One Day’s Work

diggingI finished the synthetic outline of my latest android novel. That’s an outline made after-the-fact, by writing a brief synopsis of each of the 33 chapters. In reviewing it, I discovered redundancies, excesses, omissions, and nonsequiturs.

Redundantly, I had refuted the Kurzweilian singularity twice, once on grounds that intelligence is non-computational, and the second time because a brain upload would be a non-functional snapshot. I’ll probably keep both arguments, but it’s nice to know they’re both in there, in different chapters.

A more serious error was late in the manuscript when I just solved the problems, removed the threat, and restored the status quo. Dramatic tension plummeted to zero. Why did I do that? The story was far from over. I subsequently introduced a new threat but there was a gaping hole where my tension had flat-lined.

And then I had a whole section, about one and a half chapters, focusing on a completely irrelevant theme. Fascinating stuff, I’m sure, but obviously an alien invasion from a different story. How did that even get in there? It will have to be cut.

This is first draft syndrome. It’s horrible, but you have to remind yourself that at least it exists and you can’t edit nothing.

I sketched a flow diagram on big sheets of 11 x 24 paper. I entered each main character’s name in a circle then drew arcs between them labeled with the kind of interaction they had. Sometimes the arc would go from a character to a block of narrative, to indicate the kinds of arguments and discussions that were covered, since this story is basically an inquiry into ideas.

That took five big pages of flow-diagram to show the progression of the story line. I spread those out on my desk and started again on a single sheet, this time, leaving out all the secondary characters and including only the major dramatic beats. That resulted in seven clusters of interaction, including an unnecessary bulge on cluster #3 from that irrelevant material mentioned earlier.

The result was a pretty good story line, intellectually engaging and dramatically interesting, I had hoped it would become obvious from the diagram who was driving the story. Except for the two villains, the characters work together collaboratively on common goals, and despite their squabbles, they defeat the bad guys and emerge wiser and happier. The triumph of the collaborative life?

My dissatisfaction with the story calls into question what storytelling is supposed to be. I believe the art and craft of storytelling are to stimulate a re-imagination of some aspect of the multi-faceted human condition.

What did I want to say? I thought it was the story of Jennifer the shaman, who starts out believing she’s on an epistemological quest with her two androids, but ultimately discovers that she really wants to overcome her sense of alienation from community.

So I set out to sketch that story, from her point of view, but it wasn’t happening. I tried to force it but that made things worse. In frustration, I looked back to my one-page flow diagram and it became clear that it was Robin’s story I was trying to tell. She’s the female android.

I had not seriously considered that the story could be Robin’s because as an android, she has no feelings, no intuition, no creativity, no genuine subjectivity, and only computational simulations of social empathy and sense of personal agency. How could somebody like that drive a character arc?

But she already did it. The story is hers, more-or-less. All I have to do is blur a few details around the edges and she’s a perfectly good vehicle for the story.  I made a list:

What is Robin’s Goal? What she wants more than anything.

What is her Need? The reason that goal is so important to her.

What is her Blindness? The weakness that causes her to misperceive herself and her situation.

What is the Opposition? The force that keeps her from her goal.

What is her Rubicon? The moment where she is trapped and makes a largely irrational, irrevocable decision.

What are her personality contradictions? How does she inadvertently reveal her weakness in behavior and attitude.

Once I had that list, I could see how the action diagram I had made flowed from her quest. More or less. I can glimpse it. It’s a long way from a glimpse to a rewrite.

I spent all day on this, from 7:00 am to 5:00 pm, eating at my desk, drawing little pictures. For a whole day’s work, I have one idea: It’s Robin’s story. I’m delighted to have that, but also frustrated: Why the hell didn’t I just write it that way the first time around? Creativity is a confusing, difficult, messy process. I’m glad I have the freedom to indulge it but I get impatient with the 99% of it that’s just hard, slogging work.

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