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Sigh-Fi

July 13, 2010

Writing a novel:  take 4. The old fiction writing muscles are a bit rusty. It’s time to put them to use before they atrophy completely (horror of horrors!).

Being the ornery person that I am, I have to write a sci-fi novel despite the fact that my knowledge of science is limited at best. I’m solid in biology, or at least solid enough that I can do some research to find out what I want to know (it’s kind of like how you need to know how to spell something to look it up in the dictionary; if one has no knowledge of a subject WHATSOEVER than one can research for ages and not understand a large portion of the research materials). Physics, however, continues to elude me, as does computing, both of which are somewhat important in the context of the sci-fi genre.  To make up for my lack of scientific knowledge, I tend to focus more on sociological and political aspects of my novel (which are social sciences, dammit!).

However, as I write more science fiction shorts, I do find that I’m becoming more comfortable with the genre as a whole. I’ve discovered that in some cases, what I don’t know, I can fake. Sure, there’s no such thing as a gun that dissolves bones on impact NOW, but that doesn’t mean I can’t invent one. And why the hell shouldn’t there be a genetic virus that transforms people into parrots? It’s my universe, I can do what I want (says Eric Cartman).

So I have a brand new general plot outline that satisfies me. I get to use some of my already existing characters from my previous abortive attempts at writing a novel, and I’m also allowing myself to invent a few new ones because the process of characterization makes me all giddy. I started sketching a scene last night and it was going pretty well.

But then I came to a point in the plot that I hadn’t really thought out very carefully. Since becoming more accustomed to writing science fiction, I tend to try to solve my plot problems with clever use of technology. That’s what sci-fi is all about, right?

One of my main characters is a thief and a spy. He has a nice little flashback that explains how he got where he is at the beginning of the story, and in the flashback he describes how he failed to steal some awesome jewel (which is essentially the Hope Diamond in my head, curse rumors and all, but I can’t call it the “Hope Diamond” because this is science fiction and technically my characters aren’t speaking English even though I render their dialogue that way). So I needed to figure out the logistics of the theft. Now, I will admit to shoplifting silly, small items a couple of times as a child, but my parents always found out and made me return the items or pay for them. I’ve certainly never stolen anything that had any real value, and I’ve never broken into anyone’s house or tried to bust open a safe. So much for “writing what you know.”(Ok, so I also can’t actually claim to know what it’s like to live in deep space, but I assume it is chilly.)

I know that criminals case a joint before they rob it, so I had my thief do that. The breaking and entering part itself was easy enough to figure out, as well. It was the opening of the safe that stymied me. I couldn’t use traditional manipulation techniques (like listening to the tumblers to figure out the combination), and autodialers are also out, because this is a high-tech safe with a digital keypad instead of a tumbler lock. I’m fairly certain that the safe is made of some amazing futuristic alloy that prohibits drilling, as well (not to mention that drilling is LOUD, and seems kind of stupid to me).

“Aha!” I thought. “Enter sci-fi gadgetry!” So I started researching. I spent of a bunch of time reading about the new Oceans 11, and discovered that there’s a nifty thing called a pinch that uses magnetic forces to disrupt electrically conductive filaments by compressing them. They use it in Oceans to disable the electric system in the casino. It’s essentially useless for my purposes, but it does sound neat.

Anyway, I read and thought and read some more. I was so obsessed with the idea of using gadgets to solve my problem that I completely forgot about my most favorite thing: characterization. See, my thief grew up as a street urchin. He doesn’t have access to fancy technology. He has to rely on SKILL. He would be much more likely to find a way to trick the safe’s owner into revealing its combination, or he might search her desk for it, find it written down in code, and then decipher the code.

I need to remember my strengths, and unfortunately, clever use of technology is not one of them. I actually made my problem much WORSE by trying to solve it this way, because I wasted a bunch of time trying to be scientific when I needed to be paying attention to who my character is. Take 4 is therefore off to a slow start. But it’s a start, nonetheless.

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