The fifth dimension of writing

So, last night was something different.  For the first time in a very long time, my wife and I broke out of our usual routine to go out with friends.  We started out the evening at Wabi Sabi, a Vietnamese-Thai-Sushi restaurant.  The place isn’t much to look at—the building has been iterated through a number of owners—but the sushi is outstanding.  An ice-cold Sapporo or Kirin Ichiban compliments the fare nicely and helps set the mood for an evening’s festivities.

And what could be better than board games with a liberal application of alcohol?  The game of choice to start out the evening was Scrabble Upwards.  If you haven’t played this particular version of Scrabble, it is played on a 10-tile x 10-tile board.  Play is like that of traditional Scrabble, but with the added component of multidimensional play.  Players are allowed to stack letters to make new words of existing words.

The stacking component is the thing, though.  It makes both play and and scoring more complex, especially while drinking a number of Dark and Stormys.   The Dark and Stormy is a rum-based drink that is as refreshing as it is intoxicating.  The drink’s name, of course, can’t help but bring to mind the melodramatic introductory phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night…” (learn the significance here).  In my case, however, it got me to thinking about how Scrabble Upwards applies to writing.

Plot developments are often linear, possibly with secondary plots developed, laterally, but within the same plain.  A truly rich plot involves not only developing primary and secondary plot lines, but developing plots that are fed from multiple dimensions.

Those dimensions include spatial references (such as north, south, east, west, or front, back, left, right) and temporal references  (such as future, past or before, after).

Spatial and temporal references account for what physicists typically consider four dimensional space (length, height, depth, and time).  But for writers, there is a fifth dimension (in other contexts referred to as the “fourth wall”).  That is the dimension that includes the reader, not only as an observer, but as a participant.

So, that seems like quite a leap, after all, a novel isn’t like a stage play or a movie, where the character can fire one-liners at the audience.  But, evidently, novels breaking the fourth wall are fairly common,  the blog Literary Kicks provides some background on the subject.   For instance, the blog references Kurt Vonnegut’s appearance as a character in his novel Breakfast of Champions.  For him it worked.  Clive Cussler inserted himself into several of his novels, which for me made them unreadable, bordering on literary narcissism.

So I’d be careful about doing that, plus you don’t want to interrupt the flow of the story.  If the technique is used well, though, it can add to the story, bringing the reader into the plot.  As I recall, Edgar Allen Poe used this technique in several of his stories.

Personally, I have been tempted to break the fourth wall to add explanatory details to a story, but have always hesitated because I thought it might threaten the flow of the text, sort of like stopping mid-thrust to explain to your lover the pros and cons of your technique.  Potentially a mood breaker.

So, how did we get from playing Scrabble Upwards and drinking Dark and Stormys to discussing multidimensional writing?  The link between the two is that the possibility of changing what has been previously established or accepted as the norm is within your grasp.

As a writer, you control what you write.  If you want to keep the story linear, go for it.  If you feel experimental and head off into the fifth dimension by breaking the fourth wall, jump in with both feet.  No one, other than you, can stop you from doing it.

© Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh.

Struggle, fight, but keep the story moving

Can I make a confession?  I have never suffered from “writer’s block”.  For all the fiction, non-fiction, intelligence reporting, and documentation I have written, I have never been intimidated by the blank page or empty display screen.

However, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have struggled with format, with wordsmithing, and trying to impose my will on that of my characters.  Over the years, though, I have learned that writing something is better than writing nothing.

In my current effort, a novel I have tentatively named ‘Clarice’, I am struggling with how to proceed.  Do I write the story to my other stories, continuing to create a sort of interrelated dystopian universe, or rework the eighty-two pages written so far to be something new?  The characters are fighting me on this.  They seem to know where they’re going, but they haven’t as of yet condescended to reveal their destination to me.  They have hinted that it will be a little town called Cartersville, Florida—but that’s another story entirely.

And while we’re at it, I chose the name ‘Clarice’ as a placeholder until I discovered the heroine’s real name—44,726 words later the name hasn’t changed.  The problem is that I can’t hear the name Clarice without immediately thinking of sweetmeats, fava beans, and a nice Chianti (Damn you, Thomas Harris!).

If you have a favorite name for a girl born into poverty in coal country, let me know.  I’ll have a talk with Clarice and she might agree to change her name to benefit the story.  Who knows?

So, how do I handle it when I’m struggling with my characters?  First of all, I don’t discard anything.  This way, if I need to, I can easily step back to an earlier version and keep writing.  Whenever I’m done writing for the day I save the current file with a unique revision name both to my local drive and to the cloud.

The next day, I save the file with  a new name and start working.  You can see from the image what I mean.  If you aren’t quite this disciplined, that’s fine.  I’m pretty anal about it after spending one career as an intelligence analyst and another as a  technical writer.

The point is to keep writing.  Write every day.  Write something.  Then fight your way through until you arrive at the story your characters want to tell.  Don’t worry about it being clean or being perfect.  There will be plenty of time for editing and finessing the mechanics.  The story is everything.  Without the story, you might as well leave the page blank.

© Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh

Before God

The first contact was quiet, obscure, and by any conventional standard quite unremarkable.  It required only a breath.  Whatever concept scientists, writers, and other visionaries of the ages may have had about the event, this wasn’t it.

I wouldn’t call it serendipitous, that first contact.  It was not, by definition, random or by chance, and it was not necessarily a happy circumstance.  Whether or not it was beneficial would be for later generations to decide.  But there was the fact that when contact did occur, it was carried on the wind to a child.  And that was the significant thing.

Children, especially very young ones, are non-binary. Binary thought is something children have to be taught.  Binary thought doesn’t come naturally to children, but it seems essential to adults.  The reason it is essential, of course, is that it helps adults establish the spatial and temporal boundaries in their lives.  Yes/no, true/false, in/out, black/white.  All ones and zeros.

The binary structure is carried on through all legal and religious paradigms.  Legal/illegal, saved/unsaved, living/dead, heaven/hell, start/finish, beginning/end.  To have a binary relationship, of course, there must be an incompatible opposite.  So if there is an alpha, there must also be an omega.

Furthermore, for whatever state we are in, we must have a beginning and an end, such as birth/death.  For this reason, the Bible begins with “In the beginning” and concludes with the end of the world.  In the same way, and for many of the same reasons, scientists developed the theory of the “Big Bang” and theorize about the death of the universe.  If the universe began, therefore it must also end.

Now besides having a compulsion to categorize their existence in binary terms, humans also share a compulsion to codify their categorization.  They did this first in the form of storytelling, then in writing.  So when they codified their understanding of the genesis of the universe, they rightfully attributed its design and complexity to something other than themselves.  This something other, they called God.

Because they knew that they weren’t capable of creating the universe, and they also weren’t capable of conceiving of an entity that was completely unlike themselves, the God they created was given human attributes.  God could be possessive, angry, jealous, creative, loving, gentle, forgiving, brutal, and even genocidal.  In other words, God is us.

And we look at the universe through the filter of “us”.  We search for planets like ours.  We hunt for alien life with characteristics from our own experience.  We have a difficult time conceiving of an entity or a space that is boundlessly infinite.  And yet.  There it was.

Lighter than breath and older than our universe, from before even God existed, it drifted down from the infinite cold of boundless space to find a mind that had yet to know its limitations.  From that moment, the girl was something more.

©Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh

And then I wrote some romance

Every so often I like to share what I’m currently working on.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m working on the manuscript for a story tentatively titled, ‘Clarice’.   I’ve got around 42,000 words so far.  While story development is slow, because I’m pulled in so many different directions, the story itself is coming along very nicely.

The characters are speaking to me during the day and whispering to me at night.  The width and breadth of action is increasingly expansive, the themes deep and meaningful, and the science—the physics—works to ground the story in realm of believability.

So here is a short extract from what I’ve most recently written.  I look forward to your comments and criticisms.

56

To say that Danny awoke would be a misnomer.  More correctly, Danny was awake.  Fully awake.  More awake than he had been in a very long time—however that might be determined—and that was good.  He wanted to be awake.  The smell of the leaves and the cool, crisp autumn air invigorated him.  For this moment, life was an enviable state to be in, and he wished he could make it last forever.  He was young and healthy and in love, with the entire universe waiting for him to achieve his destiny.

He was standing at the corner of Fifth and Main, with traffic humming by without a break.  And that was just so normal—people bustling down the sidewalks, cars honking, children laughing.  He was waiting for her, for Clarice.  This is where they met every evening after work.  She worked uptown, he worked downtown, and they met in the middle, just a few blocks from their apartment.

Danny paced at the corner.  He watched for her, straining to get his first glimpse of her.  That first glimpse would almost bring him to his knees, it made him so weak with love and wanting her.  He waited, afraid to look away—even at his watch—for fear that he might miss her, and that by missing her he might be lost to her forever.

Like a good soldier he stood his ground and kept his watch.  Then, from the crowd, as one might appear from a mist, there she was.  Tall, thin, and radiant, her long hair tucked under a knit cap.  She not so much walked as gracefully floated over the pavement.  At least to his eyes, there was no fault in her stride, there was only perfection in her walk.

As she approached, and his anticipation grew, he tried to remember when he first loved her, but he found it impossible.  It was like trying to remember his first breath or his first tear.  It just always was.  It was part of his being, and without it there was nothing.

When she arrived at the curb, traffic stopped.  He was sure it was for her that the traffic had stopped, that her stride be unimpaired, that her life be uninterrupted.

© Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh

Our Dystopian Future is Now

Back in 2011 when I first published Any Tomorrow I was concerned that the publishing environment wasn’t right for a dystopian epic, even if in the end, there was a glimmer of hope for mankind.  For many of us, hope was in the air and there seemed at least the slightest chance that the world might become a better place.

Fast forward to 2017.  My current novel—tentatively named ‘Clarice’—while I was hoping for a simple sci-fi tale about a girl and the alien symbiont living inside her, the story has turned darkly dystopian.  Although I didn’t intend it, I think that the dystopian turn is particularly appropriate in light of the current global  political/economic/social atmosphere .

[And that’s as far as I will take that…  I have made a commitment that, although it might fun to fuss and fume about the current political anarchy, that discussion needs to take place elsewhere.]

For long time readers of this blog, I believe that I have mentioned in previous posts that I have an exercise I find particularly helpful when trying to envision the dystopian future.  As I drive along the highway or back roads, I imagine the trees stripped of foliage, the houses in shambles, and the road emptied of traffic.  My dystopia is one in which the world is in a slow burn.  Desolate wastelands encroach upon the few remaining cities where the inhabitants adapt to living  in hell.

I perform the same exercise with people, surprised?  As I talk to them or watch them, I strip them down to their lowest common denominator.  I try to imagine them in the worst of all possible worlds, because it’s only in that situation that the facade of normalcy is sheared off.  Remove all the world’s expectations, all the cause-associated false fronts, and what’s left?  There is only the need to eat and sleep, to survive from one horror to the next.

Does this mean that in a dystopian future, there won’t be love and kindness and self-sacrifice?  Of course there will.  It’s almost a requirement of humanity that someone in the future have some redeeming qualities.  And while it is certainly possible for a novel to portray human nature as it truly is, who wants to go down that path?  We all get enough of real life in real life.

For the writer, the importance of writing of a dystopian future—and I know this is true for me—is that writing about that the endless pain, the darkness that never ends, and the debilitating nothingness of the wastelands helps me to get that part of my life out of my life and into a fantasy world.

Writing about the terrible aberrations of a serial killer or sexual excesses of a sociopath assures me that while I can see those things in my mind and even, perhaps, take some visceral pleasure in both their crimes and their punishments, I know that’s not me.

As a writer, I hope you can understand the genesis of my stories and as a reader, I hope you can empathize with my need to share my dystopian fantasies.

© Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh.

What’s on my bookshelf

Back in the days before the internet, when there were only three channels on TV (four if you got PBS), information was derived primarily from books. They were made of paper, could be heavy, and were often awkward and inconvenient to carry. Despite this, a physical, printed book carried a certain authority.

The physical printing process was long, the editing meticulous, and production was expensive.  A thick volume or multiple volumes caused a sense of awe.

I remember well a high school field trip to New York City that included a visit to the largest book store I’d ever seen, one that made our local Walden Books seem pathetic by comparison.  It seemed to have miles of aisles crammed with titles that promised to reveal the wisdom of the ages.  And that’s what I was after, the wisdom of the ancients, forbidden and dark, and very appealing to a student in the occult-crazy early seventies.

In that book store I found Montague Summers’ The Malleus Maleficarum and  The Satanic Bible by Anton Szandor Lavey.  These books, among others, opened my mind to the validity of alternate philosophies and religions.  They didn’t turn me into a Satanist, but they helped me to see that there were other paths to consider.

The different paths away from the mainstream, and what I found along them, were the genesis for what I write.  Whether it be about an alternate dimension, a psychopath, or love in a dystopian future, it all began with expanding my world view through books.

For writers, books beget books, and the key to begetting your best work is diversity in the books that influence your storytelling.  Writers get their inspiration from a variety of sources, chief among these being other writers.  Having access to a rich and diverse library–either yours or the one down the street– is, in my experience, absolutely essential.

For instance some of the books on my bookself include:

And I haven’t even mentioned Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, or any of the other fiction writers that have played a role in my writing.  I could go on and on, but I will leave that for another post.

You can see more of my influences on the What’s On My Bookshelf page.  How many of them have you read?  What interests do we have in common?  How has your reading influenced your writing–or desire to write?

The list is far from complete and less than authoritative, but it will be, hopefully, growing in the next few months as I have time to add to it.  You might also note that although each of the books listed on the page has a link to Amazon.com, that isn’t a recommendation to buy that particular edition or format.  I just linked to the edition that I have.
© Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh.

What’s your favorite quote about writing?

One of my favorite quotes about writing is from that poet/songwriter/singer, Tom T. Hall in his classic ‘She Gave Her Heart To Jethro‘:

A man’s not writing if he can’t relate,
All the things that he sees in his life

The sentiment is simple and direct, but it encompasses the essence of a writer’s responsibility.  Do you have a favorite writing-related quote?  Please share if you do.
© Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh.

Any Tomorrow Complete Lives!

My first series, compiled in a single e-volume, Any Tomorrow Complete, is selling again!  That makes me feel good.  It might not make me a millionaire (and from what I’ve seen of millionaires I’m not sure I’d even want to go there), but I’m stoked that a few valiant souls have decided to commit to the adventure.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, I’m sure you’ll understand that writing a first novel is something akin to riding a wildcat on crack.  To see your characters come alive in a form that you can share with others is both exhilarating and exhausting, and never to be taken lightly.  The genesis of every word, every situation, every birth, and every death is the author’s own experience.  And despite what the author may say or how far fetched it may seem in the context of the story line, everything written is revelatory.

So to those intrepid souls who have purchased Any Tomorrow Complete, thank you.  And to those looking for a good story for their summer reading, look no further than Any Tomorrow Complete.
© Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh.

Charismatic

It was one of those Saturdays—you know the kind. You don’t wake up quite on time and from that point on everything is sort of disjointed and out of phase. And that’s how it was that she talked me into driving all the way to Kissimmee to attend this healing service at a friend’s house.

Before this I had never really understood the word ‘charismatic’, but I do now. Because that is what the preacher was, charismatic. From the moment he arrived, until he anointed my head with oil and told me he knew how I was suffering, he was the center of attention. With his hand on my head, he whispered in my ear about my sins and pain until I found myself repeating after him with a shout Help me, Jesus! and In the name of Jesus and Halleluiah!

And then he moved on to save someone else and I had to ask my wife what the hell just happened. That this little West Indian preacher could touch me on such a personal level was discomforting—and downright creepy. He and the others at the service were, in many ways, like characters from a Stephen King novel.

Would it be rude to say that while he was laying on hands I fully expected his head to split open and a serpent to pop out?
© Copyright 2015 by Kevin Fraleigh.