Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Memory of Chekov's gun

I've just published a new installment of Memory over at No Fear of the Future. This marks the 40th chapter (chapter being a loose identifier, since they're generally so short), but the first after an unacceptably long gap--it's been just about two months since no. 39 went up in late July. This one's a bit longer than average (does that make it "A Very Special Memory"?) but it's not two months' worth longer, unfortunately.

Maintaining even the modest publishing goal I set back in January 2008 of 1,000 words weekly has grown increasingly difficult to meet. For various reasons, the day job is consuming more and more of my energies, and family takes up a great deal of what's left. After that, non-fiction writing projects--such as the research-intensive Chicken Ranch work in progress, as well as paying gigs like interviews and book reviews--have muscled past my fiction to the top of the queue more often than not. I'm not a particularly fast writer to begin with, and I'm learning that outside of certain narrowly-defined parameters, I'm not one who can multi-task on several writing projects simultaneously. I started writing Memory as an experiment, a learning experience, and I'm learning a great deal. My production rate stinks, but I suppose that's part of the experience.

I am, however, no longer flying entirely by the seat of my pants. I started the project with very little set in stone: I had two characters, Flavius and Parric. I had what I considered to be a pretty nifty MacGuffin in ongoing assassinations of Flavius across the multiverses. And that was it. The setup allowed me some leeway in telling an origin story via shorthand introduction of a far more extensive history and relationship between the two protagonists, but beyond that I didn't know more than the readers. I didn't know why Flavius was being killed, although I do now. I didn't know why Parric refuses to use only a tiny fraction of his vast power, but I do now. I've yet to get a clear picture of the ultimate resolution, but I know how they get there. I see some of the events between here and there, and new characters who've yet to be introduced who are, for the most part, as vague and mysterious to me as they are to you, the reader.

What is particularly fun is that I'm just now getting into a part of the story where my subconscious was way ahead of me. Neil Gaiman mentioned this curious effect back in my 2002 interview with him, and the following exchange illustrates what I've started experiencing:
Your Sandman stories were essentially complex, serialized epics in a marginalized medium. As your stature as a writer grows, I can't help but see a parallel with the career of another product of Great Britain, Charles Dickens. Have you ever considered the parallels between your careers?

I don't know if I particularly considered parallels. I do remember, toward the end of Sandman, I was reading Bleak House for pleasure. There were points in there where I'd go, "Okay. You know what you're doing with this. You don't know what you're doing with this. This is just something that you're writing to fill in a few pages, but you're putting something in that may become important later. This is something where you think you've done something that isn't important, but actually it will become important to you later."

I recognized the beats. I recognized the technique reading that. There's a level on which you know something when you're going into a story, but a lot of the stuff will turn up on the fly and you'll use it. You have to sort of learn to be open to the infinite. You learn to toss balls in the air, not necessarily knowing how they'll come down, but knowing they will be descending at the point where you'll need them.

Terry Pratchett had a character in a book recently--the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, who quit before they became famous. His name was Ronnie Soak, and Terry had written him without knowing which horseman he was. He just named him Ronnie Soak, because it sounded like the right kind of name. There came a point where he was writing Ronnie Soak going past a shop window in which everything was reflected, and you'd see his name reflected in the window. And it said "Kaos." That was the moment where the penny dropped for Terry, who this character was. You can ask yourself questions: Did you know this unconsciously before? And when you're involved in serial narrative, you don't necessarily know.

So is that kind of sub-conscious, serendipitous writing unique to the serial form?

No, what it does is . . . In the serial form, you realize early on you are locked in. In normal writing, if you're working on a novel, and you get to chapter 11 and you realize you need a gun in the desk drawer, you just go back to the desk drawer when we saw it in chapter two. You make sure that you mention there was a gun in it, and when people read the book, they go "Ah yeah. Got a gun in the desk drawer." When somebody goes for it in chapter 11, it's there.

You can't do that if people have already seen that drawer, and they've already seen that it was empty in chapter two. So you learn to make decisions without necessarily knowing why you've made that decision. You'll put a gun in that drawer because something has to be in the drawer, and then in chapter 11 you'll look around and go, "Oh my god, I need a . . . Oh, I've already put it there." That is a very weird and specific kind of thing.

If anything, the whole serial nature of fiction taught me not to go for perfection. You know, perfection—you're heading for the horizon. You'll never reach it. Get to the point where you've done enough, you're willing to let it go, it's as good as it's going to be. Let it go. Move on. Do the next one.

The influence of Moorcock is obvious in Memory with the infinite multiverse setting. When I reached the point of the story where Flavius and Parric came to the Eternal Dominion and the Palace of Un-pic Ja’ab, I'd recently completed Jack Vance's mesmerizing Dying Earth series. I'd been enamored of the relentless parade of wonder Vance slathered his work in, taking Clarke's maxim that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. Vance's far-future Earth was pure surrealistic fantasy, but steeped in the conceit that our primitive minds simply couldn't comprehend the technology underlying the impossible inventions. I seized on that idea--inelegantly I admit--to throw the kitchen sink into the invention of the Palace of Un-pic Ja’ab. The peq, the em Naga-ed-der, the echoes of Mote in God's Eye reproductive issues amongst the Eternal... these were great fun to come up with. The most Vance-like invention, however, was Ketza’qua, the colossal, extra-dimensional serpent creature enslaved to hold the Palace aloft. At the time I first wrote it, I was simply trying for an absurdly incredible image through which to stress the separation of that alien cosm from ours.

I hadn't realized that I was actually writing the scene in which Chekov's gun is introduced. The Ketza'qua is a very, very big gun. Those of you who've read chapter 40 of Memory will understand that the trigger has just been pulled. I hope you approve.

This writing stuff can be fun sometimes, eh?

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