In Which Sense-Making Is Optional With a Rock Rolling After You

24 January 2004

Insight is a harsh mistress some days. Yesterday the insight into the Not The Moose Book was thinking about different characters' physicality. Not something that's going to change the plot as it stands, just something that will change tiny things. Very small things. Possibly phrases more than sentences, even. But now that I've thought about it, I can't un-think about it.

I have one character, Orvokki, who doesn't do a lot that's necessary for the plot. I mean, she does little necessary things, ferrying people here and there, teaching bits of this and that, telling stories that make her point, making sure everybody has eaten and gotten their magical or non-magical buttons sewed on and all that. But in terms of the big actions, she's not the one coming up with the big insight or leading the (metaphorical) charge against the (various) enemies or anything like that. In terms of plot, isolated all by itself, I could probably do without her, mostly.

But in my relationship terms, I knew she had to be there; Sohvi Vääräniemi had someone on that side of her, someone being there for her in those ways, and when I looked, it was Orvokki, even though theirs is not the relationship I started with. That's how I got to her, knowing that there was someone like that in Sohvi's life. I know that the book absolutely could not continue without her. Because every time I turn around, she's being necessary to The...thingy. Look, right there, there it is: it makes a book a book and without it it's just a lot of words (in this case, a lot of words) and there she is in the middle of it. The...substance?

Look, I don't know, they don't tell me anything, I just work here, all right? But in a very specific and concrete example of the Orvokkiness, my main characters are not very physical people. Edward is the classic body-neglecting geek; add to that a post-Victorian upper-middle-class sense that the body is somewhat undignified, with its sneezing and farting and all, and he's...well. In bits and pieces, mentally speaking, not very integrated. And Ansa's body is, to Ansa, a Karelian Liberation Machine. She will feed it and run it around and (when she must) let it sleep, but she does it all in the same way as we would gas up the car, which is generally not interesting enough that one's characters ought to dwell on it. And despite lots of social interaction taking place over meals, the meals are very plain and not of much interest to the characters whose point of view I'm using.

I've had the problem of people feeling like my characters were talking heads in a blank white space -- we talked about description issues when I was writing The World Builders. I absolutely refuse to have lush descriptive passages of the characters. Of their work, yes, certainly. Of the characters themselves, no. No piling on of adjectives all in a row, no drawing of immediate and detailed picture. Fine; I think everybody's okay with that except maybe Scott. And it's frankly appropriate for these characters, for the way they are, not to be paying a good deal of attention to their bodies. But I don't want to rob the reader of the little non-intellectual insights into the story just because I'm writing about very cerebral people. (Well, actually, to a certain extent, I do: when I'm in the POV of those characters, it would jolt the reader out if it was too much viscera; it would be out of character, ack ack bad.) So what I need is some very down-to-earth, earthy, physical interactions and/or people, to bring the geek and the accidental ascetic into their bodies with a jolt, so that the reader can be there with them and not just floating along. And various situations and characters force them into that, but the most consistent and obvious, and the best at it, is Orvokki.

Orvokki, as the characters in this book go, seems to be my favorite paring knife: sometimes the bread knife or the meat cleaver is a much more efficient way to go and much more appropriate to the task at hand, but when I was packing, I wanted to pack the paring knife last, because with it I could improvise everything else and without it I was more than a bit lost.

I'm not sure any of this makes what we in the outside world call "sense" at all.

Ah well. I'm going to indulge in a rather obvious metaphor for a moment here, just to tell you where I am. I think writing a book is like dragging a very large, round stone over a hill behind you. Sometimes when you're on the up side, it rolls back and you have to run after it and start all over again on the same hill. (I suppose sometimes you could just find yourself a different hill, too.) But there's a point at the top of the hill where you now have this massive weight behind you, and if you don't run along quickly ahead, it's going to roll on top of you, crush you, and possibly drag you behind it for awhile. That's where I am now: writing this book to stay even a little tiny bit ahead of it. And if you're good, maybe towards the end you can jump on, like Max in the Grinch, maybe, and wag your tail and ride it to the bottom of the other side of the hill. I am not wagging my tail yet. I'm running like mad. But it's better than the dragging, to be sure. It was a long climb, that other side, and I'm kind of hoping not to hit any large bumps with this big ol' 160K rock behind me. Hoping it's all smooth sailing, which is not the same thing as planning on it.

Which is why I'm not writing "Pillar of Salt" right now -- it's a colony story, it'd be good to send to Oceans of the Mind for their colony theme issue, but...novel. Novel novel novel. I may not finish "Docile Bodies" this month, either, and I have resolved to be okay with that (although I'm also okay with finishing it, and it's a good ways along). And I'm not -- sniffle! -- writing my zeppelin story.

Well, that is: I'm not writing my zeppelin story right now. And I had been thinking, "Oh, I really ought to, because when else am I going to have a market for it? Now that they're having the anthology, it's going to be nearly impossible to sell any other zeppelin stories for a good while, because the other editors are going to be sick unto death of the zeppelin rejects." And I came up with a brilliant plan: the zeppelin story can be part of the book I already promised these characters I'd write for them.

Postponing short stories by promising them they can be books seems like paying the minimum monthly payment on your credit card, but maybe that's just me. And sometimes people are in dire financial straits temporarily and can only make the minimum payment this month but in a month or two will be able to handle the whole thing, so sometimes it's a reasonable thing to do. In writing terms, I really think this may be one of those times for me. Or not; and if not, I'm not sure what, because stories don't really let you declare bankruptcy if you get too far behind. And anyway I'm not sure I'd want to.

I don't have any e-mail from actual human beings with bodies in my inbox right now. Only from fictional characters.

I swear that one of the ads for dating services that pops up on my hotmail sidebar is of a high school classmate. You know the kind, where it's got a screen name and picture and some snippet from the profile, as a sample of what quality dates will be available to you if only you use their lovely service? She looks like hell and is wearing too much makeup, and I can't remember her name, and it's not like we were in any classes together, so I can't poke Scott and say, "You know, from Hoesing's class, that one girl with the head, wossername?" I'm not sure whether I'd be more spooked if it actually was her or if she has a clone somewhere who has gone downhill in the very same predictable way since high school.

I finished Colours in the Steel yesterday, finally, and discovered that it doesn't have an ending! No! It stops, but that's not the same thing. But Stella kindly lent me The Belly of the Bow, which is the sequel, and she also has the third one in the trilogy and has promised to lend it to me as well. Relief. I was a little dubious about the prospect of starting The Belly of the Bow right away after Colours in the Steel, because that's more than 1000 pages of the same story, and I already have one of those coming out in my life right now, thankyavermuch, and was not at all convinced I needed two. So I started William Trotter's A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40, which will be really useful, I hope. The book that will come before the Not The Moose Mess is The Winter War, so I think you can see why. Nonetheless, Parker drew me back in. Sigh.

(I know, The Other Mark, you think I should be grand and go for the gusto, Not The Moose Saga or something of the sort. And someday it will be. Right now, though...mess. Definitely a mess. I know a mess when I see one, sports fans, and this is a mess. Hey! Last night at the UM/UND game they had such a big fight that it damaged the ice and they had to have over an hour of break to repair the ice. Is that a mess or what? So, you see, I have seen them before and...oh, never mind.)

(It was not the "maidens all that wear gold in [their] hair," though. It was the men's team instead. The True Tale of Carter Hall is going to be so much fun to write.)

(It's funny: I was moderately interested in Finland, and then I started with the NTMMess, and now I'm a hard-core Finnophile. And I was moderately interested in hockey, and now I'm not a hard-core hockey fan, but it makes me much happier than it did before we started talking about Carter Hall. Makes me a bit wary of what to write about, you see? While I subscribe heartily to Steve Brust's Cool Theory Of Writing, it seems to be something of a vicious circle for me.)

And my favorite line from The Belly of the Bow so far: "Oh dear, this must be the future again. I thought I was done with all that." Hee. Yes. Possibly an above-the-desk SF-writer quote.

I think the boulder's catching up. I'd better go run some more.

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