Nailing the Target

Bobby and I watched (finally) the 2014 movie Lucy last weekend. I saw the teaser online and thought, “What the heck?” The snippet blew me away so much I texted Bobby at once and said, “We have to watch this movie.” Ever the obliging husband, he brought it home from the library the next day and we watched it that night.

Wow. Just … wow.

The plot is based on what would happen if humans could access 100% of their total cerebral capacity. I’m not sure if it’s a fresh idea, but the film astonished me regardless. I’ve liked other movies by this writer/director (Luc Besson), so that was no surprise. But for me, a movie or book or short story that provokes new avenues of thought is always worth a look. The story was great all by itself—action-packed, dramatic, tense, lots of cool special effects—but it was the profound concept behind the story that really knocked me out.

What if we could access our entire cerebral capacity? What would that do to us? How would it change us?

Now before you go talking about real science and whether or not Lucy followed all the rules in the book, let me just say that Pinocchio didn’t follow the rules of logic and realism either, but it is a classic story, one that’s been entertaining readers for generations, as well as teaching valuable lessons. A bazillion other movies and stories fit that same description: classics that entertain and enlighten, even without confining their plots to provable, testable science. It’s fiction. Remember?

And isn’t it the fiction writer’s job to ask “what if”? to confront us with ideas that don’t fit inside that box we keep hearing so much about?

Before I watched the flick, I read some of the reviews, not all of which were favorable. The Atlantic called it “the dumbest movie ever made about brain capacity.” Rolling Stone called it “a buzzkill.” Others were more positive. Screen Rant reviewers called it “thought-provoking science fiction.” The Independent called it “a complex thriller” that would “blow your mind.”

The point is that no story (movie, book, whatever) is going to appeal to every single audience. That’s why targets are so important. Lucy is not targeted at audiences who just want fast-paced action thrillers. Though that is part of the movie’s appeal, it is more than that. Much more. The action/thriller crowd found it “dumb” because Besson’s screenplay also includes philosophical monologues and scientific data and clever blips of symbolism, analogy and foreshadowing, scenes, dialogue and concepts that require thought that dives beneath the surface. Besson’s story was written and directed at people who like that aspect in fiction.

Me? I’m still trying to nail down (in my own head) how to write to a specific target. Mostly I find myself writing material I would want to read. Not sure whether that’s the right (write) way to go, but it’s what I know. For now, anyway.

Therapy, the Search for Meaning, and Other Reasons to Write

Monday nights are my Busy Nights. Balance the books, do the laundry, update the website, etc. So last Monday when I got The Dreaded Phone Call about an elderly person in my life and had to deal with life and death decisions, it threw me off my game, thus my late post last week. I’m still dealing with that whirlwind, but more than one of my writer friends have advised me to write about my grief.

Believe me, I will.

I know many people who deal with Life’s hurdles in silence. They don’t reach out to others for support or, gods forbid, assistance. That ain’t me. I try not to do it a lot, but my trusted support network is phenomenal. (You know who you are.) When I talk to a friend about a worry or a concern, it’s like I’m talking to myself as well, feeling my way through the issue toward some sort of resolution.

It’s the same when I write. I’ve mentioned before that my spirituality and my quest for meaning often shows up in my stories. So does my grief for lost loved ones, or questions on ethical and moral dilemmas, or attempts to determine where I stand on social issues. If I can put a character into a similar situation, their process of navigating the problem helps me see solutions I might have missed otherwise.

Maybe that’s why I am so interested in writing a trans character, or one from a country I know little about, or one from an impoverished setting. I strive to live in a loving, compassionate way, and to extend those courtesies to the people around me. It pains me when I find I have done or said something hurtful to another, so I seek to understand life experiences that differ from my own, in an effort to avoid that risk. Writing about them in a respectful way requires me to learn as much as I can about the characters, and thus understanding grows. Right?

My loss is still too fresh to be a story yet, but it’s waiting its turn. Already I feel the pieces of it floating in my head and my heart, and when they find the best combination and the most effective setting, the story will almost write itself. I can wait. The end of a human life brings much busywork for those who are left behind, tasks that offer at the same time a welcome distraction from the grief and a daily reminder of the loss. I undertake it because I must, but I am making mental notes. For the story that will come.

Native Seeds

by Catherine Wells
Novella, 19,132 Words
Published in the November 2017 issue
of Analog Science Fiction and Fact
Edited by Trevor Quachri

After the Food Wars and a series of global storms and other cataclysms force the evacuation of Earth, two small bands of survivors remain behind. The Men on the Mountain depend on left-over tech, including ships that allow them to raid far-flung ruins for supplies and materials. The village of The People lives in harmony with The Mother Earth, using only those things She provides.

Each group believes the other perished decades ago. Each group struggles with the necessities of survival for their small band. When the two groups cross paths, the leaders of each have different ideas on how to pursue the best outcome for all.

Catherine Wells is not new to storytelling, but this is my first time reading her work. Her characters are strong and well-defined. Alfonso’s wisdom, Ruben’s courage, Chico’s resentment all ring true. I could put myself in any of their shoes and understand why they reacted the way they did, or at least see enough evidence of that sort of behavior in the world around me to know its portrayal is realistic. Artfully placed narrative clues about characters, backstory, and a few surprising twists all made for a richer reading experience.

The encounter between the surviving bands happens early, and Wells lingers over the ensuing relations between them in good storytelling style. The tale felt to me a microcosmic example of issues human societies face today. And if humanity continues in its current direction as far as development of tech with too little concern for the long-term effects on our ecosystem, the scenario she sets could certainly serve as a warning of what our own future might hold, if we don’t change our ways.

In all, I found Native Seeds to be a delightful tale.

Reach for the Stars

Last Saturday I took a class at my local writing center entitled “Nearby Stars and Exoplanets,” by Dr. John Aguiar. Wow! I’ve done a bit of personal study in the last decade on this subject, and on space exploration, as well as our own solar system and how it works, but it’s been a while since I last read up on the subject. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to see just how many new discoveries have been made. At one point in the presentation, Dr. Aguiar showed us a slide of some of the surprises discovered by the Kepler mission, which focused on a relatively miniscule cone of space (3,000 light years) over a period of several years. In that tiny segment of what first appeared to be “empty” space, it found thousands of exoplanets. Thousands. And that finding likely severely undercounts the actual number. After the power of speech returned, I commented that we aren’t alone after all. Dr. Aguiar joked that it was actually starting to feel a little crowded.

Of course I’ve never thought we were alone, but that’s a topic for another post.

I’ve said before that as a writer, I don’t want to be constrained to what I already know. My imagination is bigger than that, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Besides, there are plenty of experts out there to help me get the details right. The trick is to find one who is willing.

The novel series I’m currently working on is based on backstory that involves the effects of solar weather on the Earth. I am certainly no physicist, so way back when I began sketching out the details of the backstory (which is foundational to the rest of the series), I searched the Internet for articles and resources that would answer my bazillion questions. I “met” (online) a few professors who helped me design my worlds, but one expert in particular—Tom—was instrumental in guiding the structure of critical space weather elements on which I would rest the entire novel series. Despite his integral role in a major governmental program, and international speaking and collaboration commitments, he always managed to find time to answer my questions. Even after I edged into confidential territory and he had to redirect my curiosity into more public access areas, he continued to provide indispensible input. I couldn’t have built a believable story without his help. Tom has moved on to other projects, and now I usually direct my questions on similar subjects to my friend William, an engineer who works with satellites and related systems.

My point is, don’t be afraid to ask questions. If one source is unable (or unwilling) to help, find another one. It’s like querying; if we send to one agent or editor and they say no, we send to another. Right?

Do know, though, that some genres of fiction may involve security issues related to your questions. One doctor friend refused to give me information I could use as a plot device to kill a character in an undetectable way, not because he thought I planned to actually kill someone, but because it would be a really bad idea to put something like that in a book that millions of people will read. (Yes, millions. Think positive, right?) Rodney William Whitaker (writing as Trevanian) had a footnote in his novel Shibumi to that same effect. Tom couldn’t answer what, exactly, it would take (as far as space weather) to bring down a country’s electrical grid, for obvious reasons. Back then, I also asked questions of a banker friend about how bad things would have to be to shut down world banking. She looked at me with a sort of horrified expression and said, “You should be careful, Drema. Asking questions like this will bring the men in black sedans to your door.” Maybe that’s why the electric company did not respond to my requests for a tour of their power station.

Whatever you want to write about, there is someone out there who can answer your questions, or tell you where to find resources that will serve the same function. There’s just no reason in this day and age, when we can talk to people from all around the world without ever leaving our comfortable desk chair, why a secretary (or a housewife, or a retail sales associate, etc.) should not write a science fiction novel, or a murder mystery, or whatever she wants. If the story concept excites you, I say go for it.

Critical Mass

I wrote about critiquing once before (Like Minds and Other Sounding Boards, May 22, 2017), and said at the time that it is hard to sit and listen to people critique your baby, the words you’ve sweat and bled over. Now I’m back on that topic to change my tune.

I’m currently attending my second 6-sesson fiction workshop at The Muse Center in Norfolk. This time, the facilitator is Lydia Netzer. She’s awesome with her astute observations and her quirky comments that catch me off-guard sometimes—in a good way—and I’m really enjoying myself. I’ll probably take her class again. Sessions like that are so helpful! One week before each class, half the students submit a 15-page segment of their work. During the class, each of us gets a chance to offer critical input to the writer – what worked, what didn’t, any patterns we see in the narrative, foreshadowing, and so on. It’s incredibly helpful, and not only when the class critiques my work. Reading the work of others or listening to the students in the class offer input on someone else’s work is also useful and informative.

Classes aren’t the only way to accomplish this. Beta readers are also helpful, as I mentioned before, whether or not the readers are themselves writers (though fellow writers can offer more focused and technical input). I’ve called on beta readers numerous times, and have served in that capacity for fellow writers. Same as with the fiction class, both sides of this coin are useful to the aspiring writer (and probably accomplished ones too). There is actually a website called Critters Workshop that seems to be set up for this very thing. I keep meaning to check it out, but here I am still talking about it.

The one thing I haven’t yet found is a regular writer’s critique group. The one I mentioned in my earlier critique post never actually met again after I joined them. (Was it something I said?) After this long a wait, I decided to look elsewhere. I know it won’t necessarily be easy to find just the right one, but at the moment, I’d be happy to find one at all. For a couple of years now, I’ve been searching for one that meets near my home because I didn’t want to spend an hour or more behind the wheel to get two hours of networking and critique. (Time, people; it’s a four-letter word.) So far, the only ones I’ve found that meet regularly are all at least half an hour away, and that’s on a good day. If traffic snarls, which is a frequent occurrence, that half-hour can stretch on. I thought about starting one in this area myself, but when I mentioned this possibility to my hubby, he laughed and said “You know what will happen if you do that.”

“No, what?” I said, all innocence.

“You’ll end up running it. It’ll be your responsibility to keep it going.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but shut it again. Unfortunately, he’s right. If I’m the one who starts it, I’ll likely be the one who has to send reminders of our meetings and schedules of submissions, etc. It doesn’t sound like a lot of work, and it probably isn’t. But when you add that to all the other tasks that make up already full days, it’s not something I could maintain. So I’m looking again, because the critique process is proving so helpful to me.

Mind you, I still haven’t been published. But I can see an improvement in my work after it’s gone through this process. I don’t accept every change that is suggested. It’s important to keep in mind that every reader is different. Some will like your work and others won’t, no matter how you write or revise. But if six out of six readers all point out something in the narrative or dialogue or plot as problematic, chances are it needs a tweak. And sometimes, other writers can point out a better way to resolve the plot. In our last class, half the students agreed on a plot point change for my story “Murder of Crows,” so I made the change yesterday and set it aside. When I read it again this morning, I liked it much better.

In the end, your stories or essays or narratives are your own. You decide what goes and what stays, but it pays to listen to input from others. I highly recommend classes or other critique opportunities to anyone who is trying to break into the writing world, as long as you understand going in that you will get both positive and negative feedback. And that’s exactly what you should want. Your mom or your sister or your best friend can tell you how great your story is all day long, but if someone isn’t also pointing out the problems with plot and characterization and technical details, your work will never be as good as it could.