2/5/03: Research and baby steps

In the last month I’ve been doing a lot of reading. How to write a damn good novel by James Frey — much of the same stuff I’ve already heard many times about how to write a damn good story. Not much new, still worth hearing again. Hacker culture by DouglasThomas — see 1/10 entry above. Raj: a scrapbook of British India by Charles Allen — the heat! The boredom! The numbers of servants! The unmitigated gall! The British were completely alien to the country they ruled (100,000 of them to 3 million Indians) and, for most of them, it was pretty unpleasant and not particularly rewarding financially. Lots of good imagery, though. The tossing of the pith helmets overboard as the homeward boat leaves. The fleeing to the hills during the Hot Weather. The enormous ratio of servants to served (for the upper classes). I think I want my aliens to be kinder than the British were. Writing the breakout novel by Donald Maass — this is a book that tries to define the difference between a merely adequate novel and one that “breaks out” to the bestseller list and critical acclaim. Lots of specific advice here, but the keyword, I think, is bigger. Everything should be bigger and richer and more powerful. Some key quotes: “A breakout premise has plausibility, inherent conflict, originality, and gut emotional appeal.” “High stakes yield high success; to test stakes, ask ‘so what?’ Breakout novels combine high public stakes with high personal stakes.” “Larger-than-life characters say what we cannot say, do what we cannot do, change in ways that we cannot change; they have conflicting sides and are conscious of self. Build a cast for contrast.” “Conflict in the breakout novel is meaningful, immediate, large scale, surprising, not easily resolved, and happens to people for whom we feel sympathy. Bridging conflict carries the reader from the opening line to the moment when the central conflict is set.” “The secret to breakout plotting is tension on every page.” “Multiple points of view and subplots enrich a novel. Connect subplots quickly; subplots must afect overall story outcome. Interweave character relationships.” “Great stories go in unpredictable directoins; breakout novels tend to sprawl.” “Many breakout authors… box their characters into a situation with inescapable moral choices and dilemmas. Moments of outward change… plot turning points… are probably also inward turning points. The time when things are darkest and most dire is also the time when a character’s inner convictions are most sorely tested.” Re-read “Writing the Breakout Novel” in July! (See also 1/23 entry above about theme and politics.) The fugitive game: online with Kevin Mitnick by Jonathan Littman — key concepts here are some details of Kevin’s background (his whole family and mileu growing up were white trash petty crooks) and the concept of social engineering. Kevin was not a brilliant programmer; he combined passion, curiosity, a keen memory, and a powerful ability to get people to tell him what he needs. I’m thinking that Jason comes into the novel with the technical skill and the passion, and Sienna brings the social engineering (she uses social engineering techniques on Kevin to get him to do what she wants). The complete handbook of novel writing from Writer’s Digest Books — a mixed bag, and like Damn Good Novel it contains a lot of basics about “story” that I already know but don’t mind being reminded of. One thing I hadn’t heard before: using plot points to get through the middle of the novel. These are 3-6 scenes that change the direction of the plot and characters (vertices of K.W. Jeter’s “W-shaped plot”). To increase suspense and tension surrounding these scenes: name the big scene, to alert the reader to the event’s impending arrival; provide a preview that mirrors or reflects the upcoming big scene; provide a short contrasting scene immediately before the big scene to increase its impact; use lots of sensory and emotional detail to make the big scene pay off; and at the end of the scene have a disaster and revelation that changes the characters’ understanding of the situation (perepeteia). The British Raj by Denis Judd — more detail than I’d had before on what happened before the Great Mutiny, and lots of examples of British inhumanity. Example: when Victoria (who never visited India) was proclaimed Empress of India, the 21-gun salute (or however many it was — it was all codified) stampeded the elephants and killed several of the natives. This book has numerous first-hand accounts and I own it, so I’m not going to write notes on it right now. At the moment I’m just starting Shoot the women first by Eileen MacDonald. Female terrorists are apparently the more deadly of the species. After all that reading, in the last couple of days something went spung in my head and I had to write something. So the day before yesterday, at work, I whipped out a Shitty First Draft of the outline. I outlined the events in strict chronological order, just as a first pass… and, you know, if Sienna goes off and starts infecting aliens without telling Jason, it might just work that way. Jason, and the reader, don’t know that Jason is the cause of the plague or that the plague is really a computer virus until after the Remembrance Day scene which is the big pivot point a the middle of the book. Mind you, I think the more complex interleaved structure might still be good for the book, but I will at least consider a chronological structure. Yesterday I found a Character Worksheet on the web and filled out about half of it for Sienna. I’m starting with her because I know more about her, and because she’s a more interesting character than Jason who is, so far, a bit of a nonentity. I’m going to read more about terrorists to try to get a handle on Jason — what is the thing he wants more than anything, and why can’t he get it? Much thinking about the background of the novel. Wrote 1700 words of notes on the state of the world in 2051 and the aliens’ technology, biology, reproduction, sexuality, and sociology.

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