Mouse is a young lady from Boundary, a section of the land called the Park. It borders the Jungle on one side and Newer Orleans on the other. While Earth hangs in the sky up above. Keeping their community running takes long days of work. It’s not enough, not enough food, not enough goods. Mouse asks, “Why is everyone working so hard? There’s got to be a better way.” But innovation is against the laws of the Castle the capital of the Park.
So Mouse works on her technology projects in secret. Like figuring out how the robotic Elephanthead that hangs over the town’s bar works. It’s been there as long as anyone can remember, singing songs and reciting poetry at random. Alone one night, Mouse cracks a code in Elephantheads’ ramblings. It tells here where she can find the Park’s most contraband items, books. There’s a room full of them in the Cursed Manor.
She returns from that haunted place with an armload of precious books. Unfortunately, a representative from the Castle arrives in Boundary. It’s the Duck, as unreasonable as he is unintelligible. He knows someone from Boundary has stolen from the Cursed Manor. He’s here to findthe transgressor. While the Duck tears up Boundary searching, Mouse finds a slot in the back of Elephanthead. It’s big enough for a damaged copy of Don Quixote. When she slides it into the slot, Elephanthead becomes fully functional. Or at least as much as head can be, a head who’s a bit insane.
Mouse covers for the awakened Elephanthead. But all Hell breaks loose when the Duck discovers what she’s done, pirates from another community raid Boundary, and a giant headless robot body with four arms stumbles into town. Mouse dodges pirates and the Duck. Elephanthead’s body pulls his head from the wall of the bar and places it on his shoulders. For the first time, Elephanthead is complete.
Whole, Elephanthead makes short work of the raiding pirates while the Duck escapes. It seems that Duck arranged the pirate raid, but why? Elephanthead declares Duck a villain and sets off on a quest to bring him to justice. Mouse sees an opportunity to find out why the Park is the way it is. With Elephanthead she’ll be safe anywhere.
The Duck fled across the desert and Elephanthead and Mouse followed. Over Lighting Mountain. Through the aging city of Newer Orleans, rotting and decadent. Across the river, its single island home to an orphan boy of terrible disposition. Down Main Street, pristine and empty, at least by humans. And into the high tech Land of Tomorrow, with rockets built that have never launched.
That’s where Mouse meets a real engineer. Someone who maintains the robots of the Park. Robots like the Duck. For centuries, these robots have maintained the status quo at all costs. Mouse finally has the answers to her question, “Why is everyone working so hard when there’s a better way?” The robots have been keeping people too busy to improve their lives or change anything in any way.
Outraged, Mouse vows to bring the whole system down. So people can control of their own destinies. With loyal and strong Elephanthead by her side, she follows the Duck’s trail into the Land of the Fantastic. A journey to the Castle itself, to take down whoever sits on the throne. Instead of a who, they find a what. The personality of the Park’s inventor, projected as a hologram. It explains that the Park is a space station that used to be an amusement park. When the Earth’s environment collapsed, people fled to the Park for safety. To keep them safe is to keep them from leaving, which means keeping them too busy surviving to do anything else.
Mouse isn’t having it. With the knowledge she’s learned in the Land of Tomorrow, she wipes the computer version of the Park’s founder. The orbital amusement park’s systems begin to fail. Leaving people in chaos, but free. And Mouse heads back to the Land of Tomorrow to get those rockets working.
All his life, Mark did everything right, everything he was supposed to. He studied hard and got good grades. When he graduated he worked hard and was loyal to his company. It didn’t matter. Nobody cared. After all that effort, he was just another disposable cog in the machine of business. Thrown away every time an accountant somewhere figured they could save a few bucks without him. And every time he got laid off, he’d have to start his career over again. He ended up at an Internet sweatshop cranking out websites for little pay and no respect.
It was the same with women. He was polite, patient. Picked up every check without batting an eye. He’d sometimes get a second date, but never a third. He tried to keep his hopes down, but they’d rise every time, only to get crushed and crushed again.
Still he soldiered on. Looking for the one thing missing that’ll help him get his life on track, turn it around. Maybe he needed a pet. So he adopted a dog from the shelter, a tiny little mutt, named Butch. A sympathetic act toward a helpless animal, sure to ingratiate him with his coworkers. And a cute little dog could to get him attention from the ladies. A month later, the dog tore up his apartment, defecated everywhere, and was driving Mark insane. Enraged, the threatened to kill the animal. Unimpressed, Butch told Mark, “You haven’t got the balls.”
Like Marley & Me meets The Exorcist, the little dog drives Mark further from reality and deeper into depravity. Mark thought his life was worthless before, but when Butch is done with him there’s nothing left, just a man sleeping in his car. That’s when Butch makes Mark a deal. He’ll give Mark everything he ever wanted, in exchange for his soul.
Desperate, Mark agrees to this Faustian bargain.
Butch sends Mark on a series of infernal missions, each more depraved than the last. And each time, Mark’s life gets better; a new job with coworkers that respect him, a new home with neighbors that like him, and a loving girlfriend. But some of them are starting to suspect that there’s something not quite right about his little dog.
My agent asked that I start writing another novel. One that’s unrelated to The Faith Machine. I’m writing up three, one-page outlines for her. Here’s the first. What do you think?
1930s New Mexico, when the headstrong young Beth isn’t helping run the family inn she’s butting heads with her mother, or pining for her beloved father. The man left almost two years ago, seeking his fortune. The inn’s done a good if grim business taking care of farmers escaping the Dust Bowl to California. Until a preacher shows up one day looking for her father. The preacher took a room to wait, but something about the man of God drove away the other customers. Beth hears a vile rumor her father’s in a jail two counties over. She takes the shotgun down off the wall and goes to clear his name. A week on foot, she reaches the jail and finds his no-good twin bother and con man in the cell instead. Her uncle knows where her father has gone and makes Beth an offer. He can’t get there, but if she springs him from jail he’ll take her to someone who can, the wild woman of the plains, Dorothy Gale.
Dorothy’s been wandering Western Kansas through the black blizzards of dust. She’s been trying to catch the wind. She returned to Kansas looking for love, but never found it. And she’s been searching for a way back to the land she left ever since. The land where she’s a princess. With a book from Beth’s father’s library, the three figure out how to cross through the winds and into the magical land called Oz.
But it’s a land torn apart by war, having fought off an invasion from below by the Gnome King’s forces and above by the Wicked Witch of the Night. A magical child again, Dorothy abandons Beth and her uncle to reclaim her place in the Emerald City. The remaining Americans travel alone across this strange and worn torn land. Past the Patchwork Girl and her nation of constructs. Through a shootout with a group of deserters of the Gnome King’s army. Across a narcotic poppy field and its gardeners. Trapped by the giants of Tartary, and more.
Beth and her uncle follow her father’s trail across the ruined land of Oz. Following her uncle’s lead reluctantly, they con help from locals. People who’ve crossed her father’s path, for good or for ill. They discovers her father in the adulterous company of the Wicked Witch of the Night. And he’s happy right where he is. Beth realizes her father’s as sinful as her mother told her, even more than her uncle. But family comes first. Beth makes a hard choice, tricks her uncle into taking her father’s place, and dragging her father back across Oz.
But the shortcuts and betrayals she and her uncle committed traveling here become new obstacles on her way back. And Dorothy’s return to the Emerald throne ignite her enemies who blame Beth for Dorothy’s return. Meanwhile, the Witch of the Night discovers her consorts betrayal and reignites her war on Oz.
Only when she stops taking the advice of her father and uncle and starts living by her own standards of honor and honesty can Beth stop the Witch of the Night’s war on Oz. Which allows them to journey home. When they return through the Dust Bowl to their inn in New Mexico there’s still the preacher. Dealing with him will force Beth to work with her two worst enemies, her parents.
Problem: I have a team seven protagonists and this isn’t an origin story. Since they all know each other, they’re mobilized right away. Originally, the team leader spent two chapters traveling the country and activating his agents in a sequence not unlike Ocean’s Eleven.
However, that’s a lot easier to pull of in a visual medium. No one watching a movie is going to confuse Bernie Mac with Brad Pitt. In particular I had two women on the team that readers were confusing, Polly and Gabby.
Initial solution: Clearly, the spellings of Polly and Gabby are too close, so I replaced Polly with the full name Pollyanna. I also increased Pollyanna’s potty mouth and her a love of literature (dropping lit references in conversation) while cleaning up Gabby’s language and dumbing her down a bit.
Further solutions: 1) Cold Open: I’m going to extend the book with an action sequence at the beginning that’s loosely related to the rest of the novel, like in some James Bond movies. That’ll give me 2000-3000 words to introduce three of the four characters before jumping around the country for the other four.
2) Character Dossiers: Since this is an espionage story I can write up one page reports on the protagonists from the point of view of the spy master. They’ll come in after each character’s introductory scene and if the ink bleeds into the edge of the page readers can easily use them as reference. Like how fantasy novels used to have a reference appendix.
After this rewrite, I’ll try it on another series of beta readers. If they’re not confused then I’ll know if it worked.
This interview with China Mieville on the io9 podcast came at just the right time for me. The subject was criticism and how some of this novels are flawed, those flaws only apparent in the light of the public’s judgement. I admire China as a smart and prolific writer so it was good to hear that he faces criticism the way I try to. A review could say 99 good things about Picking Up the Ghost but I’d only hear the 1 bad thing and that would keep me up all night thinking, “How could I have made this better? How could have I avoided this mistake?”
The fact is, the book is written and there’s no more revisions. I gave it my all and it’s as good as I could make it. And I don’t need to apologize for that.
On to the next book.