Friday, October 10, 2008

A Unified World ( I promise, it's about writing )

Today we're going to talk about writing. My writing, to be specific, because I'm not an expert on anyone else's writing. And this blog is supposed to be about me and my writing, in the end. An author sharing himself with people. Or something noble like that. It hasn't turned out that way, but then that's par for the course.

Writers (fiction writers) are concerned with telling stories. But stories aren't the only consideration. The story is a stand alone project, to be sure, but as with all art, the frame is nearly as important as what's on the canvas. And so, a writer has to look at not just the story they're telling, but the frame in which their story is presented.

A story can be self-contained, but it still takes place in a world. A fantasy book has the plus of being able to define its own world. A more realistic piece of fiction has the plus of pulling on a world that we all know and love. But what about a world in between the two? A world that's recognizably ours but seen slightly askew? A world that's not just in service to the story, but is representative of how the author sees the world around him?

That's the kind of thought that created what I call my Unified World Theory. The idea of Unified World (UW, for now) is that all of the books (or most of them, anyway) take place within a world that's consistent and coherent. That unrelated stories are all taking place on solidly similar ground, a similar setting with a similar history.

For example. The heroine of my NaNo 2008 novel (Mandy, who you'll hear more about next week) originally showed up travelling through the country in NaNo 2007, Ways To Commit Suicide When You're Bored. She wasn't the main character, just a side character. She interacted with the main plot, then drifted out of it. And time passes, and her life gets interesting again, and I write another story that takes place in her life. It's not a sequel, it's not a spin-off. It's just another story that takes place in that world.

I don't like the idea of each story being isolated. Characters exist, they grow, they end their tale and ride off into the sunset. But what happens before that? What happens after? What effects are felt by actions, great and small, that echo throughout the world that they inhabit?

The only way of making such aspects of life known is to join all the books together. In doing so, I create a world that's close to ours, but different enough that I can meddle within the bounds of believability. Change how aspects work. Alter facts to fit stories just so and make it work. I can create cities to rival the greatest American cities, or use pre-existing ones, and it's all equally valid, so long as the universe the world takes place in makes sense.

So that's what I've done. And the arguement could be made that I'm counting my chickens before they hatch, planning sequels and characters that reappear in books that I haven't sold yet. But at the same time, if I'm going to do it, it would be best to do it from the start, so that the entirety of my work rests upon a consistent foundation. So that should it work out and I successfully sell books, I rest well knowing that the frames are set up. That there is a world I have created that will serve the body of my work well.

Now, here's the part where I admit an ulterior motive. There are plenty of authors who also do a unified world in their work. Three offhand are Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut, and Elmore Leonard. All of them have recurring characters, actions that have repercussions throughout other novels, all the things that are hallmarks of linking some or all of an author's pieces together.

What this amounts to is a world that rewards further study. You read a book, and read another, and when they are linked together in some way there is a feeling that the author is making sure that the reader will get more out of the author's works the more they read them. I know that it's kind of ... clinical and business-like, but I'd like to think that as an author I'm looking out for my eventual readers.

Of course, this borders on the verge of either pretention or fan-service. If I do it without people enjoying it, I suppose that's pretention, thinking that all my works are so important that they deserve to be considered together. That's a high-demand thing on my readers, to expect them to explore all of my world and books. But at the same time, if I continually write about the favorite characters, and continually create connected works that people love, that totters close to fan-service.

The trick, of course, is to walk in the middle. To allow for stories to begin and end, to both provide for expectations that characters will return and fulfill unanswered questions and continue to provide new characters for first-time readers to cut their teeth with. To expand the universe so that ground isn't retread.

I personally find that authors who take this kind of time and thought to construct these compounded dividends are ones that tend to build strong, dedicated fanbases. That it keeps the back catalogue relevant, and once it's caught on that it's the practice of the author, keeps the expectation of the next story high. You never know who's going to show up or how they'll react. And that, of course, means that you're always looking towards the next story to provide those answers.

It's a business decision, sure, but it's also an artistic one. Part of my statement, of my message, is that all life is interconnected and what we do has repercussions that echo through time and space, affecting many we will never meet or understand. That life isn't just about the individual, but about the tapestry, each individual interweaving with others to add to the whole of human experience.

Unified world isn't just a writing technique, but it's a philosophy. And it's a frame for it's own philosophy. I being both an example and a vehicle for other examples, it's coherent in how the world works. It's a way to be both the lattice on which the rest of my stories and themes are hung, and as a theme and story in itself.

And I suppose, that's the point. In the end, it's what I always wanted to do when I decided to become a writer. The idea of stand alone stories doesn't appeal to me. I write a few, I suppose, but it's not something I'd want to make a career on. Anything that could take place in 'the real world' is typically folded into the unified world that represents my work. Maybe some day I'll have to be pickier about what I throw in there, but for now ...

For now it's fair game. And I'll keep connecting threads even as I expand into new territory.

A world-builder can do no less.

And Another Novel Down!

Today I finished the CDE Project. Or, the tentative title, A Cafe Between Reality and Dreams. This is my fourth novel, weighing in at around 76000 words in the first draft. It's also representative of a new challenge--and a new triumph.

You see, my first novel was a fluke. It really was. I did it in bits and spurts over four years. It was a big pain in the ass. It was a bunch of amorphous jelly that I molded into something vaguely book-shaped. It works, I suppose, but it's not great.

Marton Syan was kind of an experiment, more than a book. I wanted to intertwine three storylines, try to get a message out, but mostly I was trying to explore what it meant to be an artist. So ... it wasn't *really* a novel.

NaNo2007. Ways to Commit Suicide When You're Bored. That book ... well, it's half autobiographical, at least in the first draft. So, again, it doesn't count. Lol.

I can make excuses, but CDE is the first book that really felt as thought I was writing a novel. It's much more plot-driven, it's much less connected to who I am. It's in a genre (sci-fi) and it's representative of a set up towards a bigger body of work. It wasn't a treasured baby that I nurtured into life like my other three novels. It was my project. And I did it. And now it's done.

And I can't tell you how fulfilling that feels.

There's a sense of accomplishment that always comes with finishing a work. A comfort, a feeling of having done it. Of a major campaign being over and a goal met and new horizons stretching before you. The weight's off your shoulders, the pressure is off, and you have something to show for it.

Stories are the ultimate hand-crafted item. And they have some of the same satisfaction associated with making anything with your own two hands. Only instead of labor of muscles its the labor of the mind and the heart.

The feeling that comes from successfully concluding something like that is what fuels my drive to do it again. Looking at the next point on the mountain, scanning the horizon, seeing how far you've come. The world stretches out below, and there is still so much more mountain to climb!

Nothing to do but celebrate and get to climbing again.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

customer appreciation ][ short story ][

"There's something to be said for dining alone. There is only so much of another person's company one can take before one is driven to distraction. And when someone is dining with others as often as I, it becomes a singular luxury to simply ... have silence, for a while.

"Of course, make no mistake. I love the company of others as much as the next fellow. But there are some things that simply cannot be replaced, and the joy of being able to have individual, secret thoughts is too much to pass up.

"Then again, talking is what I do. I provide a service with this, my art. With this, my voice. With this, my words. Conversation, perhaps. Ahem. Regardless, what I'm saying is that as a Fifth Level Conversationalist my words are my pride... a great source of pride. And if the price is right ... no, no, no. Um ... hrm, let's see here. And that skill could bring a unique and excellent flavour to any gathering ... party ... social event. Social event that would benefit from my services."

There was the sound of a knock and the man set down the flute of wine he had been staring at as he cast a glance towards the door. He turned back to the empty table, and the device upon it.

"Excuse me, I am taking several appointments today. I'll continue this when I return."

The man, thin and slender and good-looking, rose and made his way to the door. He wore a suit, even in his own home. When he answered the door he did so with all the practiced grace of a professional, and invited his guest to come and sit in the living room. The guest was a middle-aged man, with a sagging gut and a well-worn sweatshirt.

"I .. uh, hope I'm not bothering you," the guest said as he sat down heavily in the middle of the couch.

"No, of course not," said the Conversationalist as he sat down. "My name is ———————, who am I speaking to?"

"Oh, yes, um ... I'm Jeff. Jeff Katz. I'm here to .. uh, well, you see, the office is having a party and there are these two girls and..."

The Conversationalist nodded as if he understood. "And you wish to have a companion with you so that you can approach them both with the safety of equal numbers."

"Um, yes, something like that. You see, they're so close, and I know I could maybe have a chance with one of them but the other, she just keeps getting in the way. So if you could, would you... y'know, show up?"

"I'd be delighted." The Conversationalist handed Jeff a business card. "You have a home computer, do you not? Of course. Well, on my website there is a list of services offered, and for this I'll charge you only for 'one time dating services.'"

"How much is that?"

"Nothing extravagant," the Conversationalist said. "I'll enchant your lovely lady's companion, you can make your move, and I'll express a distinct lack of interest in pursuing the matter further. Perhaps I could be a buddy from college, in for a single night, pulled along because you had to attend. You do have to attend, don't you?"

"Well, no, not really, but..." A light went on behind Jeff's wide eyes. "Oh. Oh! Um ... yes, of course. I have to attend. I'm an assistant to the regional manager. I couldn't not show up."

"Very well then. Enter the code on the bottom of this card so I know we spoke in person, and I'll call you to finalize the details within a day." The Conversationalist stood up. "Now I hate to be rude, but I was finishing dinner and I have another appointment in ten minutes."

"Oh, sure." Jeff stood up and quickly headed towards the door. "Um... I'll see you around then, I guess. Uh, talk to you later." And Jeff noisily let himself out.

The Conversationalist made his way back to the table and picked up the glass of wine.

"Mr. Katz shows a remarkable lack of tact, as you no doubt were able to pick up. That is not his fault, of course. A man of his caliber simply has no training in the finer arts of relating to other people. But I make no excuses. Good for him, that he can get through life so blind and helpless. I'm glad for him.

"You may scoff, but I do indeed feel glad for him. Without him, people in my line of work wouldn't exist. His ineptitude is my livelihood. I can only commend his show of good taste in coming to me. Now, let's see here."

"Oh, look at that. He's potentialy customer 500. But then, a Mrs. Summerfield is supposed to show up and since she isn't late, perhaps she's more likely to be around to seal the deal. If she goes first, then she will most undoubtedly be 500. And we all know what 500 customers means.

"It just goes to show Mr. Katz that he shouldn't be late to his engagements. He didn't even apologize for being over thirty minutes late. The brute."

There was a pause and the Conversationalist finished his drink. He set the glass upon the table and slowly turned to face the empty room.

"Four hundred and ninety-nine people. That's how many people I've helped. What a milestone! Five hundred people could be a small town. And I went into each and every one of their lives. I took what was deficient, and I fixed it. When there was a need, I filled it. Those that required training received it. Those that just needed a shining point in their party were the proud hosts of dazzled guests. Single women needing respectable dates were suddenly the favorite daughter.

"All this, and for such a low price. I deal with the fumbling and desperate in society. The struggling and unfortunate. The unenlightened and the low-witted. All these people rest comfortable in their ignorance, and I do nothing when not asked.

"But now comes Mrs. Summerfield. A woman who's already tried haggling my prices over the phone. And I know what she wants. I've heard of her. She's a customer referral. The Women's Society at Unity Church is having a soiree, and I'm something of a constant. They pass me around, each one bringing me as if I had never been there. And then I listen to the same tired stories, the same long-winded conversations. A bunch of old hags sitting around tea, with only one man to share among them. I am the Eye of a Better Life.

"Yes, Mrs. Summerfield. Who will of course demand the same 'Dinner Companion' package that I gave to Miss Beaumont because she was suffering with her bills. Too bad Mrs. Summerfield isn't suffering. No, she's just cheap, with her carefully squirrelled away money from too many dead husbands and her worn down shoes.

"Five hundred warm bodies. Can you imagine? So many people, lacking so fundamental a thing. And me, the beacon of hope in their lives. One out of five hundred. That's hardly too much to ask, is it? I don't think so. I really don't. And if it is, I must confess that I don't care.

"Yes, Mrs. Summerfield will do nicely. Poor Mr. Katz is young, even if he is stupid. In time, maybe he would come around. Maybe I'll work my charms on him, being the 499th person. A special case, given the top attention possible as I head around the bend towards that magical four digits.

"Not Mrs. Summerfield. Too old. Too fragile. Yes, too fragile. All this moist weather has been hard on her, is what the gossip says. Hacking coughs. Sleepless nights. She is easily the oldest, the matriarch with an iron fist. It would be nothing. No major thing.

"Yes, a very small thing indeed.

"Who is she to deny taking the suffering? I have given so many meaningless smiles to people who needed them. The empty spaces and long nights full of my struggles. So unappreciated. By now I'm so good at my job, rarely do they think I did anything at all. Which is the best compliment, I suppose, but ... it's so hard to make a living by doing 'nothing.'

"That's all right. My fees are modest and my manner quiet. I will continue. I will endure. And exact my price when the time comes.

"Oh! Do I hear the door? Then the time has come. The time has come, for a single moment, to be selfish. Who could blame me, just once, for being discourteous? Nobody is that much of a saint. The Pope himself couldn't get through dinner 500 times without once offending someone. And I am no religious figure. I am only a man, like any other...

"Mrs. Summerfield! Of course you can let yourself in! I wanted to extend my congratulations. You are officially my five hundredth customer!

"Just wait until you see what I have in store for you!"


Sarah decided to write a short story on a whim. I believe that it was originally for a contest which I talked her down from. Whatever you wanted, under 1500 words. And here is mine, in its third (and shortest, if you believe it) iteration.

The inspiration for this comes out of my own life, and my continued efforts to try to quantify every aspect of my relationships with people (typically joking). Though, of course, I would rather be rude than tolerant. And thank god, after seeing where infinite patience gets you.