OpenFiction [Blog]

Plot – Dramatic questions

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 14, 2005

What’s this?

Preface: So the reason for the “(( ))” in the copyright statement. Though I’m a big advocate of open educational resource sharing, I’m not ready to part with control over my novel. So in certain circumstances (such as the one below) I’m retaining rights.

One part of the course materials that students just never seemed to get was the concept of dramatic questions, which is perhaps my fault since its covered so quickly. I have an example from drafting the novel that will perhaps supplement the description in the courseware. A brief plot summary is needed to explain:

(( Protagonist Foster Conlin is a civil engineer brought in by court order to decide between two possible sites for a rebuilt dam on the Monongahela River. The Army Corps has chosen one site that will flood part of a river town, and some of the townspeople have sued to have the site selection independently assessed, ostensibly with the hope of getting the independent reviewer to order the dam rebuilt on the original site, which won’t flood the town. So one dramatic question is will Foster side with the Army Corps or the townspeople. While over time it becomes clear to Foster that the Corps’ site is the correct one, he falls in love with a woman, Annabel, whose house will be destroyed by the new dam, and so begins to subtly falsify his findings to save the house this new love lives in. ))

In the early drafts, Foster and Annabel come together too quickly, and so in this latest draft, I’ve been trying to draw out their courtship a little longer, and am adding scenes of them together. One scene I have planned has Annabel revealing to Foster that the leader of the citizen’s group doesn’t actually expect his review to find that the Corps chose the wrong site–that the lawsuit is really just a delaying tactic while they try to find other ways of stopping construction that will flood the town. This scene, in effect, answers the dramatic question of who will Foster side with, as it reveals that everyone involved actually expects the same result.

I was considering moving this scene up as one of the scenes extending the courtship, because it would help him to see she is taking him into her confidence and providing him information that will help him with the politics of the situation. Ultimately I’ve decided to hold onto this scene until deeper into the novel because it is too early to answer the dramatic question posed by the lawsuit. During the courtship phase of his relationship with Annabel, Foster has yet to begin falsifying data in his report. I realized he needs the double incentive of thinking he is siding with the townspeople (where his sympathies lie) and saving Annabel’s house to get him to begin falsifying data. Only after he’s begun doing this should I reveal that the townspeople aren’t expecting him to side with them. Once he’s made the decision to side with the townspeople by faking the report, then tension from the lawsuit drops (because he reveals who he will side with). Only after he’s started down this path should I reveal that one of his motivations was a misreading of the situation, which will raise a new dramatic question of whether he will continue down the path nonetheless.


The political power of narrative

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 13, 2005

I have to confess a weakness for current affairs books on intelligence and military affairs. As a writer, I suppose I should spend my time reading the great masters, and I do when I have the energy, but I find it hard to resist books that document over and over again the resilience and bravery of rank-and-file military and intelligence personnel in the face of catastrophic political decision-making. I supposed 9/11 has made me more attuned to these issues as well.

Anyway, in the train station yesterday, I picked up The Secret History of the Iraq War by Yossef Bodansky. Overall, so far, I’d like to see more facts supporting many of his assertions–the book is not nearly as well documented as Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars–but I was really fascinated that the beginning of the book is devoted to exploring the clashing narratives at work in the Iraqi conflict. On the one side is the one familiar to us, as the Bush administration would have it told: the fight to spread democracy and respect for human rights against the spread of theocratic and jihadist Islam (and the narrative–not often referred to overtly–of the personal conflict between Saddam and the Bush family).

On the other side, Bodansky explains how both Saddam and Bin Laden have paralleled the US invasion of Iraq with the sacking of Baghdad by Hulagu Kahn in 1258. While Baghdad was destroyed, as Bodansky relates the narrative, the invasion ultimately lead to a resurgence of Islam as the invaders were worn down by a guerilla war and ultimately converted to Islam (though I haven’t found another source describing this resurgence).

The book places great importance on the clash of these narratives though, and the misunderstanding in the West of the Islamic narrative at work. I’m always looking for examples of the intersection of narrative and personal or inter/national politics, though, and this certainly shows how, in a somewhat heavy-handed way, narrative is used to political ends.

An interesting meeting…

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 12, 2005

…over at the Berkman Center, where they demoed the beta of their H2O Playlist software, which supports the creation of reading lists that might be associated with courses or, say, tOFP. The lists are then cross-indexed with other lists on the system, so that you can search all playlists by keywords, titles, etc. and see what texts are used by people teaching similar things. It reminds me of University of Tokyo OCW’s MIMA search in many ways. Tools such as these will be an important glue to bind together open educational resources and to resolve the issue of relevance—i.e. as the volume of open educational content increases, educators and learners will need tools to help locate the most relevant materials. H2O Playlist will officially launch this fall, and if available to non-institutional endeavors, with be the reading list tool of choice for tOFP.

Writing exercises

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 12, 2005

An obvious difficulty with the OpenFiction project courseware is that most of the writing exercises suggested in the discussion units are in Anne Bernays’ and Pam Painter’s What If? Use of the courseware is limited if you don’t have access to the book, and copyright doesn’t allow for reproduction of the exercises in the course materials. I suppose I could ask Pam for such permission, but I don’t see it as being in her best interest, as that would likely reduce the market for her book. This is one of the biggest limitations for sharing open educational content–that most of it depends on or refers to materials that are not openly sharable.

This may seem like a minor limitation for tOFP, as it’s easy enough to go to Amazon and buy a copy of What If?, but it’s surprisingly difficult to do this kind of thing in some parts of the world. In evaluating MIT OCW, we’ve come across users who couldn’t order books because even modest prices for used books on Amazon were too much, credit cards weren’t used at all in some regions, and one user who had to have book hand-carried from the states because customs in her country would destroy anything mailed in country. I don’t pretend that tOFP will have the kind of international interest or use that MIT OCW has, but there are probably going to be circumstances where the access to What If? will limit some users.

That being said, I’ve found writing exercises to be an incredibly useful tool both as a writing student and instructor. As a student, they are a really low-stakes environment, an opportunity to practice a particular skill without the pressure of completing a whole story. In teaching the distance learning class, they were remarkably helpful in that they gave me the chance to respond very specifically to writing skills that I could not address in reviewing whole stories. My inclination with tOFP courseware then is to add more writing exercises, rather than to eliminate the ones already referenced.

My plan then is to slowly over time add my own exercises to the courseware at each point where an assignment references What If?; I won’t eliminate the references, but I will supplement them with non-restricted exercises. Should tOFP attract a group of users down the road, I’d also welcome suggestions and contributions of writing exercises to add to the materials. I hope that this will be a direction that many educators openly sharing materials will head, gradually weaning their materials of dependence on copyrighted materials. Not elimination of their use, as they have an important role, but movement to their use as supplementary rather than primary.

Judith Miller and Civil Disobedience

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 11, 2005

Recently, I’ve begun looking for good non-music content from my iPod. I’ve found at least to date there aren’t a lot of decent podcasts just yet, though it looks like NPR is getting their act together on this front soon. Audio books have seemed to be the best bet so far, though I am loath to pay much at all for them. The good new here is that there are quite a number of free or very cheap recordings of public domain works. On Friday, I downloaded Leaves of Grass and Civil Disobedience from the Telltale Weekly site.

Civil Disobedience seemed an appropriate listen in the wake of Judith Miller’s recent jailing, and we all owe her a debt of gratitude for her bravery in accepting this incarceration to protect the ability of the press to expose corrupt and illegal behavior by officials in government, business and NGO’s via confidential sources. In an era when so much harm can come from the actions of these powerful individuals, it is vital we protect the ability of people of conscience to act as whistleblowers through the press. Whatever imperfections arise in the use of unnamed sources, and however heinous it is that Valerie Plame’s CIA role was revealed, the basic pact that a person can speak to the press in confidence and have that confidence defended is essential.

Thoreau describes the importance of such people of conscience, which I had expected. What surprised me in the essay (which I had sadly never read) were the echoes between the Mexican War and the Iraq war. In the following, see how easy it is to replace “Mexican” with “Iraq,” in word and concept:

“The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.”

“…when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, when…a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is that fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”

Civil Disobedience

Rebellion is maybe a bit hyperbolic, but Thoreau reminds that–through our actions or inactions–we are party to this war, and we should be so as conscious choice, and a choice of conscience.

Drafting – Bad habits

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 7, 2005

What’s this?

When I haven’t been writing for a while, it’s painfully clear to me that I get “out of shape” in my writing skills. This usually expresses itself in poor description, a clear sign of which (for the first-person perspective of the novel anyway) is the bad habit of using “I looked at…” or “I watched…” rather than going straight into the description itself. The novel is deeply enough in the point-of-view of the main character that “I looked” is always implicit.

One advantage of the “double drafting” technique I’ve described before is that I don’t beat myself up too much on the first pass through a draft about these things, because I know I can get them on the second pass. It helps me to get over the feeling that all my writing is crap when I’m getting going again.

The granularity paradox

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 6, 2005

An observation about a technical aspect of sharing digital materials: A lot of the excitement around the sharing of digital materials in the past five years or so has revolved around the concept of the “learning object,” ideally a plug-and-play digital object that supports one or more learning objectives. The idea is that you can combine these objects together like stacking legos to create infinitely customizable learning experiences, based on learner need. Two key challenges in designing learning objects have been deciding on the right size and figuring out how learning object can be found.

Prior to joining MIT OCW, in the period of time I was creating the distance learning course that became tOFP, I got very interested in the issues of the right size (commonly called “granularity”) and the main way that people are trying to make learning objects searchable (adding information, called “metadata,” to an associated file that provides details about the object’s content). I had in fact created a database to be used for storing and organizing metadata. When I joined OCW, I thought that the project wasn’t doing enough to make the materials reusable or to “tag” them with metadata, but over time, I’ve come to see that the OCW approach has significant advantages over the learning object model in resolving what I describe as the “granularity paradox.”

OCW materials, as opposed to traditional learning objects, are larger (so bigger granularity) and less thoroughly tagged with metadata. By the LO model, this would suggest that they are less searchable and less repurposable than the standard learning object. The searchablilty issue would seem to be exacerbated by the poor search engine on MIT OCW. Yet, MIT OCW receives relatively few complaints about searchability of materials. So why is searchability not a big issue? It turns out that a large body of high granularity objects organized as classes are in and of themselves the metadata that guides users to materials of interest. With more granular objects, more metadata is required to allow users to access them. So the paradox, clearly stated, is “The smaller the granularity (which would seem to make objects more repurposable), the more metadata tagging is required.” This seems to be an almost exponential inverse–the smaller the objects get, the larger the body of metadata needed to make them locatable.

I’ve also observed that the more formatting applied to materials, the narrower the audience that can use the material. The formatting presupposes the end use and end users of the materials. No one format can account for a wide range of cultural and academic variations in localized learning environments around the world. Highly preformatted materials then become useful for a smaller and smaller slice of the global audience, the corollary “formatting paradox” that resolves the “granularity paradox.” Smaller, more highly formatted materials may not be more repurposable after all. Plug and play may not be the best model.

So on one end of the spectrum you have highly formatted learning objects which require large amounts of effort to format and tag–and hence fewer can be prepared–which can be used by a relatively smaller audience; on the other end, OCW materials which publish less formatted materials in greater volume, which require more effort for users, but allow better adaptation to local conditions, and are thus available to a wider audience.

Description – Representing Appalachia

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 5, 2005

What’s this?

So, the aforementioned self-critique. There’s really not a lot overtly political in my novel, but it does involve issues of oppositional voice that can both better explain what I mean by the term and also illustrate the dangers that it can present for fiction writers. In other posts, I used the term in a more narrow political sense, as in “the voice of those who oppose the ruling power,” but I think of the term in a broader Freireian sense–those who are social and culturally (as well as politically) disempowered. To dip back into the world of the Internet for a moment, you could then say those who lack access to the Internet–or lack sufficient training –are, in the cyber world, oppositional voices, regardless of their political persuasions. They’ve been rendered mute by social circumstance, and so any definition of the unwired that occurs in the wired world is done from outside this group. The “digital divide” is largely defined by those on the wired side of the gulf.

Appalachia, where my novel is set, is a region rendered mute by historical circumstance. The region has historically had very little opportunity to define itself to the rest of the country and to the world, because for it to do so would have exposed the conditions of poverty that were largely caused by industrial interests from outside the region. Maybe a bit of an oversimplification (and perhaps a romaticization), but prior to the development of big coal, iron, and timber, much of the Appalachian economy was based on small subsistence farms and barter economies. There wasn’t enormous wealth as we’d describe it, but take Sen’s formulation of development, and a strong argument could be made that the region was much more “developed” then, with more freedoms available to the population. The coal industry changed this, moving the local population into a cash economy that was designed to keep them dependent on the company store and leave them in poverty, beginning the cycles of poverty and dependency endemic in the region today.

Geography also plays a role. Because West Virginia is the only state entirely within the mountain region, it is the only state where the voices of the mountain people are the dominant ones. In states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Maryland, the dominant political voices are those from the wealthier lowland areas. And the unfortunate choice of West Virginia’s state name has even acted to erase it from national consciousness. It’s a well known joke among West Virginia residents who’ve moved to other regions that you tell someone that’s where you are from and they’ll say, “Oh yeah, I have a cousin in Roanoke.”

Even now, most people I know in the northeast know little of Appalachia beyond the Hatfields and McCoys, or the Beverly Hillbillies. Every once in a while, a major film will be set in the region, like October Sky that does a decent job of presenting Appalachia, but still represents the stereotypical industrial poverty. And having gone through the Hollywood machine, they almost always present the least common denominator understanding of the region. Few, if any, books from the region make it to national bestseller lists–Jayne Anne Phillips comes to mind.

Because representations of the region are so heavily produced from outside the region, it becomes difficult political terrain for me in writing the book. I lived in West Virginia for fifteen years, and many of the places and people I describe in the book are based on my experiences recast for the needs of the book. But having grown up in Ohio as well, and having lived in Morgantown, WV, which is in many ways an atypical Appalachian town, I can’t really claim to be of the region, and so setting my novel there positions me to be part of the problem of external representation, of repressing the authentic voices of the region. I’ll come back later to ways I’ve sought to address this in the book.

We interrupt this broadcast…

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 4, 2005

…for a little self-indulgant naval-gazing (even more so than the rest of the blog). Really something nobody but perhaps my younger brother would care about, but I recently discovered the pen to end all pens. For a long time, I used Parker Vector rollerballs for my writing. They’re great pens, about $5 a piece and $3 per refill. They are weighty and solid for a plastic pen and the rollerball is smooth and quick. Staples and the like stopped carrying the Vector about two years ago, and I thought perhaps they had stopped making them altogehter. I switched to Pilot ExecuGels, which are almost as good, except the rollerball was slower, the cartridges don’t last as long, and the barrel had the annoying habit of cracking when the pen was tightened too far. Predictably, office supply stores stopped carrying the pen shortly after I made the switch. When the stores did, I looked on the web to see if I could find them elsewhere (I couldn’t), but didn’t think to go back and look for Vectors.

With my stock of ExecuGels diminshing, I told my wife I wanted decent pens for father’s day, and began an hour-long search on the web through overpriced pens of no interest to me, until I discovered my own personal writing instrument holy grail: turns out that Parker makes a stainless steel version of the vector. I was only able to order them through a supplier in India (who doesn’t use SSL, so it was like tossing my credit card number into the wind), and they were about $15 a pop, which means I have to work hard not to lose them. But they should be nearly indistructable otherwise. With OCW’s connections in India, too, I think I can find them for closer to $5 each. Having the right pen is a small thing, but makes a big difference in the actual writing, and there are surprizingly few decent pens at any price out there. So a big thanks to the family for a father’s day present I’ll appreciate for a long time.

Oppositional speech in the democratic Internet

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 1, 2005

To complete yesterday’s thought, totalitarian-style control of Internet is not the only flavor out there. The recent supreme court decision puts p2p technologies such as Grokster at risk. Not to argue that illegal copying of music is defensible, but if p2p technologies are restricted on this basis alone, then significant opportunities for this technology to support democratic modes of communication and open sharing may be lost. If the only model for content distribution available on the net becomes big central servers, 1) it will be easier to control (and thus censor) content, and 2) the barrier to entry for large-scale distribution is raised, thus making more difficult the distribution of non-profit materials such as open educational content. One reason (not the only) that MIT OCW doesn’t include more streaming media is the distribution cost, but imagine if we could record all lectures in mp3 format and tag them for easy access via Grokster. The point is markets and powerful media lobbies can (intentionally or as a side effect of protecting markets) work as effectively to curtail oppositional speech as totalitarian governments.