REVIEWS

[The Night Shifters is] a fascinating ride. The voice feels a lot like Neil Gaiman. This is a huge compliment in my mind, and one not to be taken lightly.” - Melinda VanLone Reviews

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Strange Ripples


Twelve years ago, on Sept 11, my coworker at Barry School was murdered along with most of her family, including her five-year-old son. The act was committed by one person, for the most petty of reasons, and it generated destructive ripples that slammed into friends, family, co-workers, and the community.

But not all ripples are destructive. You keep working, keep trooping, try to pick up the pieces. Eventually efforts start to pay off. Right after my friend was killed, I received the editing suggestions for my third book, and though my dazed brain could hardly make sense of them, I noticed one thing right off the bat. The main character in the book loses a friend to murder, just like I did, and her reaction was unrealistic. I rewrote that part. And once I had done that, strange ripples began to emanate from those changed places.

I had been re-reading Octavia Butler's book, Mind Of My Mind, one of my favorites. This time around, I saw new things in the story and felt affected on much deeper levels. One night I put down the book, went to sleep, and had a nightmare. When I woke up, I re-thought the nightmare into the premise for my fifth book, The Kronos Condition.

In the nightmare, I was a young girl, on a bus with several other kids my age. We knew we were riding to our deaths. The three adults who accompanied us were planning to send the bus over a cliff with us in it. They were telepaths, and we had to find some way to save ourselves without actually thinking about it.

Yeah, I know, it sounds ridiculous and impossible, but I couldn't help wondering just how you could plan your escape without thinking about it. Turns out the idea isn't as nutty as it sounds. For inspiration, I referred to a book that is much more straight-forward in concept than its complicated title implies: The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes.

Okay, I can see your eyes are crossing, but don't freak out on me. This is a book that I understood pretty well, and I don't have a degree in neurology or psychology. I got several interesting ideas from this book, like the idea that consciousness is actually a model of reality that you build in your head. Consciousness is not perception, it's not the mental state of being awake, it's not even awareness. It's that imaginary model, always under construction, constantly being referred to in decision-making efforts. The more rigid that model is, the more easily shattered. The more flexible it is, the better chance you have of surviving the emotional fallout that occurs after an unexpected event.

And I surmised one other interesting thing after reading the book. Language was not invented by the brain so people could talk to each other, that was just a (mostly) happy side-effect. The brain invented language so it could talk to itself. This makes sense when you remember that the human brain has two hemispheres, and they're not connected at every point. The corpus collosum is the largest area of connection. But the area that may be responsible for the development of language is a little crossroads called the anterior commissure. This structure relays visual information. To do so more efficiently, it translates that information into code.

Code is language.

By this time you can probably tell that my friend's murder really threw me for a loop, and I engaged in way too much thinking, afterward. Too much thinking is a side-effect of grief, as you compulsively engage in the mental version of probing a sore tooth. You shouldn't do it, but you just can't help it. If you're a writer, this excessive thinking can prod you into writing a book. (It can also cause writer's block, but that's another essay altogether). My book was The Kronos Condition, and my main character had to find some way to save herself and her siblings from a trio of evil thugs who called themselves The Three.

All of these characters, the children and The Three, had telekinetic and telepathic abilities. The Three believed they controlled every aspect of the children's abilities, but the heart of the story is that they are wrong.

One way to synopsize any novel ever written is to say things are not what they seem. My way of interpreting this is to say, this character has a problem -- how is he/she going to solve it? This interpretation isn't elegant, but it gets the job done. Sally, the main character of The Kronos Condition, had to find some way to plan her escape without thinking about it. How could she possibly do that?

The answer lies in the fact that we know things we don't know that we know. Yes, that sentence is a tangle, but it's true. For example, when I look for books in the brick-and-mortar bookstore where I work, sometimes I think I can't find them, and then the customer standing next to me says, "You've got your hand on it."

And it's always my left hand. The left hand is controlled by the right side of the brain, the one that doesn't have language centers, the one from which dreams (and nightmares) and poetry spring. That side of my brain knew the answer to the question, Where is that %$#&* book? But it doesn't have a language center, so it simply directed my left hand to the book. The part of me that was in the driver's seat of my consciousness wasn't aware of this until someone else pointed it out.

This is the realization that pointed me to the solution to Sally's problem.

So I wrote a book in which some children face terrible foes and fight their way to a happy ending. For many readers, it was too rough a ride (reminding some of terrors they faced in their own childhood). Others were simply unaware that it existed, since it languished in midlist territory. But I'm glad I wrote it. Writing this book taught me far more than how to write this kind of story. It took me into strange territory, and I emerged whole (if somewhat bruised).

I never did find good answers for what happened to my friend and her family. Senseless acts remain senseless, viewed from any angle. Eventually you accept what's happened, and you hope it will never happen again.

Twelve years ago. So far, so good.


3 comments:

  1. Fascinating! I've had to adapt to tragedy my whole life, and didn't realize 'til I was in my 20's just how hard it was for others. I admit to being a little intolerant sometimes, but I'm getting better. I'm going to read that book on conciousness, and maybe give it as gifts next year. ;)
    - Shirley

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  2. Have you read "The Demolished Man" by Bester? It's based on how do you plan a murder when the cops are psychic.

    By the way, what's happening with your writing? Have I missed some of your books?

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  3. Julian Jaynes caused quite an uproar with his theory of consciousness -- his book is worth reading, even if you don't agree with him.

    Jaq, my last book published by the New York crowd was the Lee Hogan title, ENEMIES. I've written four others since then (including 2 YA title I co-wrote with Ernie, THE TERRIBLE TWELVES and ONE PARTICULAR DREAM SPIDER. We've been gamely trying to sell our stuff the old way for a couple of years now, without success. So it looks like we're going to start offering some of those titles through online publishers this year. We'd like to set up websites that have some of the same graphic features as magazines, plus a selection of titles as e-books and download-able audio. We'll also have some freebie fiction online to (hopefully) attract readers.

    Doing this blog has prodded me into thinking back to how and why I wrote books. I often wonder if readers are baffled by these revelations or interested in them. Reading can be such a personal experience, and maybe the best measurement of success is when readers think the story is actually about them. And they're right! Otherwise, this shtick wouldn't work at all . . .

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