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A Serious Influence

To the extent that I’ve been consciously influenced by any writer, it would be Ray Bradbury.

When did I first encounter Bradbury’s stories? I don’t exactly recall, but it was a long time ago. I read his short story “A Sound of Thunder” in either eighth or ninth grade. That was during my family’s brief stay in Sacramento, California, and is the earliest clear memory I have of his work.

Also about that time, my English class screened the 1963 TV documentary Ray Bradbury: The Story of a Writer, which in part follows the author through the development of a short story called “Dial Double Zero.” That story never appeared in print, but the documentary provides a solid glimpse of it through Bradbury’s musings, dramatic presentations of portions of the story, and his reading of the ending.

When I grow up as a writer, I’d like to be Bradbury. That thought has been stuck in my head for many, many years. Of course, in a literal sense it’s impossible. Authors have to find their own voices, their own styles. We each have a unique life, a unique set of experiences upon which we draw, so none of us writes exactly like anyone else.

But if I write even a third as well in my own way as Bradbury did in his, I could be pleased with the results. Sometimes I think I come close. Example: in October 2015 a story called “In the Butcher Shop” spilled out of me in a single hour. I suspect he might have given me a bit of help that day.

October, anyway, was his time of year…

Up the Middle

In last week’s post, I talked about story structure–beginning, middle, end–and specifically about beginnings. A beginnings is a short thing. Once the main characters arrive on the scene, the setting is established, and people run into problems, it’s over. Then the characters plunge into the story’s middle, where they spend the bulk of their time.

In the middle, the characters seek to resolve whatever their problems are, but it’s never smooth sailing. Things have to get worse before they can get better, because if they didn’t there wouldn’t be much of a story. Tension equals interest. To avoid loosing the reader, tension has to be not only maintained but increased until the point when matters are resolved and the story ends.

Tension is generally increased through complications, unforeseen occurrences that make life harder for the characters. By way of illustration, let’s jump from literature to film. In the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is faced with a formidable challenge: find and recover the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. An oversimplified review of the plot shows several key complications:

  • As soon as Indie finds and recovers the Ark, the Nazis take it from him and seal him underground with his old flame, Marion.
  • As soon as Indie escapes, he learns the Ark is about to be flown to Germany.
  • As soon as he demolishes the airplane, he learns the Ark is about to be taken away by truck convoy.
  • As soon as he recaptures the Ark and gets it onto a ship, the Nazis intercept in a submarine and recapture it, taking Marion with them.
  • As soon as he ambushes the Nazi procession on their way to open the Ark and demands Marion’s release in exchange for not blowing up the Ark, his nemesis Belloq hits him in his weakest spot: he refuses to release Marion and dares Indie to destroy the artifact.

Tension escalates through this sequence of events. Although not easy, neither is it excessively difficult for Indie to recover the Ark in the first place. But once it’s been taken from him, he only recovers it through a major fight. And when it’s taken from him the third time, it’s hopeless. He ultimately succeeds through divine intervention.

Moreover the stakes are upped each time it’s taken from him. With each reversal of his fortunes, the Nazis move closer to their goal. The first time he loses the Ark, Indie and Marion are left to die. The second time, Marion is captured as part of the prize. The third and final time, Indie and Marion are both captured.

Along the way, a series of other events play out. New characters are introduced, both helping and opposing Indie. Smaller conflicts play out, including the conflict between himself and Marion. Crises arise and are resolved, but each time relief is short lived; another, larger crisis looms to take the place of the previous one.

These subplots play several roles. They help define the characters in ways that the main conflict does not. Without Marion and Marcus and Sallah and Belloq, Indie would be very two-dimensional as he battled the Nazis for possession of the treasure. Moreover, smaller conflicts and complications help sustain interest while the main conflict builds and when it falls into its inevitable lulls. The humorous interaction between Marion and Indie on the ship sustains interest between their escape with the Ark and the appearance of the Nazi submarine.

We’ve been examining a film, not a written story, but the principles are the same. The differences are largely of complexity: a film offers much less space than a novel, so novels are almost always more complex. That’s why a film based on a novel inevitably leaves out a lot of material, even when faithful to the book. The same can be said in comparing novels to short stories, which often don’t offer room for subplots or much character development. In all cases, however, the middle of the story maintains and increases the tension, which builds through a series of events until it reaches its climax.

And then it’s time for the end.

The Making of “The Fibonacci Murders”

It began at a traffic light, a red light that stopped me on my way home from work one day. Minds often wander at such moments–at least mine does–and at that particular red light a thought came to me: it would be fun to write a mystery in which a mathematician plays a key role. Deservedly or not, mathematicians have a reputation for quirkiness. I could play that up to good effect.

Not a bad start! But it took two more years before I connected that character with a story. What took so long? Well . . .

Something like a decade earlier, I’d written a science fiction novel and started shopping it around. In those days I was an “aspiring writer,” a polite and encouraging term for a writer who hasn’t made a sale yet. I’d written oodles of short stories, mostly science fiction, but sold none of them. I had also written one longer work, a mystery just barely of novel length.  And then there was my magnum opus, the SF novel Jurek’s Legacy. My first full-length novel, it was arguably the best thing I’d written. I had high hopes of selling it, and set out to find an agent.

Although it may be hard to remember now, at that time there were just two kinds of book publishers. One, real publishers, carefully picked the works they would produce and paid advances and royalties to authors. The other, vanity presses, would produce anything somebody would pay them to produce. Real publishers pay the costs of book production. That’s why they’re so picky about what they produce and reject the vast majority of what they receive. Vanity presses produce just about anything, because they make their money off of writers, not books. As there are always a healthy number of desperate aspiring writers, vanity presses can always find customers.

But I was looking for an agent. I’d collected a few “thanks but no thanks” notes and one agonizingly near miss from an agent who said she loved my work but was closing her business to focus on other things. (Drat!) At just that moment, a fellow writer contacted me to say he’d signed on with an agent and encouraged me to submit my novel to her.  I did. End result? She turned out to be less an agent than a scam artist. She charged a modest up-front fee, then did nothing in return. When I began to press for my money back, she informed me she’d sold my novel, but when the contract arrived, it was from a vanity press.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that knife went in so deep the wound took nearly a decade to heal. I largely stopped writing fiction after that. Possibly I judged myself too harshly, but the words refused to come out right. I did write, but my efforts turned to nonfiction. I sold a couple of technical articles on software development, and later a pair of essays to Sky & Telescope. I contracted with About.com to write content on the Baha’i Faith, and after that venture folded I created a new site, Planet Baha’i, to continue that work. (PB had a good ten-year run before I retired it. It’s been resurrected as an occasional blog.) I was no longer an aspiring writer; I was a published author.

But a fiction writer? Not so much.

And so back to The Fibonacci Murders. Once I had both a character and a story–a series of murders based on the Fibonacci sequence–I got busy writing, and amazingly the result wasn’t half bad. Mathematician Tomio (Tom) Kaneko didn’t turn out as quirky as I’d originally envisioned, but you’ll find his genesis embedded in the first paragraph of the novel:

First I must state two things: I am a mathematician, and I am not crazy. I mention the first because it alone explains my involvement in the events that recently took place in Howard County, Maryland. Otherwise, I would have had no connection to them whatsoever and would have been spared injury. I mention the second for two reasons. First: strangeness is associated in the public mind with my profession, notwithstanding that relatively few mathematicians are odder than the average person. Second: it seems to me the tale I’m about to tell could only have been imagined by a lunatic. Indeed, there was a lunatic. But he was not I.

So there you have it. Where the story itself came from, how the detectives wandered in, and how they caught the culprit, well ,those are tales for another day.