The Process, Part Three

In a relatively rare occurrence for me, I decided to work up a total outline of the story. It is sparse in places and does not break down word counts (pacing is difficult and the biggest impetus for revisions, in my opinion) but it gets the totality of the story across. Incidental characters, events and locations will no doubt crop up during the actual writing process, as will complete rethinking of some story elements and beats in the outline. But that is what first drafts are for, right?


The story opens with John being introduced to his new position as a full fledged Sandman at the age of 19. His life up to this point has been a squalid existence in the Sleeper Station, living sparsely and uncomfortably while learning all the skills necessary to become a Sandman.


His mentor/boss is a figure known as Doctor Somnen who is in charge of all the Sandmen. He explains each of John’s duties — flushing the waste fluids, checking the biofuel cells, keeping an eye on the Sleep system, and, most importantly, watching the Outside Scopes — and tells him that as a Sandman he is entitled to extra protein rations. John spends a very boring first day, then week, then month, manning his station.


Once John is up to speed, one of the older Sandmen is “retired” — he is actually allowed to join the Sleepers so that should the world ever recover enough to warrant waking them, he will be allowed to live the rest of his life outside the Station in the “new world.” Doctor Somnen tells John that he, too, can work toward that goal.


While watching the Scopes, John sees a figure approach the sealed and hidden front gates of the Station. It is obvious that the figure knows the gates are there, however. The figure is cloaked and hooded and bristling with weapons. This figure is Cyrus, the wasteland wanderer and crusader dedicated to making sure the evils of the World Before do not survive into whatever the next era is. (Note: the Station occupants do not know this; the fact is included here for my own benefit.) John informs Doctor Somnen, who tells him to watch and wait.


Cyrus remains at the gates, doing nothing but making himself easily apparent through the Scopes, for a week. At one point, John watches a wild wasteland critter attempt to ambush Cyrus and Cyrus kills it handily and skins it, butchers it and eats it. Doctor Somnen seems impressed. He wants to know more about the outside world and obviously this person (Cyrus) would know. John shows reservations but Somnen reassures him by saying just because they let the stranger in does not mean he ever gets out.


Doctor Somnen orders the gates opened to allow Cyrus in, requiring only that Cyrus leave his arsenal in the airlock (which he can “retrieve when he chooses to leave” the Sleeper Station.).Cyrus does so and enters the Station. He can speak the old language fluently, which strikes John as odd. Doctor Somnen assigns John to “show him around” while collecting information from him. He does this because John is young and inexperienced and unlikely able to give up too many secrets to Cyrus.


Cyrus has a neural implanted computer that contains massive amounts of pre-Apocalypse and current data which is directly wired to his brain by the god-like Artificial Intelligence Network that was responsible for the Apocalypse and is still around. (Cyrus is opposed to these beings and his access to their information is a hack by his “order.”) Inside the Station, his access is limited because of interference.


John  introduces Cyrus to the Station and life within for the Sandmen. Part of the “tour” brings them to the dining hall where they enjoy their sparse meals and the tasty “protein ration” (aka meat). During the meal, Cyrus refrains from eating it and challenges John to explain where it comes from (asking if there are livestock as well as hydroponics). Un-enthused, Doctor Somnen tells Cyrus that the protein rations is produced from cellular growth systems, not husbandry. Cyrus outwardly accepts the answer but doubt has been successfully planted in John.


Later, John finds Cyrus sneaking around during the “night cycle” in search of something. During their conversation, Cyrus pushes John toward figuring out the truth for himself, but before that can happen they are interrupted by Doctor Somnen. After Cyrus leaves them, Somnen tells John that Cyrus is dangerous and may be trying to probe weaknesses in the Station for an attack by his wasteland allies. Because John and Cyrus seems to have a rapport, Somnen asks John to lead Cyrus into a trap and promises him the ultimate reward: being put in hibernation with the rest of the Sleepers to await the Utopian future of the post-post-apocalypse. John agrees.


Cyrus allows himself to be brought to the cusp of the trap — the recycling center where the Sleeps are turned into protein ration — so that in the midst of their conflict he can reveal the truth to John in order to gain his trust and assistance. Cyrus wants to kill all of the Sleepers (because they are examples of the most decadent of humankind) but John  argues to just wake them all. In the meantime, Doctor Somnen and his cronies descend on the control chamber and all hell breaks loose.


During this climactic confrontation, Doctor Somnen admits that he was ordering the eating of Sleepers in order to alleviate the burden on the Sandmen. He had seen it near mutiny when he was a young Sandman and now that he was in charge he refused to allow all the Sleepers to dir and was willing to sacrifice some of them for the greater good. That sort of thing.


I am not sure exactly how I want the final act to play out at this point, but in the end Cyrus leaves to allow John to choose whether to kill all the Sleepers, leave them sleeping or wake them all. We don’t see the answer. Satisfied that the real evil of the Station — Doctor Somnen — is defeated, Cyrus goes back out into the wastes and continues on his crusade. John is left to contemplate the choice before him.


The Process, Part Two

Last time (scroll down to see it) I introduced you to my process by outlining it in general terms. Now, with an idea in mind, I want to explore it in a more specific way.

The Idea is always the starting place, even if the final product does not quite resemble it. In this case, it’s a simple, even silly, supposition about both milieu (post apocalyptic bunker survival) and cliched plot line (It’s people!”). But I often find it helpful to spell it out, mostly because little details will emerge, unbidden, when I write the dust jacket version. For example, even though the Idea came to me during a run (often the case) the details of the names (“Sleeper Stations” and “Sandmen”) only appeared as I wrote the short-form plot.

For those that missed it, here is that passage from the previous post:

In response to the impending Apocalypse, so-called Sleeper Stations are established, where millions are placed into hibernation until it is time to emerge and retake the world. In addition to the Sleeping, a population of Sandmen is assigned to watch over the Sleepers. Four generations later, a weary administrative class is trying to maintain a sparse yet utopian society while watching outside for signs of civilization. Throughout it all, the Sandmen class is forced o suffer hard labor and disgusting working conditions. Despite all the difficulty, the population is well fed. It is the protagonist that asks the question, where does the meat come from?

In many cases, that would be enough for me to start writing. However, I think I want to unpack this idea a little bit and see if I can find the story inside the idea. See, I believe that ideas, great ideas even, are cheap, a dime a dozen. Anyone can have not just one million dollar idea, but a million dollar idea every day. But turning that great idea into something — here, a story — is where the work comes in. Too often, I settle on the flash fiction or slightly longer short-short because it allows me to get to the meat of an idea and the basic structure of the story without the wait or the drudgery. The fundamental problem with this goes back to the ubiquity of ideas: since they are so easy, chances are someone else has already had it, so the difficulty lies in presentation. This is doubly true if you are intentionally choosing or settling on something common and/or cliched.

With all that in mind, where is the story in the idea? For me, the first component past plot I need is character. Specifically, I need to identify in my mind my viewpoint character in order to successfully navigate a nascent story structure. Because this idea is in a new, unfamiliar world for the reader and involves a degree of (morbid) discovery, I want someone new and young and easily presented with the kind of information the reader needs to know. Given what I established above about the setting, it is obvious that the character should be a new Sandman, just assigned to his station watching over the Sleepers and/or watching the outside world for signs of civilization. Since I am terrible at choosing names, I am going to call him John for the time being.

Even as I wrote the above, a question formed in my mind: should John be a Sleeper who was woken for the purpose of becoming a Sandman? In the answer to that question can be found a number of deeper choices about the setting. Is this how Sandmen are chosen? If so, why? Are they sterile? Subject to high rates of birth defects? Maybe only men (or women) are allowed to be Sandmen. It also twists the “Soylent Green” ending to a new level: if John was a Sleeper, then that means he has been eating people *just like him* by the time the truth comes out. If John was not a Sleeper and was instead born and raised among the Sandmen, then this is the only life he knows. What’s more, he would likely not see the Sleepers as fully human. At best, they might be an abstract hope; at worst, they would be a burden, especially if life among the Sandmen is difficult. How, then, would he react when the truth comes out?


In addition to John, a secondary “viewpoint” character, or at least one that could transmit some information to the reader, came to mind: a wanderer invited into the Sleeper Station. If the supposition is that the Sleeper Station must watch for the appropriate time to wake its population, then either the Sandmen must go out and explore (perhaps remotely, though that idea does distance the Sandmen from the potential action and immediacy of such an element) or they must allow wanderers to enter (but, perhaps, never leave). I have a “pre-existing” wanderer in mind, should I decide to go this route, because I have a sort of Conan/Jon Carter homage character called Cyrus from some time back when I decided I wanted to write a Howardian episodic body of work in a Post-Apocalyptic setting. Such a character could not only help drive the action, since otherwise John will need a powerful motivation to dig too deep into the origins of his protein sustenance, but serve as a gatekeeper to a potential wider world of this post apocalyptic setting.


Of course, an antagonist is also necessary, and the obvious choice is an administrator or head chef or some other character who holds the knowledge that the Sandmen are butchering and eating the Sleepers. Because it is obvious, however, part of me thinks to go a completely different direction. This, too, is a key component of my process. Given decades of comic books, cartoons, television and mass-market sci-fi, I recognize that many of my first blush ideas are cliches, so I often try to identify those tendencies and actively work against them. or, at least, I try to subvert the cliche in such a way that it provides ballast to an otherwise too-heavy story.


Aside from the various characters a story needs, a strong setting is a must. Even for a one off short story, the setting needs to make some sort of internal sense as well as feed the plot in a naturalistic fashion. With this idea, that means building a setting in which it makes sense that the Sandmen would be feeding on the Sleepers. In my mind, two possibilities appear. In the first, the Sleeper Station is unsustainable. Perhaps the worst aspects of the Apocalypse lingered too long and the protein vats, hydroponic farms and waste-to-food recyclotrons are giving out and the Sandmen are stretching the life of the Station by reluctantly delving into the last “store” of protein they have: the Sleepers. They keep it a secret because they know it would cause a revolt and the Station would collapse and that would be the end of them all. The other option is that the Sandmen in charge have seen the world of the Post Apocalypse and for whatever reason — perhaps they have become fundamentalists or perhaps they refuse to cede the power they hold over the rest of the Sandmen — and refuse to join it. They are happy to continue to hide beneath the surface, but have tired of the hardships of living on gruel and recycled feces and have somehow convinced themselves it is their right to eat the Sleepers. In the former example, there is a moral ambiguity that might be interesting to explore. In the latter example, there is a stark villainy that can be equally compelling (especially if you have a sword and sorcery/ray-gun style hero on the loose looking to lop off a few heads).


Finally, I need a resolution in mind. I know, I skipped an outline and a rough draft and all those bits that they teach you in your creative writing classes. Those I either embrace, or don’t. In fact, I find that the more hard preparation I do, like outlines and treatments and very rough drafts, the less likely that I will actually get to the process of writing the story for real. I have a sneaking suspicion that the act of completing a story gives me a kind of endorphin rush analogous to the “runners high or “post coital bliss” and so if I “finish” the story in the pre-writing phase, my need to actually write it diminishes. In this case, though, I want to actively avoid that but at least have a basic idea of how this story ends. Of course, the specifics of the ending must rely on the answers to the many questions I have just posed, but ultimately there are only two choices for an end to this story: either John accepts, however grudgingly, the cannibalistic practice of the Sandmen, or he rejects it. That choice will inform many of the very small but ever-so-important details of the text itself.


All the above shows the kind of questions I present to myself as I tackle a story idea. This is the most conscious part of the process for me. As soon as I finally sit down to write, all that questioning has magically coalesced into a story and I am less writing it as I am uncovering it, like a sculptor chipping away at the marble to find the statue that has always been hidden within.


For next time, I will begin writing and present it with some “color commentary,” as it were — which choices I made and why, for example.


Thanks for your eyeballs!