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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 livejournal.com? 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…

2/11/03: More detail on Jason vs. the government

Got it. Jason’s parents were killed by an alien weapon — that’s why he wants them off his planet, now. But the Taurans blew up that particular stretch of countryside only because the US government told them that anti-alien terrorists were hiding there and only that particular weapon could take out their fortified hide-out. It was a ploy to get better data on the capabilities of the weapon. The aliens have apologized for blowing up innocent civilians, but they don’t know how thoroughly they were hornswoggled. The US Army officer who instigated that scheme is also part of the DER faction that is supporting the FFL. At the climax, Jason is using the social engineering skills Sienna has taught him in an attempt to outwit pursuit (they are on the run at this point — Sienna knows that her former allies are now trying to get her, because the plague has worked too well and she is now a liability). But what he learns is not just the current info he needs; he also finds out that a) Sienna is working for the government, and b) that selfsame government is responsible for the death of his parents. So, in effect, Sienna causes her own downfall, and the outer crisis is resolved by an inner turning (Jason switches loyalties, leaves Sienna to be torn apart by an angry mob [handwave handwave] and avoids pursuit by running to the aliens instead of from them — his previous relationship with Clarity gets him in the door with the aliens). The novel now starts with Jason, pissed, making contact with the FFL and demanding to be allowed in. Sienna’s lieutenant wants nothing to do with his hot-headed, inexperienced kid, but Sienna thinks he might be just the thing they need to crack the alien biocomputer they haven’t had any luck with so far… Oh, by the way, a 1995 calendar will do for 2051.

2/8/03: More thoughts on the characters and background

I’ve been having trouble getting a handle on Jason, and yesterday I recalled something from The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing about using contrast between characters. I know that Sienna grew up poor, is still poor, and this has shaped her. I was thinking that Jason would also be from an impoverished background of petty thieves, like Kevin Mitnick, but that makes them too similar. What if he grew up rich instead? What if his hacking (and maybe his bisexuality) are a reaction to that background? What if he is committed to making it on his own — he has estranged himself from his family? This explains why he is working in a coffee shop but has serious computer skills and an apartment full of hardware. (Or does it?) Anyway, I think it gives me the “handle” I’ve been looking for. It also gives some parallels between Jason and Clarity — they are both rebelling against their parents and background. But in the case of Jason and Clarity, they are so different already that creating parallels is a good thing. This also gives them something in common to explain their sexual relationship. I have not yet decided whether Jason and Clarity meet during the novel or beforehand. Probably beforehand, and reveal the relationship in flashback. As for Jason and Sienna, I want to start the novel when they meet, but it might be better to begin in media res. Ah, but if so… where? I am also not yet sure what effect the aliens’ preference of one-to-one vs. one-to-many communication has on their society and psychology. I had written “they are more individualistic and more hierarchical than we are”, but I wonder if hierarchy is not their style either. An alternative thought I had was “they form networks rather than hierarchies”, which sounds great, but what does it mean? I need to answer this question before I can get a handle on Clarity. Wrote about 900 words on the history of the world, 2003-2051.

1/26/03: At the coast

Just got back from a writers’ get-together at Kris & Dean’s. Talked with folks about how to handle multiple viewpoints and subplots. Mike Moscoe recommended The Peshawar Lancers by S. M. Stirling as a good example of multiple viewpoints, and The Honourable Company by John Keay for information on the English East India Company. Kris Rusch recommended The Bone Collector by Jeffry Deaver, and gave me a copy of her own first novel The White Mists of Power. She also said that the alternating timelines outline I’ve been considering, which many folks have said will be too difficult for the readers to keep straight, is worth tackling if I think it’s the best way to tell my story. “You’re a good writer,” she said, “don’t listen to anyone who tells you you can’t do something.” Also talked with Nancy Boutin, who is a doctor and recommended a friend of hers who is an infectious disease specialist as someone I might talk to about how epidemics work.