Covalent: Part One

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Not much. Not much at all.

Just a little bit of gray tinged with light blues and yellows at the periphery. A small sense of swirling motions, too, like trace currents in a muddled ocean.

Cace leaned into that notion. Though he had no physical presence in the Ether he imagined his eyes closing and fists clenching as he tried to stir the ocean around him by sheer force of will.

And something changed!

It wasn’t in the ocean, though, it was in Cace himself. He suddenly became aware of a ripple thumping through the area, a cord that pulled through him at regular intervals.

He focused on that wave, tried to lean into it every time it passed through him. It wasn’t very pleasant, its friction agitated him, but as he did so he noticed that the gray nothingness began to shimmer and take form. As he let each ripple pulse deeper and longer the picture before him became clearer. Now the gray revealed itself to actually be all colors intermingled. Now they were grouped up in shapes. Now they went from flat shapes to bodies and volumes that surrounded him.

The throbbing was nearly unbearable now. It pressured him in a painful way, tugged at him so hard that he was afraid something might tear. But even that was good, for the more it discomforted him the closer it meant he was to having a proper form in that place. Leaning further into that cadence was going to hurt, but Cace knew it would only be worse to remain in limbo.

Cace gathered his nerve, the same as if he were about to dive into a cold lake. Then, gritting his will he pushed deeper and winced as a terrible shock ripped through him. But it lasted only a moment and then, at last, he had the sense of breaking free from his tether, of spiraling downward, and of fully entering the Ether.

Cace was not in any pain anymore, but he did feel very unnatural, like he didn’t know his own body. He tried to open his eyes but nothing responded to the command. He tried to lift his hand but his hand did not raise. Something else shifted, though. Some long, gray limb that he did not recognize.

Then he understood. He was still trying to move his normal body back in the conscious world. But here, he did not have that body. He had…something else…a long, gray limb it would seem.

Cace tried to settle his mind into this new form, to be aware of his new reality. It was hard, like his body was was feeling itself through a thin glove.

Translating he thought to himself. Not direct.

Cace tried to speak, but no words came out, only a strange vibration pulsating around him. Or…maybe he had spoken…but just didn’t have any ears to make sense of those vibrations?

Cace tried to open his eyes again and this time it worked…sort of. It wasn’t really vision as he was used to it, but there was a general awareness, a heightened, inexplicable knowledge of his surroundings. No forms and shapes, but an understanding of movements and shifts.

Then the eyes shut, all of their own will and not of his. Cace tried to open them again but they did not respond. So he moved his attention to the long, gray limb again.

Wait, how did I know it was a long, gray limb if I haven’t even seen it properly? he wondered to himself. He couldn’t answer that, but somehow he had just known that that’s what it was when he moved it.

In any case, the limb did move again. It had a joint in the middle that was raised up high, almost folded in two. Cace tried to extend the limb, to stretch out the joint. It slowly flexed outwards but then halted, obstructed by something else it had run into. Obstructed by something that Cace could not perceive as being part of his body.

Wait…actually yes…yes Cace could perceive it now. It was like that part of him had been asleep, but now it was awake, stirred by the brush of the limb. And it felt like that other piece of him was now available for use. And…it had eyes as well. Cace could tell somehow. So Cace tried to open his eyes once more and they opened. Though as before, it wasn’t like vision as he knew it, but also it wasn’t like the prior sort of “seeing” either.

There still wasn’t any color or shape, but now he was simply cognizant of all the different entities about them. He could sense forms even without having a visual, he could perceive beginnings and endings. He was aware of the long, gray limb, of many others just like it, of a floor that pulsated like a heartbeat, of an essence flowing beneath the surface.

Not only these, but Cace found that he could look “harder” at these forms and pick out their relationships to one another. He could tell where one began and another ended, and what conduits linked the separate pieces together. And as he turned his focus from one form to the next he observed how all of it was interconnected to each other in a most massive network.

Or rather…almost all of it was interconnected. For now that he was focusing on the great, interconnected mass as a whole he was also able to perceive breaches in it, areas where no member of the body existed. Places where something else existed instead, something that he did not have direct understanding of, something that he could only understand indirectly, by observing the gaps it made in the mass.

And one of those foreign elements was starting to agitate, to quiver violently, to disrupt the connections in the body! And that discomforted Cace. For “the body” was his body. It was his own members and connections that this shaking entity was severing apart! And that entity was thrashing more wildly now, was growing bigger and shaking harder, was coming nearer and nearer, closer and closer to his core! It would be here any moment and then…

“Hnnnnnnnngh!” Cace sat bolt upright on his cot and nearly smacked Aylme in the face ! A cold sweat covered his body and tears were splashed across his cheeks.

He had been brought back.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

A Tale of Two Tales

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Quick Summary)

During September and October I published a story which was titled The Favored Son. It was not the same as the story I am currently writing now, though, which is titled The Favored Son: Alternate.

Both of these stories began in a very similar manner. Both featured a group of students in an order, which eventually was overrun by an invasion. Both of them featured a battle of wills between the different students as each tried to champion their own way forward.

But as I mentioned at the time, my first take on this story strayed a great deal from my original vision. About halfway through it evolved into an entirely different beast from what I had pictured in my head.

If you have been reading the second version you can certainly see that the style and plot have many drastic differences from the first. So now let me answer whether this second attempt has hewed more closely to my original idea or not.

It has. Like a lot. This new incarnation is very much in the vein of my original concept. Yes, a few things have changed as I’ve gone along, but not any more than is to be expected whenever a vague concept is written into a hard reality. So if you have read the first version of The Favored Son, now you should be able to understand why I felt there were several ideas being left on the table!

Is it Better This Way?)

Now that I have both the free-flowing-exploration-into-the-unknown version and the more stick-to-the-plan version, the natural question is which am I happier with the result of. The answer to that is a bit mixed.

On one hand, they really are just very different tales that do different things well. There are things that I appreciate about both and I wouldn’t want to be without either. On the other hand, I can’t help but appreciate that this newer attempt was more successful at capturing my intended vision. Yes, the other one took me into fresh material that I value, but I feel more competent as a writer with the second attempt because it was a better execution of being what I wanted it to be.

Technically speaking, I would also say that my second attempt is more complex. There are more characters, more relationships, more arcs, and I am pleased with how they are all being given full expression.

Imaginatively speaking, though, I would say the first version had the more exciting ideas.

Obviously I mean this in terms of having a more involved magic system and a more surprising world to explore, but also in having more dramatic ideas, such as the order’s ritualistic self-destruction and characters being literally taken over by despair. There was a lot of creativity crammed into that tale.

But given all that bursting creativity is it any wonder that the plot went off track?

Lost in the Details)

I really do think it was all this deluge of ideas that caused me to lose the thread of my plot in the first version of The Favored Son. I came up with one imaginative idea after another. I included them without a second thought, and in the process of exploring their implications I realized that I had built a foundation that the original story wouldn’t fit on anymore.

It has to be appreciated that this is a package deal. How can you fully explore a new concept unless you are willing to surrender some control for where things are going to go with it? There is a trade-off in writing between discovering something new and meeting your original expectation.

On the one hand, by focusing on plot and character first and foremost in my second version of The Favored Son I had a more solid foundation, a better story at its core. And having that foundation I could now dress it up with all manner of rich world-building that I please. I could take all of the more magical elements of the first version and easily apply them throughout.

But on the other hand…how would I even know about those magical elements if I hadn’t allowed myself to get lost first?

Clearly there is a benefit to both approaches. I’m actually very glad that I decided to write both versions, if only to have discovered this fact. You can have freedom in your writing or you can have structure. Or, if you allow for each separately, then you can combine them together and have both. You can make an excursion into the unknown and discover all manner of raw, creative material, and then you can set down at the desk and compile it into a deliberate, crafted plot.

If it weren’t for the fact that I have already spent months on these stories and am ready for a change of scenery, I would consider now writing a third version of The Favored Son, one that marries the two previous attempts in the way I have described. I may still try it at some later date.

Here’s what I will do for now, though. I am about to write the climax of my second version, and I will try to inject into it some of the magic from my first attempt. Keep your eye out for that on Thursday!

Down the Rabbit Hole

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Wandering Thoughts)

The story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland opens with a girl who is bored. Thus it is an easy thing for her fancy to be captured when a white rabbit with a waistcoat and a pocket-watch goes running by! And when the rabbit disappears down a hole, she is all too eager to continue following this thread of curiosity. Thus begins her literal journey “down the rabbit hole.” And after the popularization of the story, it also became her figurative journey “down the rabbit hole” as well!

As a result, today we use the term “down the rabbit hole” to describe taking a train of thought for as far as it will take us. Each branch of science is based on this idea of beginning with an initial question, and using it to find other deeper questions, following them one after another, like following a trail of breadcrumbs.

Like Hansel and Gretel.

In that story we have another fanciful tale, one about a brother and sister who follow a trail to get back home. But when that trail runs cold, they resort to another: that of their own curiosity. After wandering down that path for a while, they still make it back to their destination. There are many roads to get to where you want to go, though of course, as the Cheshire Cat says, “if you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there.”

Which might sound like a waste of time, but don’t forget Bilbo’s advice that “not all who wander are lost.” Because even if you don’t know your destination, you’re still sure to reach it “if you only walk long enough.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Hansel and Gretel, Lord of the Rings. Clearly taking hold of a string and pulling on it to see where it goes is a common thread in storytelling.

I do apologize for that appalling pun, I assure you that I am very ashamed.

Perhaps there is no mystery as to why so many stories wander down the paths of curiosity. Many of these stories only come into being by that exact process!

Very often I begin a story with no more than a white-rabbit-in-a-waistcoat idea, which I then follow as far is it will go. Thus many stories uncover the next plot point at the same time that the author does, and the character’s epiphanies are really the writer’s. Literary heroes are very glad when the author finally figures out how to save the day, because only then can they do the same!

 

Uncovering the Next Level)

A story that ends at the same depth as where it began is not only dissatisfying to read, it is uninteresting to write. Alice moving from the White Rabbit to a Cheshire Cat to the Mad Hatter to the Queen of Hearts is almost as fun to read as it must have been to invent.

Sometimes a writer doesn’t know which caves of the mind will open up into wide ravines, though. Sometimes an idea looms promisingly at the beginning, but quickly dead-ends, or turns cycles back into a repeating loop. I won’t call out any specific examples, but I know more than a few tales that began with imaginative premises, only to pinch off into unoriginal conclusions.

So let us consider a more positive example instead. In the 1999 film The Matrix, Thomas Anderson is a lowly computer programmer who is more than a little bit like Alice of Wonderland. Just as she was, he is bored with life, and looking for something to chase after. As with Alice, fate intervenes, and introduces him to a hidden world, one that operates by rules entirely different from his own. It would seem that the filmmakers were quite aware of this similarity between their work and Lewis Carroll’s. They even wink at the parallel when Anderson’s journey begins by following a woman with a “white rabbit” tattoo.

When Anderson follows this lead, he discovers superhuman beings that are able to defy the laws of nature and physics. This is strange. Then it is revealed that nature and physics are themselves entirely artificial, able to be bent by those that recognize them as nothing more than parameters within a computer simulation. Stranger still. Then Mister Anderson breaks out into a world controlled by machines, where flying ships cruise dark tunnels, and humans jack into the simulation to fight the master program from within. A world that Anderson ultimately merges with, and becomes able to rewrite the entire code of at will. Strangest of all!

The film remains fascinating because each new idea goes deeper than the one that came before, while also remaining totally connected and relevant to the preceding moments. Curiosity is constantly piqued and then satisfied in repeating succession.

 

Further Measures)

Another way of progressing down the rabbit hole is simply to follow from action to counter-action to counter-counter-action all the way to the logical conclusion. A story doesn’t have to be a fantasy to start pulling on a string, it can just begin with a choice that will yield a series of consequences.

The Iranian film called A Separation begins with a very volatile opening. A husband and wife are strained by being unable to agree on whether they should leave the country or not, and from this tangled outset the film follows many threads at once.

The wife is naturally frustrated, and decides to leave the home for a time. Therefore the man naturally has to hire a caretaker to watch his invalid father while he as work. When that woman neglects his father, he is naturally upset, and forces her to leave the premises…which may or may not have resulted in her falling and suffering a miscarriage.

Naturally the man is anxious to validate his innocence in the matter. Naturally the caretaker and her husband are offended at the suggestion that they lie about the cause of the miscarriage. Naturally follows naturally. Pride begets offense, offense begets defensiveness, blame goes round and round, all the way to the film’s sad, but all-too-real conclusion.

It is a tragic end, but we have systematically pulled the string length by length, so we buy its escalation completely.

 

Last Thursday I posted the last segment of a story, which delved deeper and deeper into the subconscious of a man processing trauma. On Thursday I will do my own take on following a rabbit hole of natural consequences. The story will open with a problem, and then propose a number of solutions to it, each delving into deeper and deeper levels of cruelty. The conclusion will be horrifying, but hopefully also fascinating. Come back then to see how it turns out.

Mostly Familiar…Mostly

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So here we are with a new week and a new series! Today I thought I would talk about a pattern of storytelling that is so ubiquitous it can very easily be overlooked. The pattern goes like this: an author writes a story that takes place in a real-life setting. The world is populated them with life-like characters, and they all have real-life problems to deal with. Then, from that entirely ordinary foundation the world suddenly diverges into the fantastic!

From the Oracle’s prophecies in Oedipus to a simple, magical wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, to the superpower effects of radiation in Spider-Man, we love to take our plain and mundane world and inject a little magic into it. Think about how this pattern applies to Harry Potter, Stranger Things, The Matrix, Midnight Special, Cloverfield, Men in Black, Field of Dreams, Back to the Future, E.T., A Wrinkle in Time, Escape to Witch Mountain, Flight of the Navigator, The Neverending Story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Five Children and It, War of the Worlds, Dracula, Gulliver’s Travels, Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan…I could go on for a while.

What is it about this formula that makes it so popular across all times and cultures of literature? Well, I can think of two elements.

 

To Explore)

First and foremost I believe that there is a thirst for fantasy and adventure baked into our very bones. Mankind was destined not only to live, but to thrive. We feel hunger and fatigue to ensure that our bodies will survive, but we also have wanderlust and fantasies to ensure that our spirits will, too.

Invention, exploration, creation…these are attributes inseparable from our history. We are where we are today only because of our unique ability to imagine a world different from our own. People conceived of steam power, printing presses, and sailing ships first as fantasies, and then they found ways to bring each of them to life.

But though every invention may have begun as a fantasy, it still had to somehow be grounded in reality, or else it could have never come to be. A great leap has to be launched into from the feet being firmly planted in the now. If you fantasize about the future world only in media res, with no thought for how you get to there from here, then it will never be anything real. To sail around the world you first must obtaining a ship.

How fitting, then, that all of the stories I listed above begin in the present, the familiar, the mundane, and then progress into the unknown. And where once Georges Méliès fantasized about everyday scientists building a rocket to go to the moon, now that that fantasy has become real it has been reimagined as a man being stranded on Mars in The Martian.

And that will ever be the pattern of things. People will never stop exploring, they will never cease to push further. Perhaps early man thought that if he only had a way to grow crops he and his family would be forever content. And then perhaps the medieval man thought all he needed was a way to light the streets at night. And then post-industrial era man simply wished for a way to fly through the sky.

The truth is it isn’t about having the food, the electricity, or the airplane, it is about taking what we have and making something more of it. As I said, it is baked into our bones. The inventors will continue to invent and the researchers continue to research. And as they do, the story-tellers will continue to weave tales of everyday people discovering new worlds.

 

To Find Truth)

The other reason why we love these stories is because they suggest that there are bigger truths out there than immediately meets the eye. Truths that most people are blind to, but once seen open up entire new worlds of possibilities. Mankind has a natural tendency to believe that there is something greater at play in our lives, whether it be God, Karma, nature, or something we do not even know the name of. Each of us hopes to be reached out to by that higher truth, and be taken from where we are now into a greater world.

So we seek out religion, civic office, or just being a nice person to those around us. We’re hoping to find a purpose, a calling, some great mystery that we were born to unravel. Skeptics may suggest that these are merely delusions of grandeur, but there is no denying that we come by these feelings naturally. They are in us, that is unavoidable, and we feel that there must be a reason for them. The author takes these feelings and paints them into a story.

Those stories tend to follow a fairly consistent pattern. First the main characters needs to be drawn into the fold, they need to pass through some sort of matrix or portal before they can witness the magic that they had previously been blind to. They are initiated into the truth, and then quickly discover their real self and purpose.

This new paradigm is not merely a side-venture for the hero, either. Where at first the magic was tucked away in a small corner where it could hardly be seen at all, eventually it will either overtake the natural world or else absorb the main character into its confines entirely. If the hero ever does go back to “ordinary life,” they will do so only as a permanently changed individual. The truth of that mystic world lives in them now, and will permeate through every moment hereafter.

Those that have felt called to something higher in real life will realize that these sorts of stories are not works of fiction at all. There may not be wizards or aliens or parallel worlds, but the themes behind them are as real as anything.

 

Perhaps these two reasons for why we tell stories that blend reality and fantasy are really just two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we explore to find truth, and perhaps we only find our true calling in exploration. In any case, these movements run deep within us and I suspect they always will. Never mind what summits we achieve, we will always find roots of the great unknown reaching through the familiar, calling us to follow.

On Thursday I’d like to expand to try my hand at a story that is set in a modern, realistic setting, but which bit-by-bit leads into the fantastic. And in this story I want to particularly focus on the sequential progression into greater and greater fantasy. I don’t want to start to tease the new world and then fully leap straight into it, I want it to bleed into our world more and more. Come on Thursday to see how it turns out.