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.



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!

From Pillar to Post

I’m trying very hard to get over the feeling that I’m being thrown from wall to wall in a room that is somewhat padded, to make sure I don’t accumulate broken bones. Broken mind, not so much. In any one day, I swing from pillar to post, thinking I can get back to writing again, and then wondering what’s the point when everything is tumbling into a black pit without a bottom. These are the days when any sign of cheer is more than welcome, though it’s impossible to avoid the notion that anyone who’s the least bit cheerful has to be either oblivious or crazy.

I wonder what our non-US readers are thinking. Surely, they’re shaking their heads in amazement and disgust. Who would have thought that one man could do so much damage in such a short time? It’s enough to make me want to keep my head under the covers and never, never get up

But then there’s this from Chuck Wendig: This is a Test of the Emergency Broadcasting System 

This weekend there came a moment when I thought, I am ashamed to be an American. But then I thought back to the Women’s March, and I think to all the people I know who are active and engaged, and then I realized: I’m not ashamed to be an American. I’m proud of Americans. I’m ashamed of my government. I’m ashamed of this administration, not of the nation it leads. Ten days in and the president is the most unpopular president in history. It proves that you are not alone. We are not alone. And if we make it out of this — if we can stop this bubbling septic shit-stew from boiling over — then we will have been delivered a timely and necessary reminder that our democracy is not shallow, but deep. That it is not simple, but complex. That even in its pillar-like presence, democracy is vulnerable and demands vigilance and the foreknowledge that axes and rot can still bring down this beautiful tree.

And  this, from Literary Hub: Entering Scoundrel Time: a new literary site takes on Trump.

This past Monday, January 30, Paula Whyman and Mikail Iossel launched Scoundrel Time, a literary site dedicated to combatting the greed and evil of our new president. I asked Paula Whyman to take me through their ambitious and hopeful endeavor. More than anything I wanted to be convinced that any literary activism—really, anything at all—can work against such a looming catastrophe.

Maybe it’s hopeless to think that ordinary people can prevail against a cabal of people without compassion, or even the intelligence not to cut down the tree they’re sitting in, but the only other choice is to sit back and watch it happen.

By George, I Think She’s Got It

I’ve never been able to say how many times I go through a WIP to edit it. In my usual disorganized fashion, I might do several chapters, leave it for days and weeks, and then try to go back to more or less where I left off. The result, I’m sure, is that some chapters haven’t had enough eye time, while others have been worked down to the bone. Scrivener has been my long-time helpmeet, keeping me more or less organized, but it can’t do everything.

I’ve sworn, over and over, that at least one readthrough has to be from page one to the last page, without distractions. But I’ve never accomplished it — until this week. I tried different methods, including reading Camp Expendable on my Kindle, but that never worked out — for one simple reason, I now realize. I couldn’t keep myself from doing the editing as I read. On the Kindle, that means making notes for every highlight because you can’t edit on it. If there’s anything more distracting than making notes on a Kindle, I haven’t discovered it yet.

I’m not one to give up, though. (stubborn, pig-headed, slow learner) The secret — cue the trumpets — is to highlight the trouble spots and just charge ahead. That leaves me with the obvious problem of remembering exactly why those highlights are there. But once I’ve spotted a problem, it isn’t really that difficult to go back and realize what it was. So, I am now the proud possessor of a novel which I read straight through in three days, doing nothing to distract me from getting a good overview.

There are probably well over 100 highlights, which is a discouragingly impressive number considering how many times I’ve been through the novel, weeding out clumsy sentences, poor word choices, etc. But it’s also encouraging. I only found two or three actual typos, and one continuity problem, so that really isn’t too bad for a length of almost 78,000 words. Most of the work to be done involves fleshing out some of my usual bare-bones sentences, and restructuring others. I’ll also be adding one short scene which, if I’m very lucky, won’t introduce a whole batch of new problems.

With all those highlights to guide me and keep me on track, maybe I’ll actually have the damn thing completed to my satisfaction within the next few days. But haven’t I said that before? Stay tuned.

Treasure for SF Writers: Creeping Dystopia

“Creeping dystopia” came to me yesterday as a way of describing more likely future  scenarios than the oh so popular and mostly fantasy-based post-apocalyptic scenarios that would-be-SF writers churn out. Creeping dystopias can result in conditions just as catastrophic as those of the PA variety, and probably will, but they will do it more slowly. They will also be more difficult to see, particularly for those writers who draw their inspiration from movies and television.

If you don’t bother to read fact-based articles on climate change, you are probably unaware that conditions at both the poles are changing so rapidly that predictions for sea rise are constantly being revised–for the worse. You may be unaware that millions of trees in the US are dying or already dead, due to drought, and to damage and disease from insects accidentally imported from other countries, and which are thriving in the warmer temperatures at increasing high altitudes. You may not know that increasing numbers of animal species are in danger because their food supplies are changing their migration and seasonal blooming patterns.

These are “little” details that don’t interest the mainstream media because it’s assumed they won’t interest the public. But small details add up to cumulative effects that will eventually reaching tipping points. Only when such a point is reached will the public take notice, and then the world will scream about an apocalypse, as if it was a sudden event, all the while wondering how the hell this happened. No wonder writers prefer pandemics and meteor strikes–thrills and chills, dread anticipation, and the creation of heroes who single-handedly save the world.

Watching the real world change is too much like watching paint drying. The public is trained to want ACTION, to be thrilled with the horrors of what might be but that will always remain in the safe world of fantasy. And most SF writers are happy to pander to that desire.

“Creeping dystopia” shouldn’t be just a term I thought up. It should, but probably won’t, be a call to action for SF writers.

One Thing Leads to Another — Sometimes a Sequel

When I wrote Hidden Boundaries, it was intended to be a complete novel–no cliffhangers, no unanswered questions. But it turns out that unless you’re writing a story in which there’s  a specific goal, and that goal is achieved, then there’s always more that can be said. Because, just like real life, the story doesn’t always end with The End. So I wound up writing Crossing Boundaries.

Now, several years down the line, I’ve been working on a novel that’s intended to end with The End. The only problem is that The End of A Well-Educated Boy doesn’t want to come into focus. It shifts, recedes out of sight, comes back looking pretty good, and then disappears again. There are two ways to look at this. I simply can’t make up my mind how I want the story to end because I don’t know Hart, my protagonist quite as well as I should by now. So he can’t make up his mind about what he wants to do.

Or… There’s a story beyond this story, and its existence means that the first story has to lead into it. Hart’s decision about what he’s going to do next depends on that story. Hart’s story is originally the story of his town:

Growing up and going to school in a company-owned town isn’t something Hart Simmons thought about much. He didn’t have any reason to. Until his best friend disappeared. Came back. Killed himself. Hart was always a bit of a trouble maker, the kind of kid who shoved back at rules, just because they’re rules. But he didn’t really know what he was shoving against. Zach’s death woke him up. And then his troubles started.

Burgundy is a nice town. Almost idyllic. Clean. No crime. Good jobs. But Hart doesn’t live in Burgundy anymore, and he probably can’t ever go back. Because he knows where Zach disappeared to and why he killed himself.

Dystopias can hide in plain sight. Right under your nose.

Where is Hart when the story ends, and what is he going to do now? The feeling that the story is about more than Hart’s life in Burgundy has been getting stronger lately, but that didn’t break through until just yesterday, when a new story idea popped into my head. It didn’t actually pop; it evolved out of an old idea that I was looking over and nudging here and there to see if it was ready for a little more development. And it turned out to be the answer to the big questions Hart has about Burgundy, and what direction his life might take. A sequel, durn it.

What it looks like so far:

Privatization had taken over many cities. particularly in one state. A group of owner corporations agrees to cooperate in a “utopian” plan, which includes testing for desirable qualities. The “failures,” those who don’t measure up, are trained to do unskilled and semi-skilled work. The “elite” are educated to enhance their abilities and are treated almost as a separate species of human.

Starts as a humanitarian project to ensure the survival of desirable traits and to benefit the human race in a time of extreme instability, but becomes a more far-reaching enterprise as corporations and later, governments, realize the advantages of controlling a population trained to obedience and a work ethic.

This concept is still sketchy, but it both answers questions that are hanging right now, and adds a complication. How do I end the first novel without leaving readers hanging? It needs to point to where it might go, but not with a frustrating cliffhanger.

SF Quickies

SF as Wish Fulfillment

Skimming through the science fiction blogs on WP today, I came across a statement that struck me, as such statements usually do, with how far outside the norm I am in almost any area of life. “At some point in their lives, all readers of science fiction and fantasy have wished, however fleetingly, that they could leave their mundane world behind and enter the world of their favourite book. That is, after all, why so many people read: to escape reality and go someplace else, be someone else, even for a little while.”

That’s probably true of most, or many, science fiction readers, but I can’t remember ever reading about a place or time that I wished I could explore in person. Of course, it isn’t only science fiction that appeals to readers in terms of wish-fulfillment. But it’s a state of mind that’s foreign to me. The lack, like many other lacks, does sometimes make me ask what kind of person I am.

Imaginary Societies

From John Michael Greer’s latest blog post, A Time for Retrovation: “Not all that many decades ago, SF authors routinely spun future societies as radically different from ours as ours is from, say, the ancient Maya, but such visions are rare now. I don’t think that’s accidental.”

For the most part, those societies were somewhere in outer space — alien societies that allowed writers to be as outrageously imaginative as possible. Or they took place in a far distant future that allowed the time for a complete overturn of everything we know, plus the possibility of humans having mutated or evolved into something quite different from us.

So, it isn’t surprising that most attempts to create a radically different kind of society tend to be nothing more than variations on the patterns that constitute our idea of “normal.” Those, in turn, divide into two mutually exclusive realities: a world which has regressed to random violence, war, and the brutality of trying to survive at the cost of other humans. Or a world in which our best characteristics immediately or eventually come to the fore and new cooperative enclaves are built.

Both depend almost exclusively on a catastrophic event: an instant ice age, the sun suffering a major glitch, a worldwide pandemic wiping out a good portion of humanity, nuclear war, etc. The alternative is the frog in the pot on the stove, which I’ve mentioned before. That really offers a lot more leeway for innovative thinking about society than defaulting to the either/or choice of cooperate or kill.

I’ve given this a lot of thought and I have to say I can understand why a gradual slide into a dramatically different kind of society hasn’t been tackled. Maybe it has, by someone, but I’m just not aware of it. I imagine a book like this would probably fall into obscurity pretty quickly, even though it would be more likely than the others to offer hope for the future.

Is it even possible to write such a book?

Between One Thing and Another…

Between one thing and another, I haven’t been doing any writing for the last week or two. Not good, because I’d set goals that should have been reachable without a lot of hassle. One of the things is that my Scrivener file for Camp Expendable became corrupted — again — and I just couldn’t face dealing with it again. At least I discovered the cause. It’s being dealt with on a temporary basis and will have a permanent fix as soon as I receive the 8 GB memory chips I ordered and get them installed. I’ve always known my Mac Mini doesn’t have enough memory, but for some reason it’s become critical lately, rather than just annoying. The other thing was an extended bout of being seriously under the weather.

As usual, though, I’ve been making notes for various WIPs, including Expendable, since that part of my brain never seems to shut down, no matter how rotten I feel. To NaNo or not to NaNo is still up in the air, and taking a good deal of my own working memory, which makes me feel somewhat like a NaNoWriMo newbie rather than a scarred veteran.

What makes it even more challenging to make a decision is that a new contender for my attention is shoving A Well-Educated Boy to the curb. That wouldn’t be a real problem except that this story is nothing but a concept and a few notes and short fragments. No plot, no structure, and not much in the way of characters. So why am I even contemplating it? That’s the 64 million dollar question.

The only reason I can come up with is that I’m bored with the two novels I’ve been working on and want to get into something new — something that’s a real challenge. And what’s more challenging than pantsing a story that is still just a vague idea? The first time I tried to do that was also the last. That was the first time I entered NaNo. It was a complete failure of course, because it was also my first attempt at writing a novel.

So there’s an element of: can I pants a novel now that I have several under my belt and know a heck of a lot more about what goes into a novel? There’s no way to answer that except by doing it. Which I may do. Or I may not. I doubt I can come up with 50,000 words in one month, starting out with so little preparation, but it feels like something worth trying.

It’s science fiction, of course, and somewhere in the neighborhood of Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Just barely in the neighborhood. And it will be my seventh year of doing NaNo if I don’t count the first two years of trying to figure out the whole noveling thing and failing miserably.


Turning Dry into Drama – Bentham’s Dream

This is an unplanned followup to yesterday’s post. It may be somewhat disorganized, even a little incoherent, since I’m thinking with my fingers. Bentham’s Dream was originally intended to be part of a short story collection about prisons, from about the early 19th century to the 2060s or thereabout. Somehow, Bentham’s Dream took over and shoved the other stories out of sight. Credit the last few years of research about the death penalty, solitary confinement, and other aspects of criminal justice. The story has grown, from some 8,000 words to 26,000 words and is still a long way from being finished.

I think it was at about 25,000 words that I realized I had a problem and needed to do some very deep thinking about where the story was going. More important, and I think yesterday’s question about why anyone would want to read it was a trigger, the problems coalesced into one question: how do I turn a somewhat dry subject and two talking heads into a story that will fascinate rather than send readers off into slumberland.

This might serve as a metaphor for any subject that might grab a writer, but seems to have little potential for attracting readers. Fortunately, science fiction allows a lot of latitude in topics, and any serious sf reader probably has fond memories of books dealing with subjects that they never would have considered worth their time. This is worth thinking about in this age of formula writing. How many Hunger Games clones can you bear to read? How many zombie novels or post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world reruns?

There are thousands of possible topics waiting for the science fiction writer with some imagination, someone who’s willing to take some risks and walk away from the clones and clichés. But it won’t be easy. It’s probably been well over a year since I started writing Bentham’s Dream. My original concept was fairly limited, but turned out to be nothing more than the skeleton from which to hang something much more complex and, I hope, more dramatic. Something I discovered about my writing is that I tend to place my characters in very restricted circumstances. Well, there’s nothing more restrictive than a prison where there is zero chance of prisoners causing any problems for the staff. So, no riots, no murders. None of the clichés that we associate with prison stories. Just two people wandering around the prison, observing the prisoners, and talking about it. How in the world can I introduce action and drama into such a setting?

Originally, the main protag, an inspector for the region’s penal system, does his job and then leaves, trying to decide how he wants to slant his report. He and the warden have had an interesting and enlightening discussion, but never touched base with each other as human beings. Dull, dull, dull. After much backing and forthing about POV, I’m writing the story in first person, from the point of view of Jerry Stanton, the inspector. This puts us closer to him than third person would be, but also limits what we can know about Chandler, the prison warden. Since Chandler starts off as an efficient bureaucrat, Jerry’s point of view is important if we want to see him as a human being, possibly with doubts about his job.

As the story evolved, Chandler turned out to be the key to the drama, and to a very different ending than I had planned, one that will be, if I do it right, a shocker.

WIPs Have Their Own Agendas

Sometimes I think WIPs have their own agendas, even a kind of life, that is independent of my priorities and ideas about what I should be working on. At the moment, Camp Expendable is waiting for me to stop dawdling and get it formatted, converted, and published. I had planned to get it out of my hair by the middle of the month, and that’s tomorrow. But I haven’t touched it for over a week, so that’s clearly not going to happen.

What shoved it out of the way? The story that is least likely to find readers, but has its grip on my mind and won’t let go. No matter what else I’m working on, Bentham’s Dream shoves its way to the front and demands that I get on with it. Who’s going to want to read a novella (which is what it’s turning into, from a short story) that takes place in a mysterious prison where the most horrific criminals are condemned to a life in solitary confinement. Even worse, there are only two protagonists, who spend all their time talking — about the problems and ethics of maintaining such a prison. Very exciting stuff.

It’s that kind of obsessiveness, willingness to let the stories dictate to the writer rather than the other way around, that separates some of us from the mainstream. We not only don’t write to market, we can’t write to market. We are internally inspired, driven, and motivated, whereas most writers seem to be externally driven and motivated. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re always going to write books without any chance of success in the marketplace. It does mean that we will put every bit of our creativity, and months or years of effort into book that we know very well will remain obscure and unloved.

Money is always welcome. Even a little bit of fame would be nice. But we’re willing to sacrifice all that for something that has meaning for us, even if that meaning may sometimes be obscure. It’s like a quest with an uncertain outcome, something you have to do whether or not it makes sense to anyone else.

The Writer’s Life for Me

Maybe a writer’s life isn’t as exciting as a sailor’s or a pirates, but it more than makes up for that with crazy-making. Every morning is a time for momentous decisions about what writing project to work on. When I was considering it this morning, I came to the conclusion that juggling three major projects might somewhat contribute to my periods of severe headaches. What in the world am I doing to myself, and why would I not want to find a way out of the mess? Because I don’t want to find a way out of the mess; I just want to handle it better. Alas, I doubt there is any “better.”

New writers are advised not to wait for inspiration to strike. That way can lead to paralysis and a lifetime of “wanting to write, but doing it. At the same time, inspiration is sometimes what gets me going when I’m stuck with eenie, meenie, minie, mo. Which of the three projects should a start the day with. This morning, that had already been settled in the middle of a sleepless night. The middle of the night usually turns out to be a reliable source of inspiration, but only if I resist the temptation to go back to sleep without turning on the light and making notes. No matter how many times I’ve convinced myself that I can and will remember in the morning, I’ve been forced to accept that it’s take notes or lose it.

So this morning started out with some new entries for Set Me Free, and a somewhat clearer idea of how to organize the material. And–a pat on the back for me–the only delay was checking the weather and my email very quickly. Set Me Free is beginning to look a tiny bit less like an impossible mess and an equally tiny bit more like a book.

On to proofreading Camp Expendable, which I expect to consume most of the day. Finally, if time and energy allow, some more wrestling with A Well-Educated Boy.

Currently reading: Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. It’s been many a year since I originally read it, so it’s like a first-time read.

Major Change in November Plans

My regular readers know how often I change my mind, so this will probably be no surprise. NaNoWriMo 2016 is back on the calendar. How did that happen? Well, it was one of those things I’m sure everyone is familiar with in your own lives — suddenly seeing something so obvious that you could kick yourself for being — again– terminally stupid. It’s true that this isn’t a good time to be starting anything brand new, but what about the book I’ll be working on once Camp Expendable is out of the way? (Not to forget Set Me Free, which runs alongside of whatever is highest priority at the moment.)

The development of A Well-Educated Boy is well along in my head and has plenty of supporting notes that only need to be organized. There’s also about 8,500 words of text, which will have to be abandoned for NaNo, but they’ve set the tone that I want the book to convey, so that is one thing I won’t have to agonize over.

Having only a little over two and a half months to pull it all together is a bit of a rush, but considering how long this story has been churning away, that might not be a big problem. What I want to do is move much more to the “planner” side than my usual mix of planner/pantser. And that means figuring out how to make use of Scrivener’s outline feature, which I’ve never bothered with. As always, during NaNo, the more completely the story is laid out, the less stressful it is to get it written in 30 days or less.

In fact, as I’ve done before, I plan to keep working on another book during NaNo. This year, it will be Set Me Free. I may do less than I normally would in a month, but at least the work won’t stop altogether.

Of course, everything depends on my being able to stick to plans for Expendable, which means editing at least two chapters a day, getting the details of the last chapter written, running the whole thing through ProWritingAid, and then learning how to format it with Sigil.

It probably won’t be too long before I’m beginning to feel that time is running out and the wolves of failure are gaining on me. But what’s life without challenges?