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Problems in the Novel

April 26, 2011

Ahhh, sweet sweet leisure.  It sucks of course to not be making as much money, but it’s so nice to have my brain and my energy back.  So, here is my “thinking out loud” on the issues I face converting LTP into a YA novel.

1. Family stuff 1 – Caroline and Christopher each had siblings in the previous version – I’m sure I named Christopher’s brother at some point, but I forget now. I want to name him “Nick” but then I’ve got “Niccolo” in the Bronzino book – just my version of sexiest name ever I guess. So I think I’ll use it here and “Niccolo” may stand as well. Artistic license! Caroline’s sister appears for a moment and disappears as it stands now, part of the dysfunctional family that shows part of why she’s so antisocial/fucked up, whereas Nick shows up as the counterpoint to Christopher, Nick being the “good” programmer who wants Alex to be free. Turning them all into teenagers changes the nature of the soup, so the question now is does Caroline still need a sister? If so, what’s her role? If she’s not going to be part of the gears later, I think I want to leave her out, esp. since I know a hell of a lot more about being an only child than I can imagine about having siblings.

2. Family stuff 2 – parents are now more than the shadow figures they can be for adult characters. In the current version, Caroline’s father is dead and her mother is a neurotic; I don’t see that happening here. Here’s where I need to think about one of the essentials of YA fiction (at least what I’ve gleaned from the books I’ve read; the books on how to write for YAs seem worse than useless): Adult allies are important, as are adult enemies. Harry Potter had Dumbledore and Sirius Black as mentors and allies, his aunt and uncle as enemies early on, Snape as (seemingly) an enemy later, and of course Voldemort and his minions. Katniss Everdeen had Cinna as mentor and ally, and President Snow as an enemy. Kids can’t do it by themselves; they just don’t have the power in the world that adults do, and they know it – they see the world pretty much in black and white, and you’re pretty much either an ally or an enemy when you’re that age. Clearly there’s an enemy in the form of whoever is funding Christopher and encouraging his efforts to take Alex private/profitable, and I see a role for an ally in a CS teacher (I’m thinking of setting all this in a “gifted” high school – smart kids are the ones who still read books anyway). So that leaves the parental units to think about. I’m thinking a kind dad and a Tiger Mom for Caroline, and the pressure on her to take the Orderly March, but I haven’t sussed out Christopher and Nick’s family yet – maybe poor, which would be part of what drives Christopher to want to be superrich, or maybe a formerly upper-MC family who took a big tumble in our current Depression.

3. The Orderly March – here at last all my ravings on this subject come to good use, since of course in a gifted school everyone in it is under the pressure to Succeed in the only acceptable format – grades, test scores, admissions. The pressure to compete for increasingly rare opportunities is a “Hunger Games” in itself (probably why the analogy struck such a nerve in kids “killing” for a spot at a “good” school), and so would fuel Caroline’s antisocialism and the willingness of the other “creators” of Alex to remain anonymous.

4. Putting Christopher and Caroline together in high school makes more sense than an office; the “secret nature” of the experiment and Christopher’s reluctance to name the other testers and Caroline’s willingness to accept it makes more sense in secretive high schoolers than in adults. This gives Caroline the ability to meet or at least try and guess at who else in school is involved, forcing her out of her shell at least a bit if she’s to discover the truth.

5. “Kids these days” – you hear so much bullshit in the media about “the PC is dead everyone’s on a phone now” but I don’t see the kids in my college class taking notes on a phone. (The displays I see seem to flick back and forth between Facebook and note-taking, but they’re still on a computer.) Do kids really no longer use email, preferring text message? Do they still IM? I’m going to have to ask Reddit since the MSM is useless when it comes to how it’s really going on. I need to make sure I don’t get this of all things wrong, how kids are using tech now.

6. The “romance problem” – one of the things I’ve seen in some YA fiction is the whole “Who will she choose?” trope (Twilight; Hunger Games), in which a girl is presented with two different but equally attractive young men – the “dangerous” one and the “safe” one, though an adept writer like Collins will mix those up so that both are a bit dangerous to avoid being boring. I don’t see that happening here, though I do want to play with it in my own way: Who will Caroline choose, “real” flawed idealistic naïve Nick, or “fake” perfect comfortable Alex the AI who can never hurt her?

7. Which brings us to Alex’s other role in this kind of story, that of the Imaginary Friend/Invisible Sprite Only You Can See. Alex’s uncanny ability to “read” Caroline’s mind and say things you’d think only a human could say make him real to her in a way he couldn’t be to a parent or teacher who would discourage any young person from living “life on the screen” as Sherry Turkle would say. (And I need to get her latest, “Alone Together.”) In YA fantasy novels, the imaginary friend turns out to be real, of course, to the amazement of adults who refused to believe in magic – I suppose in a way Alex would be “supernatural” to parents without the knowledge of tech. (And of course they would reasonably be suspicious that Alex wasn’t really a program but just a dirty old man trolling the Internet.)

8. Geography – I need to set it somewhere, which was something I tried to avoid in the current incarnation, and it makes sense to set it in Silicon Valley or thereabouts. I really hate this part, setting a sense of place, being “descriptive,” but I’ll slog through.

9. Now we come to the really hard parts: The action – what is it? This is all going on in front of a computer to begin with, though mercifully moving it from an office to HS in itself adds an activity level denied citizens of Cubeistan. Once Alex is “taken away,” and we move into the second section of the book, where is Caroline, where is the action, the drama? I need a clear enemy, some wicked hedge fund manager who’s lured Christopher with dreams of riches, but you can hardly have a climactic swordfight on top of a building on Sand Hill Road. That’s one of the hardest things to do in modern fiction – take something going on in cyberspace and make it “alive” – The Matrix was the ultimate solution to this, since once inside the computer you know Kung Fu, but there’s no way I’m going to be derivative and take that route. I watched the latest iteration of Tron, and it wasn’t horrible, okay in fact – but the hero’s opening scene where he “liberates” an OS from his father’s company needed him to break into the building and parachute off it to make the act exciting. How can Caroline and Nick “liberate” Alex from somewhere other than a chair in front of a computer?

10. Character development for Caroline comes in classic form for YA fiction, the dawning of mature morality– i.e., the realization that no matter what you think of Alex as an acceptable substitute for human contact, his use to entice and enslave vulnerable people into paying ever-increasing fares and fees for his continued “friendship” is wrong, and that she must take action to stop it.

11. Finally, the biggest enchilada: A SATISFYING ENDING. I accepted the end of the Hunger Games, though I didn’t like it – it made sense, but it wasn’t satisfying. I didn’t accept the end of Harry Potter (spoilers ahead if you are the only person in the galaxy who doesn’t know) – the idea that, after all that, that boy who was The Greatest Wizard Ever grew up not to be a professor at Hogwarts but…a midlevel bureaucrat at the Ministry of Magic. Come off it! The bones of the story are cast in almost Platonic form, and I don’t intend to deviate from the bones: Girl gets boy/horse/vampire/AI, loses same, gets same back again. But if Alex is in the end to be “free,” that in itself is a problem. How, honestly, in an oligarchic culture such as ours, is it even possible that something that becomes a corporate product could ever cease to be one? Think of the Disney characters whose copyright will undoubtedly extend beyond the half-life of some radioactive material; there isn’t much of a chance that Alex could ever be free again after he’s been monetized. That’s going to be the biggest challenge.

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