Most fiction authors, I expect, start in the beginning of the story and write their way straight through the plot until they reach the conclusion, and certainly that seems to be the most logical way to go about the enterprise. But what if that just isn’t working for you?
That’s a problem I’ve been facing with my current book, The Lafayette Deception, the second in a series tracing the adventures of socially disaffected but cybersecurity savvy IT guru Frank Adversego. While it wouldn’t be accurate to say that the first book in the series, called The Alexandria Project, exactly wrote itself, the first draft certainly did fall into place with far less effort than the second
That was in part because the first time around I set myself the goal of posting a new chapter every week at my other blog. But also it was because the plot line was very linear. True, I did develop several plots in parallel that merged appropriately at the end (I was, after all, writing a mystery/thriller), but the characters in each plot behaved themselves rather well, with little squabbling over whose most recent unexpected activities should trump those of their still-unknown peers elsewhere in the narrative. Consequently, I missed my goal of posting a chapter a week only once.
The sequel, however, is proving to be another animal entirely, although the first third of the book trotted out rather neatly. But then I succumbed to the temptation of including more and more characters, each with his or her own conspiratorial goals, and soon everyone started tripping up everyone else with their own Machiavellian machinations. The result was that I found myself spending far more time trying to figure out how to make all of the subplots mesh together in such a way that they could all finally resolve satisfactorily in the end.
All of which has made the writing itself more of a chore, in part because I find myself having to spend less time writing the truly fun bits and more simply connecting the pieces together. That, of course, raises the possibility that the connecting parts will read like mere bridgework, bogging down the pace of the novel. So I’ll need to stay particularly aware of the possibility of this during the revision cycle, and edit accordingly.
One consequence of this rather exacting but unsatisfying carpentry is that it’s made the urge to write less urgent. The result is that my progress on Book Two soon slowed to a crawl.
The solution I came to eventually was to begin addressing the writing more like a playwright than a novelist. Now, when I solve a plot problem, regardless of where it comes up in the overall story line, I sit down and write the scene I’ve been thinking about, regardless of how far down the narrative it occurs. Doubtless some of these scenes will end up being discarded, but this approach has made it more enjoyable to sit down at the keyboard. It has also helped me finally get the whole storyline fleshed out in adequate detail, and to get some momentum back in my writing.
Here’s an example of a scene, and perhaps an entire character, that may never make the final cut. But I enjoyed the writing nonetheless, and that helped me not only work out how other aspects of the plot should finally come together, but to keep sitting down to the task of writing as well.
– 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 – 0100 – 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000 –
Simone Falconet removed the tea ball from the porcelain pot, replaced the cover, and filled the matching cup. She turned to stare absently through the narrow window of the tiny, well organized kitchen. There was nothing particular to look at; only the windows of other apartments across the courtyard of her building, some with their metal shutters already closed for the evening. Random, familiar sounds occasionally wafted up from below and in through her own slightly-ajar casement window; a courtyard door closing as someone came home from work; the muffled sound of an annoyed child inside an apartment on another floor; the faint sound of traffic rising from the Parisian street that lay beyond the opposite side of the apartment building.
She walked slowly out of her kitchen, sipping on her tea. Around the corner, was her small, rather formally furnished sitting room, where she sat down on the settee. It was a damp, gray Sunday, but she left the lights off, content to let the shadows gather around her for a while; the mood was consistent with her thoughts.
She regretted the waning of the day, not because her weekend had been pleasant (although it had), but because its end would mean the commencement of a new work week, and the arguments among the faculty had been particularly petty and annoying of late. Even the data her dutiful research assistants had been collecting had recently insisted on being perversely contradictory. More unsettling was the degree of support that the new head of her department had been accumulating since Henri Bisonette, his predecessor and her protector, had retired from that position. Bisonette had been her mentor ever since her student days at the same university where she was now a professor, the Institut d’études politiques de Paris – quite a mouthful, and hence simply “Science Po” to anyone familiar with the prestigious institution.
The elevation of Richard Pissante to head the Political Economy department would have been regrettable enough, given his consistently superior and abrasive manner. More concerning was his obvious contempt for the theories she had spent her entire career developing. Whether he actually disagreed with her premises or simply attacked them as a means to undercut a rival candidate to succeed Bisonette hardly mattered, as the result was the same.
Still, while her mentor was in charge, there had been little that Pissante could do beyond sniping at her work in print, and making disparaging comments behind her back at Science Po. But now she could feel her position eroding, as one professor after another found it more expedient to fall into line behind the new department head rather than risk becoming a target of his condescension themselves.
This was a problem that demanded a solution, she reflected, because her theories were controversial to begin with. Some critics even called them fascistic, a contention she found both simplistic as well as insulting. Especially given the absence of an alternative solution to what she believed to be the fundamental political economic issue of the day. Conventionally, the debate centered on whether the national benefits arising from unbridled capitalism should trump the social benefits arising from more left-leaning policies.
To Falconet, this was a question that was not even ripe for discussion. Instead, she believed that the true focus should be on which political policies would naturally default to success, and which to failure. Stated another way, would (for example), a democratic system be likely to achieve better results, on balance, under policies favoring unrestricted capitalism, or ones which assigned higher priority to social goals?
In her view, history amply demonstrated that regardless of political theory, the shear inertia of human nature would inevitably lead to the same results. Ideology and revolutionary zeal might fuel a different result for a time, but ultimately people would simply act in their own self-interest. The examples of this phenomenon were too numerous to mention, with the almost universal failure of communist economies providing the most recent example. Even the few that remained – Cuba and China – were clearly sliding inexorably towards capitalism.
Once one accepted this conclusion (as she argued one must), then the question became how one must construct a political system such that human nature could be harnessed to naturally default to a better and more balanced result? That was where she believed lay the best opportunities for productive change.
It was easy to state such a theory, but (as usual) it was hard to prove, especially across the board. She had therefore decided to investigate a single, more testable, dynamic in the relationship between governments and economic decisions. Specifically, she and her assistants had been seeking to prove that democratic governments with short election cycles, regardless of whether they leaned left or right, would make poorer, and even disastrous, economic decisions, in comparison to those that had longer cycles. She reasoned that this should be case, because politicians would rarely change direction when economies seemed strong, but would usually change policies when economies were failing – whether it made true sense to do so in either case.
This should flow naturally from the fact if a government changed direction when all seemed well – even if policy makers could see that the good times were on their way out – they risked being assigned the blame for bringing the bad times about. On the other hand, a government that failed to act during bad times – even if a change in direction could only make things worse – could expect to fail miserably at the polls the next time around.
The way to avoid such unfortunate decision making, Falconet argued, was to move economic policy authority from elected officials to appointed ones, thereby rendering the decision makers as protected as possible from the temptation to make self-interested decisions. Her research therefore focused on the demonstrable success or failure of decision making by elected vs. appointed officials.
There was nothing particularly daring about Falconet’s theories as such, so long as they were limited to drawing conclusions from verifiable data. Once one passed from the observation of data to making recommendations on how to apply the lessons learned, however, the potential for invoking an immune response became clear. What, remove vital decision making powers from regularly elected officials and hand them over to individuals not responsive to the electorate? Wasn’t that fascism?
That might have been enough to invoke the scorn of Pissante, who was an avowed Socialist, but she suspected there was another reason why he had particularly singled her out for attack.
The problem was that she had rather accidently acquired a popular following outside of Science Po, while the new Departmental head was unknown outside of academia. Doubtless it did not help that, while he was professorially non-descript, she was tall and striking, with a natural sense of style and the innate ability to present herself at once in both an authoritative as well as an engaging manner, using real-world terms that anyone could understand.
That should not have mattered, since at Science Po, as well as at most other universities a professor was (sadly) judged on the volume and placement of their journal articles rather than on their skills as a lecturer. But one day a journalist from a leading newspaper seeking an intellectual French reaction to the direction an American presidential election was taking had been unable to connect with his academic source.
By happenstance, it was Falconet that he happened upon, and he found her to be unusually quotable for a professor. It did not hurt that she also photographed very well. The article that resulted reached a wide and receptive audience, and it was not long before other journalists sought her out as well. Within a year, Falconet had become a popular commentator, even becoming a regular guest on television political shows. That had not sat at all well with Pissante, who began referring to her as a mere “talking head” with questionable analytical abilities.
Nor was her extra-curricular reputation the only way in which she varied from the norm. Unlike most French professors, she was accessible to students and enjoyed debating with them both inside and outside of class. Soon, something of a salon of her most talented students, mostly female, developed around her. Unlike her professorial peers, they were open to new ideas, and also interested in having an impact on the world around them. This had provided a refreshing opportunity for her to propose hypothetical policies based upon her theories that she suggested could successfully address real political developments, something she never would have done with in a professorial discussion. It also provided a pool of talented graduate students from which she could engage research assistants.
When many of these students graduated, they continued to meet with her, meeting in brasseries or sitting on couches and chairs in front of the small marble fireplace in her apartment and discussing the events of the day. They were particularly energized by the aggressive approach that America was taking towards its allies, who were expected to fall in line behind the U.S., regardless of whether they agreed with the U.S. position or what the consequences to their own interests might be. Worse, the United States had sufficient power that other countries could be adversely impacted by U.S. policies regardless of whether they supported them or not. The students asked what could be done to rein the United States in.
What indeed? Falconet could not help wondering whether her theories might be applicable to this problem as well. Was there a way that the democratic process could be subtly manipulated in order to guide the electorate to make more enlightened decisions than it would naturally arrive at otherwise? She posed that question to her salon, and it became a matter of earnest and ongoing debate.
As the next presidential election in the U.S. loomed on the horizon, her enthusiastic former students began to become increasingly concrete as well as zealous in their strategizing. Concurrently, the perennial gulf at the government level between the U.S. and France was undergoing one of its periodic widenings, as politicians, pundits, and even comedians on both sides found it expedient to take pot shots at the other nation to shore up their own domestic support. The phrase “cheese eating surrender monkeys” somehow failed to elicit the same enthusiastic response in France as it did in the U.S.
The tone and energy level of the salon kicked up a notch in response, as did the level of creativity. One night, a member observed that Americans clearly were not to be trusted picking their own leaders. Why not do it for them, another offered, to general laughter? There was agreement that such intervention was not only justified, but that French tacticians could scarcely do worse than American voters.
The concept had great appeal, and also presented an enjoyable puzzle –how could such a scheme be put into action? Should the United Nations be enlisted, or should a covert operation be launched? A spirited debate ensued.
Falconet found the debate unrealistic but also beguiling. What if her theories could be put to a real-world test? But the idea was of course absurd.
She realized that she had been musing for some time, given that the room had now become quite dark; dark enough that even her grandmother would have finally permitted her to turn on a light. Falconet picked up her phone to check the time – it was almost 6:00 PM. She noticed that of course she had email. Should she attend to it now, or leave it for the morning? She had no land line, and had left her mobile device off since Friday, forcing herself for once to ignore her professional existence for an entire weekend. Instead, she had spent her time reading, visiting the nearby street markets, and generally blocking out the irritations of the week just ended.
But there was a limit to the reasonability of such self-imposed isolation. She did have friends and family. She should check.
Scanning the list of unopened mail, she was surprised to see an email from Pissante, evidently sent earlier that day. That was highly unusual, as he preferred old fashioned methods of communication. Falconet doubted he even knew how to type – sending letters and email was what assistants were for. The subject line read, “For your immediate attention.” Curious, she opened it.
In fact, there was no message at all. Merely an attachment, which she tapped on to open. When it did, she had to squint to read the brief test that lay between the date and the closing. It read as follows:
My Dear Colleague,
It is of course with deep regret that I find that I must place you on paid leave, effective immediately. I’m sure that you will appreciate that I am left with no alternative, given the gravity and delicacy of the current situation. I am sure that the Regents of the University will decide, in due course, if and when it may be appropriate for you to resume your duties.
Instinctively, she made that small, explosive sound (Puh!) that it seems only French people can properly utter. Relieved of her duties! What nonsense! She had tenure, and this was, after all, France! The little man must be insane to even imagine that he could pull off such a stunt, regardless of the offense, whatever it might be, that he imagined to exist.
But what could that offence be? She glanced back at her phone, and saw that she had received a lengthy list of emails, some from journalists with whom she had spoken before, but others from people whose names she recognized but had never spoken to previously at all. She opened several, but each merely requested the opportunity to schedule an interview. What could have happened that suddenly placed her views of such urgent and broad demand?
Puzzled, she reached for her television remote, and turned on a news channel. A program dedicated to political news and analysis was just beginning. Almost immediately the silent image of the leader of the ultra-right wing party France First appeared on a screen behind the two commentators. As usual, she was gesticulating vigorously in front of a highly responsive crowd.
Falconet gathered from the commentary that the party, which had heretofore defined itself almost entirely by what it was emphatically against (immigrants, socialism, unions, gays, American cheese, and so on) had issued a new manifesto. It described the new, anti-democratic policies that it intended to pursue with determination at the local, regional and national level.
The commentators continued:
But is there anything that is really so very new in this manifesto?
Ah, indeed, this time there is. It seems that the leaders of France First are seeking to acquire greater legitimacy for their xenophobic positions by claiming they are based upon respectable theoretical bases.
And how have they sought to do that?
As it happens, they have discovered the work of an author whose name has popular as well as academic familiarity – Simone Falconet.
The same Simone Falconet that we have had as a guest in the past?
The very same. According to France First, her research purports to prove that the average citizen cannot be trusted to elect policy makers. Instead, the ruling party should be able to choose long-term appointees to make decisions that cannot be second-guessed by the legislature – or even the courts. They appear to have claimed her as their own Joan of Arc.
Horrified, she turned off the television. How could her research have been so grossly miss-represented? Once again, she sat in darkness. But her sudden invisibility was only an illusion. She had spent enough time with the press to know that there would be nowhere, and no way, to hide.
Psst – yes you! Wanna read a good book?