Thursday, August 26, 2010

The beginning of the work year

With being sick and the beginning of the teaching year, my resolution to write every day has gone wanting. I must be patient with myself, and make sure that next week when things are a little more regular that I have organized my time so that I can do some writing. Actually, I have put some more words on the page for the beginning chapters. And in doing so, and starting Ken Scholes' Lamentation, I've gained some insight into how this process is going to work.

First, I'm really out of practice and just turning out quality sentences that move the story along. Or perhaps it's just that I am overly concerned with each word, and each sentence, because the going is slow. I believe part of this is not being sure what the first chapter is supposed to do, even though I have outlined it pretty thoroughly. I am happy with the words I've put down so far, but I'd like to see them appearing more rapidly! First, I had started with this idea that I could write what was basically a short story as the first chapter, but as I've gotten through the first ten or so pages I realize this is a bad idea, because a short story does not carry the burden of building a world in which the succeeding action will take place. Using a first-person narrative, and staying true to the voice -- I don't like those narratives where the speaker breaks away from the story at hand, the present, to provide historical background or social analysis. Maybe that works when the speaker is an erudite adult with an interest in theory, but not when the speaker is a sixteen year-old outcast with minimal education and a lot of minute-to-minute issues to deal with. Whatever details are provided must move the story forward, but there must be enough of them to convey the shape and sound and smell of the world in which he lives.

In Lamentation, which is growing on me with each chapter, the pov is third-person omniscient, or rather, there are several main characters, with different chapters focusing on their actions and perceptions. In each case, the third-person narrator knows what the main character knows and sees and thinks: through this mechanism, a great deal of detail about the fantasy worlds in which the characters live is revealed in a reasonable unobtrusive way. The different characters have access to very different kinds of information. Perhaps as the intertwined narratives continue, there will be less need to provide background information. Another things I generally don't like in fiction of any kind is the sort of  imbalance of popular movies, where there's a lot of meditation and conversation for about half or two-thirds of the book/film, and then someone turns up the speed, like we used to listen to the Allman Bros. at 45, and the last couple chapters proceed like a car crash. It's sort of like bad sex. A good amount of foreplay, and then a rush to climax. A different way to say that is that I prefer a pace that is more even, or variegated according to the perception of time, with some effort to slow things down when they threaten to run away, or to speed things up when the breath nearly ceases.

I also in this time of not actually writing as much as I would like came up with some more of the plot motivation, in thinking about the world at the beginning. In this world (Bratislava), the waters of a great flood have receded considerably, but there is a reduced population due to a pestilence that either preceded or accompanied the disaster of the flood. Let's imagine rather than a doomsayer's litany of the bad things that are destined to happen, more of a series of unfortunate events, in the context of peak oil et al. So as society and political structures begin to unravel relative to, say, the economics of energy -- e.g. the EU comes apart, communist parties take control of some governments, some ethnically compromised nations split or go to war with themselves. Maybe even Russian becomes the lingua franca on the region. Then, in a somewhat unrelated way, there is a climactic or geological event, like the explosion of the Yellowstone volcano, that disrupts the climate, and in the aftermath, a very ordinary old-fashioned illness like small pox or something descends on what's left of the population, a plague. As the people move back into the city and re-establish the rudiments of civil society, an economy, and government, there is a prohibition enacted against what are called the Magiks, due to the dubious relation between this group of individuals with strange abilities and the class of bio-scientists who are believed to have made the errors that led to the downfall of the previous order. Our two main characters, both possessed of less than well-controlled or even useful, abilities, become the targets of bounty-hunters (in the absence of anything like an organized police force.) It's fantasy or science fiction and I can make up whatever shit I want, as long as it seem reasonably credible. Having re-acquainted myself with contemporary sci fi and fantasy, I realize that credibility is more a matter of imagination than it is scientific probability.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The dynamics of wanting

On one of those advice-giving blogs I've been reading -- there's undoubtedly a good short story there -- one the writers (Edmund Schubert, author and editor of Intergalactic Medicine Show) has written a couple times about making sure your characters want something, and that this desire shapes the story in a way that sets up expectations and interest for the reader. He quotes Vonnegut, who says somewhere that a character can just want a glass of water. I was thinking about his while I was doing my daily walk yesterday and it started to make more sense and to connect to stuff I do in my teaching life on motivation.

So you start a story with "More than anything, I wanted a glass of water." And this can set the whole mouse-trap in motion. What I was thinking, though, was that desire is always preceded by need, or lack, or anxiety, or something psychological, that is, he wants a glass of water for some reason. He's thirsty, he has a terrible taste in his mouth, he's trying to recover from alcoholism. So there's always an unsaid sentence before the first sentence that sets the stage, that only the author knows, or ought to know, and say to himself. I tell my students about motivation -- which is related to want and desire -- that we tend unfortunately to think of it either in a passive sense or as a character attribute. Someone is motivated to drink a glass or water. Someone is motivated to get off the bottle. I recommend that we think of motivation as X causes (or some derivative) Y to do Z, and that this helps us understand behavior and its related thinking and feeling better. Thirst makes me want to drink a glass of water. What happens next? Well, that depends on the environment, and it depends on "thirst" (as a physical and/or psychological demand) and its depends on how Y responds to his own desire. In a situation where Y has just come in from a long walk in the sun, and gets a glass from the cupboard, and draws some water from the spigot, and drinks it, not a lot is going to be revealed. If the environment offers no water, then the situation is different. If Y's thirst, and his relationship to his own desire, is problematic is some way -- let's say he is always thirsty and his survival depends on drinking water only when he actually needs it -- then we have a different kind of story. If we replace "water" with "Jack Daniels" we have a different story. And we can play with the "more than anything" part, by asking, "really, more than anything?" 

In my own story, what does Havel want? The way I've set it up what he wants is (a) to get away from where and what he is, and (b) to get back to where and what he imagines he ought to be. Both physically being the same place. More operationally, X causes Havel to do something (or to think, believe, want, feel) something. Guilt about teleporting Bloehm and her not returning causes Havel to feel badly about himself and to want to separate himself from others. The animus of the community causes Havel to leave the garage. The betrayal of his father causes Havel to want to remove himself from the site of pain. The bounty hunter causes Havel to run. So there are a preponderance of causes for Havel to flee. But none of this answers the larger question of what Havel wants, or rather they complicate it. It seems he both wants to harm himself (by further separating himself from society and family) and to save himself (by preventing capture for his "crime," to which he admits). His almost immediate recontact with people demonstrate that his real need is to not be alone, but rather to reconnect, while the more existential dilemma of being caught becomes more acute and requires the help of others. At the higher level, Havel wants to find Bloehm, and to restore her, and thus to restore himself.

The next question, raised also by Schubert, is how I see the story ending, because without a sense of the goal, it's hard to go in the right direction. Because young adult novels have to have at least somewhat happy endings, I can't just have everyone die or go insane on the last page. I think I'd like to see Havel and Bloehm, together, returning to the parking garage to find it either gone, or with some completely other use. The notion would be that they are not in the same time-space in which they began the story. Probably they have gone further along. This is not an entirely happy ending, but it does leave space to go on with the story, on one hand, or just to go on with life, such as it is, on the other.

Marching orders

Despite all the good advice one can find about how to write a novel, and the self-talkings-to that occur at regular intervals, the business of getting the bus rolling toward a destination remains difficult. My problem throughout my scholarly writing career has been usually a lack of planning, an enthusiasm for substance over form, and a tendency to write myself into corners or corn filelds. For instance, I have this one paper that I think is probably pretty good, and informative and insightful, but I believe nobody will publish it until I completely write it into another form. Now I've taken that not so much as a reason to revise as a reason to abandon ship, mostly because I get so little personally out of writing to form, even when publication occurs. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't plan more and better for writing a novel, and keep the form and purpose and readership in mind as I do so, and as I write. It has also become apparent to me, as a novice novel-writer, that my narrative imagination is something like medieval maps, highly detailed at the local level, but tapering off into the distance, where one sees names like The Wastelands, or The Impassible Mountains. I don't really know what's going to happen next, or where it's going, except in the most vague sense, and I don't think this is enough to start driving the car down the highway, to return to my previous clichéd metaphor. The problem, for me, with planning -- which has meant doing the snowflake and other stuff -- is not that I mind doing it, or that it's not producing good results, but that I feel anxious that I will never really get "started." But my marching orders for the day are "stay the course," As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said (thank you,, "A plan without a goal is just a wish," which I think is not really apropos, but does get me further toward what I wanted to say. It is through the planning that my wish is transformed into a goal. The simple plan to "write a novel" was just a wish, like the ones related to weighing 180 pounds, driving a Porsche, and cleaning up my office.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Making time

Even though today is my professional day, and I still have not done all the stuff I scheduled for myself, I decided to post something here. As a transgression. It's always been very easy to allow the flood of small jobs related to my work drown everything else, but now I would like to summon a countering flood of imagination related to writing. Similarly, it has always been easy not to exercise because I had "too much to do" and that also will change. It is possible to be efficient in one's work, and to put it in its place, not to allow it to put me in its place. Part of this resistance entails resistance to people, sometimes students but most often not, who have the expectation, the demand, that my priorities will be thus and so. This they demand even when, or perhaps because, their own priorities are not thus and so. But let me positive: today I finished one syllabus, along with many of the assignments, and a good chunk of the new reading for this course. Now I will commence to read the one book for my other course that I have not previously read and taught. And before that, I'm going to make a little start on my portfolio task for student teaching. Tomorrow is the fall conference, so the morning is wasted, but I will hold the line this weekend and in other weekends against working at home.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Structure, re-structure

My idea for the time-honored and popular-with-readers-and-publishers trilogy was that the first volume would follow the story one main character, and the second would follow the story of the second main character, each with a first-person narrative (forbidden, I understand), and the third volume would bring them together with a third-person, or even another first person, narrative. In developing the first MC, Havel, I have found myself thinking of him as a sort of young Clint Eastwood, driven by guilt and anger over separation, or something like that. This leads him to be somewhat darker and more dangerous and less dorky than Harry Potter, but with also a very soft underbelly where he feels things intensely and is prepared to make ultimate sacrifices, partly because he values himself rather little. So the story is to some extent one of redemption through quest.

But the main source of guilt is his belief that he has killed a girl he liked in trying to help her, by teleporting her into the nevermore. I thought for a young adult novel, it might be best if the actual survival, if misplacement of this character, were shown to the reader early on, so that Havel is feeling guilty for something he hasn't actually done, or done to the degree that he imagined. Also, I wondered if staying in his head exclusively for 400 pages was a great idea. My new idea then is to incorporate what would have been two consecutive first-person narratives into two continuous volumes in which the stories and voices alternate. The more I think about this, the more I like it. Thus, the originating story in the parking garage can be retold in the second section (around 100, or even fifty pages) in, from Bloehm's point of view. Also this allows me to create the two contrasting worlds of Nitra and Nova Huta simultaneously, and to make the tension between them greater, so that even if the result of their being connected by the salt road through the in-between is not understood well by the characters, it is understood by the readers. This will make the readers more ambivalent about the actions and motivations of the characters. Finally, this setup provides an opportunity to keep a romance-of-the-imagination more vividly alive.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Becoming a writer

and not just someone who writes. I was trying to figure out the logistics of writing a three volume YA masterpiece that would sell million of copies and allow me to retire to a Greek island, and I came up with about 375,000 words, or 1200 pages, or 60 twenty-page chapters. That's not just lunch at the diner, that's solid beating on the keys for a long time. But that is my goal, even the Greek island part, though I might make due with a hut and pail. This is not the work of a weekend dabbler, any more than being able to shoot par or run a marathon is something you get every other Saturday. I do have another job, or a real job, but it's pretty much adjustable to however much time I feel like putting into it. But if this project is to be done, then the job, the teaching and being-part-of-the-community part, have to be back-grounded. And I've not ever been able to do that sufficiently, even when my other writing was academic. It suffered seriously from half-assed-ness. In concrete terms, I must plan my teaching etc around my writing, and not the other way, though of course my teaching takes place at certain times on certain days. But it must not leak out and fill every other crevice of time.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Location location location

I began by setting my story in a future Wisconsin, near where I live, for several good reasons. Then I moved it to Central Europe, Slovakia in particular, for other good reasons. Though the fact that I have just returned from Slovakia was a primary motivator. Or, at least it gave me the first hand experience and knowledge of a setting that fit well with the structure of my story. There was also the matter of the salt road, which had attracted me -- like it has attracted many others. I also have learned about the more famous salt road from the marshes near Venice to the highlands where prosciutto and other stuff was produced. But I had become attached to the mountains, as an In-Between. I have worried about my treatment of the Rom as major characters, but then someone has to serve this role, and it does give me the opportunity to portray these people in a more positive light than previous depictions. And there is a good deal to be said for a location with castles and a fitting geography and history.

What will readers, young adults apparently, think about this location? It has promises both for the traditional fantasy realm, and for gritty post-apocalyptic dystopia. In fact, Slovakia and other parts of Central Europe already convey these contrasts -- castles, panelaky and abandoned mega-industrial complexes like the steel mills of Nova Huta, super-glitz shopping malls, ritual pig-slaughters, drinking, atomic physics and the manufacture of weapons, the strangeness of Slavic languages ... The American locale offers a much more shallow history, unless ones partakes of the Native American history, which was my original plan -- all the names were in Ojibwe. I suppose its not more or less exploitative to use Indians than it is to use Gypsies. In either case, my intention seems to be put a marginalized, degraded people into a position of centrality and power. In both cases, these "natives" occupied the land that the white folks wish to cross. In the American context, this is a replay of American history, in European history, it is also a replay, but of a different type. My conclusion for now is that I should stay in Karpatia, and be even more exotically there, without for now getting into Romania and the vampires.


When beginning to write the actual text of this work I've been working on working on, a weight attaches to the motion making words appear. At the end of the rope pulling down against the emergence of words on the page is fear, plain and simple, of not being good enough. I think there's a passage in 2666 about this fear. It coexists with confidence in one's ability, with fantasies of grandeur, with knowledge and skill, with excellent planning, with sloth and distractibility. It is a sort of valence, an electrical charge that makes me slightly more likely to do one thing than another. It is the well-spring of doubts, legitimate and irrational. There's a good deal more to fear than fear itself; it cannot be banished, it can only be directed or ignored or worked with and through.

I worry that nobody will value what I write. Join the club. Keep writing.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Things I've learned

As an academic scholar in the social sciences, curiosity is usually a liability. It gets you off-topic, it makes you think and then write about things your colleagues in the field don't care about or understand. It gets you a lot of "interesting, but not right for this journal" responses from editors. Curiosity leaves you standing alone at the bar at conventions in your field, it leads to a sampling of disciplines rather than a focus on a problem recognized as relevant by the "community" (of which one is not typically a member). In the world of the 9,000 word article, the fruits of curiosity are cut from the final text, where one is required to repeat a great deal of what others have already said as part of what goes by the name of "conceptual framework." Needless to say, it is a tremendous bore and there are very few who actually read what other scholars write, and if they do, it's for the purpose of one-upping them. Since progress not appreciation is the object of science.

I'm finding in these first phases of writing a novel that curiosity runs wild, though time will tell if it any more useful than it was when I was writing articles about minority education. Today I learned more about humanure toilets and energy production, about other low-voltage, low-wattage devices like LCD lightbulbs, and about the body as a generator of re-usable energy. I figured that since we are stuck at 98.7,  a good deal warmer than the outside air most of the time, that there must be ways in which this heat could be recycled, such as in powering an LCD bulb on your forehead or someplace else more practical. And since we do move on our own, both the energy that is used efficiently and that which is wasted might be recycled. Hence my idea that a downhill skating track could generate energy, through the wheels of the board going down, little turbines, and through the energy expended by the young people getting back up to the top of the track. Now maybe it would be easier to just extract this energy directly from whatever they were eating, but they like to eat and skate down and run back up. In my post-petroleum world, folks are not lying around grieving the demise of Chrysler and waiting to die. There's an ethic and an economy in which energy has value, the value we ought to promulgate now ... which of course would be one goal of literature, to promote a moral. Anyway, I also learned a good deal about the use of salt in the Roman world, learned that the word "salary" comes from salt (sal) because sometime soldiers were paid in salt. In fact, the word soldier originate in salt. And in the spirit of learning to make things, or learning about making things whether I personally make them or not, I learned about fish sauce (made by the way, by Romans, not just SE Asians), one of the preferred ways of putting salt into action. And then I read the Roman recipe for producing a ham, taken from a Celtic source. Meaning that the prosciutto derives probably from the original ham-sters, those handy Celts who the Romans wiped out. In my story, some of that ham-making salt came from Galicia (where Gal is related to the Celtic word for salt) in Poland. The premise of the book is then similar to that which motivated the Romans, get some salt and make a pig last longer and taste better.

Some of the technological magic kit I intend to feature in my novel is a body suit that generates heat from body heat. We already have such things: "Disclosed is a heat-retaining, moisture-permeable, waterproof fabric having a highly moisture-absorbing and releasing organic fine particles immobilized on at least one surface of an unprocessed fabric (base fabric) with a moisture-permeable waterproof resin. The fabric is capable of generating heat by the absorption of moisture." That's patent number 6046119 issued in 2000. I figure a little bit of electricity from the body would make this work even better, and keep one quite warm in Karpatia. Naturally such things would be either heirlooms and very rare, or scarce and expensive, or make one place and not another. And I want a wagon, pulled and directed by a horse or something and a human that is able to use the kinetic energy of going downhill to move it back up the hill without needing extra calories. Could you put it on a railroad track? Then there are the single-use flyers which can use the smallest air current to rise up into the air -- something like paragliding. And one of my MCs who has some extra-special trick can make such a vehicle go faster and farther and higher, and is able to drop like a feather. Then there is the self-sustaining pig farm that I must create, replete with the ancient zabijacka, because still the pig must die for us to have prosciutto. I'm thinking that as in the old days, salted meat and salted fish could serve as a sort of money. I had originally thought, then rejected the idea, of fish, but perhaps I should not be hasty. What about all those new catfish now spawning in the new tributaries in the delta where the hron meets the Danube. I think in this area it might be time to re-invent Cajun cooking, some rice growing ....

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Forecasting futures

A couple days ago I finished PB's The Windup Girl and now I am reading IM's River of Gods. Also, not long ago I read JV's Veniss Underground, all of which feature dystopic cities with a preponderance of genetically-altered and/or AIs, plus an oppressive corporate presence that overrules government. Their worlds are generally anarchic, violent, with fantastic wealth juxtaposed with fantastic poverty. In other words, these future cities look a lot like some contemporary global cities, particularly in the developing world. It's not coincidental that two of them are recognizably in south Asia: Veniss could be anywhere. The protagonists -- I'm not far enough in River of Gods to know who the protagonists are -- are flawed and frequently just plain weird, though also quite recognizable (like the calorie man in Windup Girl and the girl who gets dismembered in Veniss Underground.) All of these books feature ecological disaster of some sort or another, as well as plagues etc. Computer technology does not play much role in Windup Girl but is a central player in the other two.

I'm trying to find my way, but it seems that my futuristic setting is less urban and less degraded than those in these books. I suppose my premise is that famines, plagues, ecological disaster, post-oil would affect some places differently than others. In my WIP,  Bratislava and Budapest are largely deserted, with some recent re-population as a result of epidemic, flood/cold, and the winding down of carbon-based globalism. But a smaller city not so far away has not been affected in the same way -- out of the zone of flooding, semi-self-sufficient with respect to food and resources, self-quarantined geographically (by closing bridges, preventing in-migration of infected people). One notion I had was that globalism and its attendant large scale governmental structures (national and post-nationalism) are artifacts of the possibilities of production and transportation with cheap oil. The EU could implode any day now as the result of austerity, debt, etc. So let's say it starts with Greece, Portugal, moves toward the center. The place of Brussels is taken by Ankara in the south maybe, maybe by Moscow. The next step is the dissolution of nation-states along ethnic and geographical fault lines, and their replacement with regions, cities, enclaves, fiefdoms and republics. This could be both the product and the producer of the decline of global commerce and production. Why make something that nobody can buy, when the price of bringing it to market rises? The Free City of Nitra puts tariffs on imported goods that can be made locally, travel (and trade) are complicated and made more expensive, and so on. In my world, the wilderness -- damaged in the Carbon Age -- has now regenerated itself, not in exactly the same manner, but in a manner that makes it more wild than before, increasingly impassible, increasingly able to impose isolation and separation on those living within and without. The urge for trade and expansion, though, returns, when one entity wants something available somewhere else -- like amber or salt or bananas or procciutto.

So my city is smaller, practices conservation to a great degree, slow food, etc. There are post-modern technologies side by side with Medieval technologies (nano computers run on body heat, carts pulled by horses, windmills ...) And there's magic or special talents. But I don't want it either to regress to a complete pre-modern fantasy world (though castles are good, and still present), or to a post-apocalyptic utopia or barbarism. In some ways, then, I plan for this world to be something like what the world is today (just like these more dystopic future cities) but different too. A place for the King of Pigs.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The story gets bigger as the story gets smaller

When you begin by imagining something really big, usually it's because you haven't worked out any of the details and you expect that they are in some ways immaterial. This is how many of college students approach their writing: they have this idea and if they could just get it all down on paper in a more or less sequential manner, then all would be good, and the A would come forth. Unfortunately, after the pre-writing conversation, it comes out that they've really not got more than a paragraph of really coherent idea, and mostly it's just blather. "Schools would be better if they weren't boring." Yea, true dat. What makes their writing potentially interesting, in this case, is their own experience as being (a) bored witless, and (b) convinced that this educational experience was good for them in a way that would be revealed some time in the future (when Christ comes down to harrow the sinners once and for all).

My own novel-writing project has followed this trajectory as well: the vague and grandiose vision with which I began was eventually revealed as a half-baked first sentence full of adverbs. And I hate adverbs. But through a good deal of talking to myself, by writing, I believe I am coming to something a little more chewy. And the more I fuss with the detail of imagining a world, real or fantastical, in which my characters, those little avatars of self, might inhabit and do something interesting in, the richer the possibilities become. I am using, off and on, the snowflake method, which I found somewhere online, where one starts with a one sentence summary, moves through a longer synopsis, characters sketches and synopses, and then something else. I have decided to treat what I hope will be a three part/volume novel as one, making the relationships between the plot elements, the world, and the characters more organic.

I'm very pleased with the arrival of a new main supporting character, Kral Sviň (King of the Pigs) who is adult with undisclosed some special abilities and relationship, and a business. His business of raising pigs and selling pork products is the centerpiece and engine of the plot. He wants to make sausage, in particular, something like Prosciutto, and he has no salt. He is limited to fresh and frozen pork products and to smoke curing. [Of course, as we find out later, salt has other special properties in which he has a keen interest.] Both main characters find themselves working for Kral Sviň, who has many stories about history and life. [It turns out that he has been around since the time of the Union, several normal lifetimes, in various guises and is related to the Rromii: perhaps he is actually one of them. Both Havel and Bloehm seem to find themselves with him by strange chance, but it is their magic that has brought them to him. In fact, he collects magical young people. I'm thinking of a sort of Romani-Slovak Obi Wan Kenobe with pigs. So the pig-slaughter, the zabijačka, will figure in the story as well. Another major secondary character is Jasmina, who Havel is supposed to protect in the first part, but who disappears in the battle at Kráľova hoľa (where Slovak folk hero Juraj Jánošík appears ... more on that later). Anyway, each added character and place, full contextualized historically, geographically and culturally, puts the meat on the bone. Though more and more, it doesn't seem absolutely necessary to the story that there be a futuristic setting ...