Now on Clarkesworld: My take on a Jain dystopia (utopia?)

Optimizing the Path to Enlightenment‘ is featured along with a whole lot of excellent work in the June 2020 issue of Clarkesworld, check it out!

Oh man…so I went from a prompt by a friend about eyelids in a glass case to this. Well, what happened is a somewhat convoluted eyelids -> eyes -> watching -> hey, you know what I’ve never done, incorporated my religious upbringing into a story, and also isn’t omniscience like a surveillance state?

That last bit is probably one of the reasons I didn’t get a metaphorical gold star in Pathshala (our version of Sunday School).

Anyway – I do want to mention that the religion here isn’t pure Jainism. The elements of “pollution” are taken more so from the Japanese and Chinese Buddhist folklore I used to read. Also, it was really hard getting into the mindset of someone who’s diametrically opposed to me – I do martial arts a lot, and finding ways to block trackers is practically a hobby at this point; I work at a hospital, I’m involved with public health, and I genuinely don’t know if I’d download a contact tracing app. (It would probably be useless since GPS is disabled on my phone, TBH.)

It did take me about a decade to be okay with killing mosquitoes, though.

Also, please don’t tell my mother about this one. 🙂

It’s cli-fi season: THE DESERT IN ME is now live at Little Blue Marble

Delighted to contribute to this publication’s mission–check my flash fiction, among other topical works, out here.

Note that the main consumer of our water supply is agriculture, much of which is consumed in the production of grain to feed livestock. So basically this piece is set in a future where things have gotten dire enough to limit even personal water consumption.

Starting A Story: HELP I’M STUCK

I’m a plot-driven writer. Before I commit anything to paper, I know where the full arc is going (setting + plot), how the characters will drive it forward, and what the themes will be.

All this should make it easy to start writing, right?

Being horrible at facial recognition doesn't pair well with drag...which is to say I think this is Katya and I love her? Haha

Yeah, so there’s a story idea I’ve been kicking around for at least a year – probably more – where I’ve written the ending, I know how I need to get to the ending, I even wrote a draft way back when, and I still have no idea where to start it.

Note that’s a where, not a how. How to start stories is simple. Subvert expectations so that the reader does a double take and before they know it, they’re sucked into the rest, like a demon summoning gone wrong.

Seriously though

What’s the deal with this story? Why isn’t it coming together when all the pieces are there?

The plot of this story is, in essence, a relationship that turns into a codependent mess because a shitty human being unintentionally trains an AI to also be shitty.

There’s three different approaches I could take to beginning this.

  1. Start with the broken human relationship that sets this off. (Which is where I began it originally.)
  2. Start with the accident, which breaks said human relationship and is integral to the plot.
  3. Start with the AI relationship, which is the meat of the main plot.

What are the pros of each?

Why not cons? Because those can be fixed in editing. I could have listed how they each influence the plot arc and ambience, but that’s the whole point of the beginning: creating that initial impression. If that starting point isn’t plonking readers where you want them, it’s not right.

I have a clear starting image for all of these, so I haven’t listed it as a pro, but that’s worth considering too.

Option 1 pros

  • Shows how the AI is supposed to work
  • Sets up the protagonist as selfish

Option 2 pros

  • Shows the moment of the AI upgrade (twist!)
  • Shows the accident

Option 3 pros

  • Can surprise readers with the revelation that the lover is an AI
  • This is the true main arc (but it needs to be explained by prior events)
  • Also, I want to

I was reluctant to jump into Option 3, even though I want to, because it’s so far ahead of the events that predicate the climax. But, as I said above, that’s something which could be fixed in editing. This is where “kill your darlings” comes in. Be open to unfixing a fixed point.

Yes, it’s gonna suck a bit to fill in the backstory. But at the same time, I’m not grabbed by the other two options, and I thought of the damn thing.

I’m not a “just start writing and sort it all later” type – I don’t work well without any direction (I am Captain Tangent) – but it is sometimes necessary to put off solving a problem until later, when you have something to look at. Simultaneously holding the words in your head and trying to sort them out is friggin’ hard.

The process of writing out the pros helped me realize just how unenthusiastic I am about the first two options, even though they’re more logical than the third. I don’t write a lot of nonlinear plots, but it looks like that’s where I’m headed right now.

So, we’ll see how that goes.

Starting a Story: Surely There’s a Happy Medium Between In Medias Res and Infodumping?

I love in medias res. I love it a lot. Too much, even. (I somehow managed to bring my writers’ group two stories in a row where it was unclear whether or not the events were actually happening.)

The other end of the spectrum, of course, is the infodump. Especially for speculative fiction, there’s a certain level of scene-setting that needs to happen before throwing the whole shebang at readers. If your story is set in 4019, it’s probably important to mention that your world experienced a mass extinction and alien invasion, and as a result the ten remaining humans live in a zoo, in addition to the usual establishing shots.

The top-down approach

I’m currently taking a class on Bayesian methods, and one fundamental concept is parameters and hyperparameters.

You may be trying to predict y with the knowledge that y = zx. If the relationship is simple, z could just be a number. But if it’s not, z could have its own formula, z = log(q). We spend time learning what q is because we care about y.

Readers need to care. A good hook will have people asking right off the bat, what why is going on? (Wow, I swear that pun was unintentional.)

Once the reader is latched on, they’ll want to know more about the background. (I say this right as I’m reading one of many Pern novels, which consistently open with background on the planet. No idea how McCaffrey’s first novel opens. If you can pull this off without already being successful, more power to you.)

Obviously, pacing is a big thing. Stopping the story to go through pages and pages of backstory will guarantee that any readers you’ve left by the end barely remember what happened before. Time and attention have to be hoarded.

My approach boils down to:

  1. Set the stage…with an action. (Or, as has been better said elsewhere, open with conflict.)
  2. Flesh out the setting. But not too much!
  3. Get into it. Once you’ve oriented the reader, disorient them with events. Set the main conflict in motion, even if you don’t tell readers what’s happening.

So for the above example, there’s a few different ways I would begin.

– Human A read the letter and threw it straight into the wall as soon as she was done.

– The letter hung on the wall, neon letters illuminating the two humans. “We have to get out of here,” A said.

For both of these, the next few lines would explain they’re in a zoo. Since they’re going to be yelling about the breeding program either way, I’ll save that for dialogue.

And then, there’s an option to flip 1 and 2, but still begin with an action:

– A bird flew straight into the clear glass of the human compound. Splat.

Here, the next few lines would zoom into our captive humans. (In my head, storytelling always involves moving around a camera like I’m filming something. I find this is a good way to avoid spending too much time describing something, including an action.)

For #3, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass is a good example. Even while Lyra is being a filthy urchin, the “Gobblers” come up, and then the entire scene with the Tokay not only sets up the big twist but establishes a character who is important in the sequel. As a reader who’s new to the story, we don’t know where it’s going, but all of this background is ultimately delivered on.

Beginnings need to do three things:

  1. Entice people who have no personal investment in your story
  2. Set expectations for the rest
  3. Be relevant

There’s a lot of room in between to decide how you make these things happen, but they should happen. Even people who complain that GRRM killed off the biggest idiot in Westeros can note that the first book begins and ends with an execution. The brutality of the world isn’t surprising, regardless of the events.

How and When to End a Story

I end stories on instinct. I figure out where things should end up before I commit words to paper the same time I solidify the premise.

Like,

Step 1: premise (often, interesting science/sociopolitics/economics + what if)

Step 2: where should it end?

If I can’t sort out 2 based on the premise alone, I’ll briefly think about the plot/characters. And of course, there’s more refinement when I write the thing, but I can’t think of a time when I’ve changed how things turn out.

This bothers me deeply because the concept of instinct applied to something that is learned makes no sense.

Spock gets it.

So anyway, here’s an attempt to formalize this process.

Where does the end begin, anyway?

Back in high school Creative Writing, we occasionally did this exercise called the five sentence story. It broke down like this:

  1. Setup
  2. Escalation
  3. Climax
  4. Denouement
  5. “Happily ever after” (doesn’t need to be happy)

I would say the end is #5, but with the caveat that it has to lead logically from #4, which leads logically from #3….

At any rate, this is why I figure out endings before I start writing: a) I once wasted time writing something that went nowhere, and never figured out where it should go; b) it helps define the middle bits. Knowing that the end goal is X banging vs murdering Y guides how they get there, and the word choice that goes into it.

So anyway, let’s say that the “ending” comprises the final state of your story, which may not – and perhaps even shouldn’t – be a distinct boundary. The end of the Odyssey, I would say, is when Odysseus enters his own house, deals with the suitors, and finally returns to Penelope.

Why would I put the boundary there, instead of right when he lands on Ithaca?

Callback to the beginning

The suitors are established as a threat at the start. “Secret beggar dude wandering the island” can’t deal with this, “secret Odysseus who is all kinds of good at archery and murders” can. So the final conclusion of his journey is, I’d say, where he’s not just back on the island but restored to his house, family and title.

So that’s one approach to endings: looking at the beginning and closing the loop (or making it clear the loop cannot be closed). Or, more loosely, drawing parallels. Maybe the roles are now reversed, the same thing is happening again but not, etc.

Remember how the first episode starts and ends with Fry being a delivery boy?

Thematic progression

If anything, this is where I land in the planning process (which as you’ve seen above lasts about five minutes). I don’t write adventure-type plots in short stories, and I rarely write novels, so for me plots are more about thematic progression to begin with.

To that end, what message do I ultimately want to send? Not in a purely didactic sense, like “racism is pathetic” or “buy my next book,” but rather what should the reader walk away thinking about? The implications of being intellectually disabled in a society with artificial intelligence, what is the difference between a human and a highly developed artificial intelligence, why people want genetically engineered pet sheep?

With due respect to Dick, I think it’s possible to muddle the message by trying to wrap up too many things at once. So it’s important to consider the scope of your work: I think Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? needed to be about 35-50 pages longer to satisfactorily deliver on the plot associated with each of the different ideas introduced in the book.

With that said, though, how far can/should one expound on that theme?

When to End It

I prefer short, punchy endings to long ones (chronologically and arcwise – I support, for instance, the delivery on Wheel of Time’s A Memory of Light). If you liked the end of The World According to Garp, you probably shouldn’t listen to me. That said, I read that book in high school and it’s the only one I can think of where I got annoyed, so I don’t think this is all that common to begin with.

As I see it, there’s two axes on which an ending exists:

  1. Arcs (plot, character, perhaps even world)
  2. Timespan

Tanith Lee’s Night’s Master, although I think it could’ve ended earlier, brings things full circle in a way that works with the context, and more so doesn’t give us the continuation of a lot of different plots. High fantasy, of course, tends to have a lot of different arcs to wrap up, but a) some of these should close out earlier and b) generally speaking, it’d be a whole new book to flesh out more. Dragons of Summer Flame has an epilogue that sets up a whole new series.

To take a lesson from English class: don’t introduce new concepts in your ending. (I don’t know that I’d say earlier books in a series count as having endings per se, but even so, there’s some sense of the book’s arc having either completed or moved to a new stage).

It’s always a good time to subscribe to Clarkesworld

Oh hi there.

I was raised by prudes and would not let my sister read this even though she’s a senior in college.

Make of that what you will.

Anyway, I find our relationship with technology fascinating. The lines between what we’re willing to accept and what we consider too far are shockingly arbitrary.

So yeah, that’s what this is about.

That and literally getting off to attention.

So anyway, I obviously don’t need to read that one again…lucky this entire issue is packed with GOOD STUFF.

You Can’t Edit Every Word: The Idiot’s Guide to Leaving it Alone

Editing is awesome. I love editing so much. But there’s a point at which even I have to put down my red pen and stop.

Stop, you say?!

Yeah, it’s really not that hard to get caught up in this perfectionist funk where all you do is wind around in circles on the same piece. Curb it from the beginning by having an idea of where you want to end. What should the reader walk away thinking about? What should the reader walk away feeling? Do things move fast enough to be interesting?

I stop editing when I get to a point where all my edits are just minor wording tweaks. At that point I’ll go back and forth, and I’m not even changing the overall impression the story creates. If it’s not productive, it’s not worthwhile.

Now that we’ve gotten dessert out of the way:

When to edit

So you’ve just finished writing a piece. Put it down. Do not touch.

Go do something else for a few days. Stroke your…ego, kick back and play videogames, read a book—actually, reading a book can be very useful if you know the author does something well that you have trouble with. In the past, I’ve read Pullman before jumping into edits on science fiction because Pullman’s descriptions are so much richer than mine. That way, the original write is still ‘me,’ but while editing, I’ve got a good baseline for intended changes.

Okay, have you taken at least three days? (Minimum: if you’re still in the mindset you were in when you wrote the thing, take more. You wouldn’t stuff your face right after hors d’oeuvres, would you?)

Cool, let’s do this.

How to edit

Let’s take a moment to discuss what editing is. Yes, there is an element of going back and fixing technical errors, as appropriate for informal writing. People don’t always talk in complete sentences, so make sure you’re not applying the rigidity of formal—essay—writing to your work without reason.

But the bigger purpose of editing is to consolidate the impression your story leaves on the reader.

  1. Keep the big questions in mind. Is your work doing what you want it to do? Is it engaging—will people even get to the end? Like good food, it shouldn’t be so uniformly spiced or bland that people get bored. But at the same time, it can’t be too obvious; the changes in pacing and subject should follow naturally.
  2. Reread your story. This is why taking a break is so important. You need the reader’s mindset, and readers don’t have 50 billion hours of backstory raging in their brains, nor do they already love your work. Note that this also makes it a lot easier to pick up typos. Your brain is no longer seeing what it thinks is there.
  3. Don’t spaz out if you don’t have the fix to a bad line/paragraph/whatever right away. These things take time. On average I go through about five revisions of a work before I’m satisfied enough. Sometimes changes get undone, too. Mood impacts approach.
  4. Save versions, or use Track Changes (all hail Track Changes). Especially with poetry, where the placement of each and every word matters—not that it shouldn’t for prose—you may go through a lot of iterations and not be sure which one is the best version. That’s okay. Save them all and do a little taste test when your palate is fresh.
  5. Done? Good. Now read it again. See above for when you can stop doing this.

Make sure your finished work has the right punch, match it with the right wine, and all will be well.

The Problem With Character Sheets

To be clear, there are some pretty awesome character sheets out there. I don’t personally use them, but I’ve seen others make them work. I’m not here to dispute the fact that they’ve got some utility, but I am here to point out one big problem with relying on a list of traits—which is generally how character sheets present these things—to define your character.

(Note: This also applies to Mary Sue tests. ‘Not a Mary Sue’ just means your character isn’t a perfect storm of coincidence. It has nothing to do with likeability or even believability. isn’t a Mary Sue, either.)

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Quirks

I think this approach is, if it’s the only approach you take to figuring out a character, a really bad idea.

Take a moment to think about your best friend. What’s their favorite food? What are they good at, and what are things they do that make you Google good places to dump a body?

While you were coming up with answers to these totally not intrusive questions, did you really just pull the information from some mental dossier, or did you picture past situations where these things have come up? (Anyone who watches ‘Supernatural’ knows about Dean and pie.)

 

The people you know aren’t a list of traits or neatly checked boxes on a sheet of paper. They’re an aggregation of moments and scenes, things they’ve told you and things you’ve seen them do. (Especially seen. People grossly overestimate how much data words actually offer. Go outside, guys.)

Let’s take a simple trait like ‘outgoing.’ Being outgoing could mean working in a field that involves a lot of face time, enjoying parties, talking to random people on the train. But a college professor probably doesn’t spend weekends half-conscious in a puddle of vomit or make polite smiling faces at every pleb on the bus. A 26-year-old high school teacher, on the other hand, would totally go out more—but what about during finals week when she’s got to get all those grades in? What about a high school teacher with war PTSD, or a college professor who’s, like, super chill dude and smokes “herbs” with his drum circle?

Traits on a page don’t say much about behavior, which is what happens in scenes, also known as those things your readers will actually be reading. Reducing someone to a series of flaws/strengths/quirks overlooks the fact that people don’t behave consistently.

Environmental factors FTW, not to mention state of mind at the time. Do you behave the same way at work, home, and when you’re out with friends? Would your boss list the same strengths and weaknesses in your personality as your sibling or your best friend?

If you’re going to use character sheets, don’t let them be the be-all-end-all of how you create or develop your characters.

Visualize these traits. A lot of people write scenes for practice, which is a fantastic way of figuring out a character. I base all characters off aspects from my own real life and interactions. When that’s impossible (e.g. murderers), I look at TV shows, movies, and case studies, in particular Oliver Sacks’ work for the weirder stuff. I always start with a mental picture.

Mental pictures are good.

See a person within that demographic act out a situation, and then make it happen on paper. Pull and twist like taffy so you’ve got exaggerations in the right places, and bam, motherfucker! (As a cross between Emeril Lagasse and Samuel L. Jackson would say.)

When you’re writing a character, you need to consider reasons that might pull them one way or the other, factors that will draw out certain traits and weaken others (chew that taffy). All actions result from some type of motivation, anything ranging from your money to your life to your sanity. (Motivation runs a wide gamut. My favorite motivation for characters is trying to escape the inevitable misery of the plot.)

I find that this method inevitably includes character development (not necessarily positive or progressive). The person you started with hasn’t had those experiences during the plot to sway them one way or another. Once they have, they’re going to behave differently…or the reader will see their actions differently because of new information.

The best way to make a character a convincing person is to have them be a person.

Dr. Editlove

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the edit

It’s a common misconception that the end result of writing is a finished product, which can then be sent out to magazines, nailed to a door, read aloud to your prisoners—whatever it is you usually do with your work.

The end result of writing is editing. And the goal of editing is to produce a finished result you can take pride in, and then share.

What editing is for

  • Resolving big errors, e.g. continuity, plot holes, inaccuracies, and other problems that will dampen the overall effect of your work.
  • Fixing details, e.g. grammar/spelling, ambiguous wording, and other technical issues.
  • Producing polished work.
Editing gives you the opportunity to take your work and bring it up to scratch.

Why don’t we do this on the initial write? Because getting the ideas down in the first place, and getting them all the way to completion, is a demanding process. Maybe you’ve written a piece about an improbable goal, but since you were on a roll you forgot to check the offside rules. When you go back and realize that the goal isn’t valid, unfortunately, your player has to stop halfway through his victory lap and glare at the referee, instead of doing the Macarena. Or, for poetry, maybe a reread reveals that “holy shit” doesn’t scan with the “act like you mean it,” so it’s time to find a better way to deliver your message.

Sure, you might be a good writer on the first pass, but can you be better? Could your piece have more of an impact if you take the time and space to critically analyze it after you’ve written it?
If the answer for you is no, I’ve got something you should read.

How to enjoy editing

  • Track Changes
  • Be yourself.
  • Understand what your work is in relation to yourself.
  • Care about the result.
A brief paean to Track Changes (which is not only available in Microsoft Word, I’ve also used it in LibreOffice): Track Changes is awesome. Let’s say you like a passage but decide to edit it out because you’re not sure it belongs. If you change your mind, you can go back and restore it with the click of a button. Sweet, no?!

Editing doesn’t mean acting like a robot. I just got back some edits for a piece and, along with the criticisms, the editor put comments when she found something particularly hilarious, which is mildly gratifying and lets me know what not to touch. And then when I’m editing my own work, I don’t have to play nice. My notes have included things like “were you on the drugs when you wrote this, where can I get some.”

You may be asking how I can be such a bitch, even if it’s only to myself. Surely that writing is a piece of my soul, crystallized into a form perceivable to humans?

…no.

Your work isn’t you. It is produced by you, and representative of your skills, but it’s not actually you. And if it is, why the hell shouldn’t it be awesome?

I’ve said it above and I could go on saying it. There is nothing like a well-crafted result to make you feel good about the quality of your work. Being able to take your style and not just say, oh, this is what I write like when I’ve flopped out of bed, but this is something that I can’t even believe I made because, ten weeks after the initial writing, it’s still giving me—and other people—feels, that is pretty damn great.

Editing is not smashing down your pretty little writing house, it’s bringing that house up to code and fitting it with better lights and pipes. If you’re going to live in a world of stories, it might as well be one where the toilet flushes on the first try.

What is voice, anyway?

In the simplest possible terms:

Voice is the personality of the book.

You know that thing about avoiding cliché except every single plotline ever has been done and has the TVTropes article to prove it and OH GODS WHY?!?!

katya
Voice solves 97% of that. It lends originality to your story by tossing a filter over the whole thing. The Shining needed that kid-voice so readers could stare in horror over his shoulder, understanding things like the dark cloud of suicide in his father’s head without having his reaction ruin half a page of ominous build. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency wouldn’t be the same book without its constant, gentle ribbing of everyone: Adams wasn’t trying to give us a new Sherlock Holmes, even though the premise lends itself to that comparison.

I Googled the crap out of ‘voice’—there’s surprisingly little—and found this well-written blog. We totally agree, so that’s a bullet dodged.

Voice = personality…?

In first person, “voice = personality” is easy to conceptualize. It’s like, okay, I have this dude who thinks he’s amazing, but he’s actually Al Yankovic in ‘White and Nerdy.’ So he’s going to talk the talk/walk the walk without ever getting it right. As far as his narration goes, you just let him do his thing. It’s for the audience to recognize that “da bomb” is, like, so 1996.

What about third person?

Generally speaking, narrators have a straightforward agenda: they want the audience to sympathize with the protagonist. There are exceptions, like Cersei Lannister (‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ by George R. R. Martin). If GRRM had wanted to make her sympathetic, he could’ve shown her fearing for her children instead of plotting the destruction of their enemies, which was at least part of the motivation for her real-life counterpart.

The third-person narrator controls how readers feel about your characters, and that in turn controls its personality, even when it’s not a person (aka you the author).

AKA You The Author: there is this elusive beast called “native voice,” which reflects how you talk and think. How do you figure out what you sound like on paper? I found conversational things—blog entries and forum posts—better than trying to write stories. Some sites say it’s partly/entirely innate, but I’m convinced it can be learned through practice.

An example: if you’ve read Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, you can make a decent guess at who wrote which part in ‘Good Omens,’ though the book reads evenly for the most part.

Something to consider for your “writing journey.”

Let’s look at the Romantics for half a second. William Makepeace Thackeray, Edgar Allan Poe: regardless of sentence complexity and esoteric word usage, they’re more readable than many modern textbooks. Why? Textbooks are allegedly objective—no opinions, no personality. No filter on the world.

How do I not be a textbook?

Two words: intention and perspective.

Yeah, okay, that’s not super helpful. Even if I said that intention is the motivation of the narrator—getting back to that ‘agenda’ mentioned above—and that perspective is the influence of nature/nurture on how a person sees the world, that doesn’t tell you how to execute it. So:

  • Style/word choice.
  • Information.
  • Bias.

Style/word choice are what you really need to make things clear to the reader, so they are in one sense more important than the other two, but I’m not going to rehash those here. Let’s talk about information and bias.

Information is what you tell your readers, and bias is how you tell it.

If I’m pro-choice, I’m going to describe a Planned Parenthood clinic very differently from the protesters haranguing it. (See what I did there? I could have said “outside” instead of “haranguing.”) If I want to tell you about a young woman going in, maybe I’ll point out that she was abused by her mother and had no father figure to teach her how to be careful around men. A protester might point out that her sex ed didn’t cover abstinence and that no one counselled her on how precious human life is. Also, one of us would say ‘fetus’, and the other would say ‘unborn child’.

Bias determines what information we consider important and, by extension, what we’re willing to tell others.

Ultimately, voice is how you control people’s reactions to your narrative without compromising the story.