The second week of my Clarion Write-a-Thon effort was somewhat the reverse of the first week. My first week story at Clarion 2010 had seemed like a complete loss at the time, but last week I stripped it down to the basics of motivation and conflict, and found what feels like a way forward. My second story at Clarion 2010, titled Goner, was perhaps my favorite at the time, but I’ve really struggled with revising it over this last week.
Goner is about Char, an twelve year old boy trying to hold onto his small family and friends at a time when they are all changing and moving away with time and age, when humanity itself is changing and moving away, into te solar system and beyond. Holding people together is hard, Char is discovering, when all they seem to want to do is fly apart. He’s beginning to wonder if it is better to let go.
That change is made literal in the form of the Pilots, ‘Goners’, the nickname even they themselves use, for the far-gone, for the fact that in order to survive the rigors of near-lightspeed travel they have undergone conversion by nanotech into ghost-like webbings of carbon, debatably no longer human, debatably no longer alive. Char’s friend’s father is one of the handful of successful conversions, back on Earth unexpectedly, and in meeting him, Char comes face-to-face with costs and wonders of letting go.
So, I have a main character with well-defined motivations. I have a setting of a small hometown, friends and family, a wider culture and technology. I have a Science Fictional element: the Pilot conversion process and the frightening nanotechnology behind it. I have conflict and resolution, which I will not detail here, as it is better encountered in the story itself. What’s the problem?
I thoguht at first that it was an issue of voice and presentation. My original Clarion draft had a simple, straightforward plot presented in simple, sequential scenes, told in simple sentences (relative to my usual convoluted prose, anyway). I was hoping for the sort of at-the-end-of-childhood, on the edge of fable tone of early Bradbury or Heinlein: aim high and shoot wildly is the motto!
What I found in the critiques at Clarion, however, is that folks were reading the story more literally than I had intended, and getting lost in the nitpicking details of the technology and plot. That tells me that the central story, of Char and his choice over fighting to keep people together or letting them go their own way, was not coming through strongly enough; if that central story is compelling enough, the reader will accept any number of improbabilities and absurdities along the way.
That sounds like a pretty straightforward analysis, but it took a good part of last week to figure it out, and my initial attempts at revision had meanwhile gone in a different direction, attempting a radical change of tone and scene structure towards something less straightforward. That may not be a bad thing, mind you; it’s probably closer to my strengths. But it doesn’t directly address the issue of making Char’s story stronger, and may in fact obscure it further.
But, I’m going to set it aside until week six, and move on to the next story. That should be Forks and Hope, my Week Three alien plant landmine story, but I may swap it for the Week Five story Twelve and Tag, about which I had somewhat of a revelation in the middle of the night last night…
In the meanwhile, here is a snippet of the original Clarion version of Goner:
A man floated below the cathedral ceiling, just under the skylight, anchored by an orange cable that ran from his chest down into the strange machinery. A sketch of a man, rather, a tangle of lines in charcoal black against the white wall, like the models they had in class, the Visible Man, when you toggled off everything but the nervous system.
“Crap on a crutch. It’s a–” Nok said.
“He,” Char said. “He’s Cord R. Jones.”
Drum walked across the room, still looking up, and put his hand on the orange cable; they could see it vibrating under the tension. Drum mouthed a syllable, airless, but Char knew what it was.
“Drummond dang Jones,” Nok said. “Drum, dude, you been here months, come you didn’t say your dad’s a Goner?”
Drum gave the cable a tentative tug. “Dad,” he said again, not quite a question.
“Mr. Jones?” Char added, louder; the figure — Pilot, he thought, PostConv — seemed to be asleep. In his shock, Char couldn’t remember if they slept.
Nok pushed past Char and grabbed the cable. “Why’s he up there? He’s gonna fall. Pull him down!” he said.
That was Nok being his usual idiot self, and Char opened his mouth to say so. But, “Dad!” Drum said, and pulled; Nok put a foot against the side of the machinery and yanked.
There was a clack from the machine, and a snick-snick-snick, and the other end of the cable went snaking through their fingers. Nok ducked back from the whipping connector, and fell straight into Drum; the two of them went sprawling onto the carpet.
Char had been looking upwards, about to shout again, so he saw it; the shape that had been Drum’s father shot off through the skylight, so fast it looked like he’d collapsed into a dot, like the black holes in the books stacked by Char’s bed; a singularity, they called it. But Mr. Jones — Pilot Jones — hadn’t gone in, he’d gone up, at an incomprehensible speed.
“What on earth…?” Drum’s mom was standing in the doorway. Nok scrambled to his feet. Drum was still on his back, gasping, eyes on the spot where his father had been. There was a crash from the backyard, the dome of the skylight hitting the deck railing.
“Mrs. Jones,” Char said. “Drum’s, um, Mr. Jones, he…” Char felt himself blushing, though he wasn’t quite sure why, and leaned down to give a hand up to Drum.
“He broke loose,” Nok said.
“He flew,” Char said.
“Why,” asked Drum, gasping and a bit hunched over — Nok’s elbows again — “Why is he here?”
Mrs. Jones stepped forward and smoothed Drum’s hair, left her hand on his head. “They sent a message after you left for school. The Olympia dropped in-system this morning. They found a–” She looked up. “Well, I’ll let your father tell it.”
Char looked up. Drum’s dad was descending silently through the remains of the skylight, coiling the orange cable around one arm; he settled to the carpet and covered Mrs. Jones’s with his own.
Char stared at the hand. It was a web of charcoal threads, more like the tangle of Drum’s hair than the pale smooth flesh of Mrs. Jones fingers. Char could see the gold of her wedding ring glinting through the network of carbon and fiber that made up that other hand. He wondered if Mr. Jones’s ring had been converted, too, but no, it was the wrong hand; the ring was there on the other, a plain loop of gold, and that somehow made the rest of it all the more strange. Char shook his head and looked up, into the face he’d seen in countless vids and pics, into the faceted sensor arrays that had been Cord R. Jones eyes, before the Conversion.