Editing, Short and Long

Outside of blog posts and my novel, most of my writing these days turns into short stories. Usually the combination of two or more ideas—be they characters, situations, themes, etc.—will spark something I want to express, and my goal is to twist those ideas in a new, interesting way.

For speculative fiction, which is generally what I write, the short story is an essential form. With this format writers can wrap the kernel of some great idea in a tight little package, and do it quickly and efficiently enough that the reader doesn’t have time to get bored. Usually a short story is meant to be punchy enough and gripping enough that the reader will not put it down without finishing it.

Consequently when I edit short stories I find myself cinching everything down, stripping out all extraneous detail that doesn’t turn the story (the kernel) in crucial and compelling ways. The idea should roll out naturally and passionately and there should be no lulls in the story. So when it comes to economy of prose, I get ruthless.

The phrase “kill your darlings”, clichéd as it is, remains a good maxim. It’s easy to fall in love with little phrases, descriptions, or dialogue that were written spontaneously and turned out pleasing. But if these darlings are just aesthetically pleasing and they aren’t crucial to the unfolding of the story, they must be removed. People don’t generally read short stories for aesthetically pleasing descriptions; they want a story. If they just wanted pleasing sentences, they can read poetry.

Usually when I come up with a short story I will outline it thoroughly so that I know all the essential elements of the telling, then I will overwrite my first draft, including anything that comes to mind. But when it comes time to edit, I can usually strip away a substantial amount of what I’ve written. It is common for me to pare down the word count of my first draft by a third. I take out anything extraneous, condense scenes by making them more efficient, and tighten up the sentences because I want my idea expressed in short order.

For the past few months I’ve been slowly editing my first novel Residuum, which I wrote for NaNoWriMo. I was surprised to find that going from a rough first draft to a fine first draft, my word count expanded considerably. This has to do with the form. If people decide to take on a whole novel, they have decided to invest more of their time for a fuller expression of ideas, so I try to make each element as full and satisfying as possible.

While I think the reader of a novel will be more forgiving of a less terse style of prose, there is still no excuse for inefficiently rolling out the story for them. Many darlings have been killed in the making of my novel. I still want to tell the story in a relentless way while giving the ideas room to grow and fulfill themselves in a way that feels natural to me.

A novel is much more weighty, can deal with bigger issues in a more detailed way, and I think my first rough draft left many subplots and minor interests unresolved. Particularly in my third act, the seeds that were planted in the early parts of the book need to come to fruition in a more satisfying way. I find it hard to add to a draft. It’s much easier to take stuff out.

I found that I took short cuts, leaving out secondary ideas to emphasize the main, A-story. But in a novel of any length, a reader should be interested in more than just the central protagonist. I’ve taken the time to set up the world and flesh out the secondary and tertiary characters, so I owe it to myself to see their storylines through to completion.

When I was participating in NaNoWriMo last November, the goal was fifty thousand words in one month. It was a bit of a struggle to make that word count while working a day job, but that made it more satisfying when the end of the month came and I had made it. But I kept writing at that point because the story wasn’t finished.

In my hurry to write, I narrowed my focus to the main protagonist and the spine of the story while some of the supporting ideas and characters didn’t receive fair page-time. Looking back on how I treated those secondary parts of the novel, I feel like I was half-assing it. I kept writing after November and ended with a word count of around sixty-one thousand words. Then, because I had my head so far up my first pass, I handed it off to one trusted friend to read.

It’s not difficult to maintain objectivity when writing; it’s impossible. Having an outsider read it who is very familiar with science fiction and “novels of ideas” was absolutely crucial. He pointed out many of the gaps where I hurried through things and posed questions to me. A few conversations back and forth and some detailed notes (for which I owe him in a big way) highlighted the flaws in my first pass.

The second pass, which will bring me to what I refer to as my “first draft”, already sits at over seventy-seven thousand words. The whole book has expanded by about 25% so far, and I still have the last fifty pages to work through. These final pages are where many of the unresolved plot elements need to be, so I expect the word count to climb up as high as eighty-five thousand.

It surprised me to be putting in so much when I’m used to taking out. The editing process for the novel has involved a good deal of rewriting, plus brand new writing, even the addition of completely new chapters. I imagine this is a blunder because it’s my first novel. Next time I will outline more fully, considering the ideas underlying the story. I expect that the edit of my second novel will find me stripping away the fat, cutting flowery prose, and returning to the ruthlessness of my short story editing. We’ll see.

 

P.S. Next week will be my first week off from the blog. I will be without a computer for a couple days and doubt I will have time to prepare anything, so there will be no post. Enjoy your Canada Day weekend and try not to be too depressed when there is no new pretentious nonsense to read here. – ERS

Solipsism, Semantics and Science, Between You And Me

Previously I wrote that all our experiences of the world happen within our nervous system, that we cannot truly see past our perceptions and experience reality directly. While this is a fact, it doesn’t mean we remain completely separate from each other.

Dictionary.com defines solipsism two ways.

1. Philosophy. The theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist.

2. Extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one’s feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption

Obviously if all we can ever experience happens within our nervous systems, it’s tempting to think that we will always remain apart, that our experiences are never truly shared and don’t even overlap. Too strong a belief in that separation can cause feelings of isolation. But experience happens on many different levels, and some of these levels allow more connection with other people and the world at large.

Nothing in the Universe happens in isolation. Fundamental forces tie all matter together, so everything is related to everything else in a real, physical way, in differing degrees ranging between 0 and ∞ (not inclusive). This is why we have theories like the Butterfly Effect which claim the wind from a butterfly wing can cause a hurricane across the planet. (Careful! Don’t watch the movie of the same name starring Ashton Kutcher.)

Everything that exists is in constant flux, constantly changing and never static. When we talk about any thing, that thing is different one moment to the next (it may change in temperature, mass, and so forth, but at a minimum, the atoms and electrons, etc., are in different positions). So it’s wrong to speak of things as static, unchanging blocks of reality. A static noun implies an unchanging object. It’s much more accurate to discuss reality in terms of process transactions, using active verbs and avoiding the verb is and its other forms (to be, being, was, etc.).

So here we are in a whirling field of activity (of which we are a part). When we observe a part of the universe, we can never know all the details of an event because the characteristics of any event are linked to the details of every other event which are always changing, and so really, the universe is just one big, continuous, ever-changing event, never twice the same. What we perceive are objects abstracted from that event that fall within our range of frequency response.

By frequency response I mean that there is a range frequencies that are perceivable by the ear, other frequencies that are perceivable by the eye, and so forth. These naturally observable frequencies—including others like infrared that, through technology, come within our frequency response—are all we can perceive externally.

So we observe an object, a part of the whole event, and we abstract a set of details. Let’s say I’m watching tennis. Tennis is a sport that depends physically upon the sun, Earth, gravity, nuclear forces, and so forth, even though we do not think about or even perceive these factors. Instead, I focus on the ball, or the short skirts, depending on who’s playing.

The ball or skirt that I perceive is a tiny part of the entire event. The characteristics that I perceive in the ball are finite (because I can only perceive so much), but unlimited (I can always find new characteristics by looking in different ways). So what I perceive, the ball or skirt, will always contain fewer details than the actual event.

But this perception comes together inside my brain. The visual information, audio, movement and relations to surrounding factors (rackets, the net, etc.) all happen on an unspeakable, objective level. My brain compiles the information together into a workable model before I even become aware of it. And I cannot take my perception directly out of my head and place it into the head of my friend. But now that I have a workable model based on perception, I apply a label to the object of my attention; I choose to call it “ball”.

When I call it “ball”, I am applying a verbal label to this non-verbal, objective level of experience. It is the label that I communicate to my friend. But this label is just a label, a semantic tool used to signify my experience. The word “ball” stands for the assembly of perceptions in my brain. The label does not contain the same quantity or quality of information that my perception does. The label has few possible values, because “ball” is a generic term, but for my tennis example, “ball” has one value; the word signifies the actual object being hit back and forth by the players. My label leaves out all the information that I perceive when I perceive the actual ball. But now that I have a label, a means to communicate with my friend, something special happens.

I can apply labels to my experiences and attempt to describe that wordless, objective experience, and my friend can do the same. If I say, “the ball is fuzzy and purple”, my friend can think about what those words mean, or look them up if need be, and say, “actually, you lunatic, the ball is fuzzy and green. Take another look,” at which point I can test my perceptions against his at the verbal level. When I look and find that the ball is green and not purple, I have learned something. I am colourblind.

So while we cannot know reality directly, and we cannot know another’s perceptions, we can communicate with one another to compile more and more information about the experience of our fellow humans. Labels allow us to communicate, which is fundamental for human progress. Without communication, we would still be primitive instead of domesticated primates.

At the label level of life, we can have meaning. There is no such thing as meaning on the objective level of reality, and I doubt the universe as a whole has meaning. Meaning comes from language, and on that level we share reality with our friends.

If we really want to share reality, the key is clear communication. The more thoroughly we communicate our experiences, the more we are connected. This is part of the reason that clear language, proper grammar, and creativity are important to me. There is also a direct link between clear language and clear thinking. At the very least clear language is a symptom of clear thinking. But I have a hunch that clear language can lead to clear thinking. As our rational brains use language and logic to piece together our worldviews, increasing our linguistic capacities can only help the rational process.

Knowing what is communicable and how best to communicate is a key to creativity. Part of that is learning how to differentiate the real from the unreal, fact from fiction, and so forth, so that our friends can weigh our communications accurately. Semantics is essential to how we live and learn; it is how we translate our wordless experience of reality into shared experience. If we can nail down a systematic way of testing experiences against one another, we might learn how the universe operates. This is what science tries to do.

Science is based on a method of experiment and observation, a reduction of hopefully irrelevant variables, and then proper communication of the data to others for verification through further experiments. This is how we methodically tally one person’s experience with another. Through science we learn tendencies about the wordless, objective level of objects, and we can compile theories about the actual events, even the manifold of spacetime in which reality happens. Though science doesn’t prove anything 100%, the more scientific evidence there is for a theory, the more reason there is to believe it.

The goal of science is the discovery of our reality. Science is intentionally sterile to reduce the subjective variables that change so radically from person to person. If we can discover how the universe works independent of our personal experiences, we can fit our personal experiences to the truths of the universe to avoid unpleasant surprises.

In my personal experience, I can apply whatever metaphysics I want. I can believe in faeries, gods, demons, or whatever, and I can talk about them meaningfully and even use them to explain my experience, but this is not science. I might enjoy my metaphysics more than yours, but that doesn’t make them right. Even still, differing viewpoints are essential to scientific testing. The metaphysics of Ptolemy, Gallileo, Newton or Einstein helped move science forward because their metaphysics increasingly seemed to tally with the experience of others and the evidence of the day.

As science moves forward it becomes more and more sure of itself. Science continually out-modes metaphysics. That’s progress. It’s crucial that people keep posing new questions about the world as long as theories don’t get in the way of experience. Since theories can alter the power of our investigations, it’s a good idea to pause, take a breath, let the sense data register and be processed by higher abstractions, and try to see things for what they really are. Then, communicate.

Of course, that’s just my opinion. If my opinion tallies with your experiences, feel free to believe me. But you should feel free to not believe me as well. Belief might change your actions and perceptions, but not the external facts of reality.

Signposts

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to find new music to listen to. Same goes for movies and books. There are websites that offer options like, “If you liked A, you’ll probably like B,” or “People who purchased C also purchased D,” and that can be helpful, but usually the recommendations are very safe, almost tentative, and the results are mediocre. A lot of the time the recommended artist or piece of media doesn’t live up to the connection.

I’m much more likely to trust a recommendation from an artist. The artists that I like (most artists, really) usually draw inspirations from other artists. So when an artist mentions a name or references a specific album or book, I try to pay attention. When there is a drought in good new music, for example, it’s easy to comb through artists I already like to find references, usually to older artists. People who create something that fits your tastes will usually have good taste themselves.

Led Zeppelin’s third album, arguably their best, ends with a song called “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”. For some reason it took me years to actually look up Roy Harper. It’s not a very popular name outside of its own niche. Roy Harper is a genius of his own variety and influenced his friend Jimmy Page. Harper’s innovative recording techniques, lyrics and intriguing decisions on albums like Lifemask or Stormcock are mind-blowing. Once I tracked it down, I took my hat off to Jimmy Page for “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”.

But even Zeppelin fans I know claim they’ve never heard of Roy Harper. I find this strange, and it makes me wonder why it took me so long to look him up. If artists are doing something innovative and new and they go out of their way to point out an influence or inspiration, it only makes sense to pay attention. But often the references go unnoticed.

The flip-side to this is that artists often name-drop because they feel it will increase their cache. Generally, I find that if the referenced artist is a household name, you don’t need to go on the hunt. This form of name-dropping acts similarly to the “If you liked A, you’ll probably like B,” recommendations. When the band Franz Ferdinand calls their song “Ulysses”, I don’t expect their fans will run out and read Homer or James Joyce, but the reference is there as fodder for critics and nerds. That’s fine too, but it’s not as exciting as discovering some obscure gem brought to light in a conscientious way.

When the reference is little-known, my natural inclination is to investigate. When Six Organs of Admittance named an album For Octavio Paz, it got me wondering about Octavio Paz. What was it in the poetry of Paz that inspired the songs of Six Organs? It’s worth finding out.

This all happens on a conscious level. But often references aren’t as obvious as these examples. A lot of artists like to drop references more subtly, and by that I mean wordlessly. These types of references won’t put you on the lookout, but they can be much more rewarding when they are stumbled upon, like hearing John Coltrane in “Eight Miles High” by The Byrds. A lot of the time I’ll catch a connection long after the reference and it will give me a rush of enthusiasm.

Imagery in David Lynch’s films, for instance, calls up the dark mystery of the paintings of Francis Bacon. When I see certain Bacon paintings I am totally thrilled, and I can trace the aesthetic connection back to something I’m familiar with (Lynch’s films). Now I have the entire oeuvre of Francis Bacon to look into, and that’s exciting.

For years now I’ve been a sucker for spiritual literature and philosophy. There’s something about witnessing a mind groping for truth that’s exciting to me, and to an extent I think we’re all on some sort of path toward understanding our existence. So when an artist chooses to leave signposts in this direction, I am drawn in. There are spiritual guides in my life. They are usually artists, and they’ve been ushering me along a path to self-knowledge.

The albums of Bardo Pond are my favorite example. Philadelphia’s ultimate psychedelic rock group know what they are doing. Take this recent vinyl reissue of Ticket Crystals.

Bardo Pond - "Ticket Crystals"

I see this picture and it makes an impression on me. So when I stumble upon the picture in Aleister Crowley’s Book Of Lies, a little masterpiece of Kabbalistic and philosophical puzzles, I know I’m on the right path.

The Book of Lies

Their albums are full of these symbols, and whether through coincidence or conscious decision, I’ve discovered a wealth of books, movies and music to get me further down the path, or at least let me know that I’m looking in the right direction. Even if I’m not drawn in by the referenced work, at least I’m looking at something new.

It’s as though certain artists exist to act as a psychopomp. The psychopomp’s role in mythology is to guide dead souls into the afterlife. In this real world version, artists use the symbols they have at their disposal to guide people out of the mundane world into new levels of understanding. It might sound high-flown, but I’ve been on the path for a while now and it hasn’t let me down.

Disregarded in the darkness, the fact of enlightenment remained. The roaring of the engines diminished, the squeaking rhetoric lapsed into an inarticulate murmur, and as the intruding noises died away, out came the frogs again, out came the uninterruptable insects, out came the mynah birds.
     “Karuna. Karuna.” And a semitone lower, “Attention.”
– Aldous Huxley, Island

A Belief In “Dog”

Once upon a time someone told me about “Dog”. “Dog” exists, they said. I took their word for it and had a new concept of something that exists out there called “Dog”. But sooner or later I figured out that all I really knew was that there was this word, “Dog”. How was I to know what “Dog” actually was? I needed someone to describe it to me. What are “Dog’s” qualities? How will I know “Dog” when I see it?

So they told me: “Dog” is a four-legged mammal covered in fur with big ears and a long snout, ranging from tea-cup size to nearly the size of a pony. Great, so what does “Dog” do? Well, it sleeps, eats, barks, runs, plays, sniffs, and leaves a mess on the sidewalk. By now I have a pretty solid concept of “Dog”. I should know it when I see it.

So I went looking for “Dog” and found a huge number of items that fit the description. Some of them were “Cats”, but I was able to sort those out pretty easily. Same with “Raccoons”. But some of these furry items that weren’t “Cats” or “Raccoons” didn’t really have a long snout but a rather short one. And how big is a big ear? Some of these things had huge ears and some were really small.

Someone explained to me that “Dog” comes in many different breeds and shapes. So I wondered, of all these animals, which one was “Dog”? They all are, I was told. It turned out that “Dog” didn’t refer to a single thing, but a rough human guideline that encompasses all sorts of different individual items called “Dogs”. So how do I tell one from another? Shouldn’t I call them Dog 1, Dog 2, Dog 3, and so on?

It’s handy to give them all individual names. That way when I talk about one or another, I know which one I’m talking about. But it got me thinking: does “Dog” actually exist? It turns out that no, “Dog” is not a real thing at all, but a word that describes a whole range of experiences. It reminded me once again that the words we use to describe things are much different from the things they describe.

A while after I figured out what “Dog” was, and could speak about “Dogs” in a way that made sense, someone introduced me to “Cerberus”. “Cerberus” is a three-headed guard dog from the “Underworld”. It’s confusing because I know that a “Dog” only has one head. But I also know that “Dog” does not actually exist. But now there’s this thing called “Cerberus” which is a “Dog” but has three heads? How does that work?

Well, it turns out that “Cerberus” doesn’t exist either. When I went looking for “Dog” I didn’t find “Dog”, I found dogs, each of which were individuals, very different from one another, and each of which I could reach out and touch. Well I can’t reach out and touch “Cerberus”, so it must be less real than “Dog”, right?

If “Dog” doesn’t exist, but it still means something, can’t the same be said for “Cerberus”? Then I found out that “Cerberus” does exist in mythology, in paintings, literature, and heraldry, and in each case “Cerberus” isn’t just meaningless noise, it stands for a real experience. So it doesn’t seem to have any physical reality other than the representations of it that manifest as sound (spoken words), images, and stories, but it still means something.

Every time “Cerberus” is invoked must be unique, because it is used by different people at different times for different purposes. So in a way once again there are many individual Cerberuses, each of which exist in different ways for different people. Some people probably consider “Cerberus” “bad”, and some people out there must consider it “good” (even though both of those words have no objective meaning whatsoever), but we should assume in most cases that “Cerberus” is meaningful and can have a real effect on the objective world, even if that effect only happens in our minds (F.Y.I., our minds also have no objective reality).

So how do I know if something is real? I have to use the experiences of my senses. But any kid who has watched The Matrix knows that the senses are compiled and coordinated inside the brain. Each of my eyes register a two-dimensional image on the retina. The third dimension is inferred from the relation of two two-dimensional images in my brain. Similarly with taste, “bitterness” does not exist in the world except by relation to some human tongue connected to a nervous system.

It’s interesting also that the computer I’m using to write this seems solid enough to my touch, but we have proven that it is not what it seems. It is made out of keys and a touch pad and screen and circuitry all of which are made out of molecules that are made out of atoms that are made out of protons and electrons and so on and so on. When you get down in there, it seems like the computer is mostly empty space.

“What we see is structurally only a specific statistical mass-effect of happenings on a much finer grained level. We see what we see because we miss all the finer details.” – Alfred Korzybski, Science & Sanity

So we have perceptions, and beyond them we have the unknown. We can look deeper, use tools like telescopes and microscopes and stethoscopes to find out what’s really going on, but when we look into the microscope we again are left only with a perception. The objective facts have to be inferred, and they can never be 100% proven.

How can I possibly know a thing? I can look at it from different angles, using different sense organs and nervous centers, and I can gather a mass of data about an object, but my personal, internal representation of that thing will never be the thing itself. Furthermore, I will never have absolutely all the data about that thing. There will always be something unknown. This is a fact.

Everything we think exists, exists for our nervous systems. To state that something is “real” without relating our own perception of it is inferring and speculating, a convenience which can have dangerous repercussions.

Let’s say I’ve been snacking on wild mushrooms while camping and I see a bright light inside a cave. I go inside and see something absolutely amazing, which I’ll call “Bob”. I come out of the cave and tell people all about “Bob”, how he looks, what his qualities are, what he does, and I never mention how I perceived him (where I was and when, what psychoactive chemicals were floating through my brain, etc.), people might begin to believe that “Bob” exists objectively, out there, in reality. They’ve never seen “Bob”, but they were convinced by my description and how enthusiastic I was.

Next thing you know you have a cult of Bob.

“I don’t know what anything ‘is’; I only know how it seems to me at this moment.”

– Robert Anton Wilson