Head Hopping

I didn’t really get into writing to follow rules. No matter what anyone tells you, there’s only one rule worth following and that’s don’t confuse your reader. Everything else is just icing, but if the reader can’t follow your story that book you spent so much time on is either going into the circular file or sent off in a cloud of zeroes and ones.

If you spend a little time digging you’ll quickly find out head hopping is a matter of great contention. Much like the Oxford comma and using certain fonts, some people get all frothy about the mouth when someone talks about head hopping.

Those people have far too much time on their hands.

So, what the heck is this whole head hopping thing and why am I researching it? As things would turn out, I’m working on the last Saxton story and was doing a bit of bouncing around in the first chapter. I’d heard of head hopping, but wanted to get a better definition and see what other people thought of it. If it’s one of those things that tends to confuse readers, then it’s a real no-no, but there’s not a huge amount of consensus about whether or not it’s strictly verboten or just one of those things you shouldn’t do, but everyone does anyway. Is head hopping analogous to getting drunk and dancing naked on a table at a four star restaurant or is more like picking your nose in public?

After reading a bunch of blogs on the subject, I’ve come to the conclusion that no one really knows for certain, but everyone seems to have a serious gut reaction to head hopping. In fact, head hopping is one of those things that, handled slightly differently, becomes third person omniscient, which everyone seems to agree is quite okay.

Head hopping, by definition, is swapping between two or more characters’ point of view without a distinct break and using the character’s own voice as the means of communication. Third person omniscient is swapping between two or more characters’ point of view without a distinct break, but maintaining the narrator’s voice as the means of communication. For instance:

Yee-haw, he thought, these cowpokes surely did know how to treat a lady right. She felt the affections of the lads at the cowboy dance were, while unwarranted, at least interesting.

vs.

The cowboy thought Yee-haw as he always did when he thought about women. It was just a way he had of exploring the world and his place in it in relation to the fairer sex. For her part, she felt the cowboys and their affections were a fascinating distraction from the ennui of day to day life.

There’s this thing called deep POV, where a writer delves into the psyche of a single character at a time and tells the story through that person’s eyes and voice. Head hopping is basically the process of implementing deep POV, but not limiting oneself to a single character at a time. Done right, deep POV can really draw a reader into a story by placing him or her straight into the character. This is similar to the way first person POV works, but with he/she said instead of I said. Done poorly, deep POV runs the risk of feeling stale.

Head hopping can cause issues for readers because it draws a reader into a particular place and then yells, “Ha! Your’re not really there, you’re here. And also, you’re not who you think you are! You’re not you, you’re actually Josef Stalin!”

If you’re deep into a character’s head and suddenly you’re in some other character’s head, the result is going to feel like hitting a fire road in Ferrari. And there you go, you just violated the cardinal rule and confused your reader. Your hard work was flung across the room or reduced to random bits on someone’s tablet.

Poof. Gone.

Does that mean you absolutely cannot head hop? Well, that depends on how you do it. It’s one of those things that can be done well, but swapping in bad p;laces – like in a paragraph – can be catastrophic. In the final analysis, it’s probably best to avoid head hopping, but if you’re gonna go ahead and do it, at least break paragraphs before you do it.

Of course, that’s just my opinion and, as I’ve already established, I don’t exactly truck with most of the rules of writing. Except that one important rule of not confusing the reader. Make your reader paranoid, terrified, hysterical. Make him or her laugh or cry or want to strangle a manatee in the nude. But make sure you don’t confuse them.

All this, of course, begs the question of why I would suddenly take interest in this. The Henchmen series is firmly in first person POV. The Saxton series has been largely third person deep POV. But, as I was working on the first chapter of the last Saxton story, I found it was helpful to bounce back and forth between a couple characters to compare and contrast the event and do a little bit of foreshadowing.

That lead me to wonder if I was head hopping or doing a bit of third person omniscient. I’m fairly certain whatever I’m doing is (or will, once it’s all edited) working. Still, I’d like a second or third or nth opinion on it. So here you go, the first chapter of the last Saxton book in all its raw and unedited glory. Drop a note in the comments and tell me if I’m way off base.

/********************************************************/

The woman screams. Her limbs strain against the metal bands that keep her secured to the cold metal table. Metamorphosis takes her body and twists it into sickening shapes. Her limbs grow longer and stouter, replacing her slim arms and legs with bulging muscle and thick bone.

She raises her head and gazes down at her naked body with terror in her eyes. As her muscles expand she remembers summers in Las Cruces and wonders where she went wrong. Her past dissipates like so much blue-gray smoke as pain wracks her body again. In her mind, someone is tearing her limbs off just like she used to tear the legs off grasshoppers before tossing them in ant hills.

The metal table is far from the nearest ant hill, but the withdrawal makes it feel like ants are crawling through her insides. She actually welcomes the pain of her body changing because it means she doesn’t have to focus on the incessant need.

“You were correct, Colonel,” a man in a white lab coat says as he stares in wonder at the transformation. “She is strong. I would not have believed a woman could be this strong.”

Lieutenant Colonel Jannik Schäfer nods and frowns. “You must toss that old thinking aside, doctor. Women will be necessary in the New Order. We must rectify the mistakes of the past and one of those mistakes is relegating fifty-one percent of the populace to the dust bin.”

“Yes, Colonel,” the doctor says, hanging his head in shame.

The woman is barely recognizable as a human anymore. Her body has tripled in size, sucking resources from the tubes plugged into her veins to turn into muscle and bone. She has taken on a simian look, like a pale, hairless ape with a woman’s head on top of its massive shoulders.

“The face and head are the last, correct?” Jannik asks.

“Yes sir. The process works from the bottom up. We’re not completely certain why, but all the subjects have transformed from the feet upwards. We suspect it’s something encoded in the new DNA that says the body must have a solid foundation.”

Jannik nods, but otherwise doesn’t speak.

“This new strain of alien DNA is more robust than the previous strain,” the doctor says. He has the look of a kid on Christmas who’s just opened the best toy in the world and can’t resist talking about it.

“The old strain was decades old. I’m amazed it worked at all, Doctor Hess. You are truly a wizard. The Brotherhood is lucky to have you.”

Doctor John Hess blushes. He’s not used to dealing with bigwigs. Frankly, people baffle him. How can he explain the majesty of his work to someone who has never seen the things he’s seen? “Thank you, Colonel.”

Doctor Hess pauses, unsure if he should continue. “If I may be so bold, Colonel…,” he starts.

“Go ahead, Hess,” Jannik replies, never taking his eyes off the woman on the table.

Her face is changing. It hurts so much she can’t even scream anymore as the bones grow into a muzzle and the muscles tear and pop. The gnawing hunger is still inside of her and she buries herself in the pain. This isn’t the first time she’s wished for the eternal slumber of death. A painless end to a short lifetime of mistakes would be proof there is a loving God.

But the pain continues and the gnawing need continues to nip at the edges of her mind like rats burrowing into the raw flesh of a severed limb. Again, she screams. Again it does nothing.

“Are the rumors true, sir?” Hess asks. “Did the original DNA samples come from Dulce?”

Jannik snorts. “Somewhat. The samples came from one of our first labs. A deep, dark hole under Albuquerque. Early Operation Paperclip scientists were brought in to study the artifact. They drew the first bits of DNA. The new strain comes from a ship we stole from the government that was shot down late last year.”

“What about the, uh, other genetic code?” Hess asks.

Jannik straightens his black jacket and sighs. “Almost the same place. Have you had any luck with it?”

Hess is in his element. He turns to face Jannik, ignoring the woman screaming in the other room. “It is incredible and impossible. It’s not DNA, at least not as I know it. It changes, sir. It changes from solid to gas to liquid and back again. I wish I could take a piece and examine it more closely.”

The woman’s eyes roll back in her head so hard she wonders if she can see her brain. Through the red haze of agony, she prays laser eyes to shred the gray matter in her head and end it all. But the pain continues to grow. Her jaw elongates. Her teeth shift and grow and tiny movement feels like the worst toothache she’s ever had.

Jannik watches her through the glass. His eyes close focus on his reflection in the glass separating Hess and himself from the subject. In the glass he sees a ghostly reflection of himself. It’s not much of an image, but enough for him to know everything is perfectly in place.

“You must never examine the shadow outside of the confinement area,” Jannik says.

The unmistakable force in Jannik’s voice pushes Hess back a step. “But … why?”

Jannik tears his eyes from his reflection and the woman in the other room. Piercing cobalt blue eyes focus on Hess. The doctor takes another step back. “Because I told you not to,” Jannik says.

Hess swallows hard. He stared into the eyes of the demon and lived to tell about. One hand fiddles with his white doctor’s coat while the other one unconsciously wipes a bead of sweat from his brow. “Yes. Sir. Sir Yes,” he stammers. “Yes sir.”

In Jannik’s mind, the conversation is over. He looks back at the woman on the table and finds she’s still. “What is happening?” he asks, pointing at the woman. “Is it done.”

“No, sir. I guess the pain finally knocked her out.”

Jannik shakes his head. “No, that won’t do. I was told she must be alert and aware throughout the procedure.”

“Her brain has shut down, Colonel,” Hess protests.

“Restart it.”

“Sir?” Hess asks.

Jannik turns the full force of his eyes back on the doctor. “Restart it or take her place on the table, doctor.”

Hess takes a moment to process that. Like everyone else at the base, he knows Lieutenant Colonel Jannik Schäfer does not have a sense of humor. “Yes, sir.”

The doctor fiddles with a tablet in his hands. Without warning, the woman screams again and Hess feels it in his soul. To think, this woman, who was a runaway and a crack whore, was going through so much so that the formula could be perfected. He almost envied her. It’s not everyone who can say they have advanced science as much as she is doing right now.

Pain vanishes in a heartbeat, like someone flipped a switch. Her body collapses into the table and her eyes close. She can’t see herself. If she could, she’d start screaming again. Tiny insects crawl across her bare flesh, but she’s too tired to care anymore. The pain is over and that’s all she cares about.

Her name. What was her name? No matter, it would return or she could go search out the people that… What is the word? Created. Created her. They were there. Two people. One with short hair the other with long hair.

Why can’t she remember who or what they were?

Why can’t she remember herself?

“Sir, if I may be so bold, I’m terribly excited. The process has never gone this far.”

Jannik struggle to hold in his own anticipation. His heart is pounding in his chest. On the table, still strapped down, is a female ape with deep black fur sparsely covering her body. Even from here, he can see the confusion in the beast’s eyes.

“I must admit, Doctor Hess, I’m interested in the outcome myself. You’ve done wonders blending the samples,” Jannik says. “Have you reproduced the prototype serum?”

Hess cannot tear his eyes from the spectacle in the room. The ape is calm now. “Almost sir,” Hess replies. “I need a fresher sample of the shadow to finalize it.”

“Excellent work, doctor. If all goes to plan, you’ll soon have all the samples you need. You’ll be able to pull them straight from the source.”

The words slowly make their way into Hess’s mind. He tears his eyes from the ape woman in the next room and looks at Jannik. “How? If I may ask, of course.”

“As you know, the prototype is working for us. While he’s occupied, plans are in place to harry and then capture the shadow source.”

Jannik folds his arms across his chest and chuckles. “Did you know he actually has the audacity to call himself ‘The God of Dreams’? Such an arrogant thing.”

“Are you saying the sample came from a god?”

“That’s what he calls himself, anyway. We know he can do things regular people can’t. Personally I think he’s a liar and a charlatan. No matter. Soon this ‘God of Dreams’ will be in our grasp.”

Hess cringes at the thought of dealing with a god. “Do you think harassing a god is wise, sir?”

Jannik’s laugh echoes through the small chamber, echoing off concrete walls. “There is nothing to worry about Hess. He is nothing more than a liar trying to claim the throne of The Church of the Eternal Dreamtime. Pah! You will see. We have already hired a man who claims to be able to call this god. If the little man’s story pans out, we won’t even need to send troops; we will just wish him here and – poof! – he will be here.”

“Yes, Colonel,” Hess says. He still feels the gnawing in his stomach that usually tell him bad things are going to happen sooner rather than later.

“How is my serum coming along. Have you managed to figure out how to merge what you’ve found?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Hess says. “I need more samples from the god. We’ve managed to recreate the prototype’s information, but the god’s is significantly more complicated.”

“You’ll have your samples soon enough,” Jannik replies.

Both men stare through the one-way glass. The final effects of the serum are working into place. Her mind was largely wiped and it shows in her emotionless eyes. A once streetwise, drug abuser has just been transformed into the perfect soldier.

“Is it safe to go in?” Jannik asks.

Hess checks his tablet and nods. “Yes, sir. The change is finished. I must counsel caution, though, sir. She’s the first successful transform. She’s quite strong and her aggressive nature has been enhanced.”

Jannik doesn’t acknowledge the warning. He sweeps through the door and stands over the mutant ape. Her dark eyes watch him cautiously. He watches back, searching for any trace of humanity left behind the simian gaze. Nothing jumps out, just the blank stare and hint of rage of a caged animal.

“You’re magnificent,” Jannik says. “Soon, I’ll have an army of you. You and your ilk will stream through the world. Together, we will bring order to this chaotic world. We will bring unity and strength back to a people who have forgotten what it means to fight for something.”

Deep in her mind, a spark ignites. It’s not much, little more than the light of a single match in a pitch black cave, but it stays lit.

Jannik strokes the creature’s fur, marveling that something so amazing can have such a soft pelt. He flashes back to his grandfather returning from hunts around the world. On every continent, his grandfather hunted wild animals. They were always predators and usually alpha predators when available. After each hunt, the man would bring back the pelt and head. The heads were mounted in the family reading room. Animal after animal laid down its life for the eldest Schäfer until every free space had the head of a tiger or a lion or some other thing with teeth.

In his young mind, Jannik thought his grandfather was the strongest, bravest man in the world. He, himself, never took up hunting. At least not big game. He hunts homeless people, though; stalking them through the dark alleys and pipes they call their home. Pathetic creatures. Not worthy of being called humans.

Yet another thing to eradicate when he seizes the world. In Jannik’s mind, if a person can’t muster the wherewithal to take care of themselves, they were worthless. Worthless things needed to be excised if the world was going to be rebuilt stronger.

“Hess,” Jannik calls over his shoulder. “Release the clamps.”

“Sir, I strongly suggest we do that in a more controlled space.”

“Hess,” Jannik repeats. “Release the clamps.”

Hess sighs loud enough to be heard from the other room. He quietly closes and locks the door. “Yes, sir.”

Jannik smiles as the steel bands slide silently from the limbs of the beast. She clenches her fists and sits up. When she rises, Jannik feels a pang of nervousness. It was one thing to admire her from the comfortable blanket of safety, but not that she’s free he realizes he’s alone with a monster he helped create.

The tiny flame in her head flares brighter briefly. This was one of the creatures that hurt her. Her mind is still a jumble and she lacks the mental processing power to realign her new neurons. Still, she knows enough to want to hurt the thing in front of her.

She rises to her full height and relishes the power of this new body. Images intrude on her simple mind – summers and first kisses and the heady taste of meth filling her mouth and lungs. The pictures make no sense. Why would she need summers or kisses? But the feelings that came along with the images are tinged with melancholy regret.

As quickly as it flared up, the tiny flame shrinks back down and there’s only the animal left. She wonders if she can bat the little thing aside and leave. There are things to hunt and conquer out in the world. All she needs is to escape and then it will a glorious, lifetime-long hunt.

A single fist in the creature’s face, then she can run free. She draws back her arm, ready to sweep aside the tiny creature with the strange hair and no fur.

“Did you embed the inhibitors?” Jannik calls over his shoulder.

Hess’s voice sounds tinny and nervous over the old speakers in the transformation chamber. “Yes, sir. She should already to reacting to your presence.”

Jannik stands his ground and stares. He knows enough about human behavior – and this thing still has similar instincts – to know that backing away is equivalent to backing down. She’s strong enough that a punch from that fist will probably go right through his head. He makes a mental note to push Hess to finish his serum. That special mixture of prototype and god will make him the most powerful thing on Earth, but for now he’s just a weak, pathetic human with an indomitable will.

He grits his teeth and sets his jaw as the ape-woman rears back. A lesser man would run and cower, but that same lesser man would be easily hunted and smashed by this newest creature. She was specifically chosen for her street smarts and general resiliency. It took a team of three of his soldiers to bring her in and she smashed one’s jaw in the process. Another will likely never have kids. And all that was before Hess fed the soldier serum into her veins. The mere fact that she survived it means her mental toughness is amazing.

The tiny creature in front of her stands its ground. It should be running, but it waits patiently. A thought from the tiny flame of her former self screams to smash the little man, but a larger thought bounces through her skull telling her he’s not to be touched. Screw it, she thinks. Her muscles tense and she longs to feel his bones break.

But that large thought won’t give up and he won’t run. There’s no fear in his eyes and it gives her pause. Her mind is torn between the tiny voices echoing through her head. Kill him. Don’t kill him. He is weak. He is strong. He must not be harmed. He is the future.

Her arm slowly drops. She won’t kill him. Not now at least. For now, the voice screaming to kill him will have to wait.

Jannik watches the hairy arm fall and slowly exhales. He wasn’t even aware he’d been holding his breath. His mouth breaks into a grin, slowly at first so as not to threaten the creature, but rapidly spreading as she doesn’t attack. It worked. It actually worked. The process successfully created a monster that could be controlled.

He mentally reminds himself that there’s no guarantee she’s completely controllable, but the initial results are positive. Tomorrow he’ll put up her against the two guards that he found asleep at their post. If she kills them and he can still keep her in check, then he’ll consider the experiment a success. If only they had finished her before the operation started.

“Hess,” Jannik says. “You are a miracle worker.”

Hess doesn’t answer for a long time, longer than he should wait and Jannik makes another mental note to give the scientist a stern talking to about responding. “Thank you, sir,” Hess finally says.

Jannik reaches up and touches the creature’s face. Her pull back briefly, revealing teeth that could chew up a cue ball, but she leans her face into his hand and actually purrs. The problem, Jannik reflects, with human soldiers is they have complex emotions and are inherently unpredictable because of that. This creature has simplified emotional responses. Anger and love are powerful emotions, but they’re far more predictable.

An army like this will be unstoppable. Especially once he himself has been transformed and can lead from the front of the battle lines. Jannik pulls a phone from his pocket and pushes a button on the blank face. “This is Jannik. Echo team, you’re clear for Operation Mjolnir.”

The creature’s eyes are closed and it’s switched from a simian purr to the quiet chirping the aliens made when they were content. The sound makes his hair stand on end, but like everything else he’s endured in life, Jannik Schäfer will learn to endure this.

Computers Made Easy Part II – Tech Overload

“The first step is spoofing the IP Address,” Max Power said. His eyes were hidden by the ever-present dark glasses. “That’s the easy part.”

Jolene nodded in agreement. “We’ve got access to their router. Well, it’s more technically a Layer 3 switch than a traditional router, so we’ve got their MAC address tables and IP routing tables.”

“Exactly,” Max said. He ran a hand through his puffy black hair. When he was tired or stressed, his Irish brogue came through. Right now Jolene had to focus to follow him. “So we intercept their packets, strip the header information off and replace it with our own custom information. They’ll keep trying to get the web server and that good old Apache box we’ve got running in the closet will pick up everything they’re sending.”

“How do you plan to get around the SSL encryption?”

“Aye, SSL. That wee beastie would be a tough nut. Asymmetric key encryption is notoriously difficult to break.”

Jolene’s eyes twinkled. Any time he referred to something as a wee beastie, it meant he respected it enough to find a way around it. “You got to their admin, did’t you?”

“That lass was helpless in the face of my Irish accent. Curled her toes, it did. While she slept it off, I found my way into her laptop. She’d set up her Remote Desktop Protocol client to remember her password. I didn’t have to crack a thing, just walked right onto the server desktop and pulled the certificate straight out of Internet Information Services.”

“You know, most people practice social engineering over the phone,” Jolene said.

“My way is much more fun for everyone involved. Besides, I bought her breakfast.”

“Okay, so we can spoof the IP addresses, we can circumvent the SSL cryptography. What’s left?”

Max nodded. This was always the hardest part. Anyone with a lick of experience at computer security would be wary of it, but it was the key part. So far they hadn’t shown a lot of technical prowess, so he felt his plan had a good chance of working. “I’ve got a port scanner ready to go. When the port is open we’re going in. We’ve got an ActiveX control running on the website that should open TCP Port 3389.”

“You’re going to open up their Remote Desktop Protocol services? You’re going straight for the gusto.”

“Right. Even after they shut down their browser, we’ll be able to sneak right in while no one’s looking. A little fiddling with the NTFS security and we’ll be golden.'”

whatamilookingat

I’m not really a techno-thriller writer. I spend most of my day hammering out code and fixing the odd server issue. When I sit down to write, I want to explore something I don’t do all the time. That said, Henchmen had a few moments that might have been over-the-top technobabble. And that’s the problem with writing what you know: it’s way too easy to add information that no one cares about.

My technobabble was a lot worse in the original cut of Henchmen. The few spots that were computer-oriented got a little too far into the weeds. I passed those sections off to my wife and her eyes rolled back into her head when she read those parts.

Lesson learned: Most people put their eyes on screensaver when computer terms start flying around. Stick to the fun stuff like fighting monsters and secret government guys.

HenchmenJessicaComicAd1

There are some stories that make excellent use of computer terminology and practices. Most of them don’t handle it all that well. Look back to the last Computers Made Easy post for an example that CSI pulled. That would be the bit about writing a GUI in Visual Basic to track an IP Address.

Andrew Updegrove’s Alexandria Project does a good job with computers and network technology. He kept it realistic enough to be, well, realistic, but it was exciting because he didn’t get bogged down in the details. Even a geek like me – who likes to look for technical problems – had trouble finding any and his technical descriptions didn’t interrupt the flow of the story.

Now, I get it: details are key to building an immersive story. But with computers it’s really easy to go way over the top or just start making things up. A lot of people have heard phrases like GUI, IP Address, and some may even have heard of Visual Basic. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to use those terms.

Take the introductory dialogue between Max Power (the man whose name you want to touch) and Jolene (whose name is significantly less interesting). It’s got a whack of technobabble in it. Layer 3 switch. MAC Address. SSL Encryption. Trojan Horse, TCP Ports, Remote Desktop Protocol. Blah, blah, blah, blah.

Fun movie, great soundtrack, total bs technology

Fun movie, great soundtrack, total bs technology

If you’re into those things, it makes for an interesting read, but the extraneous details don’t add anything to the narrative. Do we really need to know what port RDP runs on? Exactly how important is it that they have access to a layer 3 switch instead of a traditional router? I put those things in there because they popped into my head, but they’re burdensome. Technically, the information is mostly accurate, it’s just that it’s an info-dump of things most readers aren’t going to care about or even understand.

What about explaining all the terminology and the reasons why those things are important? Well, I’m not sure that’s a good idea, either. Then your techno-thriller goes from exciting to about as interesting as reading stereo instructions. And explaining what each piece does and why it’s important would add about a hundred pages to the book.

Remember: that’s a hundred pages that very few people will want to read.

bored

Just like adding in incorrect details about technology can make you look like a lazy writer, adding too much can pull the reader right out of the story. If you’re working on something technical, hand it off to a non-technical person and see if they still follow the story or if they get lost in all the acronyms.

Remember the cardinal rule of writing: Don’t confuse the reader. Give them what they need to understand the story and ditch the rest. Let the story be lean and mean and you can focus on the plot and the characters without worrying as much about replacing TCP headers.

Writing Tip – Computers Made Easy Part I

I’m starting up a short series on computers and how to write about them. Today’s entry is on hacking.

Strange characters and phrases danced across Max’s dark sunglasses. The Nomad was finally talking to him. “All I have to do now is crack the NVRAM and I’ll have access to the CPU,” he said.

“I’ll write up GUI interface in Visual Basic to track the IP Address.” Jolene was ecstatic. All their work had finally paid off. Soon, the Brotherhood of the Sane would finally be held accountable for their crimes.

“Good idea. If we can get the IP Address we can find out who it’s registered to then it’s just a matter of sending the package and we’ll have them.”

The package was a Trojan Horse, a virus designed to first prevent the computer from being shut down then it would strike. The payload would embed itself in the DRAM and the Brotherhood would never be able to get it out.

Jolene’s fingers tapped a staccato beat while Max slowly wormed his way into the bridge. The CPU was a hair’s breadth from him. All their secrets, all the murders, all the bribery, every last dirty deed the Brotherhood had done would soon be spread all over the world. Once he hit the CPU, Max would find the spreadsheet and crack the database. He grinned for the first time in years. Crack that CPU, find the spreadsheet on it, and then the world would know Max Power was an innocent man.

“The program’s running,” Jolene said. “It’s tracking. Southwestern United States. New Mexico. Farmington.”

“I should have figured they’d be hiding out in Farmington,” Max muttered.

“Up on Harper Hill. It’s a trailer park!” Jolene cried.

“Get me a name and an address.”

“Hold… Got it! Harry Harrison,” Jolene said.

“Harry the Sheep Smuggler. I should have guessed.” Max’s finger poised over the Enter button, ready to unleash Hell on Harry.

“4077 Troy King Road, number 446.”

Max’s finger jabbed down on the Enter key. The screen erupted in burst of colors and the harrowing sounds of a server dying screeched from his speakers. “We got him.” Max was breathless. “We finally got him.”

whatamilookingat

I was introducing my son to an important piece of Americana earlier this week, a little show called The X-Files. You might have heard of it. It details the adventures of spooky man and redhead and their ongoing attempts to find the truth.

One of the episodes we watched was Ghost in the Machine. It’s one of the less popular episodes because it doesn’t feature aliens or monsters. I think my son was somewhat disappointed that it doesn’t feature ghosts, either. Rather, it was Mulder and Scully versus a sentient computer. It featured an unholy mishmash of techno-babble and barely understandable references to the Internet.

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Unfortunately, mainstream entertainment is rife with this kind of thing. Take a bunch of cool-sounding acronyms, add a hip character who can crack the IRS dBase, and make hacking computers look like child’s play. Some readers or viewers will appreciate the amount of effort that went into looking up the cool-sounding acronyms, others will roll around on the floor laughing at the endless technical mistakes.

Take the scene at the beginning of this post. There’s not a single thing in there that makes a lick of sense, but it certainly sounds nifty. Max sounds like the kind of guy that could hack your computer from a payphone using only an old electric typewriter and a modified See ‘N’ Say.

“The farmer hacks your mainframe while the pig knocks up your RAM.” The kind of stuff they make movies about.

Fun movie, great soundtrack, total bs technology

Fun movie, great soundtrack, total bs technology

In 1993, the year Ghost in the Machine aired, the average person on the street probably didn’t realize that “cracking the CPU” isn’t something that really happens and even great programmers would have a bear of a time writing a virus to delete an artificial intelligence in a couple hours. From a prison cell.

But, heck. it’s entertainment, right? So what if The X-Files cut a few corners or didn’t research every little bit? In 1993 it wasn’t quite the problem it is now; computers were just starting to make their way into the average home and most people didn’t know what a URL is. Besides, The X-Files totally nailed that alien thing.

It’s 2016 now and there is less of an excuse for not doing a bit of research. That line about “Writing a GUI interface in Visual Basic to track the IP Address” is near verbatim from a CSI episode that aired sometime around 2008. It’s complete nonsense to anyone who has even a nodding acquaintance with computer and network technologies.

A GUI is a graphical user interface – a fancy term for the cool pictures you see on your screen. So, a GUI interface is a graphical user interface interface. GUI’s are usually defined by the Operating System (think Windows, OSX, or Linux), so you don’t actually write the GUI, you use the existing GUI to display information. And you definitely don’t write one in Visual Basic. Visual Basic (VB) is a programming language, but you can’t use it to define the GUI.

An IP Address is a series of numbers that tell your computer how to get to another computer. 10.0.0.1 is a pretty common one. Computers love IP addresses because they tell the computers where each other are. They’re not physical addresses, though, and there’s usually no way to tie a physical address to an IP Address. They’re also not assigned to people. In fact, chances are high that you’re not using the same IP Address today that you were using yesterday. A background service assigns your computer an IP Address in most cases and you may or may not even know it.

If you want to track an IP Address, use something like tracert, or a visual trace route tool. There’s no need to write a graphical user interface interface to do it. Even then, you won’t get much of an address. On a good day, you’ll get the city the IP address is currently being used in. On a bad day, you’ll get the country. You certainly won’t get a street address.

The really disappointing thing about hacking in the real world is the complete lack of exciting things and flashing lights. Most hacking consists of sitting in a hotel room and running automated penetration tools to look for open ports or unpatched operating systems. When those don’t work, hackers will spend some time on the phone simply asking questions. You’d be amazed at how much information people will give you if you important and sincere. Successfully loading a virus on someone’s computer won’t give you a splash of color and explosions on your screen. At the most, you’ll likely get a message that says “Done.”

So, what does this mean to writers? Well, if you’re going to write about technology and hacking, it behooves you to do a bit of research. The Internet is full of information about computers and hacking. There are technology groups that are usually happy to help. Even the IT staff at your job would probably be willing to give you a few pointers.

Take a little bit of time and you’ll save a lot of face later on. If you don’t know the difference between NVRAM and DRAM, it’s easy enough to look it up (BTW, see if you can guess what’s wrong with my usages in the scene above). Go a step beyond what CSI and The X-Files did to get a bit more of an insider look at hacking computers and it will make your story much better. If you want, drop me a line. I might be able to help out.

Next week, we’ll look at how to avoid letting technology totally take over the story, because the flip side to not knowing enough is knowing too much.

Do you have any favorite completely messed up technology stories?

Show Me A Story – Showing vs Telling in Fiction

One of the hobgoblins of writing is the constant admonition to “show don’t tell”. I’ve had criticisms – probably valid – that I do more telling than I should. Certainly the beginnings of earlier cuts of Henchmen had an awful lot more telling than showing, something I think eased back as the book progressed. Earlier editions of the novel placed a much heavier emphasis on telling. In fact, it was due to those criticisms that the book underwent a huge rewrite about a year after it was released. What’s available now is a different beast than what first dropped back ’13.

Still, I hear about showing vs telling every now and then and have taken pains to ease the telling parts of my writing in favor of more showing. Don’t get me wrong, there are still things that need to be told – it is a book after all – but it is quite possible to favor showing information over straight-up telling of information.

So what the heck does all this mean? What is showing? What is telling? It’s a damned book, how am I supposed to show something when I’m effectively telling a story?

As it turns out it’s really not all that difficult, but it does involve weaving information into the narrative. Think in terms of seeding information into events rather than supplanting the events with information dumps. Scribendi actually has some pretty good tips that go beyond the usual “show, don’t tell” request. Among other things they recommend using dialog, engaging the senses, good noun choices, and avoiding adverbs (among other things). I’m not going to rehash it here, they’ve already done a great job, but I do want to explore a couple examples: dialog and word choice.

Using dialog is a good way to disseminate information. If you’re good at it, that is. If your dialog is stilted or chunky, dialog might not be the best way to go. I tend to write dialog based on conversations I’ve had. Somehow or another I’ve managed to memorize vast chunks of conversations over the years and I tend to draw on those when I’m writing. Whether that’s good or bad is somewhat dependent on the reader’s interpretation, but I can at least hold my head up high and say, “I know people have talked exactly like that because I was there when it happened.”

So how could you use dialog to show some information? By throwing in tidbits of information. Take the following exchange between Steven and Wilford toward the end of Arise:

“Subsumed?” he asks.

“She’s Potential Reality, kind of like an engine of creation, he intended to overtake her and make our world his world.”

“Yeah, but subsumed?”

“He wanted to absorb her.”

“You know, I liked this world better when it was just terrorists,” Wilford says with a sneer.

“I know, right?  Find ‘em, shoot ‘em, done deal.”

“A guy could kill an awful lot of bad guys with this gun.  I could make a lot of bad things just go away.”

“Don’t forget the wound healing and probable immortality,” I tell him as I clap him on the shoulder.  “How are we doing?”

“I got most of their patrols, bombs are planted.  That duffel bag full of explosives Jacob kicked down the well really helped.  I think we’re ready to bust this place up.”

“Nice work.  Where is everyone?” I ask.

“I saw Frank dragging Jacob to the elevator earlier.  Not sure where Eve is, but I found a lot of broken guys.  Necks snapped, heads crushed.  I think she might be a trifle pissed.  Haven’t seen your girl, though.”

That little section contains 181 words, but packs quite a bit of information. We (finally) find out what the bad guy’s interest in one of the characters was, that Wilford Saxton has an extreme distaste for the paranormal things he’s seen in general and bad guys in particular. He has a desire to make them all go away and now has the power to do it.. The rest of the team is still moving around, Eve is on a rampage, the whole place is about to blow. We also get a hint that Wilford is quite the bad ass since he managed to kill a lot of people and set bombs at the same time.

I like using dialog to show information like that because that’s how humans actually disseminate information to each other: we talk.

The thing about using dialog is it’s not a one stop shop for showing. You can’t just write an information dump into a single scene and have it make a whole lot of sense. Even the above exchange only delivers its full information packet if you’ve read the rest of the story. Until then, it’s just a couple guys talking about killing a bunch of other guys and preparing to blow something up.

Other things to consider using to show instead of tell is to work with word choice in descriptions. A straight up information dump is major boring stuff.

The dog stinks, but Jessica loves it anyway.

Woohoo! Excitement awaits! How about:

The mongrel shook its matted body and grinned. Jessica wrinkled her nose when the smell of street life hit her, but couldn’t resist the cute thing wagging its tail at her.

The first sentence dropped two important pieces of information: the dog stinks and Jessica loves it anyway. The problem is, that’s a straight information dump. It may be important information but that’s no reason to not give the dog and Jessica a bit of character. It’s not compact information (eight words vs thirty one words), but it is more fun to read. It engages the senses (matted body, smell), gives us a better description of the dog (mongrel, not just a dog), and gives us a hint about why Jessica loved the dog.

Does all this mean that you should never tell in a story? Of course not. There are times when telling has to be done. The key is to keep things short and sweet, drop the information that’s necessary and move on to keeping the story going forward. If there are large information dumps that have to happen, dialog is a good way to accomplish it. Look how Tarantino drops information in any of his movies. Say what you will about Quentin, but the guy can write some damned good dialog.

The whole point of showing not telling is an attempt to keep the reader engaged and a story shouldn’t consist of “they did this and then they did this and then they did this other thing and then that caused this to happen.” Readers want to experience what this is and what this other thing they did was, and what the result of the whole operation was.

That’s showing not telling. It’s simply a process of letting the reader come along for the ride rather than telling them where you just went. When the narrative ceases to be interesting it just becomes tl:dr. Too long; didn’t read.