Tag Archives: plotting

What’s the opposite of writer’s block?

1239877Writer’s insomnia. That state when you’re on a roll, the story is flowing – but there are holes and questions (there are always holes and questions) and ‘oh hey’ moments and ‘is that plausible’ moments. And they all get together in your head and shake you awake at 2am. You think you’re getting up for a wee and a drink of water. But no. They ambush you, make you listen, pour words in your ears.

It’s fabulous. I LOVE this story. (It’s still called WIP – that’s Work in Progress for those not in the circle.)

Meanwhile, a huge storm built up to the south of us, complete with mammary clouds, thunder and lightning. Fortunately, we got to enjoy the spectacle at sunset – but didn’t have to face the fury of the storm.

Impressive, it was. Share photos, I will.

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Learning from the masters – Isaac Asimov’s “Caves of Steel” #amwriting

1954 Hard back cover Doubleday

1954 Hard back cover Doubleday

This is the first of a series of posts I’m writing about what we (as writers) can learn from the works of published authors.

I’m in the process of re-reading Isaac Asimov’s first robot novel – The Caves of Steel. In a nutshell, this book is a murder mystery, a police procedural set in the distant future. Humanity has expanded to fifty worlds, but Earthites are not welcome in the erstwhile colonies, which are now independent entities, with small populations and many, many robots to do the hard work. On Earth life has become increasingly regimented. Most people live in enormous, domed cities (caves of steel) where efficiency is the order of the day. No more private kitchens, few if any private facilities like bathrooms. Living space is earned. The higher a person’s classification, the more room they can have, the more small privileges they can attain. A hand basin, for instance, is a much sought after luxury. Transport is via automated walkways and people are crowded together. In this pressure cooker world, robots are resented, seen as putting people out of work and consequently lowering their status.

There is on Earth one small colony of expatriates, called ‘Spacers’. By their own insistence, the inhabitants are sealed off from the rest of the city, isolated in what you might call quarantine in an area known as SpaceTown The Spacers are trying to encourage Earth to use robots but (as mentioned) it’s not a popular idea. Then a murder is committed in SpaceTown – a Spacer killed by a Human. The Spacers send a robot to partner a Human policeman to solve the crime. But he’s no ordinary robot. Daneel Olivaw is indistinguishable from a human Spacer. Thus starts an unlikely partnership between Elijah Baley, a human detective who resents robots as much as the next man, and the Spacers even more, and Daneel.

Enough said. If you’re a sci-fi fan, you’ve read the book; it’s a classic. But as I’m reading, I’m analysing and admiring.

Bear in mind the book was first released in 1953 as a serial.

That’s sixty years ago, so yes, it is dated. For a start, the population of Earth thousands of years in the future in the novel is set at eight billion, with the planet apparently creaking at the seams. Now, in 2013, Earth’s population is rapidly approaching eight billion and although all is not well, we’re nowhere near the dire straits described in Asimov’s novel. People still smoke, technology is not what we might expect. But such small niceties aside, the society Asimov has portrayed is detailed and utterly believable. His city (which in the novel is an extension of New York) reminds me of an extrapolation of the suburbs of Hong Kong, with its towering apartment blocks. It’s easy enough to see cars eliminated and replaced by walkways. And regimentation and segregation is (I believe) part of the human psyche. So is prejudice against anything different, like Spacers and (particularly) robots, which put people out of work.

Dr Asimov had a Ph.D. In chemistry but throughout his life he read history, and I think his portrayal of another society in this book is based on his knowledge of history, as well as a logical extension of what existed at the time of writing. Cities were going up, the amount of living space for an individual was going down. That’s still the case today. Communal kitchens, bathrooms and latrines were the norm in earlier times and it’s easy to see the efficiency in that approach. One can also imagine the importance of ‘privacy’ in a world where there is none, and Asimov’s story is peppered with small details which underline that fundamental truth. Even the story of the biblical Jezebel has its place.

The establishment of a quarantined enclave for the Spacers is particularly clever. I have no doubt Asimov noted from history that where Europeans interacted with native peoples, diseases were transferred both ways. Native populations had no answer for infections like measles, influenza and cholera. In the same way, Asimov’s Spacer colonies have no answer to the teeming infections on Mother Earth. So the easy planet-hopping of space operas might be a tad unrealistic – although Asimov himself had plenty of planet hopping in his later books.

Why does this book work so well, particularly given its age? Because the society portrayed is detailed and the characters act in accordance with their backgrounds. Yes, there are times when the author dwells on backstory and description but it’s usually done in the right places. Although the thread running through the story is solving the murder of Doctor Sarton, in a way the solution is less important than the chase itself. Asimov uses a Spacer robot to reveal all the little foibles in human society and also to illustrate his famous Three Laws of Robotics. Really, although the murder is the glue that ties the plot together, this novel isn’t a simple murder mystery.

As a writer, I’ve taken two things from this book.

  • Make your society detailed and believable and embed your characters in their setting
  • Use conflict to illustrate behavior. Teaming Lije with a Spacer robot – incorporating two things he hates – gives plenty of room for making points

It seems Hollywood is making a movie from the book. I hope they do a much better job than they did in Fantastic Voyage and I, Robot.

I welcome comments from others who have read the book. If you haven’t, if you want a print copy, try the local second hand bookshop. Or try the Amazon link.

 

Using real history as a plot. Not as easy as it sounds?

It’s time to start a new writing adventure, face the cold, blank screen and begin. For me, it’s the hardest part of the whole process – the empty page. Once something – anything – is down, words are written, then you can read them back and change them, because the thought is there, translated into words.

In a way, this book should be easy, because I know the whole plot. It’s based on historical fact, a real life drama translated into a whole new setting. But is it really so easy?

Sure, I know what happens, but the essence of a good story is not the dry-as-dust facts, it’s the WHY. Why did the characters do that? What was their motivation? It’s the difference between learning a bunch of dates in history class, and learning the story of what happened.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. My first published novel was historical fiction, a dramatisation, if you will, of real events, acts carried out by real people. You can find out more about the book here. The point, though, is that working out why something happened at a particular time isn’t always easy. In a history book you can write that the bad guys delayed their attack for a month. It’s a fact. It happened. But fiction isn’t like that. You’re in your character’s head. You have to have a very good reason why he would delay his attack. Your readers will demand it. As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. And it’s true. Your plot must be plausible, you must write the events so they make sense in every way – in how your characters speak and react, what they wear, what they believe or fear.

I had to take all those things into consideration when I wrote “To Die a Dry Death” and believe me, at times it wasn’t easy. This time, I’m not going to be writing a dramatisation, using the real people in the real setting. I’m grabbing a story from history and setting it in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, a Long, Long Time in the Future. In that respect, the journey will be a little easier. But I know it won’t be as easy as join the dots or colour by numbers.

Have any of you done something like this? What was hard? What was easy?