Excerpt: A Perfect Slave, Chapter Five

Our new “home” was the Special Services Agency, which would play such a large part in my life over the coming years. After breakfast the next morning, in a dining room much smaller than the one at the Center, we were taken, without any explanation, to a small waiting room and left there. As I knelt there with the others, just as if we were in class, the differences from the Center began to be apparent. Chairs were lined up along the side walls, but it didn’t occur to any of us that we might be expected to use them. I noticed that the walls weren’t white, but a color I had to wrack my brains to remember — a soft green. Every so often, one of us would be summoned into the next room. When he was brought back out, he sat down on one of the chairs. I happened to be the last one, and observed the others’ discomfort as they sat. When I was finally taken into the other room, a voice told me to be seated.

I raised my head enough to see a large desk with a chair in front of it. I sat down on the very edge of the chair, but was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of having done something wrong. At the Center, we sat on the floor or on the benches in the dining hall, not on chairs, and I feared that this was a trick. I was so distracted by the problem that I was badly startled when the man sitting behind the desk spoke. “Do you know where you are, Shand?”

I was caught between surprise and panic. The world had suddenly become a dangerous place where I didn’t know what was expected of me. Someone had spoken my name for the first time in three years, but only to ask a question that had no obvious right answer. I was in a room in a building, but I was sure that couldn’t be what the man wanted. Would I be punished for not knowing? I might have lied, if that possibility had occurred to me, but lying was no longer in my repertoire of behavior. The man was waiting, and I had to say something, right or wrong.

I could hear my voice shaking when I replied, “No, Master.” But there was no punishment. Instead, I learned that the Special Services Agency had bought my entire group and would be responsible for finding owners for us.

“I’m Master Kenrick. I will be your counselor and placement officer. You will stay here at the agency and continue with your education and general training. I will be responsible for your adjustment and whatever new training is necessary to assure that you meet our standards and are ready to be offered for sale. If and when your owner no longer needs your services, you will return here and wait for another buyer. We will also supply whatever specialized training an owner might require.”

I didn’t understand what that meant. If they were going to sell me, this place must be a slave market. I didn’t know much about them, only what my friends from before the Center had passed around. The markets were supposed to be terrible places where the slaves were chained together, naked, for display. People would look them over, and examine their bodies, even their privates. I was accustomed to being touched and handled by my master, but the prospect of having strangers do it was frightening. I could only hope that someone would buy me very quickly.

To my astonishment, Master Kenrick began to speak about my accomplishments at the Center. The only way we knew whether we were doing well or badly in our studies had been punishment or lack of it. Now I learned that my teachers had considered me an exceptional student. There was no danger that I would succumb to pride because of that revelation. Any tendency in that direction had been thoroughly destroyed. In any case, Master Kenrick made it perfectly clear that it had nothing to do with me as an individual. I was merely a product, an admirable example of the Center’s training methods.

The next surprise came when Master Kenrick said I was free to ask him questions. Was there anything that I’d like to know? It was useless permission for someone who hadn’t been allowed to speak freely for three years, much less ask any questions. The only question I could dredge up from my overloaded mind was whether I would really be chained and naked at the market, but I was afraid to hear the answer. I expected him to be angry when I said that I didn’t have any questions. Instead, he assured me that there would be other opportunities, and he would explain anything that I needed to know.

Years later, looking back over my life, my first time at Special Services stands out sharply. Everything about it was so different from my experiences at the Center that I was in a state of confusion. But Master Kenrick did exactly as he had said. When I was able to formulate some questions at our next meeting, he answered them to my satisfaction and encouraged me to speak without fear of being punished. He even seemed to be concerned for my well-being. He was a kindly man, even though he was a slave dealer, and someone the citizens of Trusland would certainly disapprove of or possibly consider downright evil. That belief in his good intentions was a measure of my ignorance and naiveté at the time. If it had been anyone but Master Kenrick, I would have been disillusioned very quickly.

We were kept busy with classes — mostly review — and regular exercise periods, for which I was grateful. As comfortable as kneeling for long periods had eventually become, my body still needed movement. After all, I was young and full of energy. Physical education classes at the Center had focused on the development of lean, muscular bodies. Special Services made sure we remained in good physical condition. Potential buyers would want to see handsome, well-toned bodies, so our looks and physical fitness would be an important factor in our sale.

The time there was easy, even pleasant, compared to the rigorous routines of the Center. At first, I was overwhelmed by the colors and sounds, especially the sound of people speaking to each other. My master’s apartment had been only slightly more colorful than the rest of the Center, and he never spoke to me except to give me commands, or explanations, if I needed them.

After the week of orientation, we were given individual schedules and were free to come and go without supervision. That was another big adjustment. For several days, I felt lost, and was afraid of doing something wrong. We were even allowed some time for ourselves, which was another difficult adjustment, but brought me great pleasure. When I wasn’t in classes, I spent much of my free time in the well-stocked library, adding to my store of knowledge, and exploring subjects that had been ignored in the Center.

Our instructors treated us like human beings and encouraged us to discuss what we were learning. That was a learning process in itself. After three years of near-total silence, our speech was stilted and we tended to say as little as possible. For a long time, a few of the boys remained too fearful to say much, speaking only when they were directly addressed. We were even allowed to chat with one another, an amazing privilege that none of us would have expected. We came to know each other as individuals with names and personalities. Eventually, even the most timid boys began to accept that they wouldn’t be punished for speaking out. We learned to laugh, to express our feelings, to have opinions. We regained some of our humanity, but our previous training and our new instructors’ more gentle admonitions ensured that we never strayed from the standards to which we had been trained.

The Three-Act Structure? Oh. Finally Got It

I have a bad, lifelong, habit of automatically rejecting anything that I can’t understand immediately without having to work at comprehension. Very bad habit. Whatever it is that doesn’t ring immediate bells has to look as if it might be very, very interesting, or unpleasantly necessary, for me to take a second and even a third look.

So the subject of structure in fiction keeps coming up, and I keep trying to figure out why I should bother trying to understand it when structure seems to come to me pretty naturally. That might be my ego talking, of course, but everything I read about structure and the debates over how many acts a book should have, and why the three-act structure is the most natural, seem terribly abstract and unrelated to the reality of getting a story put together.

But in the midst of pondering the development of A Well-Educated Boy the other day, it hit me. Boy quite naturally and all too obviously, uses the three-act structure. So two things happened. First, I was sort of confirmed in my belief that I tend to find the appropriate structures for my books without having to give it much thought. Second, I could see how being consciously aware of the structure might be helpful as I develop the story.

Going beyond Boy as I thought about this new perspective on structure, my mind jumped to a novel I started on NaNoWriMo many eons ago and never finished. I would like very much to finish it, and I’ve struggled with it off and on over the past few years, only to end up frustrated. The problem has always been how to structure it, and intuition has failed me with this one. It has two protagonists whose stories converge and separate several times. How the heck do I tell two separate stories in the same book? I know it can be done because I’ve read book where it’s been done very well. So that’s something I’m going to have to look into in some depth. I’m not going to let myself get off-track to pursue it right now, but I can now see that a serious examination of structure might help me finish the darn thing — someday.

On another note, I plan to post another chapter of A Perfect Slave this week — maybe tomorrow.

Battle of the WIPs

A Perfect Slave isn’t really a WIP since it’s complete, but needing some final editing. I’m halfway through that, but I should be just about done by now, almost ready to publish. It looks as if it isn’t going to happen. Why? Because A Well-Educated Boy has taken possession of my mind and won’t let go.

I always spend a lot of time in preparation before I start writing, but what’s going on right now is sheer obsession, or something very close to it. Over the more than a year since Boy made its appearance as a bare-bones idea, it has morphed and grown into something far from the original, rather simplistic, concept. It’s become far more complex, and it owes some of that complexity to questions that several essayists have proposed lately.

It seems that I’m not alone in thinking that science fiction needs to pull its attention from battles that are distant both in time and place, and consider where we are now and where we are possibly going in the near future. I’m far more interested in dystopias than in apocalypse, but the majority of dystopias in current science fiction are written as if they happened more or less suddenly, and as if the entire world (or nation) is in a monolithic state against which the heroes (usually teens) must battle.

That kind of dystopia is, to put it bluntly, a fantasy. Even if we accept that certain trends may converge from many points, as in the world-wide increase in bigotry and fear about the other: people of color, refugees, gender nonconformists, etc., that they could converge into one monolithic, all-powerful government is so unlikely that its possibility approaches zero.

But those fears, taken advantage of by powers already in existence: corporations and the military, could certainly lead to localized dystopias of various kinds. Many dystopias can exist simultaneously, and function in very different way. A Well-Educated Boy will be about two of those possibilities, both of which are actually possible today, and some features of which are already in place.

We are all living in a period of serious upheaval and transition. Most of that is invisible to us because it is taking place over months and years, slowly enough that we become accustomed to what is going on and accept it as normal. For instance, in spite of increased flooding and endless warnings from scientists about sea level rise, some 60% of home owners in S. Florida are unaware of or unconcerned about it. It wouldn’t be that difficult to write a dystopia that focuses on coastal cities and the long-term effects of climate change on lives and property.

Writing this more realistic version of utopia is more difficult, though, when the protagonist is a high school student. How do I avoid turning him into some clichéd save-the-world teen hero? How do I show his gradual realization that there’s little or nothing he can do to change the world, even his limited, local world, without ending the book in a state of despair and hopelessness? What can I give him as motivation for not giving up in the face of overwhelming power?

Books like The Hunger Games and Divergent speak to young people’s need to matter in a world that has very little use for them except as consumers. But how can we expect them to be anything but consumers when heroism and rebellion are presented to them as impossible fantasies with no basis in the real world? What can we give them that will keep them from being consumed by the bigotry and violence currently showing its face in Virginia?

Publishing a fantasy about slavery just doesn’t seem important right now.

August 5 – Weekend Notes

I must be a very cruel person. I enjoy reading Amazon book reviews at least partly for the ignorance and illiteracy they often reveal about their writers. Do these people even realize that they are exposing themselves and usually coming off much worse than the author they’re trying to badmouth? Or do they care?

I also enjoy dipping into a variety of subjects in WordPress’s Reader, and noting the variety of skills, or lack of them. This morning, I’ve seen loose used in place of lose, an all too common error. It’s being used as a possessive, almost as common as dirt. But here’s one that really caught my eye: “I am very excited to announce the publication of my short story A Day at the Beach on Amazon.” Two commas would have been a nice touch, and eliminated the mental image of spending a day on the beach while on Amazon.

I take it for granted that the freedom to expose yourself on the internet applies to writers and would-be writers as well as the rest of the world. I would like to believe that everyone who aspires to be a writer is open to criticism, but we all know that’s unlikely in the real world.

On a different note, work on A Perfect Slave is coming along — much slower than I foolishly hoped — but I’m almost halfway through. It seems, regardless of my logical approach to prioritization, that the next project will be A Well-Educated Boy, in spite of being not much more than notes. If I could ever figure out why WIPs seem to set their own agendas, my life would be much less frustrating. So Gift of the Ancien gets pushed to the back of the line once again.

I’ve been exploring Bullet Journaling, which is supposed to be a supremely practical approach to the scattered sticky notes and bits of paper that are the bane of the hopelessly disorganized. Of course, that research involved hours of ignoring all the non-computer work waiting for me, but convinced me that it’s worth trying. Using the computer to keep myself organized has just not worked, no matter how many and how many types of organizers I’ve tried. Pen and paper really does work better for me because it’s immediate. Where it doesn’t work is how to keep track of all the bits of scribbles. Bullet Journaling seems to combine the best features of working on the computer with the ability to just pick up the darn notebook any old time rather than interrupt whatever I’m doing to pull the computer out of sleep mode and open a program. I have a graphing notebook on order from Amazon, which does rather piss me off because graphing notebooks are nothing special except that they’re now a big item for Bullet Journaling enthusiasts. The one at the drugstore was cheap, but only available in one size — way too big for convenience — so I’m letting myself get ripped off for a smaller one. Will eventually report on how it goes.


“Mystery.” Is That a Prompt?

What should I write about? Something about that question always gets under my skin. It’s an irritation that gets worse when the answer is a list of prompts or some discussion about using prompts. I’ve never used prompts. In fact, my attitude toward them is that if you need a prompt from somewhere outside yourself, then maybe you’re not meant to be a  writer. My brain is always overflowing with ideas because the world is overflowing with ideas. How can you be serious about being a writer — or wanting to be a writer — if you can’t figure out for yourself what to write about?

To be fair, my attitude is somewhat narrow-minded. I think about prompts in terms of lists made up by someone or other and offered as a form of inspiration. But what is that world out there, with its endless flow of subjects and ideas, but a never-ending source of prompts? What prompted this insight was one word from a post I read this morning, on a writing blog. The post was about an essential requirement for any novel or story: mystery. Any genre. Mysteries aren’t the only books that need a mystery or mysteries to keep the reader hooked.

And there, seemingly out of nowhere was a new, important detail about one of my in-progress novels. I wasn’t thinking about the novel at the time. In fact, I hadn’t thought about it at all this morning, and I’m not currently working on it. Like all my WIPs, though, it’s always simmering in the back of my mind, and there’s nothing unusual about some element being added or a problem solved, out of the blue, when I’m reading something completely unrelated. (I’ve mentioned this before.)

Why did the word mystery bring up this particular WIP and provide the answer to a question that I hadn’t even consciously formed yet? That’s a mystery in itself. Someone who appears at the beginning of the book to be an important character just fades away and disappears. I knew why he disappeared, and also knew that he will eventually come back, and why. I didn’t know when or under what circumstances, and hadn’t given that much thought. I thought I knew, but it turned out I didn’t. Because my original concept of his return was kind of boring. It wasn’t until I collided with ‘mystery’ that I even realized I needed a dramatic setting for his return, and that I had already set it up.

Oddly, ‘mystery’ isn’t a prompt in any way that we’d normally recognize. I won’t be writing about a mystery, which would be the normal outcome. Instead, what I think happened is that the word unlocked my awareness of an unstated but important problem that has been working away at an unconscious level of my mind. If that isn’t a prompt, I don’t know what is.

I’m a pretty literal-minded person, which might explain why I’ve viewed prompts in such a limited way. Maybe it’s appropriate that ‘mystery’ is the word that offered me a different perspective. It’s also appropriate that it’s still a mystery why that happened, and why it happened to one particular WIP.

Coming Soon? A Perfect Slave

Posting bits of the novel I’m currently editing will supposedly help keep my nose to the grindstone until it’s done and published. We’ll see how well that works.

A Perfect Slave is a side story to the Hand Slaves novels. It’s a stand alone novel that brings in the two major Boundaries novels’ characters for a brief cameo, but the reader doesn’t need to be familiar with them. The book expands on Carhagen’s system of slavery, and also examines the impact of a severe and rigid training system on a developing mind.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

My name is Shand. Just Shand. I had another name, too, a long time ago, when I was very young. For 22 years, I was a slave in Carhagen, where I was born. Then I was stolen from my master by abolitionists and taken to Trusland, where slavery is illegal. That is where I live now.

I’m writing about my life because Mistress Rima believes it will help expose the evils of slavery, and destroy it. I don’t understand how a book published in Trusland can change anything in Carhagen, but it isn’t my place to question her. She must know how that could happen. It was only a suggestion — about writing a book — but how could I refuse? She is my mistress, even if she doesn’t really own me, and in my heart, I’m still a slave. She also believes that writing about my experiences will help me understand what was done to me, and how it shaped me. I wonder what difference that would make, because it won’t change anything, but I can’t question her about that, either. There are so many things that puzzle me that it’s best for me to just trust Mistress Rima to decide what I should know and what should happen to me.

The first part of this account is about my life before I came to Trusland. The next part is about my life here, and it includes Mistress Rima’s thoughts and the thoughts of Mistress Lilian, another person who is very important to me. Please accept the humble words of this slave, along with the words of the two women I owe a debt of gratitude to for their kindness to me.

I had just turned 12 years old when I was taken from my parents and became the property of the state. For three years I was trained for personal service in one of Carhagen’s slave-training centers, and was then sold to the Special Services Agency. My training was designed to guarantee that I would never imagine or desire any other kind of life. The people who shaped me would be proud if they could see me now. I’m a free man in a country that forbids slavery, but in my heart I am still what they made me.

As I said, I don’t remember my family name, but I worked hard to remember my given name through three long years of never hearing it spoken. I don’t know why it was so important to me. Maybe it was just because it was mine, the one thing that I could hold on to and wouldn’t allow them to take away from me. I also remember that my teachers had considered me an exceptionally intelligent child. I know that they talked to my parents about my school work. They and my parents expected me to have a brilliant career of some kind when I graduated from school, and then college. Looking back, I believe it was my intelligence, and my excellent memory, that helped me preserve the tiny scrap of my identity.

I had been vaguely aware that my parents were having financial problems. I didn’t know the details, and probably wouldn’t have understood them, anyway. But my enslavement was the outcome of their indebtedness. Some people would have considered me lucky to become the property of the state, and I have to agree. If my parents had sold me to a slave dealer in order to meet their debts, my life might have been much harder than it has been.

Like every child in Carhagen, I’d seen labor slaves working on the streets, sweeping up trash, washing windows, and doing the other jobs that kept my city clean and beautiful. They seemed to be everywhere, in their grey tunics and heavy collars, their manacles and chains. No one watched over them that I ever saw, but they were chained to the carts that carried their cleaning tools, and their hobbled legs would have kept them from getting far, in any case. The chains were long enough for them to do their jobs, but also got in their way, sometimes tripping them and making them fall down. I felt sorry for them, and so did a few of my friends. But the others said that anyone who was enslaved deserved their miserable lives. It was an unspoken rule that everyone seemed to understand, that we were to stay away from them. As far as we knew they were all criminals, so maybe the rule was to protect us from being attacked. But I thought that maybe it was really to protect the slaves from us. The way some of the boys talked, I knew they would have liked to tease them or play tricks on them.

Slaves also worked in the mines and forests, and on farms. That was something we learned in school, when we were studying Carhagen’s laws and customs. But we were city children, so we had no idea what their lives were like. I thought that it must be very hard, and I was sure that I would never do anything that could condemn me to slavery.

There were other slaves, too—the hand slaves. We rarely saw them, though. They were always with their owners, and if they did any work, it wasn’t where the public would see them. They were nicely dressed, and their only restraint was the light chain that joined their hands, and the collar that allowed their owners to lead them on a leash.

School didn’t teach us why people became slaves, or that you could be innocent of any crime and still be enslaved. We didn’t learn that they were a vital part of Carhagen’s economy. For us children, they were just part of the scenery. When two uniformed men came to my school one day and took me away with them, I didn’t make the connection between what was happening to me, and those collared and chained men and women. It wasn’t until I had graduated from the Center and had been sold and returned to the Agency several times that I had the knowledge and maturity to think about it.

Kickstarting (Kicking) the Muse

If I really had a muse, I’d be kicking its ass, trying to wake it up and encourage it to do its job. With health issues sapping my energy (mental as well as physical), I’m getting kind of desperate. I need to be writing. I want to be writing. But most days, writing isn’t happening. It’s partly my own fault, of course. Any sensible person would have no more than two or three WIPs underway, and even if they skipped around between them, progress would probably be visible.

But who ever accused me of being sensible? Well, I’m trying to be, so I picked out six WIPs out of the wild jungle of infinite numbers, and I’m going to let them battle it out for further attention. Only six? you say. Nothing sensible about that, but it’s what I’m going with — for now.

I’m hoping that somewhere in the process of figuring out how to evaluate them, and then doing the evaluating, a spark will leap up and I’ll know what to do. Yup. Sure.

In no particular order, here are the six I’m considering for immediate action and publication.

A Perfect Slave is technically the third Boundaries (Hand Slaves) novel. It’s finished, but could probably benefit by one more run-through. I sent every copy, including backups, to digital oblivion, thinking I’m through with slavery fantasies. But it won’t leave me alone, so I dug it out of the Time Machine (thank you, Apple).

Privileged Lives and Other Lies is not only finished, but published. It’s hardly sold any copies, but I can’t give it up. I’m almost finished with a thorough revision. If I choose it, I’ll shorten the title to Privileged Lives, and create a new cover. Does it make sense to republish an old, unsuccessful book when there are so many new ones waiting in line? Good question.

Gift of the Ancien is somewhat vampirish, probably the most mainstream novel I’ve written, and potentially the one most likely to sell more than one copy a month. It’s complete, but needs a massive revision that threatens to drown me every time I look at it. It’s also one of my oldest pieces, so there’s this nagging pressure to get it out there.

Empire of Masks has been kicking around in my head for several years, and on my computer, collecting notes. It’s another slavery fantasy, but mostly about a society gone amuck and, like A Perfect Slave, rescued from digital death. With only 1,000 or so words written so far, it’s the least likely be finished any time in the near future unless I abandon every other WIP and concentrate on it exclusively. When have I ever concentrated on one book exclusively? Only during NaNo, and I don’t think I have what it takes to do that again.

Bentham’s Dream is a prison story dear to my heart, but unlikely to attract many readers. It’s depressing, for one thing. Half to 3/4 done, with the hardest parts still ahead of me.

A Well-Educated Boy takes up most of my imaginative daydreaming lately, but I’m only a few thousand words in, and there are critical parts that still aren’t coming clear. Set in the near-future, it’s a look at two possible co-existing dystopias not so different from today’s realities. It might do well, since it’s basically YA.

So this is me, thinking out loud, and now looking back at what I just wrote for clues to the way ahead. Nope. Not yet. But it’s a start.

Re-finding Me

I’m in a strange place, mentally, and have been pretty much for the last three months, ever since a stay in the hospital and a diagnosis of heart failure. Well, at 80, what can you expect? But the place I’m in, and it’s a damned boring and uncomfortable place, isn’t part of being 80. It’s being, for the rest of my life, a heart patient, after avoiding doctors altogether for many past decades. That inevitably involves medications. Which means putting up with, working around, or refusing to accept the many side effects. It also involves meeting, on a daily basis, one’s own mortality, without the luxury of thinking about death as something that will certainly happen some day, but far enough in the future that it’s more or less an abstraction at the moment.

Believe it or not, that isn’t the real problem for me. The real problem is that I haven’t been able to write. The drugs that are helping me avoid a heart attack or stroke are sucking out the essence of what it means to be me at my best. And empowering my worst qualities. Which, if you think about it, isn’t too different from the drugs that help people with severe mental illness. It isn’t that unusual for people who are bipolar to go off their meds because the drugs kill their creativity. I won’t try to compare the fear of sinking into a cycle of depression/mania with the fear of your heart giving out on you. When you are attacked and diminished at your core, the pain and fear are the same for everyone.

What I’m working through is more complex than how do I recover my creativity and get back to writing. My concept of who I am as a writer and why I even want to write is changing. As I wrote to a friend earlier today, “I’ve given up on the idea of “making a difference,” so if I continue to write, it’s for myself and for the few who stumble on it by accident. I don’t have the talent to “write for the ages” so I have no illusions or guilt about not making more of an effort.” But the itch to write is there, unrelenting, so I have to figure out how I’m going to move on from this state of paralysis. I have to re-find myself, but accept that the self I settle into isn’t going to be exactly the old one.

Maybe that means I can be more relaxed about my writing. Maybe I can let myself choose what to write based purely on how much I’m intrigued by the story rather than how “important” it will be or whether it makes a difference — says something profound enough to change someone’s life, change the world in some small way. Yes, I’d like to “write for the ages,” but since I don’t have that kind of talent I need to leave my self-judgmental attitude behind. I don’t have enough time or energy left to waste on impossible standards. There’s no sin in writing books that don’t have a message. I just have to keep telling myself that.

Trapped by Details: an Epiphany

One of the side effects of a medication I’ve been taking for a couple of months is insomnia — serious lack of sleep. There are moments when I think this could be a good thing because the hazy state between sleeping and waking is often the source of ideas and insights — and there has been a lot of hazy state . Alas, those ideas and insights seldom carry over into the daylight hours. If I could just lie there in the dark and dictate into a recorder, who knows what marvels of novelistic fiction I could create. Well, that’s never going to happen, but once in a while, something worth pursuing does survive until morning and daylight.

A recent night was one of those frustrating on/off sleep/wake stretches that had me wanting to just get up, wander around the apartment, find something to do, and forget about sleep altogether. But I stuck it out and let my mind do the wandering. And what happened was that I had a sort of vision. I haven’t been able to write at all for the last two or three months, so part of the night’s mental meandering is often about trying to select the ongoing WIP most likely to have a chance of sucking me in and getting my fingers back on the keyboard. Gift of the Ancien is always one of those being considering — and discarded.

But last night, I saw that novel in an entirely new way. It was as if I was standing off from an actual, physical construct, and seeing it as an object independent of details like voice or characterization, and stripped of my personal interest in and attachment to it. I can’t regain much of the feelings I had about this new view, but the image itself is still fairly clear in my mind — and its meaning. Although I can’t reconstruct or explain how I came to it, the meaning of the image is that this particular novel (and several others), has been a challenging puzzle to work out, and that challenge is completely independent of the novel’s importance to me. In other words, I’ve been sucked into an ongoing attempt to solve a puzzle (or a handful of puzzles), fascinated by the challenge just as certainly as any game player. It’s the intricacies of that particular story that I’m attempting to work out, without any consideration of whether it has enough value to me to justify the time and energy I’m putting into it.

I also had brief glimpses of a couple of the other WIPs being bounced around as possible ways out of the black hole of wordlessness. Most of the insights are gone, damn it, but there was the sense, however vaguely I can see or express it now, that those WIPs had value apart from the details. Their value — their meaning — to me, personally, was more important than the puzzles they represent, or the working out of the puzzles. Ancien, on the other hand, even though it would have value as a published novel, and possibly of more value than the others, has no other value to me.

On a superficial level, this all boils down to the question of why I write: for money, or for myself. But now I can see it isn’t that at all. The real question is: is this a story I really care about, for its own sake, or is it just a container for intriguing puzzles? I turns out that anything I write for myself has a boundary far beyond me. It’s an idea or collection of ideas, that I hope will draw readers looking for more than entertainment. Of course, every novel is a series of puzzles to work out; maybe that’s a big part of the appeal for writers, especially writers who aren’t particularly successful in the fame and fortune arena.

I still haven’t settled on a WIP to drag me out of the creativity black hole, but at least I have a better basis for making that selection. Ancien, as strongly as its puzzles fascinate me, needs to be put aside where it can’t tempt and distract me. The same is true of several other WIPs in various stages of development. Maybe if I can get them shoved under the carpet and use the imagery from my vision, I’ll find the piece that will inspire me to get back to writing.



Trauma and Creativity: Off the Beaten Path

The last couple of months have been a no-writing zone, and the medical issues responsible probably aren’t going away anytime soon. The devil’s brew of meds I’m taking probably has something to do with what I perceive as a cognitive decline. Not anything so serious that I can’t function more or less normally, but certainly getting in the way of sustained work on writing projects. I’ve also come to see this non-productive period as similar to the one I went through after the apartment building fire and having to start my life over. Call it trauma, or even a mild form of PTSD. It’s a psychological shock to the system, and it’s bound to have effects on intellectual function. But what I learned last time is that it doesn’t last forever. Even the destruction of the belief in a healthy old age has to be accepted, and adapted to. Unless I want to take on the role of victim.

In spite of the cognitive decline, which includes a loss of focus for sustained work, creative insights keep coming. Since my novels tend to take at least a couple of years for development and completion, the current slowdown doesn’t seem terribly significant. What is significant is that the bursts of creativity are based, as they always have been, on input from my reading, both fiction and nonfiction, including current news. When I can’t write, I read, as always, and probably more obsessively. And there is no way to anticipate what will trigger sudden insights into an ongoing piece of work.

A Well-Educated Boy isn’t the WIP I’m currently working on (or trying to work on), but it’s the one that’s developing most actively in terms of plot and characterization. One of the interesting things that happens when a novel develops over a long period of time is that it can change significantly from my original concept. In the case of Well-Educated Boy, the emphasis has been shifting from Hart’s discovery of what lies behind the peaceful facade of his hometown, to the psychological changes he goes through over the course of the novel. The strong influence here comes from several novels that portray, to one extent or another, the development of the central character from childhood to maturity.

Both as a fictional theme, and an aspect of real life that puzzles and intrigues me, the maturation process and the possibilities of future potential are an endless source of material for the creation of complex characters capable of surprising readers. Richard Herley’s The Earth Goddess was the first book to focus my attention on this theme, and is still central to how I think about my characters. That’s followed in importance by the Phoenix Legacy trilogy by M. K. Wren, and more recently by Lion’s Blood, an alternate history by Steven Barnes. What is important is the many different paths by which a character’s temperament and life might be formed, and how the one chosen or forced on them determines the shape of the fully formed adult.

In the case of Hart Simmons, his developmental arc ignores the usual young adult trope, in which our youngster overcomes a major negative force, such as an oppressive government, and becomes something of a hero. Instead, Hart has to acknowledge a power that is ubiquitous and fully capable of swatting him aside if he attempts to face it down. The question then is how he manages to live with that understanding without succumbing to hopelessness and acquiescence.

Well-Educated Boy is dystopian science fiction as well as young adult fiction, and this is another area where I want to ignore the usual themes in favor of something more complex and realistic. So Hart will experience two kinds of dystopias, the one in which he lives, as a citizen of a corporate-owned town, and the one taking place outside that cocoon, one not very different from our current reality in many ways. Compare and contrast.

A lot of this hasn’t been worked out yet, of course, so I’m prepared to be surprised.

Getting Back to the Keyboard

Being too sick to write is a new experience for me, and one that’s been made even more difficult and unpleasant by dragging on for about six weeks. I’m far from well, still, but maybe improvement can be measured by the ability to at least think about writing. As always, when there’s been a hiatus, I have to go through the process of deciding exactly what I’m going to write. Which means which ongoing project am I going to pick up.

Normally, I have some internal reason for choosing one project over another, but now a new factor has come into play — money. As happens to many in this greatest of nations with the worst health care system in the world, one catastrophic illness means that I will spend the rest of my life deep in debt. I will never write the kind of book that could wipe that out, but I do have choices that are somewhat more likely to find readers than a couple I’ve been working on recently.

Gift of the Ancien and A Well-Educated Boy are far from commercial, but both have the potential to be tweaked a little way in that direction. Of the two, Gift is complete and has been through a certain amount of rewriting, so it’s the obvious choice. It would also be nice just to see it finished and published since it’s been in the works for several years.

I probably won’t be able to do a great deal of work each day, but it feels good to anticipate getting started. Onward and upward!

Dipping into Young Adult — Divergent

Divergent has not been on my TBR list. In fact, I fully intended to never read it. Why? Because when I read the description and some reviews, the basic premise seemed just as ludicrous as the premise of Hunger Games. I did read Hunger Games a couple of years ago, out of curiosity, but that curiosity was more than satisfied with the first volume. So when Divergent came along, it was a big unh uh for me.

But when I had the chance to buy it for a measly dime a few weeks ago, I thought I might as well give it a try. It’s still ludicrous, and I still have little sympathy (if that’s the right word) with the trend (if it’s still a trend) of pumping ordinary kids up into unbelievable heroes in order to make teens and young adults feel good. So it’s a girl. Yay! And she soldiers on with a bullet in her shoulder. Yay! But this kind of book isn’t about realism, so that’s just my take.

However… I’m glad I read it. Since the action, at least, is somewhat closer to reality than Hunger Games, and it’s well-written, for the most part, it gave me some insights about the development of A Well-Educated Boy. For one, it reminded me that my writing is still too barebones, and that Boy is likely to suffer from that fault. Almost any book will benefit by a richly described world, and deep diving into the main character’s inner life, but I think young adult science fiction really demands it. Until very recently, I wasn’t even thinking about Boy as young adult, so there’s that transition to get through.

Another insight is about titles. While I love A Well-Educated Boy, and it conveys the theme of the plot, it’s meant to be ironic, which isn’t apparent until you’re well into the novel. Plus, doubt that most younger readers will even catch it. Even worse, it sounds like the title of an essay on education. Not exactly a hook for curious minds. So, from now until the book is actually finished, I’ll be tossing around more catchy titles. At the moment, a better one seems like an impossibility, but maybe that’s because I’ve lived with this one for so long that it’s embedded in my brain.