I’ve been hard at work over the last 2 weeks, revising the novel-in-progress (among other things*) and thought I’d write up a post describing what this looks like to the objective observer, namely, me reading a bunch of weird stuff on the internet:

Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword” is a classic essay by John Whiteside “Jack” Parsons, who was both an acolyte of Aleister Crowley and founder of NASA’s jet Propulsion laboratory.this essay serves as background for the novel but it’s an interesting read on its own, as it pretty handily paints a portrait of the sort of person who doesn’t make a distinction between rocket science and the occult. Parsons hearkens back to the old day, before science and mysticism had completely separated. He was a modern day alchemist. Shame he blew himself up in a lab accident.

Phantom Circuit is in it’s own words:

Phantom Circuit is a programme of strange and wonderful sound waves that you can hear streamed over the internet.

Since October 2008 Phantom Circuit has promoted and supported music that is alien, electronic, exotic, essential.… plus familiar objects viewed from unusual angles… All of it is worth a try, so we hope you will listen in.

They play everything from “coastal slurtronic folk” like Kemper Norton to 96 tears by Question Mark & the Mysterions. I’ve been listening to their mixes for a few days now and they add a nice ambiance of the weird to my dreams at night.

I’ve also ran across this rather exhaustive article on Wikipedia about an old TV show called UFO that is both British and weird and from that bizarre cusp time between the 1960s and 1970s. It was Garry Anderson’s first foray into live action TV, and as he recently passed, his shows are getting some fond remembrances. This one sounds like its right up my alley, with unnamed aliens stealing human organs being fought by the stylish mod heroes of an achronymed agency on the Moon. Besides being a nifty sounding program, click around through the links on the actors and you’ll find that one of the fuchsia wigged, catsuit wearing stars was Benedict Cumberbatch’s mother. Connections are all around, man.

And lastly, for my down time, when I need a bit more grounded and earthly entertainment, I’ve been making my way through all 8 seasons of Magnum PI, now streaming on Netflix. Watching almost 150 episodes strikes me as a bit much, so I did some poking around and found this list of the 40 best episodes. So far, I’m impressed at how edgy and dark a show it actually was, considering it was A) made in the 80s and B) set in Hawaii. Like everybody else, I remember the cheesy jokes and late 70s fashions, the Ferrari and the awesome helicopter shots of the islands, but there’s a surprising bit of existential drama simmering just below the surface. You have an absentee god in the form of Robin masters (a globetrotting novelist who is never there), and a lot of angst centered around the three main characters, Magnum, TC and Rick, who were all special opps vets in Vietnam. The pacing is a bit slow by today’s standards but the stories are surprisingly varied in tone and subject matter. One episode, Magnum will be chasing down the ugliest dog in Hawaii, the next, helping TC save his smack-addled army buddy. Breadth, not necessarily depth but it’s still a surprising find. There are even a few episodes with a bit of weird, supernatural edge to them, like one where a kahuna curses Rick’s club. Definitely worth checking out.

* Like getting ready for baby. We went to a birthing class last Saturday which was thankfully more informative than we thought it would be.

Structure, Time, and Pacing

Continuing this blog’s decent into irrelevance by writing nothing but meandering posts about writing once every 2 or 3 weeks, I thought I’d share a discovery I’ve made while writing.

When I set out to extract the corn kernels from the lumpy turd of my science fiction manuscript and string those together into a new, perfectly crafted and well-honed masterpiece of prose and plot, I found the going, shall we say, tough. It wasn’t that it was hard to find the good scenes. Those were actually easy to spot. But once I had extracted them, hosed them off and lined them up one next to another, they started to dictate an internal structure that I hadn’t noticed before. One decidedly more n line with the book I wanted to write, thankfully, but also a structure that I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen for this story.

My initial impulse was to dismiss this self-generated structure and impose the one I wanted. I am after all the author, isn’t that how it works? I may have zero control over anything in the real world, but in the imaginary ones that exist just as marks on a piece of paper (or ones and zeros on a screen) I am the word and the law, right?

Not necessarily.

I had wanted to run with a 3rd person-limitted POV, alternating chapters between the two primary characters. But this wasn’t working out. The good bits of the story — the ones I extracted from the lumpy mess and wanted to shape into a new story — they were all from the main character’s POV. Trying to shoehorn another POV character into the story led inexorably to unimportant digressions, unnecessary scene set-ups and multiplying sub plots involving minor characters, leading ultimately to the very same  story bloat I was trying to escape. So I embraced the single POV character, remaining firmly in 3rd person limited.[1] This created an interesting side effect in the story structure. If the main character needed to be present for something to happen, I had to get hi there organically. This slows the pace, which is fine, as this allows me to create the sort of dreamlike, weird tale/hauntological atmosphere. But what it also does is make the chapters longer.

Now, I don’t know how other writers determine their chapter structures. Some have arbitrary rules[2] while others seem to have more organic rules.[3] Since I decided to just stick to one character POV, this means in effect, there’s nothing stopping me form just foregoing chapters altogether, like in a short story or novella. After all, chapters are just a convention form the days when novels were serialized. However, if I handed an agent or editor a 300 page manuscript with nothing but scene breaks, they’d look at me like I was mad.

Seems readers like convenient starting and stopping points, regardless of how the story is being told. Sort of like how you could watch all 10 episodes of season 1 of Game of Thrones back to back like a single 10 hour movie, but it would probably drive you to commit bloody acts of sexposition.

Anyway, I started looking at the plot outline, and realized it segmented into episodes divided by breaks in time and location. Whenever an episode reaches it’s denouement, there would be a cut in time before we picked up the story again. This allows me to juggle subplots and structure each episode like a short story, so that you feel, by the end of each chapter, like both you and the characters have discovered something. After a few chapters, you (and the characters), start to pick up connections between the disparate subplots and they start to gel into a whole. What this does is create longer, more intricately structured chapters that allow me to play around with time in fun and interesting ways. Since this is a time travel story, this opens up opportunities that weren’t necessarily there with a more tightly wound plot, especially when it comes to pacing. No longer bound by the need to run headlong through the plot, I’ve got a little elbow room to set up the sort of slow tempo build-up you want from an atmospheric mystery-driven story.

So if you ever wondered why some books were made up of long rambling chapters while others were made up of short pithy chapters, that’s kinda sorta how that works.

1. This isn’t quite as limited as you might think. There are interesting little ways around this. In order to get glimpses into other character’s motives and head space, I decided to borrow a classic from the world of stage drama, the “French scene,” in which new characters enter and the characters already present hand the action over to them and then exit. This was developed as a way to maximize time and use small stages to better effect. One of the most famous French scenes is actually English, when Ophelia enters durring Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Moliere was a master of the French scene—Tartuffe uses it almost exclusively.
2. Chuck Palhanik has said a chapter should be no more than 7 pages long. For his  minimalist, hyperreal style, that works. But I’m not writing one of those. John Rogers has said that the ideal length for a chapter in a pulp novel is 2500 words, as it forces you to discard anything not related to the plot and sprint on to the next scene as quickly as possible. Again, great for pulp novels. But I’m not writing one of those either.
3. If you do have multiple POV characters and are following them around in limited 3rd person, alternating chapters between them makes sense. Especially if you’re writing a Martin-esque multi volume doorstopper series. But even if you aren’t, your characters or plot should dictate soem sort of inherent structure. maybe time is a structuring device, and so each chapter is a different day.