Can’t wait for CITY OF STAIRS to be released? Tor.com has an excerpt up LIVE on their website right now!
The World Science Fiction Convention is a damn big convention. It has about 12,000 attendees, by my guess, and is like a giant, floating city-island, bouncing off of smaller islands and gobbling them up and making them part of itself. It is riotous and incoherent, an enthusiastic mess of programming and ideas, which is basically what a convention always should be. It’s just that WorldCon – in this case, LonCon – has the dial turned up to eleven.
But anyway, that’s enough philosophizing. Let’s skip to what you really came here for, a video of John Hornor Jacobs sneaking up on Myke Cole and slow-dancing with him.
(I am obligated to note that I paid JHJ to do it, and you can see him insist for the money at the end.)
Here is a list of stuff I did at LonCon:
1. I met Anoya, the Discworld Goddess of Things Stuck in Drawers. (My mom was thrilled.)
2. I went to the Jo Fletcher Books anniversary party, where I learned that CITY OF STAIRS is coming out in hardback in the UK – something I had no idea of, and was delighted with – and that the JFB team had done a really, really huge job in pushing it, as one can see below.
3. I did NOT drink this beer, which sounds like the grossest shit ever, why the fuck would you do this
4. I might have eaten a cigarette. A hand-rolled cigarette. This takes some explaining:
At a party, John Hornor Jacobs was handed a very nice hand-rolled cigarette by Daniel Polansky. JHJ commented that he had not had a cigarette in 11 years, but he really wanted one now. I told him not to do that, that would be stupid, I’d do whatever it took to keep him from smoking that cigarette, including eating it.
He looked at me and said, “Would you eat it?” So I snatched it out of his hands and ate it immediately, filter and all.
Here is what I can say about eating a cigarette:
It is unusually spicy, in the most unpleasant manner possible. Smokers might be aware of that sort of musky, cherry-like spice to smoking tobacco – it is that, times a thousand, if you eat it. And it sticks around in your mouth, because all the shreds of tobacco get stuck in your teeth.
This caused JHJ, after a few minutes of disbelieving laughter, to turn to my wife and ask if she knew I was crazy, and she said yes she knew that, she was married to me after all, and yes he’s actually like this all the time.
As one final note, some amount of whisky had been consumed previous to this incident, but I am unable to comment on its exact quantity.
5. I kissed a robot. (They had no idea this was happening.)
6. I did not go to the Hugos, instead choosing to go eat a truckload of high quality Indian food, but I livetweeted the events as I wished they happened.
7. I signed a great deal of first edition copies of CITY OF STAIRS at Goldsboro books.
If you’d like one, you can check it out here. These are available both to US and UK customers.
8. One thing I did NOT do at LonCon was talk to everyone I wished to talk to for the amount of time I wanted to talk to them. It’s virtually impossible to have the sitdown conversations with other writers that you actually want to have when coming to a con, because you want to do it with EVERYONE, thus ensuring that you’ll actually get to do it with no one. This is the double-edged sword of con fun, in that it tends toward quantity and not at all toward quality. C’est la vie, I suppose.
Been waiting for me to post my LonCon schedule? Well too bad, suckers, because the good folks at Jo Fletcher Books have already done it for me!
I Like My Secondary World Fantasy a Little on the Techy Side
Friday 10:00 – 11:00, Capital Suite 4 (ExCeL)
Some secondary world fantasies, like Brandon Sanderson’s Alloy of Law, Francis Knight’s Fade to Black, and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt, have ventured into industrialisation. To what extent can the kinds of narratives common in secondary world and epic fantasies find a home in these kinds of settings? Is technological development less “believable” in a world with magic?
Django Wexler (M), Robert Jackson Bennett, Floris M. Kleijne, Glenda Larke, Adrian Tchaikovsky
Carving A Legacy Among Legends
Friday 13:30 – 15:00, Capital Suite 10 (ExCeL)
Horror is a genre dominated by icons. Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, and others have paced the horror field for a generation. Does this hugely successful minority disproportionately demonstrate a viable market for horror stories? How does a debut author break in? Have urban fantasy and paranormal romance replaced horror to any extent? Does this correlate to the success of horror stories in the independent publishing markets?
David Nickle (M), Robert Jackson Bennett, John Jarrold, Lisa Tuttle, Ann Vandermeer
Saturday 11:00 – 12:00, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)
Hume in his essay ‘Of The Standard of Taste’ asked why we are willing to suspend disbelief when authors make all sorts of wild claims but draw the line when the author makes moral claims contrary to our own. This might be less true today than it was in Hume’s time but we have our own moral rubicons. From sexual taboos to the role of government, what are the sort of things that readers tend to reject regardless of how skillfully the author makes the case? In other words, what sort of stories provoke imaginative resistance? How can this feeling be used to deliberate effect, for example within the horror genre?
Jeff VanderMeer (M), Robert Jackson Bennett, Pat Cadigan, Daryl Gregory, Sarita Robinson
Autographing 5 – Robert Jackson Bennett
Saturday 15:00 – 16:30, Autographing Space (ExCeL)
Saturday 19:00 – 20:00, London Suite 4 (ExCeL)
Robert Jackson Bennett, Bridget Landry
Also, ifn’s you come to my autographing, I’ll be GIVING AWAY signed copies of CITY OF STAIRS, that book you’re supposed to be buying! Holy shit!
THE BAD NEWS
We’re in it now, folks. Scientists are reporting that the permafrost in Russia has weakened so much that huge amounts of methane are bursting through into the atmosphere, creating immense craters. Methane, if you recall, is a greenhouse gas that’s 20 times more powerful than carbon.
At the same time, Arctic scientists note that if we release even a small amount of the carbon and greenhouse gases trapped in the Arctic, then it’s game over for us as a species.
More greenhouse cases will cause more ice melting, which then releases yet more greenhouse gases… You see where this is going. It’s called a feedback loop, and it’s dreaded for a good reason. Climatologists and futurists (among them Alex Steffen, always a good resource) inform us that if we don’t make drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions within the next ten years, then we’re going to be in REAL trouble.
So it seems, inevitably, that the world is about to change, and change drastically. The way the world will look in 50 years will be unlike any other era humans have ever known. We can just assume this is a given – right?
Well, right. But I’m not convinced that climate change will be that change.
Actually, there’s a pretty good chance things might change for the better for a significant amount of people.
Crazy, right? Maybe not.
The human world has made some pretty astounding advances in the past few hundred years. The number of human generations it takes to reach the next technological advancement – from tools, to agriculture, to literacy – has dropped exponentially each time, leading to dispersed benefit and increased abundance.
But people are still restrained by two things: energy and water. Without those two things, you can’t do a lot. Especially be healthy and happy.
For the past 150 years, these two things have been scarcity-oriented: someone has the resource, and someone else doesn’t. This is why the Western world has such a long history of intervening in the Middle East, as well as why Europe is reluctant to take any kind of aggressive actions against Russia, despite its being responsible (how responsible is a matter of opinion) for the deaths of hundreds of its citizens.
In short, scarcity-oriented resources enable people to be real dicks.
But there doesn’t seem to be another option, does there? These guys have all the energy, and there’s no alternate way for everyone to get their own energy, thus freeing themselves from these various yokes.
Well. There is one option that’s only become possible in the past three years:
That near-vertical line at the end? That’s the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) power. Produced by the AllianceBernstein investment group, this chart was part of their April report on the sudden transformation in solar power, and it’s triggered a whole lot of surprise, confusion, and excitement.
As it should. This is probably the first time in human history that the price of an energy source has dropped so much so fast. These are polycrystalline silicon solar cells, and their sudden drop in price is due to a number of reasons. Part of it is the enormous increase in available polycrystalline silicon: per Wikipedia, the number of solar-grade polycrystalline silicon producers has gone from 12 to over 100 from 2008 to 2013.
Another matter is the tremendous scaling-up of production (and, possibly, significant subsidies) being performed in China. And still another is the general improvement in technology: polycrystalline silicon PV is breaking efficiency records every day, and the process of actually producing the cells is getting more streamlined, more automated, and more efficient.
Solar is already price competitive with fossil fuels without subsidies in 15 countries, and in 2013 China installed 12.9 gigawatts of PV, the most ever installed in one year by any country. Germany – having paid the early adopter fee on solar – is now breaking records nearly every day. Forecasts would suggest that solar PV will be cheaper than coal in China and India by 2020 (though others pinpoint 2018 as The Year).
And once that happens, watch out – China doesn’t do anything half-assed. They used more concrete in the past three years than the US has in the entire 20th Century. They turned Shanghai into their version of Chicago in 20 years just to do it. And they’re also suffering from tremendous coal issues, so much so that they want to ban coal use in Beijing by 2020.
India is already hugely embracing solar power, and is actually leapfrogging the developed world in this respect: building a centralized, conventional power plant and grid is too expensive in rural India, but per this article, companies like Simpa Energy have created a
pay-as-you-go model for solar power, allowing even the poorest Indians in the most rural of areas to have access to clean, green solar power. Simpa Energy customers use their cell phones (which even the poorest of the population have) to purchase a pre-paid code from Simpa, which they then type into a box connected to a solar panel array on their house. Instantly, their home lights up, and they have access to clean and green energy for cooking, cleaning, reading and anything else.
Pretty cool stuff, right? Westerners might deride the amount of power being provided – it’s certainly not enough to power our AC, laptops, LCD televisions, refrigerators, and washing machines 24/7 – but to these people, just having a light on in their home is a big deal.
But is this the gamechanger? Are polycrystalline silicon photovoltaics the source that will not only end energy poverty in the developing world, but will also drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world?
Maybe. But increasingly I feel like the gamechanger looks like this:
AND WHAT IN THE HELL IS THAT?
That is a crystalline mineral composed of calcium, titanium, and oxygen that is known as “perovskite,” first found in the Ural Mountains and named after Lev Perovski, founder of the Russian Geographical Society.
I first heard about perovskites in January of this year, and I’ve been following them pretty steadily. Solar is a giant, chaotic race at this point, with new developments and new records being made every week, so I tend to take a handful of ideas I find promising and just check out the latest on them every couple of days or so.
(I am not, as many will note, a hard SF author, so some may wonder why I’d bother with this. Beyond the fact that I care about the climate, an incredible amount of inspiration for fantasy worlds can be derived from understanding how our own world works and changes. Fantasy and SF is the genre of the implausible and impossible as explored within a set of rules. Those that ignore what’s possible in today’s world do so at their own peril.)
Increasingly, I’ve become convinced that pervoskites are The Thing, that this is the development that will genuinely, honestly shake up the world.
The structure of perovskite is likely more interesting than what it is. As this highly informative site explains, “Dependant (sic) on which atoms/molecules are used in the structure, perovskites can have an impressive array of interesting properties including superconductivity, giant magnetoresistane, spin dependent transport (spintronics) and catalytic properties. Perovskites therefore represent an exciting playground for physicists, chemists and material scientists.”
It’s also extremely abundant in the earth’s crust. So, that’s all cool, right? Right.
But it’s the superconductivity that makes it a substitute for polycrystalline silicon in PV. Check out how its efficiencies have improved in comparison to other PV:
Perovskites are the near-vertical blue line on the right. (It feels familiar to the previous graph above, in a way). They’ve gone from less than 5% efficiency to nearly 20% in 5 years. It took silicon five times as long to the same. That’s impressive in its own right.
But what’s more impressive can be summed up in two words:
Silicon takes a huge amount of processing to get to the point to where it’s PV-grade, and that processing takes an enormous amount of energy and resources.
Perovskites do not. As this article states (you’ll have to scroll down to get to Henry Snaith, the guy who’s basically invented this procedure), researches today use “simple techniques such as smearing the readily available ingredients across a coated glass plate.”
That’s right. They just smear it on there. It’s a tabletop, solution-based process that doesn’t require the intense amount of semiconductor processing necessary to make PV-grade silicon. Oxford Photovoltaics, currently the leader in the field (or so it seems), expects to start shipping perovskite solar modules in 2017.
And while it’s not yet perfect – perovskites contain lead, but researchers are working to replace it with tin – the rapid improvements suggest that solutions to this issue aren’t too far away. For example, they just recently figured out a way to create perovksites using a spray-coating technique, achieving 11% efficiency – just a few percentage points off from being commercial-grade.
This is very likely the simplest, cheapest method of producing PV modules ever yet developed. It’s highly scalable, in comparison to nearly all other forms of PV. If someone scales it up, they can start cranking them out like hotcakes.
But it also means not only will solar cell production costs plummet, but you can also theoretically coat anything with the material, creating windows, walls, and the surfaces of vehicles with energy-producing photovoltaic cells.
What this means is that, even though PV prices have plunged in the past few years, the price of perovskite PV will likely be only a fraction of where PV is now.
For example, currently silicon solar cells are priced at around .65 USD per watt. That’s the lowest they’ve ever been, by the way.
At .20 USD per watt, perovskite solar is literally off the chart. The bottom of the chart, that is.
In short – and this might be hyperbole, or it might not – perovskites are to solar as fracking is to fossil fuels.
BUT HOW IS THE GAME CHANGED?
Ray Kurzweil is a name that sometimes inspires a lot of groaning from the SF and science fields, what with The Singularity and all, but either by accident or on purpose, he’s hit the mark on solar power pretty well so far. In 2011, to the derision of many, he and Google’s Larry Page predicted that the prices of solar power were about to plummet. This happened. However, he went on to predict that if solar power continues its historic trend of doubling every two years, then by 2030 we would be completely solar powered.
Yes, that’s right. The whole wide world.
Is that likely? Hell, I don’t know. Probably not. Fifteen years ago I would have also said that tiny computers filled with cameras and games and communication applications would never penetrate the poorest of markets in less than a decade, and yet look where we are.
The whole world solar powered, though… That’s a stretch. Storage is still an issue, in order to provide power when the sun doesn’t shine. But with the prices of PV plummeting, and set to plummet even more when perovskites hit the market, it’s obviously a huge, huge growth industry. Ontario, California, Hawaii, Washington, and New York have all launched storage programs, and anything from compressed air, heat pumps, flywheels, flow batteries, organic batteries, and Gigafactories are in the running. Whoever figures out how to do this on the cheap will make more money than God. (I just assume God is rich.)
What interests me, really, is what Kurzweil said about where we go once we’ve eliminated energy poverty. He predicted that, once we have energy, desalinization will become the next hurdle, tapping the boundless amounts of unpotable water all around the world.
And then this happened, just in the past few weeks: a graphite hockey pock that, when exposed to average sunlight magnified 10 times (a low amount, considering), creates steam.
While some are imagining the power possibilities of this steam – something I’m reluctant to do, since it would require an abundance of water, something a lot of people are hurting for now and will hurt for more in the future – this snippet is most interesting to me:
“Along with its potential power uses, the solar steam system will be able to desalinate and/or decontaminate impure and waste water.”
Desalinization is one of the most expensive technologies out there, so the idea that this chunk of graphite can desalinate water using only the sun is tremendously exciting. It’s obviously still in its infancy – where does the salt and waste go, exactly? – but I immediately start imagining tremendous solar powered water farms all along the coast, using cheap solar energy to pump limitless amounts of potable water… Well. Anywhere.
Imagine living in a world where, if you get the right tech in the right place, energy and potable water is close to limitless. Imagine skyscraper farms, with floors and floors of hydroponics, ending world hunger. Just imagine what we could turn our imaginations to.
This is decades away, if it ever happens. But it’s fun to think about.
WILL THIS REALLY HAPPEN?
Well, here’s what I suspect we’ll see in the next ten or fifteen years:
- We’ll see more energy and technological advancement in the developed world than we’ll have ever seen before. Not only are China and India participating in what some call the “solar revolution,” but Africa has 6 of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world. Much like how the developing world has more iPhones than they do regular phones, or even toilets, solar – especially perovskite solar – is going to be a cheap, cheap option in comparison to creating the infrastructure required to transport fossil fuels to any given location, use them to generate power, and then create a grid to transport that power. This, in turn, will increase the demand for solar, which will then lower the price of solar worldwide.
- As droughts continue, we’re going to see less water from natural resources. This matters in terms of power production – coal and natural gas both require steam to work, and oil requires a whole lot of water to refine – as well as in regards to fracking, which 1. uses a ton of water, and 2. currently has an exemption from most water regulations. (As a personal note, I have less problems with fracking than probably most people writing about solar would. But that’s beside the point.) The lack of water will make conventional power generation more difficult, which will drive up power prices, which will make solar (which only uses water to clean off the panels, though there are fixes for this) more desirable.
- Experts generally agree that fossil fuels are going to get harder to extract. It’s very likely we’ll find a way to extract new reserves fossil fuels, it’ll just be really expensive. Fracking, for example, is a very expensive practice, and the price of natural gas has been hugely variable depending on demand. So the overall prices of fossil fuels will go up. This is a much more longterm effect than 10-15 years, mind.
- While all this is going on, Big Data is going to make energy production and demand for a variety of energy types much easier to predict and account for. Solar modules will continue to get cheaper and more efficient. Energy efficiency will continue to improve. (Don’t forget graphene and carbon nanotubes are floating in the background of all this, threatening to completely upend the way we transmit electricity.) And storage – manifesting like Gozer the Gozerian, in whatever form it chooses to take – will finally begin to penetrate the global market, possibly starting with the developing world yet again.
All things above taking place – a somewhat big “If” – solar, data, and storage will begin to overtake and replace conventional fossil fuel generation in the developed world, very slowly. This is the hardest part, and the biggest difference when it comes to Moore’s Law, which applies to the increasing rate of computer processing power and is often applied to solar: computers came into a relative vacuum. Solar is not. Although solar improves similarly, it has stiff, entrenched competition. For solar and storage to win, they will need to be so much more favorable to conventional fossil fuels that the choice will need to be the equivalent of whether or not you need a smart phone – a tall order, but not an impossible one.
Now, this is not The Singularity, nor is it the dawning of a utopia. What this is are ingredients for significant change, change of a sort that we’ve never seen before. If this all pans out – and it seems somewhat likely, considering – then what happens will dwarf the societal shakeups of the 20th Century, especially in developing countries. There are plenty of ifs, but even if only a handful of these things become true, their consequences can be enormous, causing yet further changes.
One big “if” is if we’re already on the climate feedback loop. That might be possible. And if that’s true, it would really, really suck.
But these changes are going to happen in the next few decades no matter what sort of climate we’re going to have in 2100, I suspect. And after this point, I really don’t know what human technology is going to do, nor what it can withstand, climate-wise. If we unlock abundant energy and water, then the sky’s the limit, as far as what we can do.
Our modern-day definition of “apocalypse” is “the end of the world,” and is usually accompanied by all sorts of divine fury and horrific disasters, skies of fire and seas of blood.
What we often forget is that its original meaning in Ancient Greek was an “un-covering” or “revealing” – a revelation, in other words, the sudden transfer of incredible, transformative knowledge.
I do think an apocalypse is coming, most certainly. It’s just a matter of whether or not it’ll be the modern day interpretation or the Ancient Greek interpretation.
So about five months ago author Sam Sykes reached out to me and said he was going to be holding an author Batsu game, where the panelists are not allowed to laugh, and if they do they are forced to consume noxious spicy concoctions. In attendance would be Myke Cole, Aprilynne Pike, Chuck Wendig, John Scalzi, Delilah S. Dawson, Patrick Rothfuss and Leanna Renee Heiber.
Sam said we could ask all kinds of questions, and he wanted to know if I’d be willing to contribute a few. I’d had a couple of glasses of wine and am generally always down for shenanigans, so I said okay, not really understanding that this would be a moment where I would be judged by my peers.
Here’s the transcript of the questions I wrote. Not all got asked, but it looks like it was a lot of fun, and Sam did a good and ridiculous job.
This is not in order of my wine consumption but it should be pretty clear by what I wrote how deep I was in the evening.
For Myke Cole:
Myke Cole, as a mighty sailor man, I think we can both agree that the mightiest of mighty sailor man is that inarticulate lover of slimsy, starved women and iron-rich vegetables – Popeye. I have in my life adopted a corncob pipe and bedded many a high-pitched anorexic, but I have yet to attain his most confounding feature – his forearms.
Myke Cole, it is my wish as both a man and an American to achieve forearms with the girth of a Turkish man’s thigh. I wish to have forearms that will make it necessary for me to be stitched into my shirts each day, as all sleeves would doubtless be ruined. Tell me how this can be done. Do I need to have my buttocks amputated and grafted onto my wrists? Or, preferably, someone else’s buttocks? I beg of thee, yield thy secrets of the swollen wrist to me, so that I may achieve my dream.
Chuck Wendig (this one seems to have been the most popular):
Chuck Wendig, I am an avid fan of your online internet blog web site, terrible minds. I come to it frequently for writing advice. But I have recently used a tip of yours that was not literature-oriented, but health-oriented.
You once said that your pappy, a stout pennsylvania man, cured many an ill with his patented “Yuengling Restorative,” in which four chilled pints of the prized Pennsylvania ale was pumped directly into the colon, then violently expelled into a washtub. You claimed that this fixed ailments of all kinds for him – colds, fevers – yet I have found that it did not fix the ailment my pet guinea pig Scrubbers suffered from: mange.
Mr. Wendig, I don’t think you can understand the grief and anguish you have caused me and my family. To see an animal in such indescribable agony, limping into the corner of his cage, leaving a trail of warm ale in his wake – that is truly cruelty of cruelties. And I feel you must be held accountable. I have been to many funerals – but never have I wept so fiercely than that of my poor, sweet Scrubbers.
Please provide me with your formal mailing address, so that my lawyer can be in contact with you.
John Scalzi, I come to you with terrifying news. I have emerged from the seediest of vape lounges of Akron, Ohio, where many a swaggering hacker peers at the world through a fog of clove cigarette, fingers tightly gripping the dragon-carved katana they have thrust through the belt loop of their husky-sized jeans. Rumors have spread through the alleys of 4-chan, and I have learned through my excursions into this vape den that you have violated the highly-sacred doctrine of Dansei no kenri -the rights of men.
John Scalzi, many a bitcoin has been placed upon your head – even the precious dogecoin, for insulting the Dansei no kenri. It is said that the hacker who parts the sinews of your neck will ascend into the hacker constellations, achieving memehood, becoming most l33t, pwner of the pwners. I beg of you, take my hand, and come to my Honda Fit, where we will find sanctity in the place this fearsome clan will never dare to look – Gold’s Gym.
Will you come with me?
I understand your books contain depictions of sexual acts – I believe the genre is called erogenous books, books of erogeny. I have written some erogeny of my own and would like to hear your thoughts on it.
Here it is:
‘Sam looked at Betty’s face, with his eyes. Their faces touched, in the kissing manner: mouthwise. ‘Touch me,’ she said, ‘with all your hands,’ and he did, because he didn’t have much better to do at the time. He touched all of her – her knees, the back of the leg, the bottom of the knees, the side of the knees – all of her. They put bread in one another’s mouths, good quality bread, soft bread, not the hard stuff that cuts up your mouth, they hated that stuff. Then they put on their feetsie pajamas and did sex at one another, super loud, until they got tired and then they watched some quality animes.’
What do you think, Delilah?
Patrick Rothfuss, my father is a follictitian, a practitioner of that rarest medical art, that of the human hair. He is perhaps the most respected follictitian in North America, having been published in Hirsute Revelations and The Terrible Secrets of the Afro. Unfortunately, it is my grave and terrible duty to inform you that my father has reviewed many photos of you, and has noticed an alarming trend. It seems as if you have an unusual and most deadly disorder – invasive beardism.
My father informs me that, purely from photographic evidence, your state of invasive beardism is so extreme that soon absolutely no part of your dermis – your skin – will be visible to the human eye. You will be cocooned in a dense, tight net of beard, and the tendrils of beard will become entangled, growing tighter and tighter, forming an impenetrable beard mesh through which your mortal coil will be flensed.
The only solution to your state of invasive beardism is to be shaved – immediately – all over, from head to toe. Do you assent?
Plot is a tricky thing.
I’m not going to talk here about constructing a plot, or what makes a good or bad plot (though a mystery plot is about the most durable and readable one you can ever hope for), but rather I’m going to talk about what plot does to the reader and what it means for the book.
Think of a story like a meal. It is an experience comprised of many disparate elements, each prepared and presented in many different ways.
Now, imagine that you haven’t eaten in 36 hours. How will that affect your attitude toward your next meal? If it’s not food you especially like, are you going to turn it down? Probably not. If it’s a T-bone steak, are you going to slow down and enjoy it, or are you going to wolf it down just like you would a bigass, greasy burger because that’s how hungry you are? Probably the latter, right?
That’s what plot does to you. A really good, clockwork plot creates an insatiable hunger in you to get to the next thing. And like a hunger, it’s simple: you want to see what happens next, so you keep turning the page, just like a starving person shoving french fries in their mouth.
Sometimes you’ll keep reading a book you don’t think is especially that great (DaVinci Code alert) just because that plot has made you that goddamn hungry. In that regard, you’re a lot like the starving person eating a meal they’d normally turn down. I have absolutely no desire to eat pickled pig’s feet, but if I was starving, I’d probably still wolf them down.
However, if you’re just reading for plot, then sometimes you can be like the starving person who’s sucking down a $94 meal just because that’s how hungry they are: you might be missing things.
A story, like a meal, sometimes (preferably all the time, but not necessarily) has had a lot of work go into it so that every element is an experience in its own right. If you’re just reading for plot, you might be missing the prose, the characterization, the ambience the writer is trying so hard to manifest on the page, all because you’re hungry to find out Who’s Behind the Big Conspiracy, or whatever the plot goal might be.
So sometimes, if you really want to enjoy a book that’s had a lot of work go into, slow down a little. Don’t read for plot. I’ve intentionally spoiled myself on certain books just because I wanted to see how it was made, or because I wanted to luxuriate in its prose or characters. I’m cutting that hunger off at the pass, just so I can slow down and enjoy the meal more.
A really, really good book makes you stop caring about the plot: suddenly you want the plot to have some stupid twist just so it extends the book’s length by another hundred pages or so. If you’ve ever had this sensation, it means that the writer has created characters or a world that are much more attractive and compelling than the desire to see what happens next.
Likewise, I’ll find myself skipping through some plotty books because the plot is more attractive than the characters or the world. I’ll actually find myself thinking, “I don’t give a shit about these people, but I do want to find out how this will end,” so I’ll skip past the, say, seventy pages about how the main character lived in the woods for a year eating tubers and nuts. I just want to see if he actually kills the guy he wants to kill, okay?
And if you really want to see if a book is more than its plot, go back and reread it. Then, theoretically, you’re not hungry at all. Still want to read it, to eat that meal? Then that’s a sign that it’s got something going for it more than your hunger. Trying to figure out what makes it so attractive is the next step.
I was working on the sequel to CITY OF STAIRS the other day, and suddenly I found my work dribbling to a halt.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know what would happen next. I knew what would happen next, or at least what I thought should happen next. The thing was, I suddenly realized that if I made the story do what I was thinking it should do, then the rest of the book simply couldn’t happen.
This was because the book, like most of my books, functions as a mystery. And mysteries function on not knowing the right amount of things. This planned development, I realized, would throw that delicate balance into absolute chaos.
I don’t consider myself a straight mystery writer. Mysteries, especially murder mysteries, have a highly codified series of signals in them, and I think I’d miserably fail at keeping to those. But the nature of a mystery is highly entertaining to read, and relatively easy to write:
There is a thing that is happening. It is not understood. But this person is compelled to understand it!
It’s like water down a hill. There’s very little you need to do to make this machine go.
The “water down a hill” metaphor is especially apt in terms of pacing, which makes or breaks mysteries: know too much, and all suspense comes bleeding out of it. Know too little, and it’s frustrating to read. It’d be like letting the Pacific run through a single dam, it’d absolutely destroy it. But you need to let some water through. You have to pace the “discoveries,” hitting certain beats and dropping in realizations so that the reader feels a sense of progression, of increasing knowledge.
This structure works for all kinds of story types. Harry Potter, at the start, was more or less a mystery series, in which some devious malcontent was causing shenanigans in this contained location, and someone had to figure out what they were doing and why. I count myself among those who felt like the books lost some steam the more they deviated from this structure, and suddenly Harry and the gang were sort of like revolutionary insurgents, wandering around the English countryside instead of operating within the tight, driven confines of Hogwarts. It was sort of like taking Clue except now it’s in the woods and everyone knows who the murderer is but they don’t know what to do about it or where they’re going. I realized Harry Potter was a series that thrived off of its confinement and tight structure, and losing those elements meant losing a lot of what made it compelling.
The structure also works in sci-fi extremely well: Fringe and The X-Files were both, structurally-speaking, mysteries, even basic murder mysteries at the start of their run. It works in romance, too: what bigger mystery is there than trying to understand another person?
Most soap operas function off of mystery, wondering who is getting up to what and what their goals are. Family stories like The Blind Assassin are even mystery stories: who’s writing the novel? What happened to this family? Why do they hate each other? Why is the main character so alone and unhappy? The same family structure applies to The Son, in which a family’s evolution is witnessed from multiple points in the timeline, so you have some idea of who dies and who leaves but you’re not sure how or why. This makes for remarkably compelling reading. “How did we get here?”
Really, any plotty book relies on the reader not knowing things and wishing they knew more. There are very few books where everything actually is as it seems right up front in Chapter One. The problem is timing the realizations, rolling back the veil on all those unknowns at the right speed.
The problem I encountered with my writing was that, if this unknown was unveiled at this point in the book, the rest of the book would become unfeasible. It would be a bit like Chekhov’s gun, except in the middle of Act Two someone would undeniably, verifiably confirm that, “Hey, this gun is cursed to cause its owner to shoot and kill the thing they love most. I actually have several letters of documentation from academics and government officials confirming that.” And EVERYONE would be in the room to hear it.
That would make it a lot harder for that gun to go off in Act Three, right? People would know not to use it – right? Wouldn’t they also, like, just leave? I know I wouldn’t want to stick around. You’d have to come up with some really tortuous reasoning to keep them all trapped there.
So I decided that, in the alphabet of plot, this was jumping from the letter E straight to the letter X, rather than following the natural progression, F. So I had to restructure it. This, surprisingly, took very little work. I had to ask myself, “What unknown really needs to get uncovered at this moment?” And I realized the answer was right there. From then on, I basically had to change it so that the body in the room was stabbed rather than shot, so to speak, because that would send the plot shooting off in the right direction.
A book is a machine that functions on momentum, like a flywheel. But if you aim it in the wrong direction, it quickly loses its energy.