< Slackers
Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF 12/1986 >

[Comments] (5) Connectionism: I haven't mentioned this explicitly on NYCB, but I'm writing a novel. I still wouldn't mention this explicitly, because I don't believe in announcing projects that aren't complete, but this entry needs that fact for context.

(If you're curious: the novel is about halfway done, I hope to finish in the next 6 months or so, and once I've got a complete draft I hope to start serializing it on a website that you've probably heard of if you read this weblog. The only thing I will say about the subject matter is that if you liked "Mallory" you will like this thing. But know that I'm breaking my own rule in even mentioning this project, and it could still end up incomplete like a lot of my projects you've never heard of, so don't hold your breath.)

The reason I'm blowing my cover is to tell you about a theory I came up with earlier this week while talking to Adam Parrish that explains some things I've discovered during my short writing career. Adam is also writing a novel: he's retelling a Lovecraft story in novel form for NaNoWriMo. But under my questioning I learned that Adam is only doing this to get a better sense of the rules of narrative, so that he can destroy those rules, Duchamp-style.

Adam's real idea of a NaNoWriMo project is to generate a list of 50,000 random words from the dictionary and carve a story out of those words, the way a sculptor carves a statue from a block of randomly generated marble. So here's the first draft of Adam's ideal NaNoWriMo novel, which I wrote in about a minute.

Anyway, like a modernist fool I told Adam one of my rules of narrative. I discovered that the easiest way to write a novel is to throw a bunch of characters into a situation. If you get stuck, throw in more characters. If you can come up with enough characters, you'll eventually come up with some that have interesting interactions with each other and with the situation, and you can focus on those to do your worldbuilding and advance the plot.

Adam was skeptical of this idea. He thought I was speaking mystical writer talk about the characters taking on lives of their own. No, I said, it's just math. If you have N characters there will be N2-N possible relationships between them, and at any point in the plot you have (N2-N)/2 possible two-character scenes you might write. Most of those relationships and scenes will be stupid or impossible, but if you just get enough damn people in your book it will become obvious what to write about next. This explains a strange phenomenon I discovered: if you put someone or something in your novel early on, you will invariably find a use for them/it later.

When I read a novel, I'm happy with a character if I get to see two sides of them. If you can tell a story about a character's attitude toward the main plot arc, their attitude towards the main character, and their attitude towards another minor character, you can use two of those to illustrate their personality and the other to illustrate another side of them. If you can't do that, it's probably a sign your character isn't interesting enough.

This theory also illustrates something I've often found in short stories: too many characters. I can't count the number of times I've heard (or said) in writing group, "this character isn't necessary." It often happens to family members of the main character. It hurts to hear it because I always have a vivid picture of that character, but it's usually accurate. It might be a pain to rewrite the story without that character, but it's technically possible and the resulting story will take up less space in the reader's head. It also cuts word count, which means a cheaper story, which an editor is, on the margin, more likely to buy.

These characters get created in the early phase of story writing where the story isn't fully formed and you're not sure what's gonna happen. Because a short story is short you don't get a chance to show them in all their glory. Then because a short story has to be lean you end up cutting them. Sometimes there's no pain. Look at the deleted scene from "Awesome Dinosaurs". When I cut that 550-word scene I cut three speaking parts. I didn't have to change more than 100 words in the rest of the story to get rid of that scene. Sometimes it's tough. I've got a story that hasn't gone out for a while because I have to cut the main character's sister which means I need to redo all the worldbuilding.

But this problem with short stories is the flip side of what made me finally able to write (half of) a novel, already the longest piece of fiction I've ever written. You can toss characters into the pot and combinatorics will do some of the work for you. I get the feeling that this works better for serial novels, and so it would also work well for comic books and TV shows. (I find it helpful to think of my current project not as a novel, but as a soap opera in prose form.)


Posted by Holly at Sat Nov 14 2009 23:03

Do you know about A Humument? Nineteenth-century novel originally entitled A Human Document; a guy has been carving it down into different versions since the 1960s. (He is an artist so does this by taking a physical book and decorating the pages, leaving only a few words uncovered, rather than by editing down a text file.)

Posted by Holly at Sat Nov 14 2009 23:47

Also, I think the source for the 50,000 words would have to be actual language rather than a dictionary, if the story is to resemble ordinary writing even slightly. Currently there's no plurals (except for those which aren't formed by adding an "s"), hardly any verbs in a non-infinitive form, etc. Something that includes different forms of words, and has more common words turning up more often than uncommon ones, would be easier.

Still, I had a quick poke at the first ten thousand words and got:


Desiccation. Indecipherable heliography. Cold-blooded, cold-hearted newsmen inflict expostulatory metaphysics.
AIRMAN: Gentlemen! Failure ain't castration.


BOATMAN: Armed merfolk?
EXPLORER: Armless.
Frolicsome improbity! Merrymaking!
Nightfall: ferryman arrival. Seamen clinch.


Gunfire doesn't faze spaceship.

Posted by Leonard at Sun Nov 15 2009 08:34

I think Adam's plan involved adding words as well as removing them. So metaphorically, it would end up like a sculpture with little bits of plaster dabbed on here and there.

Posted by Holly at Sun Nov 15 2009 09:28

Ohhh, that makes sense. Though is a less attractive metaphor.

(And hm, sorry to suddenly start going HERE IS WHAT IS, FROM MY POINT OF VIEW, WRONG WITH THIS THING YOU MADE IN ONE MINUTE - distracted into rudeness by having spent fifteen minutes uncovering a not-very-clear post-apocalypse story.)

It would be fun to get fifteen people to all carve-and-plaster a story out of the same 50,000 words (which you can't, sadly, do with marble blocks), and see what the common threads are, if any. Lots of barnstorming and barnstormers in the list. Also lots of newsmen, boatmen, committeemen, aldermen, minutemen. And a charwoman, chairwoman, loads of political women (assemblywoman, congresswoman).

Also kindof-a-bit relevant: Richard Beard's "Damascus", in which every word in the novel is taken from a particular day's edition of (I think) The Times.

Posted by Stuart Sierra at Sun Nov 15 2009 15:01

This is the opposite of the Agatha Christie school of writing: when things get dull, kill off a character.

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