Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What Do You Know and When Did You Know It?

So, I'm cranking along on the current book-in-progress, Bristlecone, about a couple of retired secret agents. That was the genesis of this one, the characters, and after noodling around a bit -- I usually do a brainstorm page where I just toss out everything that floats up from the murky swamp in my head -- I got the title, and the name of the villain, and a kinda-sorta notion of a MacGuffin. 

(For those of you interested in what that is, go here. If you don't want details, the MacGuffin -- sometimes "McGuffin" -- is a device of some kind that gets the plot rolling in a story. It may or may not have another function than that. Consider The Maltese Falcon. Or the Letters of Transit in Casablanca. They aren't really what the movies are about, but you need them.

Alfred Hitchcock either came up with the notion or was the first to make it generally known.)

I went for the classic mystery-man-with-a-gun, which while not technically a MacGuffin, is close enough.

There's a bit of advice pulp writers used to offer to newbs: If you are stuck in a scene and you don't know how to get out of it, have somebody kick open the door and come in shooting.

So I just kicked open the door, and started shooting, doing scenes I knew I wanted to have, without any real idea of what the villain was up to. He was around, doing something villainous, and what the caper was? It wasn't required at this point -- I didn't really need to know in order to get the set-up going. And in an odd way, that's good, because if I didn't know, the audience wasn't likely to know either, so if I don't rewrite the early stuff to offer clues, no way they can figure it out until later. 

I knew that my old retired couple, Hull and Khadra,  were going to be dragged out of a comfortable retirement against their wishes. I knew bodies would start to pile up, and I was consciously reconsidering the first novel I sold, The Tularemia Gambit, as a template for this one. Because when I wrote that novel, I was a newb, but I'm better now, and I expect I could put some nice spin on the story.

It's not as if that's going to cause problems, using anything from Tularemia. The six people who read that book -- judging by the sales -- aren't going to cut into my potential audience a whole lot. Plus it's not a mystery. The bad guy is going to reveal what the caper is early in the book, and then it's a race to see if he can pull it off or they can stop him. 

Got almost five chapters in before I realized what the bad guy was up to. 

Fascinating how warped a writer's mind is, and how many ways there are to run at a story. 

P.S. Don't ask, don't tell, viz. what the bad guy is up to. Suffice it to say is is wicked-evil-bad.


Carissa said...

I'm fascinated. Let me know when it hits the shelves . . . or if you need a reader!

RM said...

Iffen ya's don't minds me askin', what are the Netforce books that were written by you?

Anonymous said...

Hell, I remember the Tularemia Gambit, the competition between the two talented friends; fun!

Steve Perry said...

Be a while before I get a draft done on this one, I'm only just getting a good head of steam going.

As for which Net Force books I wrote?

All of them. (Save for the YA versions.) Last couple, I had a collaborator -- Larry Segriff -- but he was already my editor.

And Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik, of course.

Worg said...

Were the Brush Vipers real? Am I right in thinking they were an abstraction for MauMau?

Steve Perry said...

Brush Vipers. I dunno. I'd go with fictional, but the thing about secret black bag agencies is kind of like Grand Conspiracy Theory -- if they exist and work as they should, you would never hear about them.

Those zionists in that secret HQ in Geneva who supposedly run the world? No way. Anybody smart enough to actually run everything would be smart enough to stay completely invisible. (And, I have to say, they'd probably do a lot better job than the way it's being run now ...)

If I use the FBI or CIA or NSA in a book, there are constraints built-in. Better to postulate some black-bag unit under their aegis, with which you can play fast and loose, ala Net Force, or one that is completely fictional you can make anything you want. Men in Black.

There is a Delta Force and Grey Fox and such, but The Unit avoids having to deal with their Rules of Engagement ...

(I'm calling mine in this book The Department, or just The D, and HQing it Eugene, Oregon. Because that's the last place anybody would expect to find a sub rosa agency of any kind -- there and Austin, Texas or Boulder, Colorado. Far out, man ...)

jks9199 said...

Just something I'd love to see someone with talent do...

Why not headquarters your secret unit right in plain sight? Put 'em in DC (or NY or wherever), right there for everyone to see... if only they'd bother to look and actually believe what they see.

(One of the things that open employees at CIA are told to do is simply admit that they work at the Central Intelligence Agency. An amazing number of people won't recognize that the Central Intelligence Agency IS the CIA!)

Worg said...

Weren't the brush vipers a terrorist/insurgent group in one of the Netforce books? Am I misremembering? Been a while...

No, I was wrong. It was OpCenter. But didn't one of the OpCenter characters do bukti? Am I conflating? Confabulating? What?

"Those zionists in that secret HQ in Geneva who supposedly run the world? No way. Anybody smart enough to actually run everything would be smart enough to stay completely invisible. (And, I have to say, they'd probably do a lot better job than the way it's being run now ...)"

You're part of the conspiracy. After all, you must be otherwise you would never be allowed to publish books. Consider who runs the publishing industry.

The fact that Houghton Mifflin just went under is all just part of the plot, to make us think that they don't really control childrens' publishing...

I think I'd better stop before I use up the supply of ellipses...

Steve Perry said...

Thing is the CIA, FBI, NSA, ATF, USSS, etc. do have public HQ's, just like MI-6 and -6. I can remember riding the tube in London and having my son's father-in-law point out of the buildings.

The purloined letter isn't the point here, only the fact that my protags were in a secret service that drags 'em back in. I want to focus on them, not the agency.

Steve Perry said...

If it had silat in it, it was Net Force. Bush Vipers were Op Center, not mine.

Worg said...

Since this is off the "front page," and since nobody probably really minds anyway, I'll give you a little insight into my reading preferences. I tell sci fi writers this because I want to see material written in this vein and there seems to be fairly little of it, for some reason.

I like ultraviolent near-future cyberpunk.

Good examples of the subgenre I'm talking about are Count Zero, some of the Gibson short stories, Islands in the Net, The Voice of the Whirlwind/Hardwired, et cetera. The Effinger books are OK too but I always thought they were on a slightly lower echelon of quality.

Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs books are all right too. Good ideas in there, plenty of shooting, but there's something crude about the plots, and he's rather painted himself into a corner with the lack of real death and the neocortical stack plot device. Also, there's something about "post-singularity" sci fi that rings false to me; he claims the concept of superhuman AIs but Kovacs is walking around like a 1940s gumshoe trying to solve crimes the old fashioned way.

A lot of the original writers seem to have lost the way, that bloody, punchy style that got them famous in the first place. It seems like the world is gravitating toward that sort of situation across the board, and such material should be easier to write, not harder...

Steve Perry said...

Somewhere in a file drawer I have an original short story that Bill Gibson and I co-wrote, called "Killer."
About an assassin. Bill used to come down from Vancouver, and he and I and John Shirley and Jay Rothbell would all drive to Eugene, to Damon and Katie's Mini-Milford workshop every month or so.

This was back when we were young and new, 1980 or so, and we sent to to F&SF and Ed Ferman bounced it.

Bill, who wasn't used to rejections, was discouraged and didn't want to send it out again, so we shelved it. Still there. I'm thinking someday maybe ebay ...

I re-read it recently, and it's not bad, but it was maybe too much for F&SF back in the pre-cyberpunk days -- we did it three or four years before Neuromancer came out.

(My modest contribution to Neuromancer was the sex. Bill's first draft didn't really go there, and I pointed out he should, so thus the meat ...)

I lost touch with Bill, but we had a pretty good paper mail exchange back in the day. He's done okay for a white boy living in Canada.

Worg said...

Point is, they've all become much too safe and staid. Gibson in particular seems to be writing stuff inspired by much, MUCH too much time spent in coffeeshops in Gastown.

No guts.

Richard Morgan is OK, like I said, but I think his writing tends to be sloppy.

Ever read the globalguerrillas blog? Lots of interesting stuff there.

Also this:

The intersection between the Singularity, the rolling economic collapse (really a slow-motion apocalypse) and netwar/4GW groups like Al Qaeda and Los Zetas seems to make for some extremely interesting territory that surprisingly few writers have touched on.

Maybe it's scary to them, and to the audience. I hear elf-and-dragon fiction is doing real well in the stores. Vampires of ambiguous orientation are far more comforting than machine intelligence, marburg and machetes.

Safe and staid.

Steve Perry said...

The cutting edge doesn't stay still, and by the time it gets popular enough for anybody but the high night fliers and the rainbow riders to notice it, it's no longer the cutting edge.

Ultraviolet near-future cyberpunk? That's so 1980's, isn't it?

Punk rock group in a sleazy bar in Soho? Maybe. Soon as they make a record and it charts? They can't walk the razor any more. The Beatles did their best live work in Germany.

Most people don't read fiction to be upset or roiled, they read it for entertainment, and for escape. I don't write for the cutting edge -- that sliced past me long ago. Gibson set high marks with Johnny Mneumonic and Neuromancer -- that's enough for one writer. He can play with other aspects of his writing that interest him. If all he did was play the same song over and over? First person you have to please as a writer is yourself.

Worg said...

"Ultraviolent near-future cyberpunk? That's so 1980's, isn't it?"

I think you and I must be reading current newspapers for current events. Those sections are looking more and more indistinguishable from the political backstory of the Sprawl series.

If anything, it's starting to look like Gibson and Sterling were optimistic.

Did you check out the Ronfeld and Arquilla essays on the RAND site? Lots of interesting stuff in there. Fascinating even.

Arquilla was just published in NYT regarding the Mumbai attacks and his very depressing predictions regarding swarming warfare. He's been making depressing predictions since the late 80s and the military establishment has finally stopped laughing at him.

Some of the best sci fi is true.

Worg said...

er, "different newspapers for current events." My word parsing turns into a pumpkin after midnight.