Saturday, 23 of September of 2017

Nonfiction Monday: Pixar’s Brave

This started out as a comment on MGK’s Single-Sentence Review of Brave, wherein a short positive statement about the movie spawned a comment thread full of people trying to pin down what exactly it was that bothered them about the movie. One commenter (comatose_chameleon) said:

[C]an you tell me what was the protagonist’s WANT? What was her goal, her objective? […] The fact that [we couldn’t] answer this question was at the root of most of our objections to the film.


I don’t see it, frankly. Merida’s goal was never hard to pin down, though it changed through the movie. She started out with a very generic teen angst “NO! I don’t wanna!” which then changed to “Okay that was a mistake. I need to fix this somehow!”

I think the movie would have been better for me:

  1. if her initial mistake* had been more understandable, e.g. if the witch had tricked her, rather than simply standing there and blinking confusedly while she tricked herself, and
  2. if she had expressed the flip side of the overwrought teen melodrama experience, “Oh, woe! I have done something thoughtless and cruel which has consequences I should have foreseen that will ruin my life and the lives of those I love! I want to crawl in a hole and die, because I am clearly dumber than a sack of hammers!”,** and then _overcome_ that. “Well, I’m the only one who can fix this, so I’d better get on that. Self pity later.”

I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie. I did. I think most of my disappointment comes from the fact that, for the first time in… ever, there’s a Pixar movie that’s clearly inferior to its closest stylistic equivalent from Dreamworks.*** I’m referring, of course, to How to Train Your Dragon. I mean, compare the nadir points of both plots. In Dragon, after Toothless is discovered and captured and Stoick sails off with him and all the grownups to their quite probable deaths, Hiccup stands watching them go, knowing in his bones that this is all his fault. Then there’s an exchange with Astrid where she sums up all the ways that everything is screwed and gets Hiccup to face the situation and his actual role in it. Then:

Astrid: What are you going to do about it?
Hiccup: Eh… probably something stupid.
Astrid: Good, but you’ve already done that…
Hiccup: Then… something crazy! *runs off
Astrid: That’s more like it.

…and just like that we know we’re in Act 3. Things have gotten as bad as they can get, our hero has faced the darkness and decided to run back in and try to redeem himself despite the voices in his head telling him he can’t possibly do anything but continue to make things worse. From the outside, nothing has changed, so it’s not clear to an in-universe observer that things will go any better this time. But we know that Hiccup has changed on the inside, and that change is what allows him to succeed in Act 3 where he failed in the first two.

By contrast, the nadir of Brave… well, I’m not sure where the low point actually is. There’s the fakeout right before the inevitable happy ending, there’s the revelation of the ticking clock before the spell becomes permanent, but I think from a structural standpoint it has to be when Merida’s locked in the castle while her father goes charging off to kill her mother. There’s very little emotional content to that scene. Merida just annoyed that she can’t get on about what she wants to do; she might as well be stuck in traffic. I’m not saying there should be an exchange like Hiccup and Astrid’s. That’s not what Merida needs. Hiccup needed to stop trying to be good at the things he thought everybody else wanted him to be good at and start being good at the things that he was actually good at. Merida needed to learn that choosing your own fate doesn’t eliminate your responsibility to those around you. And we’re given no indication that she has. There’s no change in her character, so no real change in the way she approaches problems. She just keeps banging her head against things until eventually it works. It’s like watching a guy throwing darts for an hour, with no change in technique and no noticeable improvement in his accuracy, until eventually, by sheer luck and the Law of Large Numbers, he throws a bulls-eye. Then the music swells, he cries tears of joy, and we roll credits.

It’s not lost on me that I’ve been complaining for more than eight hundred words about a movie that was merely good when I wanted it to be great. Pixar doesn’t work for me, and although we talk about Pixar making movies that are actually good, instead of just good kids’ movies, Brave was not made for me. It’s just that I can’t think of another example of a Pixar movie where the main character is so consistently flawed right through the end of the movie. Even Cars had Lightning McQueen learning an Important Lesson. (I haven’t seen Cars 2, so it’s possible that Mater is the proto-Merida.) It’s frustrating, especially when it’s so easy to see how it could have been done. The Pixar Rules are great, but I propose an addition:

#23: Stories are about character growth. If your main character is the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning, you either chose the wrong main character or the wrong story.

*: “You’re a witch who’s clearly obsessed with bears, and you got out of the witching business because you had too many unsatisfied customers? Of course you are the solution to my problem! I will give you extremely vague instructions and rush off without asking any clarifying questions even though I’m under no pressure to leave. I am a genius!”

**: It would help that she’d actually be correct in this. I mean, say what you will about sacks of hammers, they very rarely turn anyone into a bear.

***: I suppose reasonable people can disagree about the merits of Antz vs A Bug’s Life, but I vastly prefer the latter.

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Episode 8: Fixer 5

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Show Notes

Ransom’s got a plan.

–Jake out

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Nonfiction Monday: Writer’s Block

I’ve heard all kinds of things about writer’s block. I’ve heard that it’s a myth. I’ve heard that it’s the convenient name for the difficulties that result from whatever happens to be keeping a writer from focusing at the moment. (Call this the Ebeneezer Scrooge hypothesis: my writer’s block is an undigested bit of beef, a fragment of an underdone potato!) And I’ve heard the more mystical version, that it’s a force that comes along from time to time and that must be appeased through any of a number of superstitious rituals.

Having spent a lot of my leisure time playing games that involve lots of die-rolling, I understand the impulse in otherwise rational people to build up little rituals around the things we can’t directly control. Take a look at my dice some time, all lined up neatly and turned to display their maximum value, and you’ll see what I mean. But I’ve never found a satisfactory way of dealing with writer’s block, rational or not.

I’ve been banging my head against the next Fixer installment, off and on, for almost a year now. In a very real way that’s what caused me to go dark on Digital Busker itself for so long. I had decided that the next podcast needed to be a Fixer installment, but I couldn’t get it written. Feel free to point out how it’s better to put up something you hadn’t planned on writing than nothing at all. Maybe my brain will process that simple fact someday. Anyway, since the podcast is, in my mind, the flagship piece of the website, being stuck on that translated to being stuck on everything else. It wasn’t until I started working on my Month at the Museum application that I started really getting the itch to post something, anything, again, but even that’s getting held up by my block on Fixer.

So here I’m trying something new–I am going to try to exorcise my writer’s block by talking about it. If you recall, I had just gotten to the part of the story where the protagonists are separated. We followed Ransom for a while, and learned a little more about his Deal, but stopped in the middle of him trying to help some people he met along the way. I know basically what I want him to do about Thrist and Wren’s problem, and how it will work, including the hints that the action will contain about the Builders, the Rule, and some things in the world that I haven’t yet named. So I could write that.

I could also check in on Ursula. She disappeared, remember, at the end of Fixer 3, right before Eric and Fixer were captured. I know where she went, whom she’ll meet there, and what she’ll have to do to get back. There’s information about Ursula, the world, the Rule, and the magic system wrapped up in that plot as well. So I could write that.

The last thread there is of course Fixer and Eric. I want to follow them in their captivity for a while. Fixer will try to escape, and although at this point I don’t plan to let him succeed, he’s a pretty capable guy so he might just outsmart me. There are hints about the Rule, Eric, and even Fixer wrapped up in that plot. So I could write that.

The problem is, with the exception of the Fixer/Eric plot (which I decided to leave for last for tension/pacing purposes), I’ve already tried writing them. Ransom’s plot has been started and scrapped a few times, with two different viewpoint characters, and Ursula’s got about as far as the place where she diverges from the rest of the cast before sputtering out. I’m not really sure why I’m having so much trouble moving forward. It’s possible that my outline isn’t detailed enough–this is the first part of the story where the outline is actually important on an installment by installment basis. Always before I just knew which way they were going and wrote the journey. Now I have to juggle three different timelines and make sure everybody has the opportunity to meet up, and that’s more complicated than what I’ve done before. It isn’t really all that complicated objectively, especially not compared to the stories I hold as examples of the level to which I aspire, but it’s more complicated than what’s come before.

Perhaps I need to think more simply. I haven’t tried writing Ransom’s plot from Ransom’s point of view yet. I don’t really want to; I want to have a chance to seem him through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know him, and get a sense of how scary a were-bear can be. But neither Ivan nor Lord Nyard are speaking very eloquently so far. Maybe I can write it from Ransom’s point of view and then use that to write other points of view, either as interjections or as a new draft. It’s a thought, although part of me quails at the extra time being added to the project.

Something’s better than nothing, though, right?

Wish me luck. And if you have any sure-fire block breaking techniques you want to recommend, drop them in comments!

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Nonfiction, um, Tuesday: Month at the Museum

I have entered the Museum of Science and Industry‘s Month at the Museum contest. Part of the application was the creation of a one minute video, which I liked enough to share. Enjoy!

Month at the Museum Entry 2010 from Jacob Sewell on Vimeo.

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Nonfiction Monday: Questions and Desires

If one were to construct a profile of me from just what’s appeared on this site so far, there would be some glaring gaps. This is to be expected, of course, and it’s equally to be expected that as the content of the site grows, the gaps in that picture will asymptotically approach zero.

(See? Now you know I like to throw in big mathy words for no reason. Learning is fun!)

In particular, today I’m bringing an anecdote that relates to an important hobby of mine that hasn’t seen much screen time on Digital Busker so far: tabletop roleplaying games. Currently, in any given two week period, I play in two games and run one. This is way down from my lifetime max, which was something like six played and two run every two weeks (I was single then, and not particularly ambitious), but still a time commitment comparable to, say, the amount of time the “average American” spends watching TV in four days.

So back at the turn of the century, I ran a Wheel of Time campaign for a couple years. For those who a) care, and b) don’t already know, which is probably three people in the world, the Wheel of Time Roleplaying Game was a standalone d20-based game published by Wizards of the Coast, using a version of the then current Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition rules (what would later be referred to as 3.0) and based on the then-nine-book-long unfinished eponymous fantasy epic by the now-late Robert Jordan.

(Wow that was a terrible sentence. Good thing only three people in the world need to read it.)

There were a lot of problems with that campaign, both rules issues and things that I as the gamemaster should have done differently, but I remember it as being a lot of fun, and I tried some things back then that I might, from a position of additional experience, shy from now.

For instance: the Aelfinn and the Eelfinn. A little background: In the Wheel of Time books there are a pair of doorways that can each take you into another world, once. One door takes you to the Aelfinn, or colloquially “Snakes,” who will give you true answers to three questions and then send you home. The other door takes you to the Eelfinn, or colloquially “Foxes,” who will grant you three wishes (to the best of their ability) in exchange for a price that you must negotiate. Note that I didn’t say “and then send you home” this time. You generally have to use a wish for that. In the books, these two doorways are in wildly different parts of the world, and only one viewpoint character has related experiences through both. He went through the Snake door first and was unsatisfied with his answers. Later, upon encountering the Fox door, he went through hoping to get some more questions answered. He wound up making three wishes mostly by accident and without negotiating a price, and was hung for his trouble. Only the intervention of another character and some maybe-anachronistic CPR kept him alive to enjoy his boons.

So naturally I wanted to let my characters play around with these things, but I didn’t want to take them to the canonical location of either doorway. So I used another Wheel of Time MacGuffin, the World of Dreams, to get them to a doorway that could go to either place. We ended the session after they had all gone through, and I asked each player to think about whether “questions” or “desires” were more important to their character at that moment.

I wasn’t too worried about the… three? I think it was three, people who chose Questions and went to the Snakes. They might ask questions that would be difficult to turn into cryptic yet true answers, but at least their safe return to the world was guaranteed. So I handled them first, and sure enough, one of them managed to almost kill himself with a question. What was this question? “What is the Dark One currently planning?” The Dark One is a pandimensional being of… I’d say “pure evil,” but really He/She/It is so far beyond humanity that I’m not sure that label really applies. So the Snakes gave this character a glimpse of the view from that particular spot, which should by rights have burned his brain out faster than Lovecraftian slashfic. Only a very lucky die roll saved him from the looney bin. That wasn’t my favorite question, though. My favorite question, another character’s fourth of the agreed-upon three, was “Can I keep asking questions?” They answered that one on the house.

The Foxes, on the other hand, were somewhat more concerning. The only in-text example we have of their interactions with mortals paints them as tricky, not very nice, and unwilling to consider “but I didn’t know that” as a mitigating circumstance. So I started with my one player who was actually a fan of the series and had read all the books, figuring that I could count on him, at least, knowing how to get out of their world safely.

Such was not the case. He barged on through, made his requests, and never thought to negotiate a price or safe passage back home. So they, pretty much as they did in the book, called him an idiot and knocked him out. I was pretty sure that was it for him.

The second character to go through to the Foxes did manage to pick up on the hints I dropped and negotiate a price–he traded away his sense of smell. The third character, on the other hand, basically saved the day. His first wish was safe passage home for himself, his party, and their horses. Yes, he actually remembered the horses. That alone is amazing in an rpg. When it got around to haggling time, the Foxes were feeling a little cocky and tried to rattle him.

What should we take?
Let us take his ears!
Let us take his memories of home!
Let us take his sense of sight!

At this point, frustrated, the character broke in with “You’re about to get my sense of humor.”

It is done.

On paper, that character lost the least of any that went to the Foxes–the character who didn’t negotiate wound up losing his dark side, a la The Enemy Within, complete with evil doppleganger–but he roleplayed it so well that we all felt his loss.

And that’s why, seven or eight years later, I don’t remember what they actually wished for, and I certainly don’t remember what the other characters asked, but I remember taking Gavril’s sense of humor, because that informed his character for the rest of the game.


Nonfiction Monday: Avatar

So I saw Avatar yesterday.

It was very pretty.

For whatever reason, that wasn’t enough to distract me from the rest of it. I’ve heard from people that loved it for its visuals alone, were even moved by them emotionally. Perhaps my own ‘meh’ response is because we were promised something revolutionary, but the nicest thing I can say about it is that the performance capture cgi aliens weren’t all creepy. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t watch the Polar Express or Beowulf without getting squicked out, so non-creepy performance capture avatars (so to speak) is a huge step. But you can’t tell me that you couldn’t have given the same amount of money to Pixar and gotten better aliens with traditional computer animation methods.

More detailed and SPOILERy comments after the cut.

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Failed NaNo Friday: Headlong Part Three


“Ken, he’s been stuck in there for six hours now, in the dark. He’s hurt. He’s confused. We need to try to help him.” Cora was pacing, repeatedly running her fingers through her still damp hair. She’d let Ken talk her into sleep and then a shower while he and Stacy took turns guarding the door that used to lead to the kitchen. And she did feel better for it, but she couldn’t stand waiting outside any longer, not knowing what was probably happening behind the door. She’d barely exchanged three words with Ward since they’d met, but she knew all too well what he was going through, and no one deserved to have to deal with that alone.

“Cora, I hear you,” Ken began in his I-know-better tone, “but he was violent, and he’s probably worse now. We’re not equipped to restrain him without hurting him. We need to wait for…” he trailed off as footsteps approached on the porch. When Lucas stepped through the door, looking wrung out, Ken fell into such an obviously staged casual pose that Cora couldn’t help rolling her eyes.

For his part, Lucas burst out laughing. When he had his control back, he grinned and waggled his eyebrows at the two of them. “You, ah, working on the door there, Ken?” Following his gaze, Ken flushed when he saw the obvious signs of what he’d done six hours ago: the hammer propped against the jamb and the collection of small pieces of scrap wood jammed underneath the door as makeshift wedges. He put on a stern face and opened his mouth, but Lucas cut him off. “Hey, it’s cool. I don’t need to be asking any questions about any secret ninja witchcraft stuff.”

Ken turned even redder. “We are not witches!”

Lucas’s grin widened, and he winked as he backed across the room. “So, just ninjas then. Gotcha. Mum’s the word.”

As Lucas disappeared into the hall Cora wondered Where was he all night? Then realization hit her and she was chasing after him. “Lucas, wait up!”

Lucas stopped at the door to his bedroom and leaned casually against the wall. His face was serious, though. “What can I do for you, Cora?”

Cora stopped at the foot of the stairs and grabbed the top of the post with both hands. “Lucas, where did you go last night?”

A little sarcasm slipped back in with his reply, “A gentleman never tells, my dear.”

Cora shook her head. “Badly phrased. Did you see Ward last night?”

He nodded. “Yeah. I dropped by his place pretty soon after I left here, and we hung out for a while. Why?”

“Did he seem… strange?”

Lucas suddenly looked around uncomfortably. “Cora, where’s Gunner?”

Cora leaned forward intently. “I haven’t seen him since last night. Why, did Ward do something to him?”

“What? To him? No. We just talked. It, ah, turns out Gunner is Ward’s older brother, and they don’t get along, but I don’t think he would have done anything, no.”

Cora’s eyes narrowed. “Then why did you just get so nervous?”

Lucas rolled his eyes. “Because I’m tragically genre-savvy. Saying ‘Yeah, girl, turns out your boyfriend is my best friend’s older brother, but get this, my man Ward says your main squeeze is a sociopath,’ is a one way ticket to ‘He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he.’ It’s called ‘class,’ dear. And speaking of class, my aforementioned main man is way too classy to have done anything sneaky to Gunner, bad blood or no bad blood.”

Cora nodded and grimaced. “Normally I’d just take your word for that, but Ward wasn’t himself last… Wait, what do you mean, ‘sociopath?'”

“His word, not mine. He says it’s always like it’s been this week with… with us. Says Gunner comes on all charm and cool at first, then when he gets bored he gets mean, and eventually he just vanishes down the road again, and if you’re lucky you didn’t lend him your car or your…” Lucas trailed off, obviously searching for a replacement for the word he didn’t want to say.

“Heart.” Cora finished. “Well, that’s not good news for anyone.” She stopped and shifted uncomfortably under the weight of what she knew she was about to ask.

Lucas capitalized on the silence as he so often did. “What’s going on with Ward, Cora? What do you know about who he was last night?”

Cora sighed and closed her eyes for a second, gathering herself. “Ward needs help, Lucas. You can help me help him, if you’re willing to get involved with our secrets. But it won’t be pretty.”

Lucas stepped toward her, scowling. “Does Ward need help because he got involved with your secrets, Cora? Did you guys drag him into something?”

“Yes and no, in that order. I don’t know how it happened. If we’re lucky he’ll be able to fill us in when he’s out of danger. I’ve told you all I can tell you unless you’re going on.”

Lucas sighed and rubbed his tired eyes. Then he dropped his hands to his sides and nodded solemnly. “I’m in. Now what’s going on?”

Cora stepped around the post and held her hands up in front of her, as though in prayer. “Not just yet. Hold your hands up like this.” Lucas raised an eyebrow but did so. Cora then clasped her hands around his and held them tightly. “Repeat after me. I, Lucas Martin…”

“I, Lucas Martin…”

“…will keep the secrets that Cora asks me to keep, listen to Cora when she tries to tell me something important, and generally not be a jerk.” Lucas bit back a laugh and repeated her, and she smiled but did not release his hands. “And I, Cora Lessing, will try to keep you from getting in over your head, not keep secrets from you for no reason, and generally not be a jerk. In the light of order, let it be so.” She nodded at him by way of prompting, and he repeated the last sentence.

“Good,” she said, releasing his hands. “Let’s get you a cup of coffee while I give you the short, short version.”


Five minutes later they sat at the kitchen table. Lucas was experimentally sipping a cup of instant coffee and Cora was wracking her brain for a way to explain quickly the broad strokes of what he would need to know. “You know the word ‘chaos,’ right?” She waited for Lucas to nod and continued. “Only what you know is small-c chaos, the absence of order. The same way that cold is the absence of heat. What we’re dealing with is big-c Chaos, which is a force all by itself. True Chaos is capable of literally anything, but it burns itself out quickly. The world just won’t accept it for long. But when it goes, things are… different. When a person encounters Chaos, it drives them insane if it doesn’t kill them. But sometimes, and we don’t really know why it happens when it happens, sometimes people survive, and manage to keep, or rather regain, their sanity. And those people wind up with… secrets. Like me, and Ken, and Stacy.”

“Ninja witchcraft secrets?”

“Essentially. We can all do… tricks, I guess. This is coming out all wrong.” Cora shook her head in frustration. “I’m distilling too much and it’s coming out stupid.”

Lucas set down his coffee and held up a hand placatingly. “This is just the short short version, so let’s focus on what’s up with Ward, hmm? I’ll ask more questions later.”

Cora nodded. “Okay. Ward showed up last night, hostile and raving. I know it doesn’t sound like him–from the little I’ve been around him, I’d say it’s not like him. But it happened. I suppose he could just have gone crazy, but I have reason to believe that he survived a brush with Chaos and was suffering the aftereffects.”

Lucas dropped his hand. “Is he all right? What did you do with him?”

“We… we trapped him, Lucas, and soon we’re going to have to go in and see if he’s all right. That’s where you could help us out. You know him better than any of us, you have the best chance of getting through to him if he’s still confused.”

Lucas looked over at the door from the kitchen into the living room. “Is this connected to Ken’s sudden home improvement project?”

“Yeah. We trapped him behind the kitchen door and then Ken wedged it shut.”

Lucas shook his head. “I know I’m going to regret saying this, but, you do realize that we’re behind the kitchen door, right?”

Cora let herself smile a genuine smile. “Not exactly. Come with me, this is really cool.” Cora led Lucas, still holding his coffee, back to the living room the long way. Ken was still leaning on the wall. “Ken,” Cora said, “Lucas has agreed to go in with me and look for Ward. Would you open the door?”

Ken looked sour, but he nodded and set to work. As he knocked wedges free, Cora pulled a pair of flashlights from her backpack, then zipped the pack closed and shrugged it on. Lucas just took a long drink from his coffee and waited. Ken finished with the hammer, set it aside, and cleared an errant chunk of wood from the door’s space. “Lucas,” he said, “I assume Cora’s told you that we’ve got certain talents. Well, this is mine.” After a beat, Ken swung the door open. Where the kitchen should have been, there was instead a dark empty room. Bare, smooth concrete floor and ceiling stretched as far as the light let them see, and there was no sign of any wall.

Lucas sighed and drained his coffee.

“I… I wasn’t expecting this reaction, Lucas, I’ll be honest,” Ken said.

Lucas just shook his head and walked up to the door. He set his coffee mug down just on the edge of the carpet, then used the hammer to push it across onto the concrete. Then he stood up and walked out of the room. After a few seconds of confused anticipation, Ken jumped aside as an apple bounced out of the door, unseen until it cleared the threshold. Lucas stepped through after it, shaking his head. “I was really hoping you guys were just crazy.”

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Episode 7: Vesep

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Links from the intro

Show Notes

  • 0:00 – Intro
  • 2:50 – Vesep
  • 14:30 – Outro

This week I bring a cautionary tale for any young wizards out there.

–Jake out

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Episode 6: PepWatch 12 Week Two

Download Episode 6: PepWatch 12 Week Two

Links from the intro

Show Notes

  • 0:00 – Intro
  • 4:30 – PepWatch 12: Week Two
  • 15:40 – Outro

The continued adventures of YouBee from

–Jake out

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Failed NaNo Friday: America’s Next Failed NaNo

So, at the time this will post there will be thirty six hours left until the beginning of NaNoWriMo 2009. I almost said thirty seven there, because of Daylight Savings, but the time change officially happens at 2:00 AM on Sunday, November 1st. So take heart, NaNo Warriors! This November is actually a whole hour longer than it would first appear!

Now I’ve got no excuse for not getting fifty thousand words written by the deadline.

So, as I mentioned in the podcast yesterday, it’s now time for me to figure out what the heck I’m going to try to write this year. I have a vague notion that I’d like to involve the Philadelphia Experiment in some way, but beyond that I’m pretty blank.

I don’t want to try to tell the story of the Philadelphia Experiment directly, by the way–that ground’s been pretty well covered already, I think. I just think it’s a fun concept, and might make good background for some kind of near future thriller.

Updates as thoughts come to me, and feel free to make wacky suggestions in the comments, or, better yet, describe what you’d write for NaNoWriMo.

–Jake out

Update: As I Tweeted earlier, this morning I woke up with the basic idea. The Philadelphia Experiment stays, for now, albeit as deep background. Plot? Characters? Outline? I have no need of such things. For I… have an idea! We’ll see if that’s enough to get “Saving Lives” off the ground.

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