Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Plot Shards

     During the first couple of weeks after releasing a novel, I find myself in a kind of limbo. It compounds the sense of aimlessness and the feeling of futility into a miasma that would choke a tyrannosaur. Perhaps new mothers feel this way post partum, though I’ve never troubled to ask one.

     It’s no fun, feeling this way. I perch at the computer each morning in my usual state of smile-God-loves-you cheer – not an easy thing to do when you get up in the deep dark – set my fingers to the keys, and immediately sit back. What am I doing here? The book is finished. Readers are already counting up the spelling errors. So what’s next?

     That’s when I retreat to my collection of plot shards.

     “Plot shards,” in case the term’s piquancy leaves you feeling a bit uninformed, are the little bits of story idea that:

  • A writer jots down for future use;
  • That seem to fall short of adequacy for a story;
  • But nevertheless linger teasingly in his memory, awaiting employment.

     Some plot shards could only be used as motifs that would add color and definition to a larger story. Some are too extensive for that, and demand to be made into stories of their own, augmented by the addition of specially designed settings, or specially motivated characters. Some fall between those poles. The lot of them sit around muttering “when the BLEEP! is he going to notice me?” What they have in common is that they’re just...not...quite...there.

     And I, during those post partum weeks when I’m desperate to get back to productive work, will predictably go hunting through them, sorting them into various categories, measuring them against my previous fictions, and pondering whether they could usefully combined into something sufficient to frame a novel. Believe it or not, it can be fun.

     Here’s one I particularly like but have refrained from using, though the reason is unclear to me: “The Littlest Demon.”

     Wonder of wonders, a demon is born in the depths of Hell. None of the other demons are quite sure how, but there it is...and it manages, mainly by hitchhiking on the efforts of an older and more adept demon, to cross the mystical planes and reach an Earth of living men. That’s when things get really strange.

     The littlest demon would love to tempt or possess someone – anyone! But it doesn’t know how to pull the trick off. Oh, it tries. It tries, and tries, and tries...but no dice. And it’s quite possible that the reason is the sympathy it feels for the moral and spiritual struggles of its target.

     But a demon’s reason for existence is to tempt, and if possible to take possession of, a living man. Even a child would be suitable. What point is there to the existence of a demon that can’t tempt nor possess?

     One day, in the midst of its frustration, the littlest demon encounters a spirit of unfamiliar caste. The two become friendly, and the spirit speaks movingly of the innumerable good things it has seen among men: idealism, dedication, generosity, loyalty, and the veneration of justice. It encourages the little demon to travel with it through the world, and to observe the heights to which these creatures of clay can ascend when animated by their highest values. The littlest demon does so, and is moved.

     The littlest demon asks the spirit how men, so obviously a low and crude race, could have formed such values. The spirit tells him of a great Preacher, first among them to ask nothing for Himself, Who was slain for telling men that they could win to eternal bliss. The littlest demon is mystified. So great a figure once walked among men? How could this be? The spirit tells it, “Come, meet Him and see for yourself.”

     And the littlest demon follows the spirit across the last of the mystical borders to behold Christ.

     The littlest demon wasn’t a demon at all. It’s a cherub, as is its companion. Its appearance in Hell was merely a “filing error.”

     Here’s another that tantalizes but is far from complete: “In The Year Of The Flame.”

     The launch of the first solar-power-harvesting satellite, though its potential excited great anticipation, has turned out to be an unprecedented disaster: the thing’s power-delivery system has run amok. Laser-like, it carved a huge cleft into the North American continent, roughly along the course of the Mississippi River. The cleft cannot be bridged because the beam keeps sweeping back and forth through it. Cross-continental travel and communication have been fatally impeded; the only way to go safely from New York to Los Angeles, for example, is to “go the long way:” to travel eastward and circumnavigate the globe.

     The disruption of the North American economy is approaching a fatal level when it’s discovered – somehow; this needs to be worked out – that the satellite didn’t fail; it was deliberately corrupted, to be used as a weapon against the U.S. Who would want to do such a thing – and who has the capability to do so? The two sets seem completely disjoint. More urgent, how can the satellite be put back under the control intended for it?

     This one was inspired by the None Dare Call It Conspiracy theories of Gary Allen and Larry Abraham: “Free Agents.”

     Why have only one grand conspiracy? There are multiple conspiracies that have to compete for media recognition, credit for atrocious acts, and the services of unaffiliated specialists. One of the needs of such a conspiracy, when so many would be equally well served by some deed, is to insure credit for the act. For example, in the case of an assassination this necessitates a two person team: 1) the assassin, an expensive specialist typically not aligned with any particular conspiracy; 2) a dedicated group member to get caught at the scene and claim credit for the group.

     But a conspiracy, like any organization, is susceptible to infiltration by hostile agents – in this case, persons loyal to a competing conspiracy. Infiltrator Smith gains the trust of the masters of Conspiracy X and contrives to divert credit for its deeds to Conspiracy Y. His first problem, of course, is to do so without being detected. But he soon acquires two other problems:

  1. First Jones, an agent for Conspiracy Z, discovers Smith’s machinations and starts to blackmail him – for credit to Conspiracy Z, of course;
  2. Second, the two of them inspire Davis, previously unaffiliated with an existing conspiracy, to start a conspiracy dedicated to disrupting other conspiracies. Smith and Jones, of course, are hounded to become leaders and “elder statesmen” to this new, anti-conspiracy conspiracy...but it’s a difficult role to fulfill with all the other conspiracies slavering for their blood.

     There are many other plot shards in my collection. The three above are merely representative. Perhaps one of them, or a cluster of them properly combined, will become the skeleton of my next novel. In the meantime, there’s some diversion, at least, available from fishing them up and wondering (not for the first time) “Where on Earth or off it did that come from?”

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