My Stories

On some of my own writing projects…

So far I have tried to focus on observational posting – music I like, historical quirks, some experiences of living here in Qatar as an American.  But tonight I want to write a little bit about what I am writing about, fiction-wise.  I have always been drawn to genre fiction as a reader, writer, and consumer of video media.  Mostly that means science fiction and fantasy, but I also have read some horror at the behest of an ex (amicably separated due to my peregrinate lifestyle.)  Thus when I talk about writing, I am usually talking about something along the lines of science fiction or fantasy.

Currently I have been slowly accreting words onto a short story about a priest of gods in a multivariable pantheon who deciphers an odd codex of ancient repute.  He finds in the midst of those volumes a map that suggests that an old, overgrown area of his home continent was once the site of a completely different sort of civilization from his early industrial-era society.

He travels towards a particularly captivating location on that map, drawn by a sense of inevitability and purpose that his life in an idyllic valley of monasteries and temples did not provide.

I will not go into the conceit of the story in this entry, as I have not yet written it out of the pre-writing I have in notes and a general idea.

What I will talk to is a larger idea that I have for a novel or a series.  I was thinking about the currently-popular idea that the universe is not what it seems, but may rather be an enormously complex simulation running on hardware in a higher level of reality.  Then I thought, what if the different complexes of gods and spirits that humans have worshipped over the centuries are in fact different development teams on the larger simulation?  Early ideas of the supernatural are humans’ neural-net simulations interacting on some level with the active efforts of developers on an early phase of our universe, focused on our world at least, and thus also giving an “explanation” for why humans feel compelled to believe in the idea of beings greater than ourselves in power and influence.  Rationally, I have no trouble accepting the more mundane explanation that our sense of the supernatural arises from pattern recognition “circuitry” in our biological thought processes interacting with our social instincts and innate desire to know and control future events for our benefit.  But I think that it offers fertile ground for a work of fiction to subvert that idea towards one wherein humans are, in fact, programmed to be responsive to the developers of our world as a technological project of a higher-universe group of sentients.

The idea is that the Egyptian pantheon represents one of the earliest sets of developers tasked with stimulating a complex, hierarchical society from our base coding, and the Sumerian/Mesopotamian complex that coexisted with it represents a more primitive set of developers focused on machine code that would sustain the processing and expansion of humanity towards whatever end the overall simulation is meant to illustrate or entail.  From there, different pantheons represent different sorts of software development teams.  The Abrahamic religions emerge as a kind of power struggle amongst management of the simulation project outside of our universe, while Japan and its Shinto faith are a subset of the larger simulation added on almost like DLC for the larger game of life, perhaps focused on algorithms designed to operate without external intervention yet to build off of the “basic rules and classes” that power the larger global experiment.

I could even see a side-series that looks at another planet developed by the same beings above our universe, and yet is a world that operates on a wildly different application of the basic physical and chemical laws that govern Earth-based life, etc.  I will need to do a significant amount of pre-writing, but the basic introductory plot line is one in which a human or a small group of humans end up making contact with a developer or development team who do not like the way that humans have deified their fellow coders and designers, and who are able to offer manipulation of the world we know to achieve a set of initially unknowable ends.

This would be a very large writing project, and one that I am not sure I want to begin until I have a chance to hack at some other, earlier ideas that I have had.  But as this blog was intended to be one talking about writing, I figured it only fair to share some of my story ideas.  If you end up using the larger conceit to create your own work, I ask only that if I am successful at publishing mine, you not be shady and claim that I stole your idea simply because I was not as fast as fleshing out my own.

I hope that this was at least food for thought for you all, and that you have a fantastic day or night, wherever on our whirling planet you may be.

Shaping the World

On rituals, large and small…

The idea of rituals as something uniquely human is not a new one in academia – or even in more basic and ancient philosophy.  Myths, authors such as James George Frazer argue, are likely as not explanations for rituals as they are the source for them.  His book the Golden Bough tracks aimlessly through world mythologies looking for an explanation of a single Classical ritual.  Many are the critiques of this idea, but it is an interesting starting point from a literary standpoint in approaching things like people’s belief systems, folklore, “old ways,” and the roots of tradition.  South Chinese rituals of burning papercraft objects to provide ghostly analogs of modern consumer electronics show that just because rituals and traditions are old, they are not hidebound to long-forgotten worlds or ways of life that are, by narrative/historical necessity, lost.

I think one thing that people often overlook when confronting the idea of ritual is that it has to be grounded in some kind of faith in the supernatural, or some larger idea of religion.  Sure, we hear about “sports rituals” or “rites of passage” that are entirely secular, but I would argue that many of us still see in them the same sort of animating spirit as that which underlies animal sacrifice or hanging ribbons with wishes on particularly lovely trees.  But secular rituals, that is, commonly-known and practiced activities that we repeat, are incredibly potent forces for bringing people together.  Whether they are creeds of faith or pledges of allegiance to a national idea, songs about community members past or present, or the repetition of inside jokes meant to simultaneously include and exclude, rituals come in all forms.

On the other hand, it is tempting to define all of human activity in some framework of “rituals,” since any action can become repetitive and nearly any action can bring people closer together or align people’s emotional states in tune with one another.  I cannot claim to offer an objective definition of the term, even though I abhor when philosophical arguments break down entirely into Wittgensteinian semantics and fights over who is permitted to define basic terms.  But ritual is one of those words that truly means something different to different people and in differing contexts.

One thing to think about is how this plays out when you create a world or shape a character while writing a story.  Whether we call them quirks, idiosyncrasies, or habits, most people develop something akin to rituals as almost a kind of emotional scar tissue around the cuts and scrapes of life as they age.  Conversely, in childhood, we seem to develop and dismiss whole theologies of this kind from week to week while we are figuring out who we are and what we stand for or believe in.  That, by itself, can provide the fuel for a dramatic conflagration of plot and development, but when used in conjunction with the many other skills in the authorial toolbox, adds a whole additional level of realism to what we write.

Worldbuilding with Schiller

On writing and music…

The very first compact disc I ever bought was Schiller’s Voyage, the Anglophone market vesion of his album Weltreise.  I would listen to that album on my Christmas Sanyo portable CD player over and over again, savoring each song like a jawbreaker candy, tonguing and hearing through layer after layer.  With a yard-sale VHS recorder camera, I tried to make videos of the farmland vistas and low mountains that spread out in a beautiful rippling patchwork behind our exurban neighborhood to accompany the music.  I was entranced by that Trance album to where I could ascend in my imagination into these worlds and places that I had never, as a boy in Virginia, been even remotely near.

I sometimes wonder if it was fate that I found that CD, colored circles and round-edged jewel case, at the record store near the library my mother always took us to.  There had always been music to listen to on the radio, and my parents had vinyl and cassettes of all sorts of music.  But this was my first album, that I paid for and owned.  I still vividly remember putting on the ungainly large sampling headphones from the receiver at the store and jumping through the beginnings of several tracks, to “try before I bought” well before the mp3 and streaming brought music down to the status of a utility.

Since that time, more than a decade ago, I have listened to that album so many times as to have lost count only a few months into having it.  The lesson it taught me, to use music as a tool to nudge my mind, has become an ever important part of my life of the mind.  I may not be a great writer, pouring out captivating prose and poetry as quickly as a bird molts off great gouts of shimmering feathers only to grow them anew.  But I have harnessed that discovery to at least make attempts at capturing some of the stories and films that I have concocted in my head on paper and even, tentatively, on video.

Similar to finding the perfect runner’s high I have found that if you need to write particular sorts of things, the right soundtrack or music is marvelously powerful.  When I was in middle and high school, I would put on a lot of new agey-type music to work on the grand fantasy novel I had begun without much plan, relying instead on imagery and setting to carry a plot of only the vaguest dimensions atop.  I think that remains one of my greatest problems is that more than wanting to tell stories I want to take people on journeys like a helicopter pilot through my imagination, shouting out the names of fantastic places and buzzing the snowy heights of mountains in worlds without end.  What happens in those worlds is, to me, unfortunately secondary to their simple existence to be mapped, explored, named, and elucidated.

One of my goals while I have free time here in Qatar has been to work on the mechanics of writing more of that sort of detail – the things that readers are really looking for, as they are not filmgoers looking to watch a travel documentary about a made-up country, but require characters, deeds, and a comprehensible story arc.  To be sure, there are plenty of literary creations that have very little in the way of such things – Wittgenstein’s Mistress is one, for a particularly erudite example (and one I found by way of a David Foster Wallace biography.)  I am not, however, attempting to write about philosophical constructs wrapped in prose-poetry.

To sum up this somewhat meandering blog entry, I have found that using music ccan allow you to find the right words to capture a given place or time, whether you are attempting to pin down a dreamlike otherworld or to write a piece grounded firmly in the last several hundred years of history.  Music, perhaps uniquely among the aesthetic creations of humanity, can open waking gateways into the part of the brain that dreams without the cumbersome need for sleep. Music can send you soaring across landscapes that have no earthly counterpart for good or ill, and for me that first real musical takeoff came from Schiller (named, appropriately, for the German Romantic poet.)