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Generals spend a lot of time planning battles and engagements. They even have something called The War College which I assume is where you go to get a degree in waging war. But even these guys will tell you that the plan goes out the window when the first shot is fired in anger.
Why? Chaos theory. Or, not even theoretical chaos. Actual chaos. Too many variables to be taken into account in order to predict specific outcomes. You can predict with some accuracy who will win the battle but not everything that will go right or wrong during it.
The same is true for the outline you so diligently studied over and worried about and tweaked and wadded up and threw away ten times just to start over again. Somewhere in the first chapter, if your characters have any life of their own, the rigid ladder of events you wired together will start to unzip like replicating DNA. And that’s a good thing because rigid ladders of actions and consequences are about as lifelike as Anime dance offs.
Life is chaotic and at times nonsensical. That’s what makes most thrillers feel ridiculously artificial. They stomp along like storm troopers in a steady rhythm of actions preceding events while the narrative ratchets up the consequences at the end of every act with the steady predictability of a metronome.
Life is chaotic and truth really is stranger than fiction. You couldn’t put most of the coincidences and strange occurrences that actually happen in life into a movie script unless it was specifically designed for the Lifetime Channel. For instance, did you know that President Lincoln had to sneak into Washington for his inauguration dressed as a woman? Or that the Pinkerton agent who uncovered the assassination plot was a woman? Go ahead. Write that script and send it to an agent.
On second thought, someone did just buy Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. But look how that turned out.
Now I know that John Irving so thoroughly plots and outlines his books in advance that he claims to write them backward and he is one of my favorite authors, but I suspect that is actually a rare way to work. For most of us, the outline is just the thing that gets us thinking about all aspects of the story and gives us a place to start and an idea of where we’re going to finish. Everything that happens in between is a wonderfully unknown place that we are about to explore for the first time each time we cross its border.
I’ve been thinking about immortality a lot lately. Not in a metaphorical sense, such as fame being some sort of lasting life, but literal immortality, the kind where you live for hundreds or even thousands of years. The subject came to mind because I read several articles over the last year claiming we are but a few decades away from achieving what they call “clinical immortality.”
How? I don’t know. It has to do with the discovery that the cells in your body operate with a kind of timer that counts down to a certain point and then your stuff stops working so well. The guys in white coats (scientists, not the ones after me) think we’re on the threshold of being able to not just stop, but also to reverse, that process.
Now, my question is pretty simple: Who would want to live forever? The value of life, the thing that makes it so precious, is that it’s limited. How valuable will your experiences be when you have an infinite amount of time to replicate or better them? How long will love last if you don’t go into old age together? If you stay young and pretty forever, will you ever be able to fully commit to one person and know that kind of bone deep love?
The answer to my question is pretty obvious: EVERYONE. Getting old is not fun. Watching yourself slow down as other run past, is frankly humiliating. Even if we were still limited to one hundred years, everyone would choose to live that hundred years as a 29 year old version of themselves until the last minute. I think it’s a mistake and I truly believe it will sap the meaning from life but I can see myself doing it.
That brings me to the more obvious questions: Who gets it? What about overpopulation? What will we do with all that time?
Who gets it? That’s easy: the rich, the politicians, and celebrities. That’s the way it will probably play out because that’s the way it has always played out.
What about overpopulation? We’ve already got twice as many people on the planet as can be fed in a self-sustaining way. The water is running out. The oceans are over fished. The trash is piling up. If you start letting people live forever, it’s just going to get worse. But there is a way that you could use immortality as way to combat overpopulation: Require a person to trade their ability to reproduce for the right to live forever. You could have one kid max and then it’s snip-snip or you grow old and die with the rest of us.
That brings me to the question that I find truly interesting: What will we do with all that time? I’ve spent far more hours thinking about this than I should considering that on the current timetable I won’t live to see this alleged clinical immortality. At first, I thought, “Well, we’ll just keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. Love, argue, eat, play games, fight wars.” But then it hit me that eventually everything gets boring especially if you know you can do it forever.
So, at first, I thought about things like death sports because what is the only thing of value to an immortal? They can always make more money or build a new house or buy a new car or meet a new love but only if they’re still alive to do it. Would people get to a point where they would wager their own immortality just to keep life interesting?
We might go through a phase like that, but more likely would a fifty year ritual where you just walk away from your current life and start over. New career, new spouse, start with a minimal amount of money in a new place and work your way back up.
Then it hit me: What if we could create virtual worlds that were so lifelike that the players inside them didn’t know they were virtual. You could play this game thinking you were mortal and go through your whole “life” passing through the stages your real body would never have to endure right up to the moment of death. Then you jack out of the terminal, blink your eyes, and realize that it was all a game. Anytime your immortal life starts to lose its value, you can just plug into a virtual life.
And then I thought: what if that’s what I’m doing right now? What if that long tunnel and bright white light is just the jacking out process?
What would you do with all the time in the world?
The actual quote from Elmore Leonard is, “Leave out the parts readers tend to skip,” but I prefer the blunter, more direct, “Leave out the boring parts.” I’ve been getting email from readers who note, with some pleasure, that The Vengeance Season is “a quick read”. If there’s such a thing as Thick Book Fatigue Syndrome out there, I have it and I think a lot of other readers do too. After all the fat Stephen King novels and the Harry Potter giants and what with Neal Stephenson apparently being paid by the word these days, I have started specifically looking for books with a thin to medium waistline.
In fact, The Vengeance Season is 60,000 words long which is, these days anyway, the minimum for a novel. It hasn’t always been like this, though. Back in the days when dinosaurs stalked primitive man through the streets of Manhattan, there were books like Rosemary’s Baby and This Perfect Day by Ira Levin. (Some critic once described Levin’s writing as ruthlessly efficient.) I remember reading I Am Legend by Richard Matheson in just a few hours one afternoon. The speed of the story and its unbroken and unrelenting narrative gave you the feeling you were watching a particularly intense movie. Which is good since, even after three tries, no one has been able to make a decent movie out of it.
I think this move toward longer books is something akin to the rise in portion sizes at restaurants over the last thirty years. They have a similar need, these restaurants and publishers, to charge you a lot of money so their percentage of profit goes up. When you plop down $40 for a hardcover, they want you to be holding something heavy, something that feels like it’s worth six times the minimum wage. Books that only run 300 pages (or 60,000 words) like Of Mice and Men and For Whom The Bell Tolls just don’t weigh enough to be good literature. And you can forget slimmer tomes such as The Black Pearl and The Goodbye Look. Authors who write a 45,000 word novel these days have to cram them into short story collections and put three of them together in a collection of novellas like King’s Different Seasons.
Most of my novels are longer than 60,000 words, some are as long as 100,000, but even with them I try to leave out the parts readers skip. Those longer stories just have more plot and characterization. On the other hand, I try to keep the Doyle stories as simple as possible. I realized from my survey of the great masterworks that there should only be two plots in a detective story. The A story, the most important story, is about the detective. The B story is the mystery he’s trying to solve. That’s it. If you restrict yourself to those two plotlines and don’t waste a lot of time stringing together beautiful paragraphs to describe what trees look like, you’re going to come in around 60,000 words and your readers aren’t going to feel like they’ve run a marathon when they close your book.
Let me backtrack a little bit before I close just to say that I love long books. I read The Cryptonomicon every couple of years. When you finish a really good, really long book you feel like you’ve been friends with the characters for years. So, it’s not that I don’t like long books, it’s that when every book you read is wide around the middle you start to run out of energy just assessing their girth.
Also, let’s face it, some stories don’t need to be that long. By the time I got to the end of Cujo, I was reading every third page and had no trouble keeping up with the story. I couldn’t make it through the last Harry Potter book. The first part was so boring I ended up reading the Cliff’s Notes just to see how the saga ended. If your reader isn’t compelled to stick with your story by a fast moving, well articulated plot, then you have some more editing to do. Well drawn characters with deep back stories are incredibly important to a good story but if all you’ve got them doing is standing around smoking cigarettes while you describe the color of the drapes your readers aren’t going to notice them. Or the drapes.