Oh, yeah...L.I.F.E. in the 23rd Century, an explanation

I promised you a long time ago [1] that I was going to talk about my next novel, L.I.F.E. in the 23rd Century.

In a world...[2]

In a world where author's have to sum up their entire 50,000+ word manuscript in the space of an elevator ride, only one device will do: The Elevator Pitch.

There are times when you will encounter someone that has the ability to publish your book and they ask what said book is about. You need to hook them in, make them ask for more. One, maybe two, sentences. You worked for months, years writing the novel and it all comes down to two handfuls of words. Brevity is the watchword. You can't ramble. Stick to the point.

Well, it's a science fiction novel set in the future and there's this guy and he meets another guy that might be a terrorist and then comes to the attention of another guy who is a television pundit and the first guy thinks he's the messiah and the second guy thinks he's the devil.

~Ding~

Second floor, hardware, children's wear, ladies' lingerie. Oh! Good morning, Mr. Tyler. Going...down?

You talked too much, the agent / publisher took off and now you're stuck in an Aerosmith video with a still unpublished novel in your knapsack. As an added punishment, you must bear witness to Steven Tyler grinding on a woman barely old enough to be his granddaughter.

In a world where works of fiction are only seen as profitable if they can be summarized by mashing two or more existing properties together, only one device will do: The High Concept Elevator Pitch.

I had a high concept elevator pitch. Its original form went a little something like this:

If 1984 were written by Monty Python.

There are several objections to that. "That" as in that sentence and "that" as in that method. I'll handle the second one first.

As to the method, I'm not implying that my novel is as well written as 1984. Or any Python sketch or film. Or as absurd. Or as satirical. It's two ideas mashed together that get you into the ballpark of where the book is coming from.

Now, the objection to that sentence in particular: If 1984 were written by Monty Python. There exists such a thing. It's called Brazil.[3]

So, my high concept elevator pitch had to be said with a caveat. Which we all know means "while wearing a necktie."

If 1984 were written by Monty Python. Not as dark as Brazil, not as absurd as The Fish-Slapping Dance / Ministry of Silly Walks / Lumberjack Song / The Dead Parrot Sketch / The 127th Upperclass Twit of the Year Show / The Argument Clinic / Nudge Nudge. [Select one, please recycle those you don't use]

It was at one point exactly as absurd as Hell's Grannies, but with the economy and the exchange rate, it is now only as absurd as The Man with Three Buttocks and / or The New Cooker Sketch.[4]

There you go. A string of words that mean absolutely nothing, but tell you absolutely everything about my book.

Cheers!


 

You want more, you say? The most fiendishly clever of devices, the High Concept Elevator Pitch keeps you slavering for more![5]

So what is the book actually about? How did you come up with the idea?

We have to set the dial on The Way Back Machine to a point somewhere between 9/11 and the introduction of the iPhone.

I was in a writing critique group (still am, Ft. Collins Penpointers, represent!). I had a lot of short stories, but hadn't come upon something that I could turn into a novel.[6] My job at the time was in the optical industry. I manufactured space bound, planet destroying lasers for the Evil Empire.

Sorry.

Strike that.

I made lenses for prescription eyewear for, ahem, the Evil Empire. One of my duties was to sit on the phone in the lab, listening to hold music, waiting for someone at The Death Star, excuse me, Home Office, to answer and give me the status of lenses we couldn't manufacture in the store. I was amused / annoyed by the fact that I -- an employee of the Evil Empire -- had to listen to commercials for the Evil Empire, as if I were a customer and not a fellow storm trooper. There was no speaker on the phone and the cord was only about a foot long, so I had to sit, for an hour or better at times, with my ear pressed to the phone unable to reach any equipment in the lab.

One day, possibly after I had watched The Empire Strikes Back, I wondered if Luke had to listen to hold music while he was floating in the tank after Vader cut off his hand. (Spoiler!)

Please remain calm, your patronage is very important to us. Your expected wait time is...less than two minutes. Thank you for choosing Admiral Ackbar's Hospital Ship for all your appendage reattachment needs.

The only thing near at hand was a stack of sticky notes. I wrote what I thought was the first half of a short story while I was on hold. Yes, by fraud, misuse, and abuse of the Evil Empire's office supplies. You'll never take me alive, copper!

I typed the story fragment up and took it to the writers' group. Several members were very excited, they had just saved 15% on their car insurance. Others wanted to know where the rest of "it" was.

Rest of what?

"Your novel. This is your novel."

Even though the copies of my fragment, now a chapter, were on the finest cheap paper Kinko's had to offer, I could still see the stack of sticky notes. I brandished the spectral stickies at my fellow writers.

This is a novel? Really?

They nodded.

Okay, so it's the beginning of a novel. That's great. Where the funk do I get the rest of it?

Step One: A high school English teacher told me that "no one wants to read a novel where the protagonist is a furnace repairman. People want James Bond. King Arthur. Conan the Barbarian."

My father, though not a furnace installer, is a plumber, which is a similar trade, so that statement pissed me off. Fine. The protagonist is blue collar. But it's the future, so what does that mean? He's a worker bee, but something that people look down on. He works in a cubicle telling people how to get connected to the Internet (a job I had at one point). No, he doesn't work in a cubicle, he watches robots build cubicles. He's expendable as far as his bosses are concerned. There's a million more of him capable of doing his job, would twist their own heads off for the opportunity to do his job.[7]

Step Two: I was watching four television programs at the time: New episodes of The Daily Show and Good Eats and reruns of Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Prisoner. Cast your mind back to the dim and distant past when politicians thought it was very important to call fried potatoes "Freedom Fries." To the days of "You're either with us or you're a terrorist." Then imagine Jon Stewart roasting those idiots for half an hour, four nights a week. After that, some Python, some Alton Brown, or some The Prisoner.

I'm for the troops. Make no mistake. I was one once. An active duty member of the Marine Corps.[8]

While being for the troops, I'm against them dying for silly reasons. For example, Donald Rumsfeld sent them to war in vehicles without armor plating because "You have to fight the war with the army you've got, not with the army you wish you had." That's a great sound bite if you're sitting in an air conditioned office in Washington, D.C. That's dispiriting if you're taking enemy fire.

“You may be bought and sold, but I won't see you cheaply spent.” - Lord Vetinari, Jingo by Terry Pratchett. (Paraphrased because the Internet hates me.) That's the sentiment you want your leader to express when your life, not his, is in jeopardy. Not "Sorry your equipment sucks, but what am I supposed to do about it?"

We were starting or escalating or whatever our war on "Terror." What time zone is Terror in? What's the postal code for the capital of Terror? Is it a direct flight to Terror or is there a layover in Wonderland?

And the Vice President used to run the company that is going to be rebuilding the country that didn't attack us, but we attacked them -- 'cuz reasons, America! -- and all I see on the news is people arguing over what to call bread dipped in egg and pan fried in the Congressional cafeteria?

Right.

So, Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Prisoner seemed totally sensible. The news seemed absurd.

Oh, and everyone had to constantly "prove" they were patriots by agreeing with everything the President said and by having red, white, and blue magnets on their cars. If you don't have a magnet on your car, the terrorists have already won.

Step Three: Get stuck.

I don't really suffer from writer's block. If one thing is at a dead end, there's a bunch of different things I could be working on. Or I could go around. Put up a fence like: {{{ A situation should go here that explains how the narrator is triumphing over his existential ennui by bare knuckle fighting in a bar's basement}}} And then continue writing about the finer points of DIY soap manufacture.[9]

I didn't realize this at the time, but the best way for me to get unstuck is to talk about the entire book to someone. I did this to several people. Explain the world the character lives in, the politics, how people behave. Just dump all this on some poor sod that happens to be within earshot and trapped in a room with me for eight hours. One of these people, my coworker Bryan, was very helpful. Bryan had taken a philosophy class. They were assigned One-Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse. Bryan “loaned” me the book. I "loaned" him Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk. We agreed to never give each other our books back.

A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress. Indeed, what could be more rational than the suppression of individuality in the mechanization of socially necessary but painful performances…”

That's the first sentence of One-Dimensional Man. That's also the thesis of the book that I had stuck in my head. But like, fucking elegant and shit.[10] Admittedly, I have a deficit when it comes to reading philosophy or anything that is not presented as narrative. I can't line all the words up and make sense of them, create a picture of what is happening like I can with narrative prose. So, I have to read a paragraph, then think about how that knowledge would work in a real world scenario. LIFE is a sort of “Idiot's Guide” to Marcuse as far as I understood him.

Now I had all the ingredients.

A philosophical skeleton for the book.

The never ending war against the nation of “Terror.”

Our obsession with proving our patriotism.

Corporate nonsense.

24 hour news.

The importance of “Freedom Fries.”

Combine.

Add a braising liquid of 2 parts Daily Show, 1 part Monty Python, 1 part The Prisoner.

Bake at low temperature for several months.

Garnish with the video for “Mass Destruction” by the band Faithless. [11]

Dick Cheney, excuse me, George W. Bush was still President when I finished the book. There were a couple of specific jabs at W. in the original. LIFE itself is a device in the novel that is implanted in a citizen's arm at birth. This device was originally a watch with a built in heart rate monitor that could dispense drugs directly into your blood stream whenever you experienced stress. The technology outside of the LIFE sensor was based on what Val Kilmer used in the movie Red Planet. Basically a scroll of high-impact plastic that served as a futuristic laptop.

The original book would have been real funny if it were published when W. was still President. (Spoiler!) It wasn't published.

I'm actually glad it wasn't published before now.

Remember that I mentioned the iPhone?

The technology in the book, 200 years in the future, would have seemed antiquated when the iPhone was released several months after I completed the book. The LIFE sensor wasn't even as useful as a first gen Blackberry with a cracked screen and who needs the Red Planet scroll thingy when iPhones have been around for two centuries.

Plus, I hated the original ending. It wasn't satisfying to me, but I couldn't think of what else to do.

So, I trunked it.

Then Mating Rituals gets published and a former member of the writers' group asked what happened to LIFE at my first ever book signing. He left the group shortly after I read chapter two. I told him it was finished. He told me he wanted to read it because that chapter had stuck in his head. He gave me a lot of advice, I updated the tech as I went, and I figured out a better ending.

This isn't spoilers or an attempt to shoehorn in more Star Wars references, but Star Wars is considered an ideal example of archetypal story telling. (And this way, I don't have to explain the word “Contagonist.”)

In the original, I thought I had the Emperor and Darth Vader sorted. I didn't. I realized who the Emperor actually should be. This demoted the previous Emperor down to Darth Vader, and the original Vader down to Bobba Fett. Following? It's okay. That doesn't need to make sense.

I found a better ending, that's what I'm trying to say. And by better, I mean a satisfying ending, not a summation that tries to tie everything up in the last paragraph.

While I've been typing this, I think I've come upon an upgrade for the High Concept Elevator Pitch. Let me know what you think in the comments, Shullamuth.

1984 if Orwell had predicted smart phones, Fox news, and a Starbucks on every corner.

I'll work on it. I think I'll talk about 1984 next time and my dirty, dirty secret.[12]

Cheers!

 

  1. Two blog posts ago, Pacific Standard Time.

  2. I enjoy the fact that I can type those three words and the voice of Hal Douglas pops into your head.

  3. Thanks to my friend Aaron for reminding me that Brazil is 1984 directed by a member of Python.

  4. Highly underrated, The New Cooker Sketch is probably the closest Python sketch to the type of humor in L.I.F.E. In the 23rd Century. Bureaucracy in action. Or bureaucracy inaction, to be more precise. Also, you should watch the entire episode. Series Two, Episode 1: Face the Press (or Dinsdale). At the end of New Gas Cooker, you see the line of cooker installers queued up arguing in front of the “Pepperpot's” house. (“Pepperpot” is their term for when one of Python have to dress up as a woman.) At the beginning of Ministry of Silly Walks, later in the episode, you see the Minister perambulate out of the news stand behind the same queue of cooker installers from the sketch at the beginning of the episode. That means that all of this absurdity is happening in the same universe. Everything is inter-connected. Do you understand how funny that is? Let it simmer. Also, you find out from the Piranha Brothers sketch where I got the idea to have someone twist their own head off. But politely, like a gentleman, one that knows how to treat a female impersonator.

  5. You really should talk to someone about your drool issue. It's off putting and unhygienic.

  6. There is a graveyard of started novels on my hard drive. Three chapters and out, that was my method before the Penpointers.

  7. I'd been working for the Evil Empire long enough to be jaded by how they viewed their workers.

  8. I am still technically a Marine. Until death. It's a thing we have. Ex-Marines are dead. Some people get touchy even if you say "former Marine" which is the phrase I use. It's short for "I was formerly an active duty member of the Marine Corps, but I got discharged entirely and now I'm not sure what to say because I'm not dead, so I'm not supposed to say I'm an ex-Marine." Former Marine rolls off the tongue a bit better.

  9. Besides the T.V. shows I mentioned, I had just got a DVD player and the only DVD I owned was Fight Club. There is a Fight Club reference in my novel. "Life insurance pays triple..." There's other Easter Eggs, but you can have that one on the house.

  10. This is an ongoing method for me now. Find a philosopher and use their ideas to give my novel a sort of spiritual backbone. Mating Rituals of Migratory Humans is influenced by the movie The Pervert's Guide to Cinema by Slavoz Zizek. He's also quoted in the last chapter as a nod to this. [For bonus points, the character Phil gives three quotes at the end of MR OMH. One is Zizek, one is Busta Rhymes, and one Phil claims he made up. If you can figure out who actually said that quote, you will know who Phil is named after.]

  11. This video permanently altered the chemistry of my brain the first time I saw it. I get chills every time I hear it. If this novel ever became a movie, this would be the song that plays when the credits roll. Fear is a weapon of mass destruction...

  12. I am a cliff-hanging son of a bitch! I can't believe I did that to you. What a jackass! This is why no one likes me!