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Pinball Wizard

October 29, 2011

Well, naturally as soon as I get a head of steam going on the book I get a raging head cold, topped off by my heat failing in the middle of Thursday night, dealing with which pretty much wore me out.  So nothing doing in the creativity department, till at least tomorrow. 

I was a little roadblocked anyway, since I’d gotten to a point where I had to put Caroline in her school day.  The question isn’t so much what that day looks like – I’d been graciously allowed to tour Davidson Academy here in town along with a group of parents, and I have a pretty good idea how a gifted school looks and feels – but more a question of what is this picture of the day for?  I’ve got Caroline, and Christopher, pretty well started as characters, and I think I’ve inserted enough “landscape” of the parental units that they feel real.  But what about the other students?  If I start adding them, proverbial “guns on the wall,” then they have to have a use in the story later – even Rowling couldn’t just dump the horrible relatives at the beginning of the first book and be done with them.  To be honest, I hadn’t though much about minor characters, only major – Caroline, Christopher, Nick (Christopher’s brother), Caroline’s mom and dad.  I think I need to do some serious outlining before I can move on.

It’s funny how my reading changes when I’m writing – I really start noticing the techniques, esp. the way “prior knowledge” is inserted.  Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE is my current read, and he starts his main character at a family reunion, an air of mystery created by dark references to his history in the form of his Wikipedia page, bits and pieces of which history are filled out as the story progresses.  AI won’t be able to write convincing fiction until it masters what I bluntly call “pinballing”: the ability to go back and forth between the “now” in which the story starts and the “thens” required to give context to what’s happening or about to happen.  It’s like folding batter – you can’t just say, “here he is and here’s everything that already happened.”  It’s a technique but also an art, and since every author’s rhythms are different in how they drop in that prior knowledge, it’ll be hard to model an exact “how” that a program can follow.

One thing I find jarring in Stephenson’s book, even though I totally understand why it’s being done, is some of the “gee Mr. Wizard” explanations of tech terms and ideas.  Sometimes the ignorant gangster feels more like a prop for the explanations that Stephenson is transparently providing for non-technical readers.  I wouldn’t, for instance, spell out MMORPG even once, let alone multiple times.  I know an editor is not going to like it, but my sense is that most people reading a book like his (or mine) are tech-savvy enough that the basics can be skipped – and if they’re not, well, there’s Google.  Since only smart people read books any more, it frees you to stop worrying about what not-so-smart people are or aren’t getting.

I think it’s more real-feeling if all the characters just accept the reality of these things and what they mean and move on.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read William Gibson, but the vague memory I have of books like Neuromancer was that a lot of things weren’t explained, that I may have misunderstood as a consequence at the time but my imagination filled in the gaps reasonably well given the rest of what I did get.

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