Friday, March 24, 2017

Novel solution with an end in sight

Eureka! I experienced an epiphany of sorts yesterday: I discovered, after writing 111 double-spaced pages (28, 515 words) in my novel, a potential pathway to a satisfying conclusion. That doesn’t mean that I will follow that pathway without variation to the end, but it does mean that a solution is within the realm of possibility—that I have created characters that can interact, solve problems and grow and a plot that can sustain their actions and motivations. Of course, I had some inkling of where I wanted to take this creative effort and with whom, but I never know for sure if I can reach that destination until I spill some of the contents of my subconscious onto the page.
I’ve read various people’s approaches to writing novels. Some work from an outline from the beginning. Others start with a character and some event and then write their way to some meaningful (or not) ending. My technique involves a little bit of both. I settle on one or more major characters, squint my eyes to see a destination in some distant future, then enjoy the organic nature of writing fiction until narrative roots take hold and push up a shoot pointing in the right direction.
I figure I’m somewhere close to half way done. I have lots of work to do, but the work is fun. I look forward to sharing an imagined future with characters I feel confident can lead me to some enlightening place. If the destination is as rewarding as I think, I can further sculpt the entire piece to a finished form.
Currently, in my novel the mind of Rudy Goldstein, a 21st century genius who survived death with the help of a sentient AI named Mnemosyne, merges with the mind of Twill, a shaman descendent a million years in the future. The merger is painful. Rudy says:

Sorry, kid. This is going to be hard on both of us. I am sharing your brain now—I’m not just a voice in your ear. You will know my thoughts and memories and I will know yours—although we both can’t be in charge all the time. We wouldn’t be able to function. I know this seems like magic, but it isn’t. I don’t believe in magic, at least not the supernatural kind, and—deep down—I sense that you are a skeptic, too. We’re both human—at least you are and I was. We’ll get through this. We may be in Master Morticue’s cage at the moment, but we have some surprises for Mr. worm guy.

And both these characters have more surprises for me, too, because novels represent an accommodation, sometimes painful, between a writer and the story he is capable of writing and the readers he hopes to reach. But writers must write and readers ache to hear new stories. I know we will get through this together, now that the end is firmly in sight.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Character Harassment

Fictional characters often harass their writers in unpredictable ways. Usually, this is a good thing. When a character starts to write their own dialogue, it usually means the writer (or at least his or her subconscious) has researched and processed the character to the point where that character starts asserting their own point of view—sometimes to the point where plot lines must change—perhaps creating more work for the writer than they had prepared for.
I first really discovered character harassment with Neesha, a young female protagonist in my book, The Deep Time Diaries. Her voice often rang in my ears, telling me what to say. Of course, Neesha was loosely patterned after my wife, so I had Neesha’s original template close at hand to remind me of her ‘voice.’
In my most recent book, I’m not quite sure who Twill is patterned after—perhaps a younger version of myself—but Twill has been harassing me of late, getting his ancient mentor, Rudy and Rudy’s protector, the AI Mnemosyne, into more trouble than I thought I had intended. In the following example from a recent chapter, Twill warns Morticue not to mess with Spider Woman (Mnemosyne), although, at the time, he is chained to a bench and apparently just a primitive wild groupie (human) not in a position to make demands:

“I see no danger to ‘Jadderbadian kind’ in you, scruffy ape.” Morticue gestured with one arm, reminding Rudy of a maestro in front of his musicians. “You squat in primitive huts near what appears to be some ancient construct of some kind. Even as we speak, Captain Edelphine leads a military convoy to the base of the artifact you surround. Can I assume this mysterious Spider Woman you venerate is a local deity?”
“Do not underestimate Spider Woman.” Twill pointed a finger at Morticue. “She has guarded my homeland for generations and has now sent Great Uncle Rudy to guide me.”
“Let’s not do a lot of ad-libbing, kid,” Rudy whispered.
“Great Uncle Rudy?” Morticue’s mouth orifice fluttered, exposing ivory barbs beneath, and his chromatophores pulsed in a tepid yellow. “Where is this Great Uncle Rudy?”
Twill forged on, evading the question. “Spider Woman is wise.” Twill paused with a shaman’s good sense of theatre. “Spider Woman knows about the star gate through which you entered our world…and she knows it is not of your making.”
Morticue paused in mid gesture. His mouth orifice froze momentarily before he spoke again. “The star gate. Your Spider Woman knows about the star gate?” The alien turned toward his computer screens and activated them with a voice command. “Link me with Edelphine.”
Twill continued. “Spider Woman has many powers. She weaves many complex webs. Do not underestimate her.”
“And don’t over play our hand, my boy,” said Rudy
“What do you want, scholar?” Edelphine’s voice burst from a speaker on a nearby console. “I’m rather busy.”
“Proceed with some caution, Commander.” Morticue twisted on his bench to face the speaker. “This creature knows more things than he should. He knows something about the star gate and how we use it.”
“I knew it!” Edelphine spluttered. “This artifact is a threat. In the name of Great Mother, I will reduce it to dust.”
“I wouldn’t,” yelled Twill, rattling his leg chain in the process.
“Is that the monkey?” Edelphine’s voice entered a higher register. “How dare he address me directly?”
“Spider Woman says, ‘It is always best to speak clearly to fools before they step in their own poo.’”
Rudy groaned. “No ad-libbing, kid. No ad-libbing!” Rudy glanced at the screen. Edelphine’s mouth orifice seemed frozen in an ‘O’ configuration, fluttering at the edges like an aspen leaf.

So, Twill seems determined to up the tension and get me into situations my other characters need to resolve. In the end, character harassment has the potential to make a book more real, more complex (and harder to complete) than it might otherwise be—but if the writer is surprised by what’s going on, the reader should be too. The reader will keep reading. The writer will keep writing. They both want desperately to find out how this implausible fiction will end.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Is there intelligent life on Earth?

Comedians, tongue only partially in cheek, may say, “There is little evidence of any,” but how hard would it be to recognize an “intelligent” species if you met one? Biologists are often inclined to ask a modified version of that question: “In what ways is this creature intelligent?” This reflects the fact that all organisms alive today on our planet represent terminal lineages of 3.5 billion years of survivors. Their lines were all intelligent enough to beat their competition and endure.

In my novel-in-progress, tentatively called Pet Stories: A genius groupie in the kennel of Master Morticue Ambergrand, aliens come to Earth and find a species of primate that remind them of pets they left behind on Jadderbad. They discover evidence of million-year-old ruins, but don’t connect those artifacts with the primates they discover. Instead they make pets of them. Here is an excerpt where Morticue, a Natural Philosopher interested in the alien artifacts, ‘explains’—in the presence of his pet groupie (human) named Fum—the requirements for intelligent life:

“Well, Fum, point one: it’s obvious that any intelligent creature should be one that delays sex until after metamorphosis. The passions of sex—from what I’ve heard of the published reports of adults who have made the transition—and taken the time to record their experiences—those passions cloud the mind to the point where rational thought disintegrates. I’m sure you would agree. I’ve seen you rutting around the neighbor’s female groupies, deaf to commands.” Morticue paused and scratched his hide with several available hands. “But animals undergoing metamorphosis on this planet are few and small-brained creatures. Could they have a collective hive mind greater than the sum of its parts?”
Morticue shrugged most of his shoulders. “Point two: Intelligent life most likely needs a dispersed nervous system like Jadderbadians—various sub brains to handle routine bodily functions. That frees the primary Great Ganglion for rational thought.” Morticue looked at Fum who had picked up some sort of polished stone from the box and was holding it with one hand while stroking it with the digit of the other. “And yes, point three: Intelligent life needs many manipulative organs to handle the environment. Two obviously stunts mental growth.”
Fum smiled as he stroked the stone.
Morticue raised his third leg from tripod stance and ambled over to Fum with the remaining two legs. “What do you have there, boy?” Morticue extended his right lateral second row arm and Fum placed the stone into his hand. “Ah, a worked and polished fossil. Probably a trinket of some ancient craftsman.” Morticue sniffed the object carefully, viewing it in detail with all three eyes. “Marble. The fossil of some sort of shelled sea creature. I see some unusual markings in the ultraviolet. Of course, that leads to point four: Any intelligent life needs a broad spectrum of sensory input. That’s the problem with you groupies, after all. Very limited olfactory lobes; vision ends in the purple wavelengths somewhere.”

As humans, we prize our own skills and talents: The use of symbolic language, acute vision, the ability to imagine alternate realities, recognition of our social peers (and their motives) and some talent at logical deduction—but had birds, for example, taken a slightly different evolutionary turn and African primates become extinct, would they admire the same kinds of attributes? It can be fun to think about.