Writing and Arrogance

Arrogance
Arrogance

Have you ever written a word and wondered if you spelled it right? You say to yourself, “That word looks weird!” But the spellchecker doesn’t underline the word. It must be right, mustn’t it? I typed “arrogance” above and it looked wrong, but it is right.

Anyway, that is an aside. As I’m taking a break from the GIMP and Blender, I decided to do some writing. I had an idea in mind, but when I started to write, another story decided it wanted to be written. I mean this seriously, though, obviously stories can’t actually decide anything. It just feels like that.

I had vaguely thought of submitting the story, when I had finished it, in a competition, but it got longer and longer and by the time I had tied up all the loose ends, it had exceeded the competition limit. Rats!

So, I took a copy of the story and set about shrinking it. That’s not too hard, in practise, but it does change the story. I got it down below the limit, but then I had doubts about whether or not it was good enough in the shrunken version. Or for that matter the full version.

Reducing the Size
Reducing the Size

So I asked my daughter.  I didn’t show her about the story, but I asked her questions like “How would you react if this happened….” At the end she said something which shocked me. She said something like “It has to be really different from <a TV series>, otherwise it is not worth writing.”

My story did have similarities to the TV series. Was it different enough to make it interesting? It’s a lot of work, blood, sweat and tears, to write a story. Now it appeared that, not only do I have to ask myself, “Is it good enough?”, but I also have to ask myself, “Is it too similar to anything else?” Ouch!

OK, I took that on board and I’ve parked the abbreviated version for a while, and I’m working on the slightly longer version. I’ll see if I can polish the shorter version until it glows like a pearl later maybe.

This is Weka
This is a Weka. He came up in a search for “short” and “long” for some reason.

So, around the time that I was revising the shorter version, I came across several web pages which categorised adverbs as bad. If a famous writer like Stephen King thinks that adverbs are bad, then they must be bad, right? Well, I invite you to go on a search for articles about adverbs and writing, and while they mostly stop short of demonising adverbs, the consensus is that it is best, and usually more descriptive, if you don’t use them.

OK, I’m convinced. Mostly. So I had a look at my stories and replaced or removed as many adverbs as I could find. That added a few dozen words to each version, so I still had work to do to get the short version down to the limit. Oh well.

This is where the arrogance comes in. (The word still looks weird!) I’ve never read any articles or tutorials on how to write stories. I always just sit down and write. I don’t have even so much as a skeleton of a plan, and indeed, my stories often end up in places that I hadn’t even thought about when I started. I have generally been thinking about the story for some time before I start. I usually have a character or characters in mind and one or two scenes (for want of a better word).

Wooden Dragon
Dragon without her rider

Maybe the lead character sits on her dinosaur at the top of the mountain pass and contemplates the view before she descends to the peace conference. Or the big battle. She and I will find out which it is as she follows her friends and comrades down into the valley.

So, I searched out a few articles on how to write a story. I’d expected them to all insist on a plan or a synopsis. A character list, a world for them to interact in, and a reason for them to interact. Days, weeks, maybe months before I would get to write a word.

Of course some do suggest that sort of thing, and sometimes they even suggest using spreadsheets! For the record, I’ve tried that, even before I read the articles, before I’d written much at all. It seemed logical. Get the ducks in a row and you can knock them off one by one.

It might work for some people, but it didn’t work for me. As my story grew, it deviated from my plan, and I didn’t go back and change it. Change it? I didn’t even look at it. But it did give me a start.

People on a Beach
People on a beach. (The logos imply that they are probably filming turtles)

OK, the Prince didn’t rescue the Princess from a dragon. No, the Prince rescued his Prince from a forced marriage to the Princess, who was pleased because she was über-friendly with the strapping female leader of the Guard. Only the Princess’ parents were miffed.

I might use this seed of a story sometime. But it started with the idea of someone rescuing someone from something, and I was already vaguely dissatisfied with standard boy saves girl and they fall in love thing. That’s just the Hero Syndrome. Boring. The above scenario still uses the syndrome, but it does give it a bit of a twist.

But anyway, he said, returning to the point, I discovered that the articles on how to write a story were full of useful advice, including in some cases, suggesting the avoidance of adverbs. Who knew? Well not me obviously.

Problem
Problem or Puzzle

The articles were full of good advice, techniques for pressing on when you are stuck, which is something that doesn’t happen to me. Many of them emphasise the trio of people, problem, and place.

What I mean by that is that almost every story needs characters. Oh, of course they needn’t be human. Almost every story needs a reason for the characters to interact, and they to have somewhere to interact.

Take the film “Lost in Space“. The ‘people’ were the Robinson family, together with the Robot and Doctor Zachary Smith. The ‘problem’ was that, because of Smith’s actions they had crash landed on an alien planet and couldn’t make it home. The ‘place’ was obviously the alien planet. Consideration of these three components no doubt helped the writers of the series. I’ll bear that in mind in future.

I’m going to read more of these “How to Write” web pages, to see what I can glean. It was arrogant of me to think that they had nothing to offer me. If I come across something that seems to me to be extra useful, I may write about later.

Alien landscape
Alien landscape

Please read my books. The paperback versions can be found Amazon, and the eBooks can be found there or at your favourite eBook store. Just search for my name, Cliff Pratt. I mainly write fantasy fiction.

Tutorials and Hairy Balls

Cube with applied material.

There are hundreds of tutorials for Blender. Maybe thousands. As you might expect they vary in quality from not-so-good to very good. One of the characteristics that they all seem to share is that they are fast! Some are far too fast, some are not too fast and I can keep up with them. What I’ve decided to do is watch a tutorial without making note of the techniques used and then go through it again stopping and starting to get a better idea of what is going on.

Another issue is that Blender is complex, as it needs to be to produce realistic 3-D images. That often means that there are usually several ways of achieving something, and a tutorial author might prefer one over another for some reason. Rarely does an author go into why he did something a particular way, and if he does, it can be incredibly useful.

Anyway, I’ve been looking into ‘materials’ and ‘textures’ recently. ‘Materials’ are the stuff that things are made of, like ‘metal’ or ‘marble’. Textures are, as someone said in a tutorial, descriptive of the material. For example a metal object may be rusty, or a marble object might be dirty.

Fabric ball
Fabric covered ball

There are hundreds of free materials and textures available for anyone to download. I’ve downloaded a few from Chocofur who provide a several useful packs of free materials for download. You can also purchase some impressive models from them.

Another source of useful materials are the tutorials. Sometimes a tutorial author will include the materials that he has used in his tutorial, to help those who have taken his tutorial, so that they can repeat the steps he took in his tutorial and learn that way.

Of course, a simple image downloaded from the Internet or a camera image can be used as a source of material and/or textures, but that means that the artist will need to do more work, which brings me to another point. When a texture is downloaded from the Internet, it is usually in the form of a “blend” file which has to be ‘appended’ to the model being created. (A “blend” file is the format in which Blender saves a file, whether it’s one of  your own creations or one from the Internet) When I downloaded my first materials, I didn’t know this, so I just used the images from the downloaded files. This produces results which are, basically, rubbish.

A downloaded texture usually contains several images, used for different purposes – as a colour map, a displacement map, or one of several other types of map. I use the word “map” loosely here. These are used in the “shader” in various ways. I’m not going to define “shader”, but loosely, it’s how the material/texture is applied.

A Hairy Ball
A hairy ball

What I didn’t realise when I started to look into materials, and textures and shaders was that it is fun to play around with them. A shader is a bunch of nodes linked together. Each node is a box with adjustable sliders and values in it, and you can play with them to your hearts content.

Here’s one of Chocofur’s shaders below. Note all the options that you can change! You can also add other nodes to modify the provided shader, and that where the fun begins! Of course, it helps if you know what the nodes do, but that doesn’t prevent experimentation of course.

 

 

Node map of Chocfur’s Solid Marble shader

OK, to end with I’m going to show you two of my images, created in the last week or two. They are renders of a cliff face. The first is my first attempt. I created a plane mesh and subdivided it with the fractal parameter set to non-zero. This has the effect of “crumpling” the surface a little. Then I added a pretty bland texture and rotated the plane so that it looked like a cliff.

Cliff version one
Cliff version one

There’s obvious problems with of course. It’s pretty meh! And the bands across it are distracting. Here’s the second attempt.

Cliff version two
Cliff version two

This one is the opposite of the first! It has a bolder material, and is considerably more crumpled. Back to the drawing board. Oh, and I’ve got to work on the lighting.

Please read my books. The paperback versions can be found Amazon, and the eBooks can be found there or at your favourite eBook store. Just search for my name, Cliff Pratt. I mainly write fantasy fiction.

A Long Long Way to Go

River valley (Blender)
My first attempt at a landscape with river valley in Blender 2.8.

I’m pressing on with Blender, using the 2.8 beta, rather than the current 2.79 version. I figure that if I’m going to learn Blender, I might as well use the version that will be the current version when I get up to speed.

I’ll get to Blender in a minute but I’d just like to mention that I have a few writing ideas floating around in my head. I’ve completed one story and I’m mulling one story line in my head, but the characters want to do something that I’m not completely happy with. Yes, that is how it seems to me. I have little control over the characters and what they do!

The way that they want to act is within character, so I suppose I will put pen to paper, or rather, pound the keyboard, eventually. Sometime soon I’ll drop Blender for a while and switch over  to my word processor, but for now I’m still learning Blender.

https://www.freeimages.com/photo/television-studio-1-1171607
The image is from FREEIMAGES (https://www.freeimages.com/photo/television-studio-1-1171607), supplied to them by Joseph Hoban.

Blender is complex because real life 3-D objects which artists are trying to draw are complex. For instance, in real life there is rarely a single source of light. We may say that a an object in a scene is lit by the sun, but really it is lit by the sun, by the ambient light from the sky and the surroundings, and by reflections from other objects in the scene.

The image above shows a studio set up for television, and it shows multiple sources of light and the stage on which the scene, whatever it is, is to be set. The stage is illuminated by a lamp, but there is also a shadow on it. The shadowed part can be seen because it is illuminated by other lamps. Things in the unlit areas around the stage can be seen dimly because some light is reflected from the stage or it spills over from other lamps.

Lighting is complex and one of the things that Blender does is emulate some of this complexity. When someone builds something in Blender the object that is modelled is colourless and textureless. It’s like one of those dressmaker dummies that is merely a shape and a framework for the clothes to be are created on it.

No materials
Some of the lighting has been set up for this object, but not enough. No materials have been applied.

The object in the above image is illuminated by a light source (or rather the object is drawn as if it is illuminated by a light source). It stands on nothing, is surrounded by grey, and is visually it is not that impressive.

For a number of reasons I recreated the tower and this time I gave it some colour by adding colour to the background and another light source, and some ambient lighting.

Cartoon tower
Cartoonish tower, with background, something to stand on and some ambient lighting. There is some other lighting, but it is a bit dim and hard to see.

That still looks cartoonish! It’s still decidedly unimpressive, but I am, I hope, making progress. I’ve learned a lot and hope to put some of it into practise soon. I’ve watched dozens of videos, some of which helped and some of which didn’t. Some of the people making the videos are very good. Others click rapidly on the various windows and menus, leaving me confused.

Some videos seem to refer to earlier versions of the software, which means I have to figure out some of the steps that the video creator just quickly clicked over. Some show how to do specific tasks, like create a floating island, or realistic landscapes, and I have to extract from those the techniques that I need. But I believe that I’m making progress. Maybe by 2020 or early 2021…

I forgot to mention that once the model has been built and been decorated with materials and  textures, it is finished but only exists as a Blender file. To produce images, like those above, the object needs to be rendered. The 3-D object needs to be converted to a 2-D image file. Rendering of complex Blender files can take hours as it is a complex mathematical task. The above images, and the one below that I am going to leave you with, took only a minute or less.

The last image is an early version of the river valley that I started this post with. Since then I have dialled back the ambient lighting and added some “materials” to colourise it. It’s probable that I will rebuild the river valley completely.

River valley (early version)
An early version of the valley and river.

Please read my books. The paperback versions can be found Amazon, and the eBooks can be found there or at your favourite eBook store. Just search for my name, Cliff Pratt. I mainly write fantasy fiction.