Paying Attention to the Story that Was

Space colony of O'Neill cylinders (NASA Ames Research Center, via Wikipedia)

[Image: a so-called “space colony” consisting of a pair of O’Neill cylinders, courtesy of the NASA Ames Research Center (via Wikipedia). This image has little to do with the story (or the spaceship(s)) discussed in the post, but it felt suitably “epic” (and at least vaguely relevant).]

For a good while now — maybe a year and a half — I’ve been working on a science-fiction novel (working title: 23kpc). The action takes place almost entirely aboard an interstellar space ship, the ISS Tascheter; the protagonists, Guy and Missy Landis, are something like a spacegoing Nick and Nora Charles (cf. Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man stories, especially the films — starring William Powell and Myrna Loy — made from them).

About six months before starting 23kpc, I’d actually written a short novella, or long short story, featuring Guy and Missy and the Tascheter. That story sprang from nowhere in particular; I just wanted to try my hand at SF (again), and was at the time too distracted — by real life and the marketing (still in progress) of Seems to Fit — to focus on anything major. In fact, when I began writing it, I didn’t even know it was SF: it took me several sentences to realize it.

In the course of writing “Open and Shut,” as the original story was called, I realized many other things. I realized how little consideration I’d ever given to the practicalities of space travel, particularly from one star system to another. What would the ship have to be like? If it weren’t capable of faster-than-light (FTL) speeds, how could individual humans ever hope to survive such a journey? (I sure as hell didn’t want Guy, Missy, et al. to die en route — requiring the invention of fresh characters over and over and over…) Perhaps humans were somehow different then — evolved with significantly longer lifespans. Or perhaps there were some ways of keeping them inert for long stretches of time, à la “suspended animation”… or… or… And what about where they were going — what could they even hope to know about their destination? Had at least one other generation of humans preceded them into space? How could a “crew” of, say, a few dozen individuals, even hundreds of them, possibly keep going during a trip which might take not just decades but centuries?

And so on.

Well, I took “Open and Shut” through to the story’s end. But all those practical concerns compelled me to tackle the general project correctly, in its own right. Hence, 23kpc. It no doubt comes with its own set of problems, as I’ll realize when I re-read the whole thing (when I’m done writing the whole thing). But it’s backed by much more (read: any) research, and I think I’ve gotten a lot more of it “right.”

Still, “Open and Shut” has its virtues, especially as a seat-of-the-pants exercise. It gave me Guy and Missy, and several of the other main characters who’d show up in the novel as well. It gave me the Tascheter — in vastly different form. It gave me some of the underlying themes I’d been thinking about (e.g., the evolution of culture and language). It’s told in the present tense, and the first person (from Guy’s point of view), which makes the action feel more “immediate” (to me, anyhow). Finally, it gave me a certain clipped, smart-alecky tone which seemed well-suited to the characters. And re-reading the first few pages reminded me of how much fun I’d had back then…

What follows: the first few hundred words of that story. Hope you enjoy it, too!

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Paying Attention to the Imperceptible

[Video: Loreena McKennitt performs “All Souls Night” live. (Lyrics below.)]

From whiskey river:

It is a mistake to believe that the crucial moments of a life when its habitual direction changes forever must be loud and shrill dramatics, washed away by fierce internal surges. This is a kitschy fairy tale started by boozing journalists, flashbulb-seeking filmmakers and authors whose minds look like tabloids. In truth, the dramatics of a life-determining experience are often unbelievably soft. It has so little akin to the bang, the flash, of the volcanic eruption that, at the moment it is made, the experience is often not even noticed. When it deploys its revolutionary effect and plunges a life into a brand-new light giving it a brand-new melody, it does that silently and in this wonderful silence resides its special nobility.

(Pascal Mercier [source])

and (italicized lines):

All Souls Night

Bonfires dot the rolling hills
Figures dance around and around
To drums that pulse out echoes of darkness
Moving to the pagan sound.

Somewhere in a hidden memory
Images float before my eyes
Of fragrant nights of straw and of bonfires
And dancing till the next sunrise.

I can see lights in the distance

Trembling in the dark cloak of night
Candles and lanterns are dancing, dancing
A waltz on All Souls Night.

Figures of cornstalks bend in the shadows
Held up tall as the flames leap high
The green knight holds the holly bush
To mark where the old year passes by.


Bonfires dot the rolling hillsides
Figures dance around and around
To drums that pulse out echoes of darkness
And moving to the pagan sound.

Standing on the bridge that crosses
The river that goes out to the sea
The wind is full of a thousand voices
They pass by the bridge and me

(Loreena McKennitt [source])


My eyes wandered from one end of the mountains to the other. “Do you think they go on forever?”

“The mountains?” Aritomo said, as though he had been asked that question before. “They fade away. Like all things.”

(Tan Twan Eng [source])

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Paying Attention to Continuity Traps

[Found at Basic Instructions]

[Warning to those of you who haven’t already read chapter 4 (“The Room”) in the Propagational Library series: this post contains a spoiler or two.]

As you may know, I’m sort of creating my Propagational Library series on the fly. Which means, among other things: failures — things overlooked in the rush of creation and a quick follow-up editing pass — will be immediately obvious to a dispassionate reader. While working on Saturday’s installment, which involves the effects of a weird high-tech chamber upon a person sitting within, I had what struck me as a cool idea. This is captured in the following passage:

Dolly Burghar, nee Magaziner, sat down on a vinyl-covered stool inside a steel-toothed box… Her husband Matthew flipped a switch, turned a knob, whatever. Two minutes later, the steel box was empty.

Cool! The lady vanishes! But this cool idea presented me with a problem (unseen at the time). Later in the same installment, my protagonist, Gabriel Naude, had to undergo a brief demonstration of the box (which he calls “the room,” in quotes). Even though it was a scaled-down, non-full-power demonstration, I could not afford for him to vanish. Because even later, in an upcoming chapter, he will need to be both inside and outside the box, simultaneously, during a full-scale, sustained use of “the room.” Fixing my problem will involve one and/or two courses of action, when and if I turn this into a real honest-to-gods (and hypothetically) publishable story:

  • I can tinker with the “Dolly Burghar Magaziner” scene, so that she doesn’t disappear (probably by having her “just” die); OR
  • I can figure out some alternative to the later planned scene, with Gabe and Gabe-Prime (let’s call him), so that the one inside the box also disappears.

(From another perspective, you may observe, both of these are Band-Aids — attacking symptoms rather than underlying causes. If I made up my mind to outline the entire story at once, or at least the next few chapters in advance, then possibly I could avoid such lapses. Practically speaking, the likelihood of such a decision on my part approaches zero.)

I’m thinking of this little glitch as evidence of more than just a continuity mistake. It’s a continuity trap: getting snagged on, and dazzled by, some shiny little detail thrown into the pathway by one’s devious subconscious — sufficiently snagged that I lost the thread of what had to happen. It’s like suddenly finding yourself in a room of your home and wondering how you got there… then looking down to see you’ve got an unrecognized ball of aluminum foil crumpled up in your hand. You want to go, Wait wait wait WAIT a damned minute! and start the last three minutes all over again.


P.S. After writing the above, I searched for “continuity trap” to see if I’d invented a new phrase. Fat chance! E.g., this (on continuity traps in film shots). Or this (on continuity traps in comics). Etc., etc.

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Paying Attention to What You Want

From Seems to Fit:

“For this one time,” [Bonnie] said aloud, “I want us each to think about the same question, one question, while we do this. We don’t have to say anything out loud, and we don’t have to spend more than ten minutes doing it, I don’t think—”

George: “Wait! Brandy first, question second.” He raised his glass, uttered a single syllable: “Al.”

Al,” they all repeated, and downed their shots.

The three men downed their shots, that is. Not Bonnie. She didn’t want the shock of the liquor to bring on a second wave of laughter, and she wanted to ensure she could ask the question straightforwardly and without qualifying or explaining it. Bonnie sipped at hers, and put the glass back down on the table.

“Now,” she said. “Now we touch hands — that’s right, almost like a séance, good. And now we close our eyes, all the way Larry, no peeking. That’s right. This is just us, each of us, answering the question for ourselves.”

“So what’s the question?” said Larry.

“Just this: why?” Bonnie said. “Why am I — each of us — why would I do this thing… put so much at risk? Not what’s in it for Al, either. What’s in it for me. For each of us, inside our own heads, that’s the question for each of us: Why would I do this?” A pause to let it sink in. She closed her own eyes. “Okay? All clear? Go.”

Why would I do this? thought Pierce.

The question resisted focus. He could not think of a single argument, a single fact that would convince him to pursue such a strange, reckless course of action…

A recent post on one of Nathan Bransford’s forums asked the question directly, with the title “What Do You Write For?” INTERN asked it, customarily obliquely, in her post of a couple weeks ago (“chain of (publishing) fools”) and in one a couple weeks before that (“exhaustion hunting the great spotted WIP-alump”).

And it often percolates between the lines at Marta’s writing in the water blog, sometimes bubbling to the surface — as in an entry of last week (“This is a sign by the side of the road”). A couple days ago she offered this trailer of an award-winning documentary:

Marta asked:

Would you write if every word stayed in the room with you until you died and left them behind?

Which pretty much lays it out there in stark terms, eh?
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Paying Attention to the Click

Nearly every writer, I imagine — maybe we can even dispense with the nearly? — has favorite words. It’s certainly true of me. Some of them are words I just like the sound of. Some of them have meanings just too right: I can’t help reaching for those words whenever I set to writing or talking about a favorite topic.When I’m editing something I’ve written, one of the toughest jobs is ridding the text of these pets, which after the second or third occurrence on a page start to jut out at me like snaggleteeth just begging to be attacked by a cosmetic dentist.

But I’ve also got favorite words which I’ve never used. Words which I’ve been hoarding, waiting to be spent at just the right moment, in just the right piece…

This is about one of those words.

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Paying Attention to, Well, Everything

[Image: photograph, Rock of Ages #15, by Edward Burtynsky: “Active Section, E.L. Smith Quarry, Barre, Vermont, 1991.” Click image for larger view.]

This Paying Attention series of posts has recorded, intermittently, one or another aspect of writing (mostly) the novel which I’m now calling Seems to Fit. Every now and then I remember something important which I’ve forgotten, in the flush of creation (or re-creation); and I want to “bookmark” it, so to speak, lest I forget it again. (By “it,” I don’t mean a fact or a plot point. I mean something about the writing or the writing process itself.)

I’d laugh to think of these as “writing tips,” because I have no idea if they’re important to anyone else — or (if so) just how important. (And yes, I know — I often use the second person in them: You need to do this and that, and so on. Just talking to myself, see?)

But it’s been a while since the previous Paying Attention post, and I’ve almost completely shut off the tap of posts about Seems to Fit in general. In part, this stems from what’s going on in the book at the moment: each main character gets his or her own “final” chapter in preparation for the book’s gigantic next-to-last one; so in these chapters — which I’ve been working on for two-three months — I’m sort of saying good-bye to these people, in a book that I’ve lived with, one way or another, for twenty years. (Do not assume from that sentence, btw, that I’m bumping them off.) So to me it feels like an extended private moment, between them and me.

In a larger sense, though, my silence about Seems to Fit flows from something which I think has distinguished my blogging from my writing of fiction: carefulness.

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Paying Attention to the Momentous

With apologies to Mr. Thoreau, I don’t honestly believe that the great mass of humanity lead lives of quiet desperation. Most people, I have come to think, live lives of simple routine, blended with dollops of making-it-up-as-you-go-along. They come to crossroads in their lives and turn one way or the other not because they’re desperate and not because they’re dazzled by a sunbeam highlighting a particular path. They choose a direction based on whatever information and other resources they’ve got available right then. Only in hindsight does it become “obvious” that they had to go straight, or left, or in sudden reverse, or whatever.

But fictional characters: ah, yes, things are a bit different with them. They plod along, unaware they’ve been ascending a ramp rather than a simple road, and suddenly they realize they’re at a fulcrum. The course of their lives hasn’t been up a mountainside to a peak. It’s been up a see-saw: to take one step further will throw them off-balance, if not dump them entirely (as Dad used to say) ass-over-teakettle.

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Paying Attention to the Silence

This Paying Attention to… series on writing fiction concentrates, for the most part, on what to do when writing. More exactly, it covers things I need to remind myself to pay attention to — particularly as I’ve been working on Seems to Fit.

In this post, I want to look at what to when not writing — particularly, while writing-blocked.

Ask me about my first novel, and I will invariably tell you about a mystery, Crossed Wires. In doing so, I’m not counting the book I started in the mid-1970s: a picaresque science-fiction extravaganza called As Luck Would Have It. It was humorous, or rather “humorous,” and (or so I imagined) intellectually wide-ranging, and full of all sorts of stylistic  pyrotechnics like punning character names and a portentous prologue.* While I never finished even a single draft of the book’s manuscript, and indeed the manuscript never even made it to digital form (I’d handwritten and typed it), I always liked and remembered the book’s central conceit:

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Paying Attention (or Not) to Word Count

So, bottom line: yes, at around 12:30 this afternoon I bounded across the 3,000-word mark in the 2010 Write Your A** Off Write-a-Thon.

I’d gotten up around 6:30am, heated water in the teakettle, sat down at my desk and by 7:30 — after incidental stuff like selecting the day’s background music — begun to write. Took a break of about ten minutes at around 9:00 or so (cup of tea #2), and another (#3) around 10:30. Did a word-count check at 12:30, and found that I’d indeed written just over the 3K target. Afterwards I tidied things up a bit, including bringing the current passage to a conclusion.

And then finally opened up the old blogging dashboard.

Because my morning writing time is pretty much the same length every weekday (90 minutes to two hours), there’s usually — usually — a fairly consistent word count each day, depending on how much revision I do. So I don’t really like to rely on word count as a measure of “success.” For one thing, good or ill, I tend to write very fast — not “write” meaning “…in a publishable sense,” obviously. But the words do pour forth. And although I’ve never had a single typing lesson, just from years and years of working with keyboards (both as a computer guy and a writer) I do type very fast, too.

(Against this latter speed you have to weigh, however, my neurotic hyper-awareness of typos and awkwardness as I commit them, causing me to back up and overtype quite a bit. (Just then, I typed wuite, braked, threw it into reverse, and replaced the w with a q before moving on.))

Still, in light of my creative frozen-ness of recent weeks, I really welcomed the WYAO Write-a-Thon’s 3K Challenge. So when I took my first break and did a quick word-count check, and saw that the odometer had rolled over to four digits, I exulted.

You take what you can get, hmm?

Anyway, if you’d like to see what I accomplished today — the start of (presumably) a short story, or possibly something longer — the first third of it is posted here. And if you want to see all the 3,100-some words, you can find them in this (74KB) PDF.

(Thanks, everyone, for your good wishes as I embarked on this mini-project!)

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Paying Attention to Voice

I may never have to master anything more difficult than thinking, and thinking convincingly, like multiple characters. It’s not just a matter of the word choices and rhythms of their dialogue (although it includes that). And it’s not just a matter of the outward manifestations of their natures — gender, style of dress, and so on (although it includes that, too). It’s a matter of looking at the world in a way shared by no other characters in the same scene and/or book.

This makes sense, right? People born at different times, to different families, subject to different economic pressures, attending different schools — all that: they can’t possibly regard and respond to a given event in exactly the same way, from events small (a single question, even a single word like Why?) to enormous (the impending end of the universe).

All these considerations — not just the way someone talks but his/her psychological/emotional stance in relationship to events and other characters — constitute what I think of when I think of voice. And it’s damned hard for me to understand, let alone work with.

So when I set out on the work-in-progress now called Seems to Fit, well, naturally I’d give it a half-dozen main characters and a gaggle of lesser ones. (Ha. Joke’s on me, isn’t it?)

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