Author Archive

3/3/03: And so, it begins

Word count: 1164 Yesterday I had coffee with Mark Bourne and discussed the aliens. He came up with the idea that “seeing is believing” is the core of their philosophy and culture. If you don’t see something with your own eyes, it doesn’t exist; if you haven’t met someone personally, you have no preconceptions about them. Major transgressions are punished by the gouging out of eyes; less-major transgressions may result in “internal exile” caused by people refusing to see you. Minor transgressions result in diminished attention. Rather than “face”, their culture is ruled by attention, the fundamental coin of respect. Visibility equals attention; attention equals influence; influence equals power. No one can have direct influence over more people than can be gathered in one room at a time, but indirect influence can extend further (again, networks of small hierarchies). Theoretically, no government can extend beyond the limits of sight, which makes high places extremely valuable. The moon is the Eye of God, which sees all and is seen by all; this drove their space race, the race to literally claim the high ground and achieve the pinnacle of perception. My idea about the magnetosphere didn’t work for him, but then he’s not an expert in that area. He suggested, though, that perhaps they don’t use radio because communicating over the horizon is gauche. Hmm. Tonight I wrote a first draft of the Prologue. Woo hoo! Word counts from now on reflect only actual novel, not notes and outline.

2/28/03: Insanely complicated

Word count (outline and notes): 15471 I wanted to start drafting by the end of February. I didn’t make it. But I did spend this evening thrashing my first draft chronological outline into an insanely complicated spreadsheet (with color coding: blue is backstory, prologue, and epilogue; green is the alien plot thread; yellow is the human plot thread). So far I have not done anything to make sure the two threads complement each other well (balancing, echoing, mirroring, etc.). And I see that Clarity doesn’t have enough to do in the second half of the novel. At this point I’m prepared to run with this, knowing that things will change as the work goes on. I can shift incidents between chapters, and even between threads if I have to, to get the balance right. Looking over the outline, I’m excited. It looks like a rip-roaring story; the alternating plot threads seem to keep the tension up nicely, with a turning point at the end of just about every chapter. I hope to begin drafting this weekend.

2/25/03: More notes from Potlatch

Word count (outline and notes): 14656 On Saturday night, over a fine dinner at Zumi, I talked with friends Matt (former astrophysicist) and Janet (former anthropologist) about the aliens and their planet. Matt thought that giving them no magnetosphere would not necessarily kill them with the radiation, though it would not produce enough radio noise to make radio impractical, and the radiation would be enough to give them a biology different enough from ours to prevent us eating each other’s food (there are maybe 100 potential amino acids, of which Earth life uses about 20). Janet independently evolved the centrality of one-to-one communication from their background as presented, and agreed with my idea of “networks of small hierarchies” as the basis of their culture (a culture organized like the Internet, hmm). From this, we extrapolated a few ideas: they would have neither democracy nor dictatorship, but would be divided into small cooperating/competing clans and sects; they would have overlapping mosaics of culture (maps of religions, languages, ideologies, etc. would not overlap even as much as they do here); they might not even have the concept of a “language” as such, just swarms of ideolects of greater or lesser mutual comprehensibility; their philosophy of life might be something like “me against my brother; me and my brother against the clan; me and my clan against the world.” Matt wondered if such a society could develop the industrial base for spaceflight. I didn’t have an answer at the time, but I now think that their technology is more hand-crafted than industrial. (Plausible? Maybe not.) One other keen idea that came out in that conversation is that they would have Northern Lights all over the sky every night. Oh, as long as I’m here… just got two bits of good news in the mail yesterday: 1. My story “The Tale of the Golden Eagle”, which I sold to F&SF last year, will appear in the June 2003 issue. I should have my contributor copies in mid-April. 2. I received my contributor copies of Land/Space, containing my story “Fear of Widths.” They look great!

2/21/03 (my birthday): More thoughts on the future

Word count (outline and notes): 13803 (Typing in the It’s Tops Coffee Shop on Market Street.) Yesterday I found something on the net about an AT&T research project called ShortTalk. This is a speech-based text editing system that uses non-English command words for commands, such as “looft” for “cursor left,” “spooce” for “insert a space,” and “gairk” for “move cursor to mark”. The advantage is that there is no ambguity as to whether an utterance is a command or a word to be typed. The disadvantage is that when using it you sound like the Swedish Chef. I think I may adapt this for use with datappliances by adopting the non-English command language but not so silly. Perhaps each command word starts with “z”: zeft, zight, zup, zown, zelect, zopy, zaste. “Zup zive; zelect zentence; zelete.” Hmm, still silly. But such a thing could catch on, if it works (e.g. Graffitti) and once it catches on it becomes part of the language. “Zuck zou!” “Zelete zat!” (Datappliances use small screens (the cheap ones) or heads-up displays (like Sienna’s) or project directly into the eyeball (the top of the line). There is no holography in this world.) The command language would be called ZTalk — no, Zalk. (Now at the Bombay Bazaar, eating ginger ice cream.) Alien words would also get picked up (viz. “tycoon,” “verandah”), but since the language is signed and the written language symbolic, how would it be picked up? Perhaps, like the ASL signs oh-I-see and you-and-me (vs. me-and-someone-else) such words can only be translated approximately and/or by phrases. This would limit their acceptance. We may see alien gestures being mixed in with human speech. (At a yarn shop, waiting for Kate, working on 2-column outline in Excel.) It occurs to me that if I can write these notes a paragraph at a time, in the small interstices of life, I could be writing the novel itself in the same way…

2/24/03: I am woman, hear my ROARS

Word count (outline and notes): 14314 At Potlatch I took a Sunday morning workshop on “Transracial Writing for the Sincere” led by Nisi Shawl and Cyn Ward, which was about half lecture and half writing exercises. (Many and varied were the writing appliances in use, including a Palm with a soft fabric keyboard that doubled as a case and a notepad with shorthand.) The good news is that I am already doing a lot of things right, in questioning assumptions and not letting my characters fall into the default ROARS (Race, Orientation, Ability, Religion, and Sex). Key points: You are not a racist just because your reptile brain comes up with nasty stereotypical thoughts about people of different ROARS. Racism is when your conscious brain agrees with your reptile brain. — Your first impulse for character, setting, etc. is probably wrong; question your unconsidered choices. — If a person belongs to the “unmarked” (cultural default) ROARS his way is smoothed in ways he may never even recognize. — SF can create new social divides to illuminate marked/unmarked states. — As writers we can use marked/unmarked state to create parallax. Who is looking at whom? How do they look? It varies depending on the observer. — Difference is not monolithic; not everyone who is oppressed has common cause (e.g. American Indians and African-Americans may dislike/distrust each other though they are both oppressed), and complexes of characteristics do not always go together. Avoid the categorical fallacy of mistaking the traits of an individual for the traits of the group or vice versa. Catagorical thinking is not inherently fallacious, but it can be; you can have charactes engage in categorical thinking to reveal aspects of their character (e.g. blind spots). — Use congruence (shared characteristics) to establish ties between the reader and a character of a different ROARS. — Even secondary characters should have multiple traits, as real people do; even if a very minor character has only a few traits, they should not all point in the same direction (e.g. have your poor black man be passionate about classical violin, not rap). — Resonance is the association of related ideas (e.g. if a German is a torturer that inevitably raises the suspicion he might be a Nazi); it can be intentional or unintentional, but should be carefully controlled. An easy way to disarm unfortunate resonances is to have more than one member of a particular ROARS (e.g. don’t have the villain be the only bisexual in the book). — You will make mistakes, get feedback to correct them. In the exercises I tried rewriting a scene from “Nucleon” with Carl the junkyard owner as a Puerto Rican rather than a Polish-American, and a scene from “Primates” (a Clarion story, unpublished) with the primatologist as a woman rather than a man. I was intrigued to see how much the other characters changed in reaction to these changes. Obviously I need to do some research on African-Americans, if I’m going to get Sienna right.

2/20/03: Don’t run over little Johnny till I know him

Word count (outline and notes): 12949 In The Making of Memento, there’s a quote from director Chris Nolan: “When I had written the script, which seemed to work on the page, the feeling was if you’re going to use this unconventional structure, my impulse at script stage was to teach the reader the structure, to do it very quickly with small scenes, so that in the first ten pages you have an idea of the structure throughout. What I found with Following and Memento, when you come to watch the film, was that’s counterproductive. It becomes too baffling for the audience. The audience has to have a period in which just to connect with characters. With both films, I took a couple of the initial blocks, and combining them, so they run conventionally over two blocks. With Memento, there were cut points at the arriving at the derelict building, and I ran that together. It’s a longer block of time.” This ties together with what Tim Powers said at Writers of the Future: “Don’t run over little Johnny till I know him.” In other words, establish character first, plot second. Wrote about 300 words of notes on story structure, bridging conflict, and Jason’s motivations based on the above. Going to San Francisco for Potlatch tonight. Have some critiques to do, but hope to get some writing done on the plane. Maybe even start drafting!

2/17/03: What makes a terrorist, and story structure

Word count (outline and notes): 12239 Just finished reading Shoot the Women First by Eileen MacDonald. I read this partly to get a handle on Sienna, but mostly for Jason. I wanted an answer to the question Why does someone become a terrorist? My reading of the stories in this book is that, as a rule, they do so because they are wholly committed to the cause — that it seems more important than human life. Which is not to say that all terrorists are cold-blooded killers; many of the women interviewed in this book felt remorse about the people they had killed (some regretted the entire terrorist thing; others did not). But in general they felt that these deaths were necessary in order to make the serious changes in society they sought. Most of these women became terrorists in reaction to societal oppression expressed personally. For example, the Palestinian and Irish Republican suffered societal oppression of their entire people (their language prohibited, the loss of the right to assemble, etc.) as well as a personal expression of that oppression (both women were repeatedly forced to move from house to house as children — either forced to move by their oppressors or just trying to avoid them — and suffered constant physical intimidation by the Israelis/Protestants respectively). However, it was not any specific act of personal oppression that convinced them to take action. Rather, they cited these acts of personal oppression as examples of the suffering of their people as a whole. Their primary motivation was to rescue their people from domination rather than to redress personal offences. This is true even for the Italian and German left-wing terrorists who sought to radically change their own culture’s politics rather than to expel an invading culture. “Astrid Proll, a former member of the Baader-Meinhof gang, once described herself and her comrades as being ‘very well-armed social workers.'” The author makes much of the idea that these women gave up conventional motherhood (in some cases abandoning existing children) in favor of expressing maternal feelings for the Cause, and often felt a closer attachment to the Cause than to their lovers or husbands. Personally, and for purposes of the novel, I don’t think this is an expressly female trait. The point, I think, is that before you can kill, you must become attached to something that literally matters more to you than life itself. Another book I’ve been reading is The Making of Memento by James Mottram (a Christmas present from Kate’s brother). One problem I anticipate in the complex interleaved plot I have in mind is how to keep the reader from getting confused about when each individual chapter takes place. Mottram points out some of the tricks that director Nolan uses to keep the viewers oriented in Memento, including the scratches on Leonard’s face. Something that simple and visual is too subtle for a novel, I think, but what if Jason breaks his leg during the escape from the UN? That’s something that will influence his every action and will make perfectly clear whether a particular chapter takes place before or after that point.

1/22/03: Thoughts on politics and theme

I just finished reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and in it he points out that the most memorable novels emerge from the author’s strong convictions. “I feel it is beneficial to work in advance on the moral forces moving underneath your story, but I do feel that such work generally involves strengthening what the people in the story believe rather than what you, the author, may feel. … To avoid a preachy tone, it may be helpful… not to grapple with theme on a global scale, but rather first to examine individual scenes for ways in which they each can be made sharper and more impassioned.” Maas recommends an exercise: write down a character’s internal motivations for doing something in a particular scene, in order of priority. You will probably find that the most immediate motives (physical/emotional requirements) are at the top of that list, with higher motives (search for truth, thirst for justice, whatever) further down. Now try rewriting the scene with the priorities reversed: higher motives at the top, immediate motives at the bottom. “Motivating your characters according to higher values… adds passion to action.” But don’t overplay it. “Understatement and restraint are the watchwords.” How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey also suggests that you should have a theme, or mission statement, for your book. Several other writers about writing have said the same thing. Right now I’m thinking about how to incorporate my feelings about the impending Gulf War II into my novel-in- progress, without having it be “about” the war. I have in mind a theme along the lines of “don’t let yourself be railroaded by the mob” or “control of information is control of reality”. This is not a Message to be stuck into the book… it is a tool to help focus my attention as I outline and draft.

1/10/03: On reading Hacker Culture by Douglas Thomas

I’ve been thinking that this novel can comment on current trends in society, specifically the loss of personal privacy. In the world of the novel (If This Goes On) privacy as we know it will have completely evaporated. The young people will have grown up in this environment and will have a culture that seems very strange to their parents and grandparents (us; in 2051 I’ll be 90). Hacker Culture has a lot to say about the relationship between the Hacker Ethic (Information Wants To Be Free) and the secrecy technologies that the hackers of the 60s and 70s made possible and the hackers of the 80s and 90s made necessary. Speech recognition technology makes universal phone tapping possible, so attractive in fact that it’s nearly inevitable. The same technology makes widespread real-world eavesdropping a possibility; millions of tiny radio microphones, monitored by computer, could be scattered everywhere. In this world, the anti-Tauran terrorists/freedom fighters may adopt sign language to avoid being eavesdropped (is this plausible? yes, sign has not been the subject of nearly 100 years of human research as speech recognition has, and the Taurans don’t have or won’t share gesture-recognition technology). The irony is delicious. I’d also like to talk about the media, how they obscure reality and get things wrong. Not because of any kind of conspiracy, but through simple ignorance and arrogance. Example: there was a big media kafuffle about SATAN (Security Administrator Tool for Analyzing Networks), even though a less powerful version of SATAN had been available for years and it probed only well-known and easily-fixed security holes. But it was the right moment for a story about a horrid automated hacking tool so it took off. Another example is the misinterpretation of Al Gore’s “claim to have invented the Internet.” Once a bad idea takes hold it’s hard to stop. People are sheep. Feh.

2/13/03: Positive reinforcement, woo hoo!

Just received a contract and check from Marty Greenberg for Haunted Holidays. Woo hoo! This reminds me that I don’t suck, and provides the excuse I needed to send out a kvellogram to everyone in my address book. It’s been a while since the last one. But first I need to decide whether I’m going to post a novel journal, and if so how. Get a page at some site like Install movabletype on my aracnet account and use that? Post my progress to my Speculations topic? Create an sff.people.dlevine newsgroup and use that? Keep it as a plain HTML page? Finally decided to write a real simple shell script to generate flat HTML pages from separate files for each day (“most recent 5 entries” and “all entries” in your choice of newest-first or oldest-first), based on my log script, and whipped off a first draft of it today. A little more work and it will also handle the uploading for me. Also wrote a little maintenance script to make writing each day’s entry easier. After I actually start writing I will add current word count (hopefully this can be automated). The novel journal will share some content with my Notes file, but will not be the same. Most of the Notes file is for me alone, a chance to get my thoughts on paper; the posted journal is just to document progress. Right now I should be working on Bento…