Saturday, July 30, 2011

Adjacent Possibilities and A New Ethics

The novel that has been getting far and away most of my efforts at revision is (working title) Adjacent Possibilities. It is a story of two people who learn to trust and accept one another. They have friends who help them in this process. They face threats and find ways to conquer fears. They go hiking a lot. And there are cats.

The two main characters are professional philosophers. Between them and me, there are, oh horrors, ideas in the book (trust me -- I am keeping them as low-impact as possible -- ideas don't sell).

The title reflects one of the dominant themes of the book. Life holds more than we can see, but not what is out of reason.

We can imagine gods, faeries, demons, aliens; but they are not provable. They are not rational possibilities, not adjacent to reality. One can argue: if I can see them to believe in them, they *might* be real. But that is not rational, only wishful.

I can see myself as a published author. It may not happen, but there is a clear chain of events that are in the real world that could lead to this new reality. It is adjacent to my current reality, and therefore possible.

Corollary to this, if we are presented with proof of something, even if we thought it outside reality, even if we don't want to believe it, we have to accept it or forfeit our rational integrity. Climate shift falls into this category.

The relationships between the characters in this novel are of adjacent possibilities. New ways of thinking and seeing alter what is possible in their lives. 

Another theme of the book is ethics. What is right and wrong, and why. In their philosophic research, my characters ponder this question.

And this has been troubling me as well. I cannot accept that there is an absolute morality. To do so would put many actions that are obviously necessary, perhaps even virtuous as evil. A simple example: do not kill. If someone tries to kill me, and in defending myself I inadvertently cause the death of my assailant, am I immoral?


The history of humanity shows that times and conditions alter what we accept as moral behavior. But I am equally troubled by relativistic morality. We cannot say that everything is flexible. We need some sort of guidelines.

The solution seems to me to be that we establish ethics within our culture. This allows us to live together as a community. But, if it becomes clear that an accepted ethical belief is causing harm to members of our society, then we need to moderate our ethics.

This is exactly what happens when we accept that gays and women are just as human as the men who have traditionally dominated our culture. In the past, morality meant abiding by rules of behavior that kept these people in charge, and kept society within limits of which they approved.

Greater education has allowed us to realize that more people than those few deserve respect. Society has to reshape itself to accept people and behaviors that hurt no one as ethical and equal, even though they lessen the absolute control of the dominant group.

That the dominant group resists is inevitable. They don't want to lose their control. That many of the people they've rendered unable to think for themselves also resist is, unfortunately, inevitable. But those who break free, who learn to recognize human equality unhindered by past cultural shibboleths -- these are the creators of the morality of the future. Humans, whatever their age, their skin color, their gender, their sexual preferences; all humans deserve the freedom to choose their life. Repressive, archaic morality must not be used as a weapon against them, as long as they do not hurt or hinder others from equal freedoms.

To demand adherence to a moral code derived from an unprovable and irrational entity is a blatant attempt to deny full humanity to everyone in the society.

We have an adjacent possibility. Humans can accept that we create ethical codes to provide a framework in which we can live as communities. We can accept that there will be minor differences, but we can agree that, as long as no one is hurt by the actions of others, everyone should have the freedom to choose their own life, without harassment or repercussions.

We must never treat any other human as less important, less real than ourselves. Politicians who cut benefits to the needy in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy should be recognized as immoral. Anyone who would rob, or rape, or harass others on an individual, institutional, or national scale should be equally abhorred. Laws, necessary to maintain societies, should reflect these values.

This is a morality that protects all and harms no one. This is possible.

Sooty is Growing and Changing

I started writing yesterday, then realized I needed to get a more definite outline. I don't use a specific, point by point outline, but I do find it helps to have a sense of character relationships and developments, and plot points along the way to give me a sense of what I'm working towards.

When I start revising, I like to make a detailed outline of what's in each scene. This is really useful for that nagging feeling of 'didn't I say that already?'

So I set to work on the overall structure, and realized that the opening would work much better if I didn't introduce Sooty right away. Let the reader get a sense of Anna's life, and the domestic issue that is fouling things up for her, before Sooty comes in. At first he seems to be a deus ex machina, but is actually even more complications and dilemmas.

Therefore, much of yesterday's work was pulling out scenes and rearranging them, then writing them into a semblance of a coherent whole.

I wish I could do that often advised 'just get the first draft done, then worry about revision', but I don't seem to be able to swing it. If I see an egregious failing, I have to go back and try to poke it into cooperation.

Here is a bit from the beginning:

They were at it again. Not quite fighting, but arguing. Always now, always they were arguing.
      “You're just like all the men I work with. You don't see a person, you see mobile boobs. I've got a mind. And feelings. Just like you.”
      Anna could hear a sharp reply, but couldn't make out her father's words.
      Then her mom again, loud and clear. “I take that back. I'm a person. You're a narrow minded bigot.”
      Anna cowered in her bed. Not that she wasn’t used to these fights. They'd been happening more and more often. It didn’t take any brains to figure out her mom was unhappy, but why'd she have to make the rest of them unhappy, too?
      She squeezed her pillow hard, wishing she had something alive to cuddle. Her friend Jay had a cat, a big fluffy calico. Anna loved to pet it and hear its rumbling purr. Just looking at it made her feel soft and cozy. She could use that comfort right now.
     She'd asked her parents if she could get a cat. They'd said no.
      Her mom was talking again, something about needing to be herself or something. Why? She had a job she loved, a family she said she loved – what more could she want?
      Anna debated turning up the volume on her music, but instead decided to take a shower. The water drown everything, even her own tension. At least for a while. She rolled off the bed, and had one foot on the floor when someone knocked at her door.
      “Anna?” Her mother's voice.
      Oh boy. When her mom had been arguing with dad, she often came in to talk at Anna. And usually it was the same speech. Don't waste your opportunities. Don't try to be someone you're not. And oh, by the way, you need to be more outgoing. Get more friends. Maybe try a new hairstyle. Not that her floppy straight brown hair would hold a style. Even the permanent her mom had coaxed her into a couple years ago had flopped. And she preferred glasses. Putting her contacts in took too long.
      Her mom never seemed to run out of suggestions, though. Anna got the feeling her mother was trying to relive her own life through her. That felt better than admitting that her mom was disappointed in her.
      On top of everything else, her mother always hoped she’d be popular. Anna couldn't figure this out, since her mother wasn’t social. Her career at the university kept her busy. Too busy for her family, came the inevitable conclusion to that line of thought.
      Anna sighed. “What?”
      Her mom opened the door slowly, then peeked around to catch Anna's eyes. "Can I talk to you a second?"
      When Anna nodded, her mom stepped in, her hand gripping the edge of the door as she pushed it almost shut. She stood that way, her lips pressed tightly together, her eyes on the floor, until with a visible breath she let her hand fall. She leaned against the door, and it closed with a soft click
      Anna lowered her head and made sharp little folds in the sheets.
      “Anna… I'm sorry about the yelling. I've been trying to make a decision. I need to do something.”
      Anna didn't answer; she was waiting for the rest of the lecture.
      Her mom fidgeted around the room, opening and closing drawers, straightening the papers on the desk, twirling the cord of the blinds.
      “Anna, I do love you. And Alan. And I love your father. Please try to understand.”
      She was gone. There'd been no time for a reply, even if Anna had had one to offer.
      Anna held held up hands. With almost clinical interest, she noted that they were shaking. She let them fall, and turned her head to stare blindly at the closed door. Something was going to happen. She had no idea what, but she knew it wouldn't be good.

Statistically Significant Verbiage

I sat bolt upright, and drew a deep breath. Brushing strands of my hair from my face, I raised my eyebrows in dawning dismay.

Was I, too, so conventional, even cliche in my word usage?

Was this the inevitable result of the 'show don't tell' so beloved of fiction writers?

Grimacing, I gritted my teeth, and wiggled my fingers, preparatory to evaluating my collocations.

I did not, however, grunt.

And in case you're curious at this absurdity of mine, read the New York Times article on language in fiction: The Jargon of the Novel, Computed

Friday, July 29, 2011

The New Novel: Working Title 'Sooty'

Sooty is a character in the novel. It is a non-earth entity that enters Anna's life at a time when her world is already in upheaval, and sends it into chaos. With humor, of course. I don't like to write depressing stories.

He requires unusual forms of nutrition, including elements that he transforms to suit his nature. One of Anna's challenges in the book is to find sources for these elements.

I was delighted to get these sites today: Visions: Rare and Precious and the Dynamic Periodic Table.  Thanks to GrrlScientist for the table via her wonderful series on the elements. I look forward to each week's element.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

70k Words in 39 Days -- Or -- Yes, I've Gone Bonkers

Not just words, mind you, but a revised and edited novel. Something I can be proud of.

I realized the other day that for the last, oh, 8 or 9 months I've been doing revision. And editing. Two full length novels, very different, but still.

Now these tasks are both challenging and rewarding, but I like to write, too.

I also need a break so I can step back from the story that's been getting my main focus before I attempt yet another full-length edit and then revision.

And I want a feeling that, yes! I've finished something (as much as any writing can ever be said to be finished).

These points combined gave me the idea to write a young adult novel of about 70,000 words, written, edited, revised by the end of August. I will allow more revision and editing in September, but I want it to be as close to ready to go as I possibly can make it by midnight, 31 August.

I hope to have it up as an ebook by mid-September. I have to learn all that stuff anyways, so that adds to my motivation.

I will be posting a daily word count, and occasional bits from the story. I'll add links to articles that give me ideas, or references to topics discussed.

I will also ask questions, seek advice, and maybe even run a contest to name a character or set a scene.

Hmmm - now that would be interesting. Let someone tell me where to set a scene and then have to work it into the story in a credible way. Fascinating....

Without further ado, I announce that as of today, after four days of writing, I have 16,230 words down.

I was feeling confident because I will have a lot of free time in August. But today a one hour errand ended up taking over three hours, and that has shaken my certainty a tad. Well, that just means more time writing tonight, right?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Writers Are Smart, and I'm Angry

I heard this in a conversation yesterday:  "She's so stupid she can't even add 2 + 2. I told her to take Creative Writing courses instead of math."

I am not good with snappy comebacks, and even if I were, the social setting would have precluded responding. I didn't want to be seen as creating a scene*. Besides, I know from experience that the speaker would say, "I didn't mean it that way."

A long history with said speaker has shown that he may like to believe he doesn't mean it that way, but he keeps saying things like that. I am skeptical of his self-knowledge, to say the least.

And yes, he knows I am a writer.

An angry, not stupid writer.

Obviously, as in all things in life, there is a spectrum. There's some really bad writing floating about, and more is put out every day thanks to ebooks and self-publishing.

All that means is there's more to wade through to get to the gems.

It does not mean that all, or even most writers are bad. Or dumb. Or anything else. Any more than a small percentage of fundamentalist maniacs with murder on their brains means that religion is inherently violent, or that a few teenagers who get drunk means that all youth is doomed to alcoholism.

I spend an hour, often closer to two every day reading science, philosophy, psychology; trying to get background for my writing. I read writing blogs trying to understand options, processes, and changing procedures in publishing.

I write. And write. And write, and strive to improve with whatever input I can coax and beg out of anyone who'll read my words.

You don't need to be a math teacher to be smart. You don't need a degree in physics. You do need a questioning mind that is open to -- no, actively seeking new information and new ways to see the world. A good writer spends their life doing just that.

Writers are smart. Talented, determined, brave, and above all, people who can face more rejection, more isolation, more years without any positive feedback on their dreams than any other profession I can think of.

Twitter.  #writersaresmart

I'm curious what you have to say in response to that offensive comment.

*why is it that when someone says or does something, it's always the person who takes them to task that's seen as 'causing a scene', and not the original offender?

Friday, July 22, 2011

What Would You Censor?

This is a great post from 'The Guardian' literary editor and blogger Claire Armitstead.
I enjoyed the comments, too, both the serious and the humorous. Way to go, Gogg. What a horrible thought that people should learn to read -- and, oh horrors! maybe even ask questions and think.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

More Than Merely Literary Fiction

I still puzzle over what differentiates literary from genre.

"I know it when I see it" is so often the final definition. Character driven, high-minded, complex, many layered.

I love this definition: "Work of great sensibility and refinement, where it can take up to 500 pages for nothing to happen." from Frank Baron

In the end, it is, like almost everything in life, a spectrum. There are books that are genre, no question. There are books that are literary, equally without question.

But all along the way, there are books whose ideas, whose writing style, whose detailed evocation of place, mood,or character are so eloquent that, even though there is a romance, or a crime, or an alien invasion, they are also literary.

Over and over we read  that everything in the story must move the story forward. Every scene must fill at least two roles: establishing motivation, explaining necessary backstory, revealing character, and so on.

Perhaps part of the difference, then, is that in literary fiction, you have greater latitude in how much you reveal or the pace at which you move the story forward.

In literary fiction, you can have, as in "The Life of Pi", paragraphs of imagery and impressions that serve to create the mood of the story and the way in which the character views the world that in a genre book would be considered too slow. "Tighten it up" I hear an editor cry. "You'll lose your readers' interest."

And you would, if they were reading it as a detective story or a romance story. But when the book aspires to be something besides -- note - not more than -- science fiction or thriller; when the writer wants to draw you into a world or a state of mind; then you are entering the world of literary fiction.

And we are left again with personal preference. I might read it and see it as a literary fantasy. You might read it and see it as fantasy only.

This is part of why I favor the label Speculative Fiction. It allows the idea that elements of fantasy or science fiction are not the absolute arbiter of the story's classification. A space ship can carry the tragedy of Hamlet in its crew, and a mystery can encompass the eternal question of what it means to be human.

I could wish that we weren't so determined to make arbitrary distinctions. I realize that, like standardized testing in the schools, there are times we need to stick labels on things. But if we are interested in understanding what books have to offer, then we need to look past the labels publishers and booksellers require and accept a book on its individual nature.

Any time we break down barriers, we are enriching our world.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Another Round of Sympathetic Insecurity

I've found several comics that accurately reflect the potential, and often realized insecurity of artistic endeavors.

This is the most recent one:

(click to enlarge)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Rethinking Argument

We tend to make up our minds for emotional reasons. Then we identify with our conclusions, and find ourselves threatened or angry when someone tries to alter our conclusions. The more comfort we derive from our belief-based conclusion, the more fiercely we resist someone trying to change it.

Hence all the hostility amongst religions, or competing scientific theories.

We should be, at the very least, polite in our arguments -- and always have good, solid supporting evidence.

For politeness:  How to Argue on the Internet and Linguistic Politeness Research Group

For good, solid arguments :

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Laughter As Philosophy - can it make us see reason?

This sounds to be a movie worth watching. I've looked at several interviews and clips; you can get links to more from youtube.

Bill Maher wants us to see that religion is created by humans to control other humans. As he says, 'no one knows'.

No one knows what happens when you die. Why would you accept the beliefs of someone who claims special knowledge? They're only human - just like you.

He hopes the rational 16% will stand up and be seen.

Maybe comedy will help. It certainly can't hurt.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Creating Real Worlds and Real Characters

This post,'The fallacy of difference, in science and art', puts a proper label on something I've been mulling over for a long time.

Fallacy of Difference.

We focus on what's unique, or defining, and forget commonality.

A character whose defining attribute for my story is her supportive role for the protagonist is still a real person. I ask myself, not "what would a supporting character do?"  but rather, "What would Sara do?", because she is real to me. But I see where I have failed to create this reality in other characters.

It holds for settings, for ideas, for plot. Nothing should be defined by its uniqueness. That is one dimensional. Strive instead for facets that reflect points of view. Create a virtual reality or a hologram, not a flat, static image.

Three dimensional writing - no, has to be four. Time, and the changes time brings are essential in life and in art.