It’s the In-Between That’s a Killer

If you’re a fanatical planner/outliner, this isn’t a problem for you. I can’t deny it would make life easier if I could plan out every novel completely before starting to write. I always have at least a general idea of how the plot is going to work itself out, and may even have some of the details, and have written (sometimes just in my head) whole scenes and dialogues. But as a general rule, I go into the real work of writing with a skeleton that has lots of bones missing. In between what I do know is a tremendous amount that I don’t know, and that’s the scary part of developing a novel.

The number of questions that have to be answered can make the actual writing look like an enormous boulder with smooth sides that provide not a single handhold, no way to get from here to there, there being a finished work with all the problems solved. To an outsider, it may look as if the months and years spent before tackling the real work are just procrastination. You’ve given up in the face of the enormity of the task. And there may be something to that. But it’s in those months and years that the problems are solved, the questions are answered. And it’s possible that the solutions and answers work better than the ones you come up with when you’re trying to force your way forward, setting up some kind of deadline that you want to meet.

A Well-Educated Boy is what’s most on my mind these days, and it’s a perfect example of the virtues of “procrastination.” One of the important themes in the novel is the question of why Harte’s best friend killed himself. Why kill off a character if you don’t already know why he does it? This is one of the great mysteries of writing, that you can make your characters perform for you without having any idea of their motivations. They do what they do because the plot requires it. But you can’t stop there. Without real, believable motivations, they will be nothing but puppets, and the readers will most likely catch on to it.

So, for months now, I’ve been trying to find a reason, or reasons, why Zach would kill himself. I found plenty of them, but none rang true, none brought anything important to the overall needs of the book. Until a couple of days ago. The feeling, when that happened, was a lot like finding a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle and sliding it perfectly into its place. But more intense. One more in-between solved. One more handhold on that enormous boulder. And a little less fear.

Nudge, Poke, and a Swift Kick

There’s writer’s block, and there’s just… there’s no word for it. It’s about much more than not being able to write. It’s about not even caring that I can’t write — or do much of anything beyond the basics of everyday living. And this has been going on for weeks, with no end in sight. There are any number of equally possible — and rational — reasons, but none that offer a way out.

I can’t help but notice the number of articles on the effect of Trump’s presidency on the country’s mental health. That’s kind of easy to pooh pooh, at first. Until I realize how much of my mental paralysis is focused on the sense that a deadly shoe is waiting to drop, and that all other issues, including those that really aren’t trivial, appear to be so trivial as to either fade away or become the fodder for a kind of hysterical attention-suck in the media. We are living in a world where the terrible costs of human trafficking, political corruption, attacks on free speech, attacks on women, people of color, people of alternate sexualities, etc., etc., seem of little importance when placed in a larger context, a context that can render them all completely irrelevant.

It isn’t just Americans who have to live daily with knowing that one out-of-control man has the power to render every humanistic concern secondary to sheer survival. Suddenly, my regret that my age will keep me from seeing how the next few decades of the future play out is replaced by the very real possibility of future horrors that I don’t want to see.

This isn’t the only thing that’s keeping me in a state of mental and emotional paralysis, but the rest is personal and private. I haven’t given up trying to break through that paralysis, even if, as usual, most methods don’t work. So it’s an act of desperation that I signed up for NaNoWriMo again. The notes for A Well-Educated Boy keep piling up, and the story haunts me, but nothing is happening. Maybe NaNo will be the swift kick that breaks everything loose, or maybe nothing will continue to happen.But at least I’m going to give it a try.

The World We Don’t See

The world we don’t see is the one that we are most deeply embedded in — the everyday world around us. An article about the latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro highlighted something that will be an ongoing concern for me, in writing A Well-Educated Boy — the initial obliviousness of the central character to the truths of his existence, and his gradual recognition of them.

“He (Ishiguro) can describe things about our world that nobody else can. In Never Let Me Go, that thing, I think, is the crushing weight of circumstance on our lives. The place in space, history, and social hierarchy that we occupy is an accident of birth and a cage, Ishiguro shows—one that our humanity resists.”

I’m reminded of my own growing up in the deep south, in a large metropolitan area that, even in the 1950s, remained trapped in the racially divided 19th century. It wasn’t until many years after I had graduated that it even came to my consciousness that my high school of over 900 students didn’t have a single black student. That I had never had black school mates at any time, from 1st grade on.

Luckily for me, my parents were transplanted, educated, politically liberal northerners, not native southerners. So I grew up free any specific prejudices, along with my total ignorance.

Harte Simmons is  just as ignorant and naive, life in his idyllic little town protecting him from the problems and the growing violence of the rest of the world. I’m still working out how to make his life very ordinary and at the same time, drop hints, or foreshadow, the slow development of his awareness that something is very wrong in Burgundy. The “man behind the curtain” is not a dictator. There is no power-hungry madman lurking behind the scenes. Nevertheless, Burgundy is a kind of dystopia that will probably never be recognized as such by the vast majority of its inhabitants.

Fairly soon, I’m going to have to reread Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go because my very impatience (and boredom) with its description of the school and the lives of its students, when I read it years ago, may be the clue I need to how to accomplish my goals.

On Not Publishing a Finished Novel

Now that A Perfect Slave no longer exists, except, unavoidably, in the Time Machine on my backup drive, I find myself thinking about its history, from original vague idea to its completion and the decision not to publish it. Why did I write it? Had I originally planned to publish it, and if I did, why did I change my mind?

I did always plan to publish it, up until the first time I trashed it, but publication was only one of the reasons I wrote it. In the back of my mind there was the knowledge that people who’d read and enjoyed the two Boundaries novels very likely would want to delve deeper in the world of Carhagen’s hand slaves. But delving deeper became kind of an obsession for me, for my own reasons. Where the central character of the Boundaries novels was an adult kidnapped from his own country and forced into slavery, the central character in Perfect Slave started as a child of free citizens, taken into the system when his parents were enslaved for debt, and trained for three years as a hand slave.

What I wanted to explore was the psychology involved in turning a child into a slave. What kind of adult would such a child become? The first version wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t really satisfied with it. Rather than revise it, I decided to regard it as a kind of craft practice piece. The version I wound up with after raising it from the dead, doing some revisions, and expanding it by about 5,000 words was quite respectable. Maybe it still wasn’t as good as it might potentially might have been, but enough was enough, in terms of the time invested in it.

The main reason I decided that even this new version wouldn’t see the light of day was that my slave-fantasy writing was in danger of overshadowing whatever else I might manage to write in the time left to me. Three slave-fantasy novels, plus a short story. In pursuit of a better balance, I also took the short story, Within the Silence, down from Amazon and Smashwords, so I’m left with the two Boundaries novels and not very much else at the moment.

I still have some slavery plots that I’d like to work out fully if I can ever find the time, but they are more science fiction than fantasy — possible futures in which slavery has, in one form or another, surfaced as an area of social and economic concern in the United States.

And A Perfect Slave? Do I regret destroying all that work? In a way, yes. I’ve invested a great deal in the hand slaves universe, aside from the time and energy I put into it. I could easily write several more novels and short stories within that universe. In fact, I had a couple more started. But I don’t consider the time spent on it wasted — at all. With every novel I write, I try to learn more about the craft of writing, and use that to create more believable characters and settings. I think I did that with A Perfect Slave. The final draft was significantly better than the original one, so I accomplished something that’s very important to me: becoming a better writer. Balancing the pros and cons, I’d say that made it worth the effort.

Catching Up — Again

I’m way, way behind on everything: blogging, writing, housework. So A Perfect Slave is just where it was several weeks ago, and I’ve done practically nothing with A Well-Educated Boy. Any kind of work that takes the least physical effort has been blind-sided by health issues, and creativity doesn’t do any better. At the moment, I’m transcribing three hand-written pages for a friend’s blog, a task I’m spreading out over two days, plus I owe him a letter, so that’s the big deal right now.

But I did suddenly find the answer while reading an article on The Prisoner tv series, just a little while ago, to a major question about Well-Educated Boy. A good deal of the preliminary work before I start the actual writing is asking a lot of questions about plot, characters, motivation, etc. This particular issue wasn’t super-critical, but it’s one that some readers might have noticed as a weakness in the plot. So that’s a step forward, even though I won’t get around to developing it immediately.

Not off-topic, if you are in the slightest oriented toward science fiction, I highly recommend the article: We Are All Prisoners of the Police State’s Panopticon Village. And it reminds me once again that I really would like to watch The Prisoner again one of these days, though it will mean having to buy the series.

Be seeing you.

September 14 — Mid-month Odds and Ends

I just received a request for a review of a book that I apparently downloaded when it was offered as a freebie. I didn’t recognize the title and wondered if the request was a mistake. So I bopped over to Amazon and read the blurb and the sample. The blurb actually made me wonder why I had been interested in reading the book (a novelette), and the sample reminded me, very vaguely, of what it was about. I’d already deleted it, which means that it didn’t interest me enough to keep it. In fact, rereading the sample didn’t even arouse any memories of the rest of the story. And that’s true of most of the books I download, either as freebies, or as reasonably priced gambles on unknown authors — they simply don’t offer anything memorable. Another factor in my erasure of the book may have been that it is the first of a series. On the whole, most series aren’t worth following up, so unless the first volume is exceptionally exciting, I’m not going on to the next. So, no review

I’m still having so much trouble with the timeline of A Well-Educated Boy that I’ve decided not to write the first draft in any kind of order. So I have the first chapter on my Alphasmart Neo, which I can work on sitting comfortably in the livingroom, and the chapter in which he’s told he’s going to Porter Alternative School (which comes quite a bit later) is in Scrivener, on the computer. I’ll probably write the entire novel that way: scenes and chapters in whatever order they present themselves to me, and then fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Set Me Free is still hanging, more a cloud of ideas, quotes, and possible approaches than something that looks as if it might be a real book. Having given up on the academic approach some time back, I’ve been playing around (in my head) with experimental approaches. The latest brainstorm is to include excerpts from some of my prison short stories, or even write new fictional pieces to supplement (enhance?) more usual methods of presenting the material.

Someone bought a copy of Hidden Boundaries on Smashwords a few days ago. They must have liked it because Crossing Boundaries followed. Of course I’m assuming they were both sold to the same person, which might not be the case. If the buyer is one of my blog readers, thank you very much, and I do hope you enjoy the books. Why do I make a point of these sales? Because it’s been a long time since I’ve had any sales at all on Smashwords, so getting two within days of each other is a mood booster.

A reminder to anyone who’s a fan of those two books and is waiting eagerly for A Perfect Slave, this third book does take place in the hand slaves universe, but is a standalone, not a sequel. Be patient please. I haven’t made any progress lately on getting it published, but will try to get my nose back to the grindstone.

To NaNo or Not to Nano

There are more years lately when the question doesn’t even come up. Either I know that I definitely won’t be participating, or that I will. No hesitation, no agonizing. But even when I tell myself that I’ve done my last NaNo, the possibility nags. It’s particularly naggy this year. And particularly confused.

I tentatively thought I would spend September and October working on the massive rewrite of Gift of the Ancien, and leave A Well-Educated Boy for NaNo. Well, that isn’t an option anymore because Boy has been agitating to be written and I did peck out about 500 words yesterday, nearly 1,000 today so far, with plans to keep at it.

That leaves me only two possible ideas for NaNo, one of them nonfiction. I really need to get going on Set Me Free, the book on the death penalty, but I don’t know whether all the quotes (and there will be a lot of them) can be counted against the 50,000 words. Probably not. But I certainly can’t leave them out because they’re the basic framework of the book. And I’m not sure the intense pressure of NaNo will be conducive to how I want to write it.

That leaves Empire of Masks, a sort of fantasy. It’s the only story that has accumulated sufficient notes as a basis for further development, and that has very little text that would have to be discarded if I were to commit it to NaNo. Still… While it’s a story I would like to write someday, it doesn’t have very high priority in my mind.

I don’t even know why in the world I’m trying to work my way into doing NaNo in November, at a time when I really shouldn’t. Maybe it’s just because I’ve done it for so many years, that it’s, in a way, a part of my life that I don’t want to abandon.

What makes a whole lot more sense is to go ahead with Boy for September and October and try to get it published before the end of the year. If I can get it out of the way, that would leave me free to tackle Gift of the Ancien. Like Empire of Masks, it’s somwhat of a fantasy, but more science fictionish, and it has been hanging fire for so long that I’m in danger of taking it to the grave with me.

Oh, whatever will I do? Someone help me to my fainting couch, please.

Slow Progress is Better than No Progress

Nothing much got done around here for the last few days, so A Perfect Slave is slipping further and further behind my mythological publishing schedule. But here is the cover, still waiting for a few tweaks, but essentially what you’ll see on the ebook.

I still have to compile the text into epub format, and write the blurb, decide on the categories and tags, and do some backmatter, like point readers to the first two novels.

I’m pretty tired of the hassle involved in getting a title into Smashwords, and sales there have become so rare that it really isn’t worth bothering. I’ve been thinking about switching over to D2D (Draft2Digital), but a new blog post by David Gaughran, who’s become more or less a guru of self-publishing, advocates for using Amazon’s KU. So that’s something else to think about. I’ve never given Amazon an exclusive on any of my books, but I need to do something new. Even if it’s not the right thing, I’ll never know unless I try it.


A Perfect Slave, the Final Stretch — Excerpt

I’ve done everything I can do to improve A Perfect Slave. Now it’s up to ProWritingAid to winkle out all the little details I’ve overlooked. Twenty-two chapters won’t be done in a day. I’ll give it three days, and use the breaks to create the cover and write a blurb that will be irresistible. I’m way overdue on my own deadline, but since I didn’t drag it out too unreasonably, I’ll celebrate by offering one last excerpt.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

I served him [Master Chanow] for three wonderful years and I thought I would stay with him always, but he betrayed me. I have no right to use that word or to feel that way, and it isn’t how I thought about it at the time, but living in Trusland has changed me. I’m sure Master Chanow thought he was doing the right thing, that he was acting for my benefit. At least, that’s what I was told later. But I did come to see it as a betrayal.

My master was not only kind, he sensed what I needed and kept a firm hand on me. I grew to be fond of him and thought of him almost as a friend. He trained me in his profession, architecture, taught me drafting, how to read blueprints, how to make materials estimates, and much more. Maybe I learned too well, given what happened.

He told me many times that I had a talent for the work, and it bothered him that I could never have a career, or work in any capacity other than as his assistant. He would give me assignments to work on at home while he was at away at his studio, and during the last months, we worked together in the evenings, constructing a model for a new building he had designed. It was a fantastical thing of graceful arches and floating pavilions that looked as if it would be beautiful and terribly expensive.

He wouldn’t tell me the purpose of the building, promising that I would find out when it was complete. I loved working on it with him, cutting the tiny pieces of wood to exact measure and gluing them in place. Helping him create something that might become a reality in the free world was deeply satisfying. Then, one evening, it was finished. I expected that now he would finally tell me what it was for, but he said that I would find out the next day. I was disappointed, and also sad that we wouldn’t be working on it together any more. But there was also the thrill of anticipation. I would learn what the building was to be used for. And maybe we would also be starting on another such project soon.

He prepared to go to work as usual the next morning, and just before he went to the door, he pointed to the model and said “It’s a sacrifice. Whatever happens today, I promise you’ll be all right. Good luck, Shand.” It was the last time I ever saw him.

I remember just standing there, staring at the closed door with my mind spinning in utter confusion. A sacrifice. His words didn’t make any sense, but they made me apprehensive. It was so different from anything I would have expected from him. Why would anything happen? Something was wrong, but I couldn’t get hold of what it might be. I walked around the table that held the model and tried to find some meaning in its being a sacrifice. As I worked on the day’s assignments and the household chores, I kept trying to puzzle it out. ‘Whatever happens.’ ‘Good luck.’ There was a sick lurch in my stomach when it hit me. He was going to sell me back to the agency! Why? What had I done wrong? Why hadn’t he told me… something, anything?

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t think of anything I had done that would make him angry enough to sell me. Or was it a lot of little things that he let build up until he was too disgusted to want me around anymore? He hadn’t acted any different toward me lately, not that I could remember. I tried to give up thinking about it because I didn’t want to Master Chanow to see that I was upset when he came home.

An hour or so after midmeal, I was walking around the model, thinking about all the work that had gone into making it and imagining what it would look like when it was built. It gave me a good feeling to think that a little part of me could be out in the world someday. Maybe Master Chanow would even take me to see it. I heard a noise at the front door and went to see who it was. It was unusual for that time of day, but I didn’t have any reason to be worried about it.

Before I reached the door, there was an enormous bang and it was smashed open. I was so stunned at the sight of three men in uniforms that I couldn’t even move as they burst into the house and went straight to the workroom. One of them pushed me out of the way and stood at the door, keeping watch, while the other two starting sweeping books from the shelves onto the floor, and scattering blueprints and sketches everywhere. Then, to my horror, one of them brought his fist down on the model and sent the delicate pieces flying in every direction.

OmniOutliner to the Rescue

Now that I’m down to the last chapter of A Perfect Slave, I’m switching some of my synapses over to A Well-Educated Boy. It’s taken forever to decide what point of view I want to use, and have finally settled on first person. The other big question mark was about where to start the darned thing. For better or worse, I’ll be using a lot of flashbacks, in order to start where the real action is, but most of them will be very short, some as short as a single sentence.

And I just had a flash. One effect of the flashbacks is to show that Harte is obsessed with the past, especially about his dead friend, Zack. I hadn’t thought of him as being obsessed, but now I can see that it’s an important part of his personality and influences how he sees the world around him. Yes, even after five years of working with this project, I’m still learning about the central character.

It’s very possible that this will be my first novel that’s developed from a full-scale outline. I don’t normally do outlines because my stories are usually straight chronologies and I can allow them to grow organically. Boy is a different kind of beast. Not only will there be many, many flashbacks, but the story will move from the main events to where Harte is, geographically and psychologically, after the main events.

I’m a little slow on the uptake, but I did finally realize that I’m not going to be able to pull together a coherent story from a vague idea of what happens when. So I pulled out my ancient copy of OmniOutliner, hoping that it still works after a multitude of Mac OS upgrades. And it does, by golly. I bought it in 2007, it’s been a few years since I used it, and I’d only used it for a variety of lists. Organizing a novel in it will be an entirely new experience. OmniOutliner has a notes feature that makes all the difference from using an old-fashioned outline. And of course, all modern outliners allow you to shift things around easily, which is probably going to happen a lot, but being able to insert notes is pretty crucial.

One reason I’ve been putting off serious work on Boy is its complexity and the potential for a lot of frustration in pulling everything together. Maybe, using the outliner, it won’t be the problem it was shaping up to be.

A Well-Educated Boy — Random Thoughts

9/5/12 — That’s when I created the Scrivener project for A Well-Educated Boy. Five years ago. It probably started as little more than a bare bones idea, and it isn’t atypical for how long I can work on a project. In August of last year, I was apparently considering devoting November to actually writing it, during NaNoWriMo . It didn’t happen, and even now, though I have tons of notes and a very good idea of how it will turn out, I’ve written only a few thousand words of possible text.

As is usual with me, now that I’m stepping into the deep waters, I’m already thinking ahead to promotion. Several years ago, I posted segments of a novel on Wattpad for a while, but found that the effort of attracting attention was just too time-consuming. Quite a few people say that there is good writing on Wattpad, but finding it is a frustrating exercise in skimming hundreds of pathetic attempts at creativity. So, making yourself known by commenting and rating can be an exercise in futility.

And yet — I still, now and then, give some thought to trying it again. The young adult audience is built in, and a recent commenter on a writer forum said that there is a significant audience on Wattpad for dystopian/post-apocalypse fiction. Boy isn’t post-apocalypse, and its dystopian elements aren’t as exciting as stories like The Hunger Games or Divergence. It isn’t an action novel, and unlike Hunger Games and Divergence, it isn’t more fantasy than science fiction. So is there an audience for a young adult/dystopian novel that is more thoughtful than action-oriented? I have plenty of time to think about it, so I’m not inclined to say yay or nay right now.

August 26 Weekend Notes

A random bunch of stuff, some of it inspired by current online reading. You’d be surprised how much interesting writing there is on the net, hidden away in obscure corners. I just read ruminations on the possible end of science fiction on a blog that barely exists (three posts, and the most recent the first one since 2014). Get it up to speed, Steve.

Steve’s post led me into stating, once again, my proclivity for reality-based SF, both as a reader and a writer. Which led to A Well-Educated Boy, which is always on my mind these days. As part of tracking its progress, I plan to write a post (sooner or later) about some of the real-life resources that I’ll be drawing on. There’s a lot of weird, and sometimes scary, stuff going on in the field of education, and most of it is unknown to the general public. I’m considering actually adding those links as an appendix to the book. It’s rare for a novel to have an appendix of any kind, but they do turn up now and then. I’m thinking specifically of Peter Watts’s appendices at the end of both of his Firefall novels: Blindsight and Echopraxia.

I recently signed up (again) for NaNoWriMo. After years of participating, I’ve been in a fence-sitting position about it for the last two or three years. I’ve gotten everything I can out of it. No, it’s still useful, if only for forcing me to really concentrate on one writing project long enough to get it done. I just don’t have time for that kind of commitment anymore. Not true; as much time as I waste (weeks spent without writing a single word), devoting 30 days to one novel is hardly a bump in the timeline.

Whether I’ll actually go through with it (I signed up but changed my mind before it even started last year) is up in the air. I want to finish editing A Perfect Slave this month, but I’m way behind. I’d like to spend September and October concentrating on A Well-Educated Boy, but I know how that kind of plan goes.

Procrastination has always been one of my middle names, and knowing that it’s at least partially due to having an actual disability in executive functioning is not an acceptable excuse. Nor is having ADD and truly serious problems with distractibility. Or the current physical problems that have more or less turned my life upside down, damn it. I don’t write for money or fame, thank goodness because they would be terrible motivators. But even writing because I have to write has trouble overcoming my neurological glitches. It’s a constant fight, and sometimes I’m just too tired to deal with it. When that happens I bury myself in reading the stacks of books I always have on hand, and they do, though not often enough, strike sparks that can get me back in front of the computer.

Sparks are happening more frequently lately, not consistently, but at least starting little fires that I can blow on and try to encourage into big, bright blazes.