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.

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.

A Well-Educated Boy — What’s it About?

The first step in documenting the development and creation of a novel: Tell the readers what it’s about, and how I envision it.

Boy is both a YA and a coming-of-age novel, but mainly it’s about dystopias — two of them, existing at the same time. Harte Simmons was born and grew up in one of them, a small town that, on the surface, is almost a utopia. Burgundy is crime-free, its schools are excellent, and all the adults are employed. It’s also a little unusual, in that it’s what was once called a “company town.” Burgundy is privately owned by a large corporation.

Steven Simmons, Harte’s cousin, lives in a suburb of a typical urban center. He’s a year older than Harte. The two families take turns visiting during summer vacations and holidays. Both boys have had reasons to be envious of the other’s life, but gradually they become less naive and less envious. Each town, in its own way is a dystopia, though they’re very different from each other.

This is Harte’s story, told after he’s graduated from high school and left Burgundy. He was a typical, privileged, alienated teen, certainly not a hero, but in his last two years of high school, he lost his best friend to suicide, was forcibly enrolled in an alternative school run by the corporation, and began to understand how the world works.

He lives just a few decades down the block from us. There are no aliens, no major catastrophes (this is not a post-apocalyptic novel), no world-spanning evil overlords of any kind. The technologies in use either exist right now or are in development. It’s a world that doesn’t look terribly different from our own. And that’s the central problem I have to work out. How do I show that a world that looks so much like ours is an ominous warning of the world we’re already becoming? That’s what I’ll discuss next time.


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.

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.



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.