Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lesser-Known Books

Christopher Paolini once gave excellent advice to those seeking less famous readings: ask published authors directly, or browse used bookstores. Both are good ideas, and I have benefited from both--but especially used bookstores.

Plenty of those abound where I live, and I've befriended at least one cashier. At this store, I have found past installments of Year's Best SF, Penguin Classics editions of The Lair of the White Worm and The Jewel of Seven Stars, The Glass Dragon by Irene Radford, several Rachel Neumeier novels, poetry collections by Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson, The Mummy by Anne Rice, Secret Windows (a rare nonfiction volume by Stephen King), The Stonor Eagles by William Horwood, Sorcery Rising by Jude Fisher, and The Dragon Queen by Alice Borchardt.

Of course, author recommendations don't hurt. These include The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison and The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, among others.

So don't just stop at what you know--go and explore! You never know what's waiting.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Image: The Rose

Painting a Rose and Other Matters

Earlier this morning, I did what I had resolved to do several days hence: I painted a rose. Using acrylic paints - green and red, with a splash of blue for the petals' shading - I did so in a remarkably brief amount of time.

It was far from perfect. Having said that, it was a step forward for me. Lately I've been trying to achieve more. One can get so stuck in planning things out that one neglects to actually put ideas into practice; I try not to fall into such ruts, but doing very little is startlingly easy. Indeed, I have many passions and interests across the arts and sciences, and so it often requires little effort to leave out something. An average day for me ought to include reading, writing, blogging, drawing, painting, exercise, piano practice, guitar practice, and some coding. It's more difficult than it sounds, jamming all of that into every single day.

Perhaps I need to simplify my days by cutting out a few of those activities, or maybe I just need to become accustomed to them. I suspect both will help.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


Greetings, friends! As of yesterday, I am now done with my spring semester at school. Many who know me ask, "What will you do this summer, Danny?" Well, I have plans to travel a bit--this weekend I'm going to the mountains of North Carolina, and I intend to go to New York City and Toronto with a friend in mid-July, plus a hopeful trip to Florida to visit some old friends at some point before this autumn.

I also intend to resume either music or art lessons, as well as something physical--maybe sword-fighting or ninjutsu, or fencing or archery. A friend recently invited me to take circus acrobatics lessons with them, so that's certainly something to consider. As for guitar, piano, painting, and drawing: I can practice on my own, but lessons may not hurt, if I can afford them.

Believe it or not, I'm even beginning to consider singing once more. It might help my speaking voice, if anything.... I eventually want to be able to sing and play a few basic instruments (piano, guitar, violin) as well as some less "mainstream" ones (bagpipe, mandolin, taiko, erhu). I don't need to be perfect at all of them, but I do enjoy variety. The 'pipes might prove difficult, not only due to being a tough one to play, but due to potential complaints from family or neighbors--those things are loud!

As for painting, I recently painted a flower in a field with oil paints and acrylics (the moral is, don't mix the two if you want an easy task!), and an acrylic dragon head (pictured above), based on a  pair of identical bookends I own. Having bought several more canvases of varying sizes, I fully intend to paint more.

The other great thing? I have more time to read and write (and blog) now! I have several novels and screenplays plotted out or in the works, a bit of which I've actually written in some cases, and a heavy reading list. My own writing is mostly epic fantasy - my first love - but I've also got urban fantasy, science fiction (mainly inter-dimensional stuff and one dealing with neuroscience and cognitive psychology), supernatural horror, and even a few realistic pieces--both dramatic and comedic. Summer will be a good time to write more.

For those interested, my reading list includes the following:
  • Elantris, Warbreaker, The Way of Kings, and Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear, and The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss
  • The Wish, Fairest, and A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine
  • Inkspell, Inkdeath, and Reckless by Cornelia Funke
  • How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker
  • Cosmos by Carl Sagan
  • Hyperspace and Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  • Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • The Holy Bible (King James Version)
  • The Qur'an (modern English translation)
  • Druid Power by Amber Wolfe
  • It and The Shining by Stephen King
  • Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
  • ...and more!
I may or may not finish all of those, and it's subject to change, but I'm excited to have more time now!

Additionally, I'm going to see if I can access any horse farms, local or otherwise, within the next few months. I haven't ridden in a couple of years.

One can only hope that all this distracts me from the blazing Southern sun.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Root Differences

When I was in high school, I noticed a curious pattern: one plus three equals four, plus five equals nine, plus seven equals sixteen, and so on. Each whole square was a certain number greater than the next, and the difference between the squares would increase by two every time. When I mentioned this to a math teacher, she either did not see it that way or misunderstood my phrasing, for she dismissed it as simple coincidence, not a natural law. After class, however, I was not convinced. Stubbornness is both a vice and a virtue of mine, and I continued to puzzle over how a series of odd numbers, increasing by two each time, connected to the succession of perfect squares.
Eventually, I drew the pattern out on scrap paper and saw something interesting: each square on a grid increases by the addition of new units to a side; being two-dimensional, they increase by two new units each time--one for each dimension.
We came up with an equation that represented the pattern. Since we want to look at the difference between squares (how much you add to get the next whole square), we added 1 to r, which stands for the square root. There’s the 2 pattern!

(r+1)2 = r2+2r+1

But I was still not fully satisfied. Something felt missing. I reasoned that if one could calculate differences between squares, surely a similar pattern might hold true in three dimensions--that is, whole cubes. The formula would be more difficult to visualize, but fortunately, my friend Ray owned a bowl of small cubes which we used to crack this puzzle. Three new squares would need to be added with each successive layer, and by holding cubes together, we discovered that the edges between sides would also need to be accounted for.
[insert “cube edges” visual]
We determined that the formula is:

(r+1)3 = r3+3r2+2r+1

Applied fascination, when shared with other curious thinkers, spurs the creation of wonders.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Why We Love Dragons

Among various fantasy-geek communities, dragons seem a prevalent source of admiration.
Of course, dragons are awesome.

But why? What has kept them from turning out as, say, vampires did?

I cannot speak for everyone, but I feel that they possess a combination of remarkable traits:

  • They often embody elements (usually fire), and the four Classical elements continue to play a role in both fantasy and reality. Some dragons also spit venom or work magic.
  • They combine several animalistic features that fascinate humans: flight, scales, horns, a spaded tail, barbels, feathers, fur... (Not all dragons possess all of these aspects, obviously. I am aware of wyverns, drakes, wyrms, knuckers, etc.)
  • They are at once distant and nearly human. Whether they have humanlike greed and malevolence (like Smaug) or empathize with human emotions (like Saphira), I find that anything so physically different from us that still thinks like us is something our minds find intriguing.
  • They represent flight--literally as well as of the human imagination. Discounting planes and the like, humans cannot fly, and we love to imagine the "what if...?" scenarios of being able to do so.
I'm sure I missed several things, and some fascinations are simply difficult to justify, but these are my two cents at the moment.

Of course, dragons are hugely diverse in literature, cinema, and folklore, as I mentioned, but they will likely always hold a special place in my heart. Perhaps a plug of Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Ash "LeopardDancer" DeKirk's book, Dragonlore, is in order here. It contains a wealth of information about mythological dragons, from Pa snakes to the Stoorworm to Chinese Lung dragons to the Tarasque, and beyond.

May the stars watch over all of you!

Major Waffling

Ever since my later high school days, I've been indecisive about my career path. Ideally, I'd major in English and minor in Creative Writing. However, I also feel that I ought to take advantage of the presented opportunities to learn new things and secure a career.
I feel that a job in STEM would enable me to further forge paths of research (not to mention pay off loans more quickly), but I feel that the liberal-arts half of my brain would lend me a more rounded education. And besides, don't the sciences require just as much creativity as the arts? Without radical, outside-the-box thinkers, we'd have neither Apple nor Microsoft. Conversely, many successful science-fiction writers had a firm grip on real science. Combining vastly different elements in unique ways is no guarantee of success, but it certainly doesn't seem to harm one's chances or mindset.
I currently intend to double-major in English Literature and Computer Science, with possible minors in any combination of two or three of the following: Classics, Physics, Mathematics, Art, or a foreign language. Eventually, I'd like to write full-time, but I wouldn't mind a job in the software business while my written endeavors take off. I could even blog about technology in addition to writing fiction and screenplays (and occasionally, poetry).
We need to stop pigeonholing careers and educational paths. Often, a fresh perspective is just what the world needs.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mathematics: The Language of the Universe

"Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe. - Galileo Galilei

Throughout childhood and adolescence, I often questioned why math was important or relevant. Questioning everything is admirable, but I often stopped before arriving at satisfactory answers. After a time, I began to see math as interesting but often irrelevant to daily life, as did many peers.

I did not realize then that mathematical and philosophical logic are deeply intertwined, that math can be both exhilarating and cathartic, or that the cognitive growth acquired by constantly solving more difficult problems than before can be applied to myriad fields, from medicine to business to theatre to national security. Even when one is not actively calculating numbers, the combination of rigorous logic and unrestrained creativity is a powerful cure to boredom and blockage.

Math is also, in a way, flawless: humans make mistakes, and computing systems may glitch from time to time, but pure, intangible numbers and patterns click perfectly--whether or not we are aware.

Students in a classroom may stare out at a lovely autumn afternoon and wish they were outside, away from pedagogical lectures, but math is everywhere. It is the blueprint for physics, after all.

One of my more mathematically-oriented friends suggested that STEM become STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics), as creativity is a crucial element in the sciences.

So instead of convincing children (particularly girls) that math is difficult tedium, adults need to alter our own mindsets to positively influence the new generation.

Math is beautiful. Math is natural.

Math is fun.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Thoughts on Ambitious First Projects

(Disclaimer: I am not an expert, and these are only my musings and predictions.)

Many budding writers - myself included - are often told to "start small," usually meaning to first sell short stories or poems before progressing to things like screenplays or novels. The latter is often recommended to be restricted to stand-alone novels or films, emphasizing also that said first novel or script should not be too long. (Mostly novels, as screenplays are required to stop at 128 pages.)

But I wonder if that is not always the case. David Farland once suggested to write what one wants to write, be it serial or singular, depending on the individual tales' needs. (Tom Doherty said something similar when he appeared on Writing Excuses.)

For instance, I have several stand-alones and quite a few series mapped out--some being trilogies, others consuming every number between four and seven volumes, and one whopping nine-volume cycle. (The "trilogy of trilogies," as I'm calling it for now, has a more or less definite story arc for each volume, but I won't spoil it here!)

Am I using sequel bait? I'd like to think not, although that isn't always a terrible thing, either. Many of these wrap up one story arc but either open another or are nested within a larger conflict.

My very good friend and mentor recently helped me form the skeleton of a middle-grade comedic fantasy novel (now forming sinews and muscles, in case you wondered). This project holds its own story, but I can see it becoming a trilogy or tetralogy; it's sequel-flexible, like Cornelia Funke's Inkheart or the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It can stand on its own, but if I feel that an extension can comfortably be added, I won't hesitate. And no, I'm not in it for the money; gods know that I don't make any from writing nowadays.

The other issue is large books. Something like The Stand or War and Peace or Les Misérables or The Count of Monte Cristo. Much like series, starting out by publishing giant novels is said to be difficult. I'm still trying to figure out how to expand my own "novels" (which are way too fast-paced) to a proper scope, but I think the same principle applies of not compromising too much at the expense of one's work. Cuts are necessary, obviously, but one must hew close enough but not too close to separate content from fluff.

The great thing about large novels, in my opinion, is that they can inspire multiple films or even a television series, like many modern YA adaptations or Game of Thrones. One of my current stories is one long novel and three screenplays to capture the entire plot (yes, I adapt my own work).

Of course, this advice may not be fit for all; this is mainly how I view it for my own literary career.

PS. - I'm trying to blog more now. Humblest of apologies for my insanely long and unintentional hiatus.

Backward Plotting

One thing I've struggled to achieve when writing novels and screenplays is what Alexandra Sokoloff calls "plants and payoffs." These are defined as subtly "planting" a plot device early on in the story before using it later to serve some larger goal. J. K. Rowling and Steven Spielberg are both excellent at plants and payoffs.

But how does one contrive such things?

Since my uncle studied Dramatic Writing at NYU, I asked him. He suggested that I try plotting stories from the ending to the opening--in other words, plotting backward. It sounded like a great idea, and it was. I now have a full novel in the works thanks to my uncle's little hack. One thing I'll add is that I actually began with the climax, worked to the closing scene, reread my intended climax to refresh my memory, and worked all the way to the beginning. As of a few weeks back, I'm further than I've ever gotten in crafting a long-form story. I started to write it, but I still need to work on my characters and settings. (Perhaps I'll spill some character-development tricks in future posts, but that's a weak point for me at the moment.)

Historically, I have also struggled with length. I've written (finished) three would-be novels, none of which reached even ten thousand words. Perhaps I tend to rush, but I clearly have an issue with expansion. Character development, more scenes not filled with action, and more complicated plots and subplots will surely help, but the figurative pachyderm might be led out of the chamber if I plot backward and allow myself to "inject" more material between scenes or chapters.

This brought to light another idea: what if I were not only to plot backward, but to actually write the latter scenes early on and piece them together when I finish? This is indeed intriguing, but I have yet to try it out. If it does work, I doubt the pieces will fit together seamlessly at first, but I can always edit.