Evernote. But it’s a great, relatively simple method for keeping information organized and quickly accessible.

3. I like Sherlock Holmes. I like adaptations. I’m a feminist. And I’m currently re-reading the Sherlock Holmes stories in my free time (heh), trying to take a closer look at how Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are adapting the stories for Sherlock. One of the problems in the series, and in pretty much every modern attempt at retelling Sherlock Holmes, is that no one seems capable of presenting Irene Adler as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did. It almost always feels like you’re seeing, in fanfic terms, Irene Adler (OOC). (OOC means “out of character”.) I’m not the only one who’s noticed this…

4. You hear so often people thanking talent scouts, agents, or other people in similar positions for taking a chance on them. Athletes and creatives are especially bad about this. But here’s the deal: Those scouts, agents, and what-have-you are all businessmen. They aren’t “taking a chance”; they’re pursuing what they see as a reasonably secure business risk. It’s very calculated, and the article does a great job laying this out.

5. This week’s final link is a nod to my weakness for cool toys and games that enable storytelling. Rory’s Story Cubes is a set of dice, an image on each face. The goal is to roll them, and then tell a story that connects all of the images facing up. I can see this being a lot of fun with a group of friends or strangers, and I can see this as potentially being useful for breaking through writer’s block.

All right, so…another week down. If you’re enjoying these posts, feel free to let me know. If you find something useful in these links, let me know. If you just want to say hi, feel free.

Learning from Studying Tropes

If you’ve been writing for any period of time, you know that tropes are Bad. If you’re new to writing, you may have been told your work relies too much on tropes and you need to be more original. The problem with tropes is that they’re proven story mechanics, and as a result, they get used. A lot. Sometimes too much. As a result, writers are often encouraged to edit them completely out of a story. But occasionally, we’re encouraged to find a way to use them purposefully…and the purpose can’t be, “I couldn’t think of another way to do this.” Just so we’re all clear on that.

Finding a different way to use a trope is actually where I was headed last fall when I was working on my (still in progress) short story “Empowered”. I was, for the first time in my life, watching a lot of superhero movies in addition to my normal action movies, and I was trying to figure out why there are so few stories centered around girls (I know. I’m not the only one wondering this.) and why I’m so reluctant to watch those that do.

I thought about it, and I journaled about it, and what I finally realized was that what I most hated about these stories could be boiled down to a handful of questions. As I started to explore the questions and my feelings about them, I realized I was railing against the tropes so often utilized in these stories. Using my own questions and what I was learning about these tropes, I started shaping a story to both look at and challenge my own perception of those tropes. It’s such a deep experience that I’m still working on the story a year later, taking long breaks in between rounds to just process.

That’s the thing with tropes. They’re routine, expected. But they have the ability to get us thinking about what makes them so routine and expected, and in that find a way to make them into something interesting. We can use them to explore our own reactions to the trope, to explore how the trope came to be, maybe even to look at the historical contexts where the trope really seemed to gain ground (as many of these tropes date back to the days of oral tradition).

They also have the ability to help us get unstuck in our writing: Am I leaning on a trope? How am I using it? How could I change it or move away from it? Surfing TV Tropes (do not click unless you have the next few days free) is a great way to find a spark that you can then twist and weave into your story. (The real challenge is not twisting it into something else that already exists.) You can take two or more tropes and mash them together, looking for unusual ways to put them together. You can pick a trope (be sure to study it carefully) and write its opposite, or write in the space between the trope and its opposite trope. It doesn’t matter why you hit up tropes; they can be powerful prompts that gets you thinking.

If you’re between projects or just completely stuck and need to walk away, trope surfing can make for an excellent writing practice. Write the trope. Write a satire of the trope. Write an essay on how the trope appears through books, movies, and television shows you enjoy watching, on how other writers have utilized the trope. It’s a valuable learning experience.

Sci-Fi Predictions Vs. Current Rates of Development

Science fiction is the art of saying “What if?” and then exploring the potential answers to that question and their ramifications. As such, it’s always looking forward.

We joke about not having our car that packs itself into a briefcase or our hoverboards, but how quickly was the world progressing toward the time the story was set in compared to when the story was written? No, seriously. Think about this. When The Jetsons debuted in 1962, it wasn’t uncommon for families to have a car or two. And because these cars were so sufficiently advanced from the cars of forty years previous, it wasn’t that hard to make the leap and believe that in another hundred years cars could fly and become as compact as a briefcase. (We’ll guess that science classes weren’t teaching laws of conservation at the time.)

Sadly, skateboard tech has not enjoyed the car’s innovations, so those hoverboards might take another fifty years to get here, too.

Star Trek brought viewers ideas of a spaceship that explored space the way old sailing ships used to explore oceans. Projects Mercury and Gemini had already shown Americans that it was possible to go into space. The Apollo program was already working toward reaching the moon. The thought of being able to actually live in space, traveling from planet to planet, seemed possible. It just hadn’t happened yet. (Sadly, innovations haven’t moved as quickly in that direction as many of us would like them to.)

Star Trek not only offered us hope of what life could be off-world, it offered an array of technology that seemed fantastical fifty years ago. But today, we have personal communication devices (that went through a flip-style at one point) and portable access devices. We can hold video chats across long distances. And scientists are working on molecular copy machines. (No, I don’t share Bones’ cynicism about transporters. I just understand when a scientist says he can only make a facsimile of me rather than move me as I am that I’m not going to be myself after the first trip through the transporter.)

Even near future science fiction, regardless of how dystopian or utopian it may be, has proven to not be science fiction for long. The cyberpunk subgenre has painted a picture of a gritty near future where cyborgs and wearable tech are common. Prosthetics and other medical assist devices are incredibly powerful and adept compared to the ones available just ten years ago, and we all know about Google’s foray into watches and Glass. Not bad for being only seven years away from the game Cyberpunk 2020, right?

For better or worse, science fiction will always be pushing what we know or what we don’t realize we already know, bringing us developments that might bring us a better lifestyle.

 

The Complicated Nature of STEM Girls in Media

This was triggered by a handful of watchings of Thor. The first time through, I liked it because Jane Foster is an astrophysicist and that fact keeps coming up in the movie. For Thor: The Dark World (which I haven’t seen and don’t know when I’ll get around to fixing that), actress-scientist Natalie Portman teamed up with Marvel to create some sort of program to encourage girls to get involved and stay involved with STEM. It seemed like a great idea.

But a small problem became apparent on further viewings of Thor: Jane keeps saying, “I’m gong to go charging in,” only to be seated on the sidelines by Thor (and her research supervisor, I believe). Her social scientist gal pal Darcy sees more action than Jane does, effectively making Jane a super-intelligent damsel in distress.

It got me thinking about other STEM girls (often my favorite characters) in other science fiction media. For example, Firefly‘s Kaylee is a gifted mechanic, a natural talent capable of directing others to complete mechanical repairs she’s unable to because she’s just incapacitated enough to not be able (which happens with some regularity across the show’s brief run). But Badger’s men manage to get a hold of her pretty easily, and Jubel Early subdues her with nothing but verbal threats while she’s surrounded by tools that could easily do double duty as a bludgeoning tool. (I get that Mal’s cool with her not handling a gun if she doesn’t have to, but when her life and safety are being threatened? Doesn’t quite work.) Dr. Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation is similarly talented in her field, whipping up antidotes to the strangest alien contaminants. But when she gets kidnapped, she just sits and takes it. (Actually, she doesn’t. She starts applying her healing skills to her kidnapper’s people, provoking a conversation about Stockholm Syndrome among fans.)

Before you start thinking Star Trek dumbs down its women characters (or that all STEM women seem apathetic toward their physical well-being), Dr. Pulaski (whom I actually can’t stand) also whips up whatever medical miracles are needed. But when she’s infected by a bizarre virus that’s in the process of rapidly killing her by accelerating her aging process, she creates the antidote that saves herself and the other infected people in the area. More recently, Jemma Simmons from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a biologist talented enough to be drafted into a secret operation. But when she caught an alien bug that turned her into a ticking time bomb, she spent what she assumed would be her last hours developing the antidote that ultimately saved her life (even though she herself was not the one to administer it because she was busy taking an extreme action to keep herself from blowing up her teammates).

Joss Whedon is noted for writing strong female characters, which we’ve discounted with Kaylee and supported with Simmons.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Willow doesn’t necessarily sit and take it when something bad happens to her. She takes up arms or starts talking her way out. Willow actually has a different problem: She is shown repeatedly during her high school years engaging in some pretty decent-level hacking to help her friends out. But when the Scoobies get out of high school, Willow appears to leave her hacking hobby behind, preferring instead to employ magic even where a computer might make more sense.

And while we’re on the topic of girls who are heavily engaged in a STEM activity and then drop it quietly for no apparent reason, let’s add one more girl for the fire, because her own path has just been odd: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ April O’Neil. I’m going to leave out April the Reporter, simply because I didn’t care for the original series, and as a result don’t really know much about her. But April from the 2003-2010 series started off as a research assistant in a lab. Unfortunately, her boss is a complete whack job, and when the lab ceases to exist, April doesn’t go find another lab job. She opens an antiquities shop, the shop she has in the 2007 movie, where she’s clearly decided to embrace the Action Girl trope. She does return to her STEM roots, helping Donatello with various geeky projects from time to time and eventually leaving behind a technical corporation. The current CGI incarnation of April has so far tutored a fellow student in math, and sought out martial arts training so she can defend herself in the future.

I’m pretty sure if I had the time to fall down the TV Tropes rabbit hole, I would find that these are various shades of the same trope. It’s just fascinating to think about as we say we want more STEM women represented in our media. Jane Foster is considered a good representation, but she’s not a thoroughly strong character. What is it we’re really asking for?