Websites for Writing Feedback

Just a short post this time, because I’ve been busy writing. Inspiration struck and I’m two chapters into a new novella and revelling in that wonderful ‘first draft feeling’ (a little like stepping onto the moon), even if I was supposed to be working on my rewrite of The Sapience Assessment.

Something that’s not so great is the news that another writers’ website is shutting down. I was gutted when my go-to site Authonomy vanished just over a year ago, but decamped over to Writeon, an Amazon version which I assumed would be sticking around. The idea of these sites is that you can post chapters of your work for people to comment on, so it’s a useful way to get feedback. The problem is that they’re set up by publishers hoping to spot new talent, but because they’re sites serving writers they’re just not accessed by the quantity of readers needed to do the publisher’s work for them as intended and weed out the good stories from the bad.

So now Writeon is also going the way of the dodo, it seemed like I had two main options. One was to post my work on Wattpad. This is much more of a site for readers, so in theory it should be possible to get your work out to a bigger audience, maybe start developing a pre-publication fan-base. On the other hand, the comments tend to be one-liners, not particularly useful as feedback, and I’ve heard there’ve been serious issues with people’s work being copied.

What I’ve done instead is started posting my work on Scribophile. This is not set up for readers but neither is it a ruse by publishers to get their job done for free. What I like about Scribophile is that it’s not intended specifically to spot talent so there’s no sense of competition and works are not rated. No back-scratching or back-stabbing to get to the top. The basis of the site is that you critique others’ work, gaining you karma points, which you the spend to post your own work up for critique. It can be a bit hit-and-miss whether you’re going to get a good critiquer or a bad one, but (shrug) you’re guaranteed three critiques of each posted piece and the basic level of membership is free. All it takes is a little time and effort.

I’d be interested to hear which websites, or other means, people use to get feedback on their writing. And how much feedback is enough? After how many people have looked at your manuscript do you say: yes, that’s good to go?

Lack of Empathy is not Strength

It took me a while to decide on the topic for this blog. I was thinking I’d write something about my novels and what they’re all about, but I wasn’t sure where to start. I briefly toyed with the idea of commenting on the US presidential election along with half the world. Yesterday, though, I had a chance encounter with the over-used phrase “strong female character”, wondered why it irritated me, and in thinking about it realised these topics are all bound up together. Forgive me if this is a long post, but here’s how:

Let’s start with “strong female characters”. What irks me about these are two-fold: first that the phrase is often used for those stereotypical “badass” women, who make certain they get what they want by whatever means.

In the words of Carina Chocano in New York Times Magazine, they are “tough, cold, terse, taciturn and prone to not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone.” They “tolerate very little blubbering, dithering, neuroticism, anxiety, melancholy or any other character flaw or weakness that makes a character unpredictable and human.”

In other words, they’re driven and strongly individualistic, with little regard or lost sleep on behalf of those around them. Which is not a problem in itself, there’s definitely a place for such characters, and they can make for some fun reading. It just bugs me how misleading it is to term these women “strong” and applaud them for it, when in real life, strength, as in “strength of character” is so much more than being kick-ass.

With a bit of googling, I found I wasn’t alone. Here’s something written by Sophia McDougall in the New Statesman:

“What happens when one tries to fit iconic male heroes into an imaginary “Strong Male Character” box?  A few fit reasonably well, but many look cramped and bewildered in there. They’re not used to this kind of confinement, poor things. They’re used to being interesting across more than one axis and in more than two dimensions.

Is Sherlock Holmes strong? It’s not just that the answer is “of course”, it’s that it’s the wrong question. A better question would be – “What is Sherlock Holmes like?”

He’s a brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, polymath genius. Adding the word “strong” to that list doesn’t seem to me to enhance it much.

I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness… I want her to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical dominance or power.”

I find that characters who are not of the alpha female type inevitably are dismissed with a label of weak. It’s as though the definition of weakness is as broad as that of strength is narrow, so that characters who are far more emotionally nuanced must be compared unfavourably.

Just take the backlash against the 2015 film Cinderella. In this version, her mother’s dying wish is that she “have courage and show kindness”. But it seems in modern society, these traits are no longer considered admirable. Cinderella was seen as passive, if not pathetic, for not standing up for herself more, or just leaving, but to me she shows remarkable strength. For a discussion which explains my feelings on this far better than I could, I quote from this site:

http://feministfiction.com/2015/04/08/cinderella-the-feminism-of-kindness/

“The idea that anyone with sense and self-respect would fight back is insidious, and it does not match up with reality, not even in a modern, non-fairy tale setting. Cinderella is initially a victim of micro-aggressions, each of which seems perfectly justifiable in the moment. The abuse escalates gradually, until it becomes a norm that Cinderella feels that she cannot escape.

That is the reality of abusers using a victim’s own kindness against them. Cinderella’s great strength is not just that she stands up to her stepmother in the end. It’s also that she retains her own kindness, remains true to her personality — she doesn’t have to become someone she’s not to escape”.

The way I see it, Cinderella is not passive, she is not accepting the situation she finds herself in. What she is trying to do is find a way out that does minimal harm, not just to herself but to those around her. She is showing enormous courage.

It’s the type of courage displayed by leaders who follow codes of non-violence – think Gandhi or Martin Luther King. These people are respected for having the courage of their convictions and for their understanding of the common humanity of all people. Nobody would call them weak or passive, they had a different kind of strength.

The thing that worries me is what society we are living in now that can place so much emphasis on the sort of strength which is characterised by a lack of compassion or empathy. And before you accuse me of sounding like an old maid, harking back to the mythical golden times of my youth, there’ve been studies done on this. Apparently, in America at least, levels of self-reported empathy have plummeted.

Quoting from:

http://knowledgenuts.com/2013/08/25/humans-are-far-less-empathetic-than-they-used-to-be/

“According to a comprehensive study from the University of Michigan, we care about others 40 percent less than people in the 1980s did, with the biggest drop-off in empathy occurring after the year 2000. 

But also, researchers suggest, the expectations of modern society have changed—and not necessarily for the better for college students. Competitiveness and a must-succeed-at-all-costs philosophy is far more prevalent than in previous generations… Feeling empathy for others takes time and effort, which could be better spent, at least in the minds of young people, on achieving their own goals”.

Apparently, we’re living in an age of narcissism, the defining features of which are: an inflated sense of self-importance, and little or no ability to empathize with other people. And I’m sure you’ve heard about the skewed proportion of people in upper levels of management, the corporate CEOs, who have sociopathic traits. What does this mean for society?

To quote from Psychology Today “Beware America’s Shocking Loss of Empathy”:

“Here’s a sobering thought for the idealists among us: Even if we someday achieve a truly fair and just society, that society will nevertheless be inhabited by the same species that produced the Holocaust.

…the country’s political dynamics—the interactions between candidates, the policy proposals being considered, and even the conduct of ordinary citizens—increasingly reflect a complete lack of human empathy, a view toward others that is willfully insensitive, if not outright contemptuous.

…voters are getting the political discourse that reflects their own mindset: angry, fearful, incapable of complex analysis, and hostile toward others.”

I think you can see where Donald Trump fits into this blog, so let’s not re-tread that muddy ground, I’ll leave the politics there.

What you may be wondering is how all this relates to my novels and the answer is: it is key. At the core of my Transhumanity series is an exploration of loss of empathy. In fact, the title of the last book in the series is just that: The Empathy Key.

My protagonist is a young woman who, over the course of the series, becomes increasingly cyborg. By the last book, she is barely recognisable as human, and this has affected her not just physically but in how she relates to other people.

In one scene, Mac tries to explain to his daughter:

“Would you ever kill a flutterbug?” he asked.

            “Of course not.” Flutterbugs were delicate flying creatures the length of a hand, with iridescent wings. 

            “When I fly the aircar, sometimes I hit a flutterbug and kill it.”

            Lilly frowned. “Yes, but you don’t mean to. It’s not like deliberately squashing one.”

            “No,” he agreed. “It doesn’t seem the same. Because I’m not touching it myself, I feel more distant, as though it was the car that killed it and nothing to do with me. I think that’s what life’s like for Thea. Her cybernetics are like the aircar, buffering her from the world. She becomes detached from other people. It was hard for her because she knew she ought to still care about the flutterbugs, but she didn’t, not really.”

What I’ve created, you might say, is the ultimate stereotypical strong female character. Physically, she’s almost indestructible. In her powerful cyborg form, she becomes a force for justice, but in a sense she has become something evil, a sociopathic killer.

The remains of her organic body cannot stay attached to the cybernetics all the time. Sometimes she has to disconnect and then she is disabled, very disabled, and physically helpless. This dichotomy of physical strength and vulnerability could be seen in terms of levels of power and agency and how they affect our relationships with others.

The big question is not only whether she can save the world, but whether she can recover her humanity. Of the two battles, it is the second that takes real strength of character, the reclaiming of her own humanity with all the flaws and “weaknesses” that implies.

When it comes down to it, the cyoborg’s physical strength and disconnect from the concerns of others is, in fact, a flaw. Her true strength of character lies in her recognition of that, and in her determination to regain a sense of compassion.

 

Review of Riversend by Sylvia Kelso

This was breathtaking.

I read the previous book, Amberlight, and enjoyed the beautiful prose and the imagination at work. A city run by women and the mysterious sentient stone, querrique, is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a stranger. In places, I found the plot hard to follow, but by the end I was so caught up in the unique love story I just wanted more.

Riversend was an easier read – the prose has more clarity without losing its poetic qualities, bringing to life a different world, and the story is strong in its exploration of relationships under pressure.

Tellurith and her House are in exile after the destruction of the querrique, around which their society was based. Now she must lead her people, not only to safety, but through an upheaval in gender roles and traditions. At the heart of this is the struggle of her two husbands to accept their new roles, at odds with their upbringing.

I was a little thrown in places by plot twists that seemed to come out of nowhere, but it didn’t matter too much. The strength of the story was in the depth of moral integrity displayed by the main characters, and the exploration of their choices under intense and competing pressures of love and duty.

It is also a reflective tale on gender roles, an interesting mirror to our own society. In places, where actions shocked or surprised me, especially the depiction of sexual violence, I tried turning it around – if genders had been reversed, would I have felt the same? And when the answer was ‘no’, why not?

If you like fantasy based around mature, strong-willed characters, or are interested in gender roles and expectations, I think you’ll enjoy this.

A Theory on Self-Publishing Success

Here I am, wondering, as one does, just what it would take to make a living from writing novels, from self-published novels, and whether it is a goal I could possibly attain. The odds are bad, we all know that. And it’s premature, seeing as how I’m still struggling to get a decent draft of first book completed. But, you know, I like to dream, and I love to analyse, so here goes.

Oh, hang on, here’s the caveat: this analysis is based on no actual data whatsoever. Don’t believe it, don’t trust it, this is no prescription. What I’m trying to do is only this: to illustrate for myself (and anyone else who’s interested) how I think it might work. This is the contents of my head, transferred to the screen. Don’t stress on the numbers, consider it art.

So, here’s the secret to my imaginary success, and it’s oh so boring:

  1. Quality of product
  2. New product launches
  3. Marketing

And, without going into the detail of the modelling, here’s how these imaginary factors affect imaginary sales:

  1. Quality of product

Thinking wishfully, my books would be so knock-your-socks-off fantastic that every ten readers would generate a new reader through word-of-mouth. For such a book series, success is almost guaranteed. See my snowball factor at work in this wonderful, swooping, exponential curve:

graph1

But let’s not obsess on that. This is a self-published book we’re talking about – not good enough to land a publishing deal, and rather lacking in editorial input and development. What are the odds of a one-man back-yard electronics start-up developing the next breakthrough smartphone? It’s not going to happen.

What if the book is, let’s say quirky and misunderstood, and only one in a hundred readers generates a new reader. Then we get this:

graph2

See those spikes? Each of those is a new book launch, but even with four books published, we’re going nowhere. Time for a re-think of our life plan.

But let’s not dwell on that, either, let’s pretend this couldn’t happen to us, that our books are at least going to be mediocre. And why not? That sounds perfectly achievable.

Here’s where the surprise comes in. The numbers are telling me that even with a pretty ordinary kind of book, one in which you have to reach twenty readers just to pick up another one, it might be possible to make a few bucks.

  1. New Product Launches

The important thing is to have a whole series of books, ready to launch, one after another. Quantity counts. Here’s what I get with the second book launch six months after the first, and another book every year (ignoring the odd dip where I couldn’t be bothered refining things):

graph3

No way am I going to make any money on the first book. In fact, if you look at the figures and ignore the scales, the number of sales of my first mediocre book is the same as those of my first misunderstood book. Virtually exactly the same.

It makes me wonder if this is where people come unstuck. Maybe they self-publish a book, get no interest in it, think it’s a disaster and give up? Whereas really, there’s this beautiful compounding effect going on. With three years of perseverance and four mediocre books under our belt, we could be earning enough to pay the rent, at least.

Being only mediocre, we do need to keep going, churning out book after book, year after year, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We get to do what we love, for a living.

Time is a critical factor here. Suppose you only publish a book every 2 years. Here’s what you get (data courtesy of my entirely hypothetical model):

graph4

Within the same three-year period, you’ve got half as many books published, and only a quarter the monthly sales. It might take six years before you can give up your day job. Conclusion: we’ve just got to keep the books coming, one after another.

And there’s one more thing to consider:

  1. Marketing

I’m not going to talk about how to market a book, because right now I’m basically clueless. But what I can show you is how my model reacts to the number of readers you can get each book to on its launch.

If you were wondering what the ‘200’ meant in the title of the graphs, this is my assumption that you could reach 200 readers on your book launch. (If you’re really nitpicky, you’ll see that I’ve spread these as 100 readers in the first month and 50 in months two and three, just for argument’s sake). And no, I don’t have any advice on how to reach those readers – look, I haven’t actually attempted this yet.

So what happens if you get your book out to only (ha!) 60 readers instead of 200? This:

graph5

Basically, three years in, we’ve published 4 books, but total sales are no more than in our ‘two years between books’ model. And no, the royalties are not going to cover the rent. Mediocrity means we have to work a bit harder on marketing.

I think the reason for the difference between 200 and 60 is that the snowball effect needs a kick-start – we just have to get those early numbers of readers up, however we can. This is how discounts and free give-aways work – anything to build reader numbers in the early stages ought to pay off.

So, here we go, this is the graph for those who ‘get’ marketing and are going to nab a whopping 600 new readers over the three months after every book launch:

graph6

It takes a lot of effort, but see the way we’re starting to get that exponential curve going? And the actual numbers are not too shabby at all. Even if, on publishing your second book, you give away your first for free to get those reader numbers up, you’ll recover your expenditure in as many months. Within two years you’ll be earning a basic income. How hard can it be, finding 600 willing readers?

Well, yeah, I suspect the answer is: very hard.

But that’s that, the numbers have spoken. As daunting as this all is for someone like me, who would love to just stick my head down and write and leave all that marketing stuff to someone else, the prescription is clear. (Did I say at the start this blog was no prescription? My imagination and a few graphs have convinced me that it is, after all.) Here it is:

  • Write the best novel you can, and then another, and another.
  • Market the hell out of each (and give your books away – in the hundreds).
  • Persevere – it might take three or four books before the gamble really starts paying off

Now if anyone out there has any REAL data on this, I’d love to hear from you.

The Magical Realism of Raymond St. Elmo

In this post, I want to introduce you to self-published author Raymond St. Elmo (Raymond Holland). He writes ‘magical realism’, about which I have no idea, except to observe that his stories mindbendingly blur the boundaries between reality and dream.

He’s not afraid to play with the occasional metaphor, I like that, but what appeals most to me is the humour in his writing.

Read his books if you have a love of stories, especially stories of the kind which play games with reality. His writing references and extends literary traditions and he clearly revels in the magic of the written word.

Find out more about Raymond at his site here: http://raymondstelmobooks.com

And below are my Amazon reviews of his books – two books in two different styles, but with a solid thread of connection. Check them out here: https://www.amazon.com

Product Details

The Origin of Birds in the Footprints of Writing

In which our hero, having worked hard to achieve a respectable degree of seriousity, discovers a clue to a lost manuscript written in the footprints of birds. A self-imposed quest to decipher its meaning sends him tumbling down a rabbit-hole of dreams within dreams, pitting wits against dead authors, human and ornithological.

A story about the transcribing of stories, told with wit, humour, and a touch of magic.

(Especially recommended for those of us who work in cubicles, neglect most of our emails, and are supposed to be in a meeting).

Product Details

Letters from a Shipwreck in the Sea of Suns and Moons

I have no idea how to describe this book. It’s the sort of fantasy in which you can get lost, escaping from this world to another.

In this other world is a doomed ship with a terrifying cargo, a crew of incompetents, and two mysterious books. There is a failed poet, dreaming of his girl left behind, arguing Blake with the murderous, conversing with gods, courting lightning and dancing with the undead. There are puzzles and mortal dangers and a quest, of sorts.
It’s a story within a story, with even the narrator of this tale a mystery. Is he the blind old man the unseen interviewer claims him to be?

Read this if you pine for love and adventure, if you enjoy the uncovering of sly deceptions and deeper truths, or need an injection of wit and humour. Great stuff.

A Holiday – Through the Lens of a Writer

I took the kids to Brisbane last week. Only for a few days, at the last minute, but it was our first holiday of any kind in years so we tried to pack in all the stuff we don’t normally get to do – theatre, museums, that kind of thing. It was family time, nothing to do with work or writing. Honest.

And I did try, but something changes after you start writing, something to do with the way you look at things. I found myself mentally picking apart every show and every film, analysing them for plot and dialogue. I was studying the things around me and wondering whether they’d fit in my novels.

So for those interested in, I don’t know, things that caught my interest and might catch yours too, here’s my travelogue, through the lens of a writer of SF:

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We saw Singin’ in the Rain

Now this was fun. What struck me was that the plot was so simple – it was obvious what would happen from the very first scene – and the dialogue, too, tended to state the obvious. But in a way, that was part of the charm – with no deep mystery to puzzle over we could just sit back and enjoy the show.

What could be more giggelacious than the nonsense song “Moses supposes his toeses are roses but Moses supposes erroneously”? And the first efforts at movie sound recording and lip-synching were hilariously imagined. Modern movies could learn from this – it doesn’t have to be deep, dark, or dangerous, just make it playful.

images

We went to the Queensland Museum (and it was free!)

So I was standing with my daughter at the fossilized Icthyosaur, and I’m kind of yawning because I’ve seen these things before, nothing new, but my daughter asks me why it has a bony ring in its eye and, dammit, she’s got me there, I don’t have a clue. Turns out it’s a sclerotic ring, which helped it see underwater and supported the eye against the pressures of the deep. So then I’m all excited because I’ve suddenly realised the Sanomi (one of my alien species) just have to have sclerotic rings.

Did you know this: modern-day whales and dolphins (mammals) resemble ichthyosaurs, which were reptiles, by the process of convergent evolution. This fact fills my little heart with joy because this is the same process I’m using to explain why some of my aliens are so very, well, human-ish. Why can’t we have convergent evolution on an interplanetary scale?

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We went to the Museum of Brisbane (also free!)

Beautiful building, and check out the chandelier hanging above for steampunk or dungeon styling.

What caught my imagination, though, was the exhibition of modern art from Taiwan. For fantastic images that warp urban imagery into traditional mountainscapes, you’ve got to see  “A Bowl of Taipei” by Yang Yongliang. Check out this link:

http://www.yangyongliang.com/Photography/105.html?a=3

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We continued the Chinese cultural theme with the Shaolin Warriors.

This was where my kids, who are are not remotely interested in martial arts, caught me out. “Mum, are you sure you’re not just doing research for your book?” And yes, I was, because how else am I supposed to write the temple fight scene in The Hidden Link? I’ve got staff-wielding, saffron-robed monks in there, for goodness sake.

And this was an eye-opener, but not quite in the way I expected. What I saw was how incredibly hard the guys worked to not hurt each other. From the carefully choreographed sparring to the bendy staffs and fake swords, this was a reality far removed from the editing and special effects of the movies. And I don’t mean these fellows were even remotely wuss-like – their fitness, skill and agility was outstanding. It was just a sobering reminder that in real life, getting hit hurts.

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And we went to the movies.

Not intentionally, really, but we didn’t fly back until evening and we’d seen as much of Brisbane as our legs could stand without a car (my daughter reckoned her feet had flat tyres). Have you noticed that Brisbane has this thing about weird and wonderful bridges? But after you’ve walked across three of them…

So, anyway, we saw this film which I presumed was about peculiar children. Living in a home. Run by Miss Peregrine. Which it was, but perhaps I shouldn’t have assumed that a film with “for children” in the title was necessarily “for children”. My youngest found it a little scary.

Personally, I loved it, even after recognising the tropes. I mean, we have a young man who struggles to fit in, who has no friends and fears he might be going mad. We have shapeshifting, eye-stealing bad guys out to become immortal. We have a group of weird kids who overcome their rivalries to work together to defeat said bad guys.

But any old tropes are fine with me, as long as they’re done well (in the words of Fun Boy Three: It Ain’t What You Do It’s The Way That You Do It) and this film tiptoes nicely along the line between the believable and the magical, leaning one way and the other but never losing its balance. There are moments of wonder and moments of fear, and none are overblown. There’s even a hint of a deeper question, a what if? choice between duty and love, but again, it’s not overblown. Nicely done.

The End.

So that was my holiday. It sounds better, somehow, written out, minus the confusion over tickets, the boring waity bits and the endless arguments over where to go to eat. I wonder if next time I could take out the airplanes and do it all by google…?

 

Exploring Story Mood: The Dark and the Light

Followers of my blog (Hi, Mum!) may remember a previous post in which I was thinking about branding and how to present what it is my writing and my blog are all about. What is my core message? And what is my point of differentiation that sets my work apart from anyone else’s?

Well, apologies in advance for the personal and subjective nature of this post, but I’m going to explore this a little – it’s something I feel the need to go through to gain a better sense of direction. My idea is to deconstruct recent books and films in my current genre that have captured my imagination – not ones that I enjoyed as a child but those that appeal to the adult me – to see what it is that I liked. With a bit of luck, there may be something of interest to others in my thoughts, too.

I’m going to start with these, as examples of “my kind of sci fi”:

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The book is Planetfall by Emma Newman and the film is Ex_Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland. If you haven’t yet read / viewed these and think you might want to, I suggest you don’t read on – I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but there’ll inevitably be plot hints.

Anyone still here?

So, neither of these are stories I’m going to forget in a hurry, I found them to be very powerful, and to do them justice might take more than one blog post. For now, I’m going to discuss one common feature: they’re both rather dark.

What do I mean by dark?

Well, they both feature a protagonist who is under heavy psychological pressure.

In Planetfall, Ren has been hiding a terrible secret for so long that it has affected her mental health. The book starts with a stranger arriving in her extra-terrestrial community, one who is likely to reveal that secret. It doesn’t help that the stranger is the grandson of her former lover, bringing back painful memories. Immediately the reader can see that Ren is in serious trouble, though we are not sure of the details – we don’t know what the secret is – but we need to read on to see how Ren fares.

The picture is drawn from snippets like this, in Chapter 1:

“Ren. What if he’s here to ruin everything we’ve done here?”

 “We’ve done?” It comes out like  croak.

   “Yes, we.” His voice hardens. “Should I shoot him and make sure he-”

    “Oh for fuck’s sake, Mack, I’m an engineer! Not your conscience!”

     His mouth drops open at my outburst and I regret the words. He just doesn’t want to be the       only load-bearing object in this messy structure.   

In Ex_Machina, Caleb has been brought to billionaire Nathan’s claustrophobic retreat to test whether an artificial intelligence, constructed in the form of a young woman, has consciousness. From the mood of the film, it is immediately clear that Nathan has another agenda and Caleb may be in trouble. The viewer knows no more about this hidden agenda than Caleb does, but we can foresee the conflict between what Nathan is asking Caleb to do and what he feels to be right.

Nathan: This building isn’t a house. It’s a research facility. Buried in these walls is enough fibre optic cable to reach the moon and lasso it. And I want to talk to you about what I’m researching. I want to share it with you. In fact, I wanna share it with you so much, it’s eating me up inside. But there’s something I need you to do for me first.

Caleb: [reading contract] “Blue Book non-disclosure agreement.”

Nathan: Take your time. Read it over.

Caleb: [continues reading] “The signee agrees to regular data audit with unlimited access, to confirm that no disclosure of information has taken place in public or private forums, using any means of communication, including but not limited to that which is disclosed orally or in written or electronic form.”

[frightened]

Caleb: I think I need a lawyer.

Nathan: It’s standard.

Caleb: It doesn’t feel very standard.

Nathan: Okay, it’s not standard. What can I tell you, Caleb? You don’t have to sign it. You know, we can spend the next few days just shooting pool, getting drunk together, bonding. And when you discover what you’ve missed out on, in about a year, you’re gonna regret it for the rest of your life.

The psychological pressure is so extreme that in Planetfall, it has pushed Ren to mental illness, while in Ex_Machina, after only a few days in Nathan’s house, Caleb starts to question his own humanity.

Nathan: Buddy, your head’s been *so* fucked with.

Caleb: I don’t think it’s me whose head is fucked.

Nathan: I don’t know, man. I woke this morning to a tape of you slicing your arm open and punching the mirror. You seem pretty fucked up to me.

Caleb: You’re a bastard.

Nathan: Yeah, well, I understand why you’d think that. But believe it or not, I’m actually the guy that’s on your side.

Another way in which these works have a dark edge is that the protagonist is faced with a moral dilemma.

In neither of these stories is there a clear way forward or an easy way out – whichever action they choose will have serious consequences for somebody. Behind both of them is a character of questionable morals, who has gradually forced them into an untenable situation. We feel for Ren and Caleb as they become ensnared in webs of lies and deceptions, hoping that they can find a way to extract themselves that does not harm others. Instead, the tension rises as the situation edges towards irretrievable disaster.

Snippets of dialogue reveal their inner tension. In Ex_Machina, Caleb is thrown off-kilter by the AI, Ava, asking him whether he considers himself a good person. In the end, he says that he is, but we can see the beginnings of doubt in his eyes.

In Planetfall, we have this:

I want to be the kind of person who would stand up now and declare that there is a better way, or that I’ll stand by my principles in this as all things and not do it. But what is the alternative? And I’m just as afraid of what will happen if the transition from lies to truth isn’t handled carefully. I should have spoken up over twenty years ago.

But if I had, I would be dead.

“You’d better show me how you do it, then,” I say, without bothering to hide the defeat in my voice. He isn’t the victor. Fear is. And cowardice.

Of course, I was hoping for happy endings. Unfortunately for me, with stories of this complexity and depth of moral ambiguity, “happily ever after” is not going to happen. What these stories did do, though, was present a twist towards the end, giving me that thrill of the unexpected. And with both stories, there is a strong sense of resolution and closure.

Personally, I don’t think I would have the stomach to write something quite as dark as these – I tend to adopt clearer-cut divides between good and bad, giving my protagonist a path that is more clearly “right”. I just like something a little easier on the emotions. But at least now I’m starting to get a feel for what makes stories like these so powerful.

It’s all about placing one’s protagonist in impossible situations, facing them with terrible moral dilemmas, and ultimately watching them make their choice and take the consequences.

There’s also power in the way the story is constructed, the timing of the reveals and the maintenance of tension and suspense – but I will save detailed discussion of these aspects for another post.

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If you remember the title of this post, you may be wondering where “the light” comes in.

To me, it’s all about balance. What I’m really aspiring to is this: to create a story with something of this dark, psychological edge, and to have my character come through that to a place beyond. What I’m looking for is not the shallow happy ending of character who has not been stretched, but the deep happy ending of a character who’s been through hell and made it back.

Maybe this is something in my own psyche, that I need to see a way of climbing from dark places and finding hope and redemption. Discussion of my minor personal demons, though, I will save for another post.

For now, I have food for thought – how to get the balance right? In how deep and dark a place can I place my characters, while still allowing them to find the light and escape?