Doppelgänger

by wjw on January 3, 2021

I’m working on The Restoration, which is the Praxis book following Fleet Elements, and lately I’ve been having a hard time with it.

Part of it has to do with how much less amusing it is to write about a great empire that’s tottering because of greed, mendacity, scapegoating, and stupidity when I’m actually living in a country that’s tottering because of greed, mendacity, scapegoating, and stupidity.

I had no intention of making this series quite so relevant.

Be that as it may, there were other problems.  For one thing, most of this book takes place entirely in artificial environments, on starships and space stations— which was also the case with Fleet Elements, by the way, and with much of The Accidental War.  The action takes place in corridors and offices and sleeping cabins, just like the last book, and if I were going to describe those corridors, and how they differed from the last set of corridors, I did it in the previous book, and it hasn’t changed in all the pages since.

Nobody gets to feel a breath of fresh air on her cheek, or walk in a fog-filled street, or enjoy a cloudscape or a sunset.  Instead everyone is in these goddam corridors.  I’m really sick of corridors, but the plot can’t escape them.

But that problem is minor.  What became the major problem was what the characters were doing in the corridors, because much of it wasn’t very exciting.

My two main characters are widely separated by distance, and won’t encounter each other again for months.  They’re confined to starships.  (They’re also suffering, but how many ways can you describe misery and keep it fresh?)  Which means that they have to deal with the people they’re with, and for the most part that means engaging in professional interactions.  They talk business, in short, or they handle the sort of professional problems that pop up.

All this can be interesting in small doses, but if it goes on for too many pages the reader will find it a hard slog.  After a couple weeks of trying to fight my way through a series of scenes in which characters were involved in dinner-table discussions of tactics and logistics, I began to despair.  I felt the book needed episodes that were a lot more involving, but I couldn’t work out what they should be.

Well hell, I thought.  I teach this stuff, don’t I?  What would I tell my students to do?

This was the first time I actually looked through my own lecture notes in search of inspiration.

Process bogs down narrative.  That sentence jumped right out at me, because it described my situation very well.  All those details were cluttering up the actual story.

I looked through my list of narrative elements, and sub-story jumped out.  (Sub-story: also known as a subplot or a B story.)  Get some juicy, involving story happening, one outside of the main story.  But a problem is that my two man characters are stuck in a situation— those of you who have read Fleet Elements will know what it is— and they’re sort of frozen in place emotionally until they can meet again, so the subplot can’t really happen to them.

And then shadowing jumped out of the list, and I was home.  Shadowing is where a secondary character is involved in a situation that in some way mirrors the main characters’ problem.  Shakespeare was a master of this, with Antipholus of Syracuse mirroring Antipholus of Ephesus, or the story of Beatrice and Benedick shadowed by the story of Hero and Boring Patsy Guy (uhh, Claudio is it?).  Hamlet, who has lost his father, comes with two shadows, Laertes and Fortinbras, who have both lost their fathers and react in ways that contrast with Hamlet.

(My other example of shadowing comes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which, when Buffy’s love life takes an upswing, her friends’ relationships spiral into the toilet, and vice versa.  I’m eclectic when it comes to examples.)

Well.  Problem solved, or so I hope.  I’ll add a couple of juicy subplots, but they won’t exist independently of the rest of the story, but will reflect, in different ways, the situation of my main protagonists.  It’ll get me away from all those dinner-table conversations, anyway.

I’m stoked!  Wish me luck.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Harry_the_Horrible January 3, 2021 at 4:48 pm

Thanks for the example.
It is always nice to see the ‘perspiration’ part of writing.
I have enjoyed the Praxis Empire since it was first released. It’s interesting but terrifying.

John F. MacMichael January 3, 2021 at 5:02 pm

My copy of “Fleet Elements” was delivered last week and I finished it a couple of days ago. I thought it was great and I am delighted to hear you are hard at work on the next book in the series.

I am also eagerly looking forward the publication of “Lord Quillifer”. Do you still expect that to be out in 2022? Not only have I enjoyed the first two Quillifer books myself but they have allowed me to score a hit with a rather hard to shop for brother-in-law. I gave him a copy of the first one for Christmas in 2019 and he liked it so much I followed up with “Quillifer the Knight” for last Christmas.

Keith Reihe January 3, 2021 at 7:48 pm

Will this sub plot involve two characters we already know or are they new ones?

wjw January 4, 2021 at 1:09 am

Keith, the subplots— there will be two of them— will involve both new characters and established characters.

John, currently Lord Quillifer is scheduled for December 2021.

Peter D. Tillman January 4, 2021 at 12:26 pm

Now there’s a fine 2021 resolution: Read Quillifer #1! Add a few cents to the writer’s income!

Mount TBR just continues to grow. Must… Prioritize! ‍♂️

pecooper January 4, 2021 at 1:14 pm

As far at things to do in corridors go, there is always skylarking. When I served on submarines the trim party was a time honored means of breaking in a newly qualified Diving Officer.

A large number of the off-watch crew would gather in the bow, causing the boat to take a down angle. As the Diving Officer was pumping water aft to balance the boat, they would all move back to the stern, causing a sudden up angle. I remember once we got six swings of the teeter-totter before the DO caught on.

I’m betting sudden changes in mass distribution would have a similar effect on space ships.

John Appel January 4, 2021 at 1:18 pm

I am right there with you in terms of having difficulty with a project because it mirrored the current real-world situation too closely for comfort. In my case, I was able to park my book about a resistance movement against a hostile occupying power and move on to a different, and more escapist project.

Making due note of those two techniques so I can deploy them when the time comes!

mearsk January 4, 2021 at 1:22 pm

I’m hoping something good happens for puppet guy, cuz he definitely needs it. Probably my favorite character through the series.

John F. MacMichael January 4, 2021 at 3:06 pm

“…currently Lord Quillifer is scheduled for December 2021.”

Excellent! I will be ordering two copies: one for me and one for my brother-in-law (who is a very nice guy but hard to shop for). Thus scratching off one item from my Christmas list.

George Berg January 4, 2021 at 6:45 pm

I also hope.good things happen for Captain Severin. And more details regarding Garden and the Lorkin are revealed.

Early-Ray Mixon January 6, 2021 at 7:01 pm

Maybe you could fix your corridor issue by introducing taggers. Then you’ll have a ship filled with interesting, funny and perhaps even plot relevant graffiti. You could also set some kind of animals or pests loose on your ships, so that there’s never a dull moment in the corridors.

George Berg January 14, 2021 at 11:10 am

Unfortunately the only submarine story I know concerns a particular racist sailor the night before arriving at home port. He was given a towel doped with silver iodide which got into his open pores after the shower. During the night the silver iodide oxidatised and he turned dark. The caption wasn’t pleased that one of his crew had to be bleached. I suggest asking sailors for stories.

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