April 26, 2003

Plot noodling

WARNING: plot noodling follows. Authors at work.

Do not read the rest of this entry, or comments on it, if you want to read the story as a fun and entertaining piece of fiction with surprises in the plot.

I sat down to write the next chunk of "Unwirer" and decided to look back at what we've done so far first.

Problem: we've written 2900 words of a 6000 word story, and all we've got so far is a good beginning.

To be fair, we're throwing in a whole lotta background material. There's a lot of info needed to get up to speed on the world of "Unwirer" -- I guess either Cory or I could ramble on for the entire length of the story just writing a synopsis of the background to it! But while this is all well and good, we have a problem with the pacing. If we stick to the outlined plot in the original plot entry, we're going to end up with about 12,000 words. (In fact it's so open-ended that if some kind editor would just open their cheque book I'd be happy to dicker over the novel-length version :)

We've got three characters on scene, a fourth bad guy off-screen but with background painted in, so we should be able to get this show on the road. But so far there's too much talking -- I'm worried it'll look a little unbalanced if we suddenly switch from talking-heads to plot-driven overdrive and spring a surprise ending.

I think we need to revise down our expectations of how big a climax we need (chase scenes? Gunfights? Chorus with singing fat lady walking across Niagara Falls on a tightrope?), and also maybe cut 500-1000 words from what we've already written.

I'm going to go out, grab dinner, then think about some possible sequences of events and climaxes that we could bolt onto this to give us closure in 3000-4000 words. I'll post 'em in the comments when I've got something solid, and we can kick them around until we're both satisfied where it's going.

Posted by Charlie Stross at April 26, 2003 08:48 AM

I sense that you're right, Charlie, but I was thinking that we'd write this out and then trim, if necessary -- not worry, too much, about the target length (it's the "Start with a block of marble and remove everything that doesn't look like a statue" school of sculpting).

But discussing the climax is a good idea, too (and there's nothing wrong with lopping 500 words out of the story to-date, but I'll leave thinking about those cuts for my compositional turn, since I cut best when composing...)

How about this?

So, Roscoe and Marcel are about to have a gigantic argument over whether to take the reporter out on the road with them. That's the scene where we actually detail the way that the Unwiring process works. In that scene, it develops that Roscoe is maintaining security *from* Marcel, out of good hygeine, and hasn't told Marcel anything about his contacts up- or down-stream of his APs, nor of the out-of-band comms-secrecy protocols used to coordinate with same.

Marcel starts to push him to reveal some of this, seeming to be on the side of the reporter, wanting her to get a good story (foreshadow that Marcel is a provocateur). There's a chase-scene as Marcel pushes Roscoe to some act of risky bravado (but Roscoe can't be passive here, so the resolution of the chase-scene has to come from some really *clever* solution that Roscoe dreams up).

The reporter is smarter than Roscoe credits her wiith being. She winkles out what Marcel is up to, and subtly confronts him with it, pushing him in a solo session to do things that his Fed handlers would never allow. When he doesn't do them, she concludes that he really is a provocateur and tries to convince Roscoe, who refuses to believe it. She becomes 3/4 convinced that *Roscoe* is a double-agent, too, working to ensnare up- and downstream unwirers to get his swentence reduced. She knows that he met with the cops in scene 1 and thinks that they may have been his handlers.

Now Marcel is driving them so some climactic act of unwiring, one that will expose both the up- and downstream Unwirers, and the reporter decides that she needs to save them from Marcel and Roscoe's treachery (maybe by ratting out Marcel and Roscoe to the cops? There's a great scene in Abbie Hoffman's autobiography where he calls the Chicago PD on the FBI agents who're tailing him during the Democratic National Convention). At the last minute, Roscoe figures out what she's up to, and does climactic stuff that lands Marcel at the bottom of the Falls (or maybe not -- is Roscoe a murderer? In any event, falling down the Falls needs to be one of the sources of tension -- it's a Checkovian Act-One Mantel-Firearm) and him off in Canada? Mexico? Europe.

Anyway, as they say in Scotland, ye ken well what I mean.

Posted by: Cory Doctorow at April 27, 2003 06:34 AM

Okay, this looks like a workable plot. But is it?

Pace it scene by scene.

* Roscoe and Marcel argue about taking the reporter. We learn how unwiring works.

* Chase scene as Marcel pushes Roscoe to act of bravado(?)

* Reporter works out what Marcel is doing, has one-on-one with him.

* Reporter tries to convince Roscoe that Marcel is a fed, Roscoe doesn't fall for it.

* Marcel provokes new act of unwiring (and we need to get specific on what this is!).

* Last-minute prep scene. Roscoe figures out what Sylvie is doing. Proceed to climax and Roscoe sets Marcel up for the cops.

* Post-climax. Roscoe off to Canada/Europe/Mexico.

This gives us (count 'em) seven scenes to cram in. Assuming we cut back the current chunk to 2500 words, that's 500 words per scene. It'd work fine if we had 1000 words/scene, but then we'd be looking at a 10,000 word story. (Think Isaac and Julie would go for it?)

I think we might still be able to hit 6000 words, if we eschew waffle and background completely, and focus on knowing *exactly* what (a) Marcel tries to provoke Roscoe into (bullet 1), (b) how the unwiring ops work, (c) what Marcel's new provocation is (bullet 5), and (d) what Roscoe does at the double-cross (bullet 6).

But it's going to be really tight, so I suggest we thrash it out right now before I push on and do the Roscoe/Marcel argument scene.

Posted by: Charlie Stross at April 27, 2003 09:50 AM

How unwiring works:

My vision for it is that it's something like the drugs business. There are fat channels at the top branching down to thinner channels and then tiny ones at the bottom, consumer level. You want to get unwired, you find someone who's already unwired. You then get them to source you the wireless network kit you need (either from cheap stores over the frontier in Canada, or via their 'dealer'). Your PC probably runs a horrible OS like Windows without TCP/IP, but your dealer can give you a sandbox on a CD -- a graphical OS (like Inferno?) that comes with all the software you need. Including the TCP/IP stack, and a bunch of store-and-forward servers for when you're not actively connected.

When you get properly wired you reach an agreement with your 'dealer' who sticks a spare aerial and a coffee can on the christmas tree on their roof and points it at your house. Latency is crap and you probably have to use a version of traceroute that doesn't time out after 30 hops, but at least it works. You pay your dealer in cash or simoleons or ganja or whatever.

Or maybe your dealer is an evangelist who pays their own upstream bills but provides a free feed to some friends.

And maybe the wholesaler is an evangelist -- someone like Roscoe who specialises in getting fat high-data-rate pipes into a whole town at a time, and installing those nifty disk repeater aerials everywhere. Takes some paid work to cover the overheads and living expenses, then ploughs it back into providing the public service.

And sometimes maybe the wholesaler is a shady businessman -- moving into unwiring because it's reasonably profitable but the penalties are less than smuggling crack by the kilogram.

In short, it's the usual mix of motives and methods. But Roscoe is at the idealistic end of things -- he's an old-time "infrastructure wants to be free" believer -- and he believes in using whatever he sells to make money to bring in revenue that will pay for the big random acts of senseless unwiring.

(Making sense so far?)

Marcel, meanwhile, is trying to get Roscoe into a nice lucrative deal involving a local bunch of gangbangers who want their own private encrypted links setting up so they can stay one jump ahead of the state police.

(Reasonable provocateur behaviour? If Roscoe's up in front of a court for helping out heroin dealers he'll get a lot less sympathy from a jury than he did last time around ...)

Posted by: Charlie Stross at April 27, 2003 10:02 AM

PS: Apology to readers -- if you're wondering why I'm so slow it's because I'm 83,000 words into the first draft of a 100,000 word novel, and writing at roughly 4-5000 words per day, seven days a week, in a mad creative frenzy. I therefore don't have a lot of energy for "Unwirer" when I get to the end of a day's work. Happily, I am on course to finish "Glasshouse" draft 1.0 on Wednesday or Thursday, at which point "Unwirer" will get my complete and undivided attention ...

Posted by: Charlie Stross at April 27, 2003 10:05 AM

It's going to be tricky getting it all in under length. I say we write it as brief as we can, trim a little, and give it to Isaac and say, "this is as short as she comes, sorry..." (Isaac, you reading this?)

The vision of unwiring sounds about right to me. The thing I like is th enotion that the first use people make of an unwired city is free citywide SMS. Don't forget the stick-on batwing adhesive boomerangs from Motorola that relay the IP traffic...

Posted by: Cory Doctorow at April 29, 2003 04:12 AM

Update: I just finished draft 1.0 of "Glasshouse", at 90,500 words. Which means (phew!) no more distractions from "Unwirer". I can't believe I just did that -- 90,000 words in 21 consecutive 9-12 hour days of writing ...

Posted by: Charlie Stross at April 29, 2003 09:06 AM

Congrats on finishing the book, Charlie! What an accomplishment!

Posted by: Cory Doctorow at April 30, 2003 06:50 AM
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