Jul 30, 2009

Structure of a novel

My previous blog post was about complex plots. Since I made that post, I completed The Search for Kalid and blogged at the fiction wikia about the structure of that novel.

Wikia seems to be working out the bugs in their system for blog articles at wiki websites, so I have been doing most of my blogging there. Another recent blog post was about creating a book cover for The Search for Kalid.

Image. I made this image. The diagram shows that The Search for Kalid has four parts. The first seven chapters establish the Space Opera aspect of the story and the mystery of "Mental Powers". Chapters 9-12 take the reader off in an unexpected direction, our Solar System! Chapters 14 & 15 take place on Earth, but the reader might not recognize our poor and abused planet. After a quick trip to the mysterious Haldus star system, the story concludes back on the Moon. Chapters 8, 13 and 16 are pivotal chapters that twist the plot off in new directions. The following video was made to be watched by readers when they reach the end of the novel:

Jul 13, 2009

Is plot structure simple?

In this blog post by Victoria Mixon she says... "plot structure is simple".

By analogy, we could say, "song writing is simple". Such a devotion to simplicity might be appropriate for someone trying to make the next hit pop music tune, but does such a slogan apply to a complex piece of classical music?

Similarly, is there a temptation to "dumb down" novels so as to increase their potential for mass marketing? I think a novel should be a slice of life and life is often complex and messy so why can't a novel reflect the reality of life by being complex rather than simple? Maybe most readers will not be able to keep up and slog through a novel with a complex plot, but does that matter? Does the goal of making a profit and maximizing the number of paying customers dominate this world to the exclusion of letting a novel be complex when it is about a complex story?

"The middle of a book is common bogland". So, if an author does take on the challenge of making a novel with a complex plot, how do you keep the reader from getting confused and bogged down? I'm a great fan of maps, both physical and conceptual. A great advantage of constructing novels in wiki format is that hypertext links and media files can be provided for the reader. For example, The search for Kalid has maps and a glossary. How much of the aversion to complexity in novels is the result of printed books being an inferior medium for dealing with real world complexity?

Jack Vance talks about the value of complexity in life.

"A book filled with characters talking the way we really talk, with tags, goes on forever and bores even the writer to tears." Well, surely it depends on what they are talking about. I think Isaac Asimov showed that novels "filled with talking" can work. Of course, in this age of the tweet, fewer people probably have the required attention span to read a challenging novel. That does not mean that challenging novels should not be written.

Image. This is a diagram of functional modules in the human brain. Creative Commons Attribution License. See: "Uncovering Intrinsic Modular Organization of Spontaneous Brain Activity in Humans"

Jul 12, 2009

Escaping certain death

I've been having fun with the Space Opera elements of The search for Kalid. Ever since the escape of Odysseus from certain death at the hands of Polyphemus, unlikely escapes have been a grand tradition in adventure stories. I'm now in need of a "great escape" for The search for Kalid.

Before I was old enough to read about getting Polyphemus drunk and poking his eye out, I learned about unlikely escapes from death by watching television. Lost in Space was ahead of Star Trek by a year and ahead in Space Opera theatrics by a light-year. The waving arms of the Model B-9, Class M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot of the Jupiter 2 were a surer sign of immanent danger than the appearance of a new red-shirted crewman on the Enterprise.

A supernova explosion is over a billion times stronger than a nova. Similarly, there is a big difference between 1) showing a character's impossibly narrow escape from death and 2) making the reader think that a character died, only to later say, "fooled you, that character did not really die!" It is this category of super-deception that I'm dealing with. I've never enjoyed it when other story tellers pull this Dirty Trick on me, so I'm searching for an acceptable way to "bring back to life" an apparently dead character. Actually, it is a package deal...two characters have to be returned from the "not quite dead".

A major part of The search for Kalid is its mystery elements. As the story unfolds, the reader learns about the science of "T-particles", the basis of telepathy. I want the reader to start out by adopting the assumption that telepaths can be tracked down and killed because of their emission of "T-particles". But eventually it is revealed that some telepaths can control their production of "T-particles" and escape detection. I want to find a way to let the reader suspect that a particular telepath escapes detection and is not dead, even if Kalid himself can't figure it out. Would the reader, by feeling superior to Master Kalid, not feel so cheated by the Dirty Trick?

Image: Polyphemus takes one in the eye. GFDL.

Jul 8, 2009

Telepathy and Humor

Image source: Flickr Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike
and Fair Use.
Isaac Asimov wrote a story called Jokester in which it is discovered that jokes only exist as part of human culture because of an experiment being run by aliens. In The search for Kalid, telepathic communication is portrayed as a recently evolved human ability. I've been thinking about the evolution of telepathic communication and the idea that aliens might play a decisive role in allowing humans to develop telepathic communication.

Baby talk, or "parentese" is is a special style of speech used by adults when talking to children who are learning human language. The idea is that it is helpful for language learners to hear a simplified and exaggerated version of language while they are trying to learn it. Similarly, is there a "trick" that could be used to help people develop their innate telepathic abilities?

The search for Kalid
The plot device for telepathy in The search for Kalid is that telepathic communication involves exchange of "T-particles". But even if a human brain could "encode" a thought in the form of "T-particles" and even if another brain could produce neuronal signals in response to received "T-particles" carrying encoded thoughts, how could the receiving brain ever decode such a signal? If you were bombarded with a pattern of flashing lights that represented a thought, how would you know that it represented a thought, and a particular thought?

Can a SciFi Story Poke Fun at SciFi?
Jokes can be "hard to get" unless you share the cultural background of the person telling the joke. Example: "There are 10 types of people...those who know binary and those who don't." If you know binary and realize that "10" in binary is equal to "2" in decimal, then you can "get" this nerdy joke. (For a related chuckle, see the binary joke from Reboot.) Would the telling of jokes provide an efficient way to develop someone's telepathic skills? Knock knock.

"Knock-knock. (Who’s there?) It is not the owner of Yu-Gi-Oh."

In The Bicentennial Man, comedian Robin Williams had a funny scene in which he played the part of a robot trying to tell jokes. He told them "robotically". Could a robot with no experience or understanding of human experience tell jokes in an intentionally funny way and truly "get" them?

Language of Thought
I was thinking today about a way for Set and Amethyst to interact in The search for Kalid so as to awaken her telepathic ability. Why not have Set tell a joke?

This fits with an idea in The search for Kalid, the idea that telepathy evolved as a way for humans to judge each other. People such as the anthropologist Terrence Deacon (See his book The Symbolic Species) have discussed the idea that human language might have evolved as a way for humans to judge if potential mates have worthy brains. Why not the same for telepathy? How many people look for a mate with a good sense of humor?
August 2014
Note:  I modified the original text of this blog post so as to put Robin Williams in the past tense.

More book and magazine covers.

Jul 4, 2009

Climax and Character

I've been collaborating on The search for Kalid, a science fiction novel that explores the idea that telepathic communication is a newly evolved human mental capacity. "Newly evolved" in the sense that 5,000 years ago a small group of ancient Egyptians started performing artificial selection aimed at selecting for humans with the capacity to become consciously aware of telepathic signals. The story is now over 90,000 words and nearing a climax when all of the major characters will meet and the remaining mysteries will be revealed to the reader.

In some ways, the search for Kalid is like a conventional murder mystery. The "detective" is Leone, an experienced space traveler who sets out to defeat his rival, the "Evil" Set. Leone and Set have known each other for many years, but now they will finally have a showdown. Leone even has the equivalent of a sidekick, his companion in space travel, Aristark. Sometimes Leone rashly charges into danger, but Aristark is there as a steadying hand and cooler head.

The story starts out with its focus on Leone and Set, but it eventually becomes clear that they are little more than pawns in a larger game being played out on the galactic stage. The two "kings" in this game of chess are Kalid and Ketar. Leone is in search of Kalid because he wants Kalid's help. Leone has been told that Kalid has "mental powers", but Leone is a skeptic and does not believe that telepathy is possible. Ketar is something of an "evil mastermind" who has been working behind the scenes to stimulate the conflict between Leone and Set.

There are other minor characters as well. In keeping with the space opera aspect of The search for Kalid, there are "romantic" elements in the story. Leone narrowly escapes death after being drawn into danger by his friend, Sybil. Sybil is a priestess of a religious sect with connections all the way back to ancient Egypt. Kalid is the "Great Master" of Sybil's religious sect. Sybil's assistant, Portia, is a fun character. She is abducted and hauled deep into outer space by Set, but she bravely stands up to Set. Portia is not quite a damsel in distress, but she plays a role in allowing Set to recover from the death of his soul mate, Katherine. Set is in a deep pit of anger due to the murder of Katherine and it takes more than just Portia to snap him out of his funk. During a visit to the Moon, Set also meets Amethyst. But can a brief telepathic link between Set and Amethyst heal Set's warped mind? Collaborative authors are welcome... you can help write the exciting conclusion!

Wiki format version of this blog post, with links.

Image: Portia from The Search for Kalid. For image credits click on this link: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License