samuel x. brase likes to write

Foundation: The End of the Story, pt. 2

Posted in novel planning by Sam X. on 30 April 2009


Maybe the end should be unclear to the reader?

Let me slow down for just a minute and hearken back to an earlier entry (lord knows I need to move on from this topic). The quote I extracted from the Emily Levine talk — “You can’t deny the other person’s reality.”

What if big events were happening in the galaxy of the story? Some solar systems shut down. The invasion by the aliens. Political assassinations. The rising of the two dead houses. As these monumental events proliferate through the story like a line of dominoes, various groups in the galaxy begin to claim such-and-such is happening.

God is displeased with us. The universe is ending. We’re not the chosen people. And on and on, with each new iterative problem, the answers bifurcate. Perhaps all of these endings come true?

No, that creates a no-risk situation; you can just avoid the bad beliefs and they won’t happen. That’s not the message I want to pass on. But that’s not the best way to look at it. What I have to understand is: They can believe that X is happening because of Y which will result in Z. And I won’t deny X and Y, but the result will be A. But what message do I want to pass on? Besides all my “love” and “understanding” malarkey.

Telos. Teleology. All things are designed for or directed toward a final result, that there is an inherent purpose or final cause for all that exists.

I disagree fundamentally with this approach to philosophy, and I think I need to anchor my novel in that belief. Much as Ayn Rand anchored her work in objectivism and Kafka anchored his work in existentialism, I will anchor this work in anti-teleology. It strikes me as hypocritical then to end with a massive event like the world ending. To be anti-teleological is to say one of two things:

  1. Life is not working towards some ending, it will simply end; or,
  2. Life will continue on into perpetuity, with no “end.”

The destruction of the universe could be interpreted as a “simple end,” but because it’s a story I’ll have to lead up to the event, thus it will appear as if it was planned all along. That effect will occur with almost any path I choose. Stories are in fact always teleological — especially macguffins because they suggest a final result. But no. The revelation of the macguffin isn’t the “final result,” it’s not the endgame.

For example, the revelation of what yehidah does is not the end of my story. It’s simply one of the mysteries that will last throughout much of the story. A counter-teleological worldview is possible, I’ll have to balance the high drama/action with a “life goes on” ending. I like the “you can’t deny the other person’s reality” as a potential method. That might make the characters seem insane though.

This is going to be tougher than I thought.


Foundation: The End of the Story

Posted in novel planning by Sam X. on 28 April 2009

In this entry, a writer waffles.

At the end of the day, beyond themes, characters, structure — what remains is the plot. The trajectory for the foundation. I have been asking myself about this a lot over the past few days. What do I want the trajectory to be? More importantly, when it all boils down, what do I want to accomplish with this novel? what do I hope the audience gets out of reading the book? Here is what I have come up with.

The end of the universe. This is the endgame for the novel (spoilers?), the climax, the crux of the story. The novel is about the end of the universe. But what does this achieve? This achieves perspective. That’s one of my goals, I want to put various things into perspective. Culture, economy, energy, life, politics, religion, and so on. Perspective for all of these things, so that maybe I and we can understand their use in the long term.

But the novel is also simultaneously about rebirth in a new universe. There are two stories. The fall of the old world and the birth of the new, because we must learn to accept change to survive. Those who do not accept change will die.

The first step here is to figure out how the old universe will die. Heat death? Cold death? Big crunch? I liked heat death, but cold death might be better, more poetic. The point is, I need to figure out what is even marginally feasible in terms of storytelling. 

And yet… the more I think about it, the more I doubt my “end of the universe” gambit. It has begun to feel wrong. Like it pushes the envelope too much, takes the focus off what I’m trying to convey. Lots of human-made turmoil and then the big finale is the universe ending by nature’s hand? It’s an all right ending but it feels contrived, almost cheap — like we don’t have to deal with the mess. Maybe I could make it work. But I feel like I need to pull back even further now.

I’m looking back over my old notes and I’m reminded that once upon a time, this was going to be a “post-structural work of art,” a fictional manifesto of post-structuralism. The construction of identity, the flexibility of meaning, the unreliability of reality. It’s all perception, perception and cultural agreement. I want to tell a sci-fi epic that is steeped in this philosophy with the ultimate message that we should accept and love each other. Okay, that’s my starting point.

Now I’m reading Foucault speeches and I’m getting sidetracked — nonsense about social contracts and so forth. I gotta bring this home. What do I want to achieve? I guess I don’t know what I want to achieve. I want the epic ending, the crowd pleaser, the money maker. I also want the happy ending, where my message of “love and understanding” plants its seed in the reader.

But isn’t that what PS is about? PS says that the author is not the primary source of meaning. The reader is the primary source of meaning. I can try to plant the message as many times as I please but I can never ensure that it will actually be planted. My best option is to create a world so enrapturing that the reader has no other choice but to want love and understanding. I can’t place my message as a result, I can only place it as a formula. The result is within the reader, the book is the formula, the equation by which the reader arrives at the answer. My answer, with any luck.

So the novel must be heart-breaking but not full of despair. Lively and fun protagonists juxtaposed by tragic villains. In fact, perhaps I will do away with the binary terms protagonist and antagonist and simply call them all “characters,” productive and destructive as they see fit. My internal-dialogue style & focus on the more insane aspects of human thought will make it very hard to not wander into despair. But I must walk that line, for the sake of this novel and my own vision as a writer.

I will take my readers to the brink and pull them back.

Or maybe we should pass the brink?

Maybe the universe should end after all.

It can’t, unfortunately. There’s no way for it to be at all believeable. Is believability necessary?

I’d like to go at this from another angle, but the endgame will override a large portion of the story. I need to nail it down.

Foundation: Themes

Posted in novel planning by Sam X. on 17 April 2009

I need to construct this novel from the ground up. I can’t dive into it. I don’t have to figure everything out, but I do need to see the blueprint.

I think the first thing I need to know, the pipes running under the ground and the foundation, are the themes. Next is nailing down who is a main character and who is a secondary character — these would be the main pillars. Beyond that, all that remains are the main events that determine the flow of the overall story. That’s as far as I’m willing to take my planning. I need some of it to come about naturally (something that is, I like to think, one of my strong suits). This keeps the story vibrant and keeps me interested. I don’t have to keep all the improvised material, but it will add a lot overall. 

So first up. Themes.

The end of the universe (and the exploration of another) is the obvious main theme. This is the theme of life and death writ large. I’ve spent my entire writing life looking for the big play, the big move, the checkmate, and I think this is about as far as I can take it while still allowing the happy ending that I crave. I want the checkmate where at least some people escape relatively happy. 

Other themes include the fact that these people believe they are the chosen people when in fact they aren’t. That’s not a theme. What’s the theme here? False belief? Mistaken belief? Misguided belief. That’s good. Misguided belief plays into the idea of believing one’s religion is the right religion, that what you know is correct and other people are wrong.

In fact, misguided belief fits a lot of the various issues I want to target. War, greed, energy, zealotry (political and religious). That’s good. I’ll have to hone that down somewhat, see what parallels I can exploit. I also want to use the color grey — a direct response to traditional themes of good and evil, black and white. I strongly believe the world is not constructed in such a sense and that to tell stories with that reflection is a boring conceit (this is one of my complaints about Lost; way too much focus on the black and white dichotomy).

There are a couple dichotomies I do want to explore. Progressivism versus traditionalism, and equilibrium versus entropy (or status quo versus change). I imagined a brief monologue where someone tells someone else … “maintaining the status quo is impossible. Our universe is one of entropy, degeneration. Throughout it, energy is being displaced, channeled, used and discarded. Suns emit light which plants and microbes gobble up until carbon lifeforms such as ourselves consume those plants until we die. Eventually there won’t be any more energy. Equilibrium is impossible.”

A Paradox of Realities

Posted in novel planning by Sam X. on 14 April 2009

“You can’t deny the other person’s reality.”

Another caterwauling presentation from a social eccentric, who brought to the table a number of ideas that didn’t really affect me (I’m not too interested in the relationship between a standup comedian and his audience), and a number of ideas that I found pretty interesting.

Unfortunately for the purpose of my experiment, a lot of what Emily Levine has to say doesn’t feel completely relevant to me as a writer, especially a writer who aspires to writing a space epic. Yet I feel like it should be relevant. She spends time discussing how we understand reality, and that so much of 20th century thought was centered on the Ayn Rand philosophy of objectivism, that I, speaking as the subject, discover reality around myself.

The unfortunate thing about Levine’s talk is that she spends so much time making connections between different topics that much, much is left unsaid. Fine, it’s only a twenty minute talk, but there is a lot of basic modern philosophy tossed around and left by the side of the road. The only thing I came away with was the rather basic quote: “You have paradox — you allow more than one reality to exist.” This ties pretty directly into the quote I led with. Because you can’t deny the other person’s reality, you have paradox. You have your reality, and this other person’s reality. Paradox.

Society is thus paradox, the meeting of personal realities in any number of ways.

I find that delightful. Certainly something I want to explore in my novel. Reality is a very… malleable belief, the same as truth. A common theme to be sure, but one that I think is still very relevant, and could be compelling if I attack it in a way that is fresh and unique. As with most good popular art, I will appropriate various themes and tropes until the mixture of them becomes something new.

I don’t want to just allow the audience to question their sense of reality as “the” reality. I want to smash it all into dust. But the possibility of doing that seems unlikely. I’m not giving up, it will simply require a great deal of thought.

The goal of my novel project, the Doveiron saga, was always very basic: to create a breakthrough sci-fi work of art the likes of which had never been seen. This desire is a combination of ego and hunger, but at some point I had to stop denying these two things. The longer you ignore your ego, the longer you silence your hunger, the more likely you are to never attempt your shot at greatness. There is an excellent chance that my novel will never be realized, or if it is, that it will never become popular. But I’d rather try and fail than give up on my dream this early in life.

So my desire to transcend science fiction burns bright. My desire to write burns bright. I won’t be satisfied until I’m 75 years old, I’ve written godless amounts of text, and no one has really bought any of it. If that point comes, I’ll be satisfied. I tried, people weren’t having it, so be it.

So be it.

Something Basic I Should Have Realized Earlier

Posted in pop theory by Sam X. on 10 April 2009

I hate you, JJ Abrams. I need more mystery boxes in my novel.

Mysteries attract crowds. Hence, all the great pop culture stories involved a number of mysteries to keep the masses interested. Come for the plot, stay for the character development. That is the mantra of pop stories. Even something as simple as “the ending” can serve to drive the story, although if you want to get many people to participate, you’re going to need simpler mysteries to lead them along, like breadcrumbs to the finale.

Let’s frame this another way, though. Take Anna Karenina. Subtle mysteries, less grotesque than Dan Brown’s use of the Illuminati, litter the novel. Will Levin ever find a wife? What does Anna’s nightmare mean? How does Vronsky/Anna’s spiral into adultery contribute to Levin’s exhaltation of rustic life? The relationships twist around each other, the symbolism weighs on itself, and everything crashes down as Anna lets herself be crushed by a moving train. Spoiler alert? My bad.

In its time, Anna Karenina was ignored by the critics, proving once and for all that critics are not the only barometer of “good” art. When creating a work of art, I think you have to forget the critics. Infuse the story with what you think belongs and see what comes of it. This is not an excuse for poor style, only an excuse for cheap plot machinations. I can forgive Lost its cheap appeals to the mainstream by way of unnecessary and attractive characters — I cannot forgive Dan Brown’s awful writing. It can be tough to get a piece of art noticed amongst the flotsam of art these days. 

So at some point, as an artist, you have to decide if you want to host these appeals to the mass. I think I will host these appeals, primarily because I don’t think appeals are necessarily bad. They are simply a way of telling lots of people that your work is worth checking out. In a contained story, a movie or a short story, appeals are harder and less worthwhile I think. As soon as someone picks up the film or the short story, you’ve got their money. You don’t need to sell the long term. With a franchise, a television show, a series of novels — you have to sell the long term. There’s something in it for you if you come back. Like a restaurant or something. Come here enough times and you’ll get a free taco.

I’m interested in selling the long term. I enjoy writing short stories, and if I ever have a career it will be because I’ve gotten my name out there via short stories. But I want to write a series of novels, a long, complex story, set in a world that I’ve created. That’s what I want. And I can do that when I sell the long term, when I hook people with mysteries. The trouble is, too often I see storytelling as a mode of explanation, not tension. I race to explain everything so the audience understands motives and thoughts. I need to learn to appreciate mysteries in storytelling. I need to slow down when I write. The audience likes mysteries and I need to indulge their pleasures. 

For a little while.

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The Island MacGuffin

Posted in pop theory by Sam X. on 8 April 2009

“Mystery is more important than knowledge.”

One of the theses that JJ Abrams hurriedly lays down in this breathless 18-minute talk. He is saying this in relation to imagination, and I think his humor and general attraction to pulp stories provides an easy distraction from what is a sublimely intelligent realization. The statement is slippery and unproveable; further, I’d argue that mystery and knowledge are of equal importance. One is damaged entirely by the lack of the other. Mystery gives knowledge relevance, and knowledge gives mystery a purpose. This relationship is reflected in imagination and human life in general. His argument is that mystery about knowledge provide the reasoning for characters to interact and live. JJ is describing Hitchcock’s theory of the macguffin within more abstract terms, yet the result is the same. In Lost, you have a mysterious island which brings a number of people together who otherwise would never have interacted. In North by Northwest, you have unimportant government secrets which bring two people together who otherwise would never have met.

Hitchcock argued that the macguffin, the mystery, is irrelevant to the overall story. George Lucas, years later, claimed that the macguffin should be powerful, such that audiences care about it – hence his use of the ark of the covenant in Indiana Jones. JJ would appear to agree with Lucas, and Lost is the next logical step in the macguffin ideology. Macguffin has gone from irrelevant object to relevant object and now to character. The Island in Lost is, in the beginning, simply their location, but by as season 5 winds down (which I haven’t seen, please don’t spoil!), it has taken on the traits of a character.

This is the realization of JJ’s thesis. In his mind, the mystery, that is, the Island, is more important than the truth of its nature or past. I think the Island’s nature is integral to understand the Island; the problem when you put the mystery in the spotlight as a character is that the audience empathizes with the character and thus the mystery. It ceases being “a secret to be revealed” and becomes not unlike a character from the first couple seasons, such as Kate and the murky reasons that she is a felon. Then again, perhaps he is dehumanizing the characters, such that they are no different than the Island. All have confusing pasts which the show tries to lay bare. All are mysteries that beg us to solve them.

But the answer, the knowledge, is critical, because if it didn’t exist we wouldn’t want to pursue the mystery. We would know that mysteries reveal nothing, and we would sit in vapid states, forgoing pursuit of anything, be it astronomy, literary theory, cooking, or politics. Our desire to understand is based on the fact that sometimes we do understand. We have understood before and we can understand again. So we strive to learn, we strive to know. We watch Lost until the very last episode when everything is revealed and then we sit back, satisfied that at least this one part of the universe can be interpreted successfully.

Mystery and knowledge are part and parcel of telling a story; both are necessary. The ruse and the reward. Don’t neglect either, respect both.

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