Building blocks and jigsaw pieces

My morning started with a simple plan: start Roomba-Actual (successor to Not-A-Roomba. Is an e6 model, but often fails to live up to that and gets called Roomba-Butterbar when it gets lost inside the chair legs), then start laundry, and follow by mopping at least two rooms.

Except Roomba-Actual was acting even stupider than its Roomba-Butterbar self. Each poke at the “go clean something” button returned a “blorp” instead of a chirp, and no action. Taking it off the charger and telling it to go home? Same thing. It lay there as comatose as young enlisted the morning after their first liberty in Singapore. No, worse: you can at least tell the enlisted kid’s issues start with attempted alcohol poisoning. There was nothing in the troubleshooting manual for Roomba’s problem.

When all else fails, hard reset. (It is a computer, after all.) So I unscrewed the faceplate, and took the battery out. It only takes seconds to wipe memory, but I carried the body out to the back porch and used the air compressor to blow the abundant dust out of the supposedly sealed internals. Then back inside, reseat the battery, and Roomba-Actual made a much more normal sound before I’d even screwed the faceplate back on.

Simple, easy fix and preventive maintenance. As long as you understand it’s a computer and a hard reset fixes a great many ills, and removing all the dust will fix even more. And have a very fine point phillips screwdriver. And an air compressor.

…okay, if you lack any of those, it becomes a complicated, involved problem. Possibly even a saga of tool acquisition and jerry-rigging and three trips to the hardware store later. Or it gets tossed as “broken.”

Which bring me ’round to my WIP. (At 29K, I have to admit this thing is a full story, not an overly-long “get this out of my head so I can get back to my WIP.) I’m trying several things I haven’t before, including a mystery (there are unexpected dead bodies popping up) and writing fantasy instead of SF, and trying to keep track of multiple characters in a family.

Usually that’s enough.

There are moments in which I’m going “it wasn’t supposed to have a second unexpected dead body. What do I do now?”

That’s when I start taking tropes, themes, writing-block-busting exercises, and suggestions on solutions, and trying them like jigsaw puzzle pieces to see what fit the shape of the problem.

Sort of like “What makes it go blorp? If we can’t figure that out with the manual, then what resets it? Try poking the button. Try putting on the home base. Try holding down the button for a soft reset. Try… hard reset?”

Pantsing a mystery is hard – it’s coming out like a police procedural as I try to figure out through the characters why my subconscious just did this, or that, or where the extra unexpected corpse came from. Because the answer isn’t a final answer, it’s “they would go ask these people about the murder.”

Once I have the solution that feels right, well, that often still leaves “How do I get here from there?”

Fortunately, when all else fails, there’s studying craft and applying those building blocks to bridge the gaps in inspiration, and flesh out the world while keeping pacing, character arc, and plot unfolding. Using the tools I have in the way I know how is like solving the problem of Roomba-Actual: once I have the idea of hard reset, now I start with “what kind of screws does it have? How many are there?

So, too, “how is the pacing? Who needs to be in this scene? What time of day is it, as how long did the last thing take? What have the offscreen characters gotten up to? Okay, that puts us where, when, why, how, who, and what needs to be accomplished. Go.”

And that’s sometimes enough to set the stage, and let the characters in my head walk on and talk, or fight, or flight, or whatever they get up to.

…of course, with pantsing, if they get up to outcomes I didn’t expect, that takes me right back to the prior step. First diagnose, then use the skills to build. Or desperately figuring out another way that doesn’t involve skills I lack, or trying to research the facts and build the skills at the same time I’m trying to use them…

At least it’s not boring!

8 thoughts on “Building blocks and jigsaw pieces

  1. I like your process — so logical!

    I’ve only been a fiction writer for ten years, and I started out as (and am still almost exclusively) long (or very long) form, so I’m still amused at how my brain chews on “so, what next?” inside a plot.

    One of the very pleasant surprises has been a new-to-me brain function. It’s hard to describe, though I suppose “writing into the dark” covers part of it. Basically, I’ve learned to set up a novel-structure-that-works-for-me 4-act framework of plot points (to avoid the “acts like a pudding” structure problem). Getting from planned scaffold point to planned scaffold point, however, is as much a matter of discovery as planning.

    And that part is SO MUCH FUN! I’ll drift off to sleep with no idea about some plot detail, and then wake up with “what about this secondary character? Exactly where does he live and what is his neighborhood like? Is his father still alive? We never fleshed this out, really (only as much world-building as necessary). What if he just drifts into town unexpectedly and disrupts all that character’s casual plans, and thus everyone else? That could create all sorts of chaos…”

    Or, “Oh. Of course. He would have to have some servants if he’s living there, or at least a landlady (even if there hasn’t been any reason to mention them yet). What if one of them draws his attention to a bit of gossip or an opportunity? We can always write them in at an earlier point…”

    I see this as a sort of chain of brightly lit scene-islands drifting along in undefined black space, mutating and evolving longer chain sets as each new “what if” or “I should mention that detail” spark lights up a new blob. They get anchored to the 4-act plot structure (or reluctantly cast off back into the blackness), but I never know what will pop up next. All I know is the way to trigger them — ask myself mundane questions about the characters — the details that haven’t been fleshed out in my hurry to tell the story are just the place where these useful island sparks come from.

    Haven’t had this much intellectual fun since LSD went out of fashion decades ago.

    1. Plotting ahead never works for me, for the whole story. I have been known to haul out the Hero’s journey and use it to back plot an already mostly written mess, and kick a few things around and then do a major edit for a smooth flow.

      I do occasionally have to do an outline of a scene, especially large fights.

    2. There’s sometimes the “Ohnoes she wouldn’t be able to leave on her own unless she really had a good disguise, otherwise she would HAVE to take a maid. And the maids are NOT trustworthy.”

  2. You have to dismantle the thing to do a hard reset?

    That’s some genius engineering right there. I run into things like that quite a bit these days, starting with cell phones. No off-switch? Really?

    Imagine that in a spacecraft.
    Captain: So why can’t you purge the lines and get clean fuel in there?
    Mechanic: You have to go outside to open the purge valve. It would be easy if we were on the launch pad, but the EVA pods can’t reach the valve, and we don’t have space suits.
    Captain: That’s insane. Who did that?
    Mechanic: The engineers couldn’t imagine a circumstance where a purge would be needed while under way. In Engineer Land, fuel is always clean.
    Captain: So we make a space suit?
    Mechanic: Yep.

    1. It wasn’t in the requirements. And the engineer either tried to argue and failed, or had already learned that failure was the only outcome of argument.

  3. Gus-Gus the not-a-roomba had been stalling out mid-clean. As best I can tell, his demands were for more charging time between cleaning, and an agreement has been reached.

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