Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Rewriting takes a long time

For the last two days my work on Soft Collisions has mostly been re-writing first person scenes in the third person, and using it as a chance to edit the content at the same time. One of my editing problems in the past was cutting material: I couldn't. I'm getting a bit better at that, stripping out sentences and words that are unnecessary padding. I still have a long way to go to really develop this skill though.

Another problem is that some sections are just wrong, but I'm not sure yet how to fix them. Perhaps in those cases I will totally re-write them. Sit down with a blank sheet of paper under the apple tree and see what comes out. Never be afraid to start again. You can always go back to the old and see if there were some fantastic word combinations that are worth keeping.

The vast majority of the novel has been switched to third person now, so I should be able to finish that task next week. As mentioned previously, the novel has two mirrored plot strands. For ease of editing each story I split them into separate documents for now, to see how they stand alone. Later I will merge them again, looking for a flow that works artistically but also that doesn't fragment the plot. I imagine this is going to take as much time as the preliminary re-writing. Perhaps the best way to do it would be with small font printouts on scrap paper and a big pair of scissors, sat once again under the apple tree in the garden. I can cut things up into scenes and lay them all over the patio, fiddling with the order until it looks like it is workable, and hoping that a sudden gust of wind from the sea doesn't send all my work blowing onto the neighbour's vegetable plot.

I want the two stories to have parity, even though the outcomes and tones may vary. The screenshot below was taken yesterday, and I was intrigued to see that although the word counts are different in the Sam/Mark and Alex/Jane stories, their files were identical sizes at 637KB. It's a sign! I'm on the right track!

Work in progress, parity of size

Well, not really. However, the Alex and Jane story in particular does focus on the coincidences of numbers, and patterns which can be given significance - it is a bit of a fixation of pedantic Alex. I'll paste the first draft of a recently written scene below, where Alex - an FE college lecturer - gives his final class before the start of the summer holidays. You will see what I mean about his fixation on numbers. The scene includes the premise of the novel, as seen through Alex's eyes.


"This is the last time I will see you all before the summer. Nothing new to teach you for now, you've had your exams already, and most of you have submitted your coursework - yes, I am looking at you, Coby. Anyway I'm going to go easy on you, and just spend the first bit of the session trying to draw tenuous parallels between theory and reality, and discussing things that might provoke thought so that your currently fertile and enriched minds don't turn to desert over the coming summer months of blistering heat and indolence. Then if you all act suitably interested, or at least avoid falling asleep - I'm looking at you, Coby" - a few chuckles from the class - "then you can all scarper off early." Ripple of excitement. "To go to the library." Excitement suitably repressed.

Being in front of a class changed Alex. He felt that the goals were clear, potential pitfalls identifiable: nothing like a relationship.

"Okay. Parts of an atom. Anyone? I will pick on people if necessary."

Marion was serious but worked hard. It wasn't surprising that she answered. "Nucleus and electrons."

"And the nucleus is made up of?"

"Protons and neutrons."

"Good. Coby, this one's for you. What are the electrical charges of the three particles?" Coby looked puzzled. "I remember you came up with a description to help us remember when we last discussed this."

Revelation in his eyes. "Electrons are negative. Protons and neutrons are positive."


"'Cos opposites attract, of course!"

"Great theory, Coby. Okay people, two minutes, chat to the person next to you - examples from real life of where opposites attract, and any examples that disprove that."

Coby didn't look like a star pupil with his skateboard-chic style - spiky hair and extremely baggy jeans almost completely hiding his feet. He jingled as he walked due to the key chains that ran from his belt into various pockets. Alex had no idea why he had three chains (surely no one has that many keys?) But as long as you kept him engaged he was pretty good at soaking facts up and making connections. Alex liked the whole class - they were a good group, and lessons with them were never the chore some other lecturers complained of with their own classes.

Feedback time. The examples they came up with were a mix of amusing and serious, and Alex chuckled at a few.

"Okay. Good going. Your examples show that opposites don't always attract in the human sphere. Maybe we're above this small-scale micro-particle stuff. Or maybe it is just hard to see connections, like the atoms themselves. The word atom is Greek for invisible after all, so it's appropriate for there to be some mystery. There are unknowns in science. Take element 117 - it has yet to be discovered, but science says it should exist right next to ununoctium (element 118, which we have found)."

Marion had been fidgeting with her pen. "How can we know it exists if we haven't found it?" she asked.

"A good question, Marion. I can't give an exact answer. But think of gold as an example - we know how much a specific mass of gold should weigh. If we therefore weigh something that is supposed to be gold and the weight is wrong then we know that there is an impurity there - even if we can't identify what the impurity is. So it is that kind of reasoning."

She nodded acceptance.

"Okay, so everything is made of the basic elements. The different ways they can be bonded together determine what you end up with. Gold, or rubber, or a human being. All can be broken down to these small levels, to electrons and nuclei bound inextricably together by strong electromagnetic forces, so the electrons orbit the nucleus until they are stolen or knocked away." Alex drew diagrams on the whiteboard to illustrate this. "Every atom follows these rules, and if we were intelligent enough we would be able to calculate the entirety of everything - say, if we were a god - things would seem predetermined. But they are so complex that humans can't predict every outcome, and it looks like chaos."

Ian was sat next to Coby, as usual. They seemed to be polar opposites on the surface but it was clear that they were close friends. Ian was generally quiet, possibly more out of shyness than because he wanted to be cool. However, Alex didn’t underestimate him because of this - Ian was quite capable of being disruptive in very subtle ways. A pointed question here, or a suggestion there, and everyone would be laughing while Ian sat there with an innocent face.

"So if you were intelligent enough - could you predict people in that way?" Ian asked. "If we're just made up of these particles which follow patterns, do they determine us?"

"That is an important question, Ian. The age-old question of free will. Can we predict people? Like I said, I don't think we will ever have enough knowledge to do that, but I don't see why it wouldn't be possible. Our biology leads us to make some decisions; habit and our pasts then lead us to make other choices. I can believe that we do get determined from the small scale up. But maybe a more useful idea is to see this type of physics as being a metaphor for human interaction. Molecules interact with collisions and connections, as do people. Some impact forcefully, some exert influence in more subtle, soft ways. Maybe society is just a dance of particles, and when there is too much energy or the conditions aren't right they won’t bond, even if two particles are compatible. Only when things calm down, heat energy dissipating, can stable orbits form."

"You're talking about getting it on!" laughed Coby.

"You could interpret it that way."

"That would be cool, if you could predict who would end up with who," said Coby.

"Or even better, which people you would have a good relationship with," added Ian.

"Maybe I'm too pessimistic," said Alex. "Maybe one day we'll have that computing power, and it won't just be the knowledge for any gods that control us. Remember that software we used at the start of the course, that allowed you to explore the Mandelbrot Set? Where you could zoom in forever and keep finding more detail, and the algorithms created the beautiful art that we printed out examples of?" Nods. "Once it would have been impossible to do that - calculations way beyond what we could achieve. Yet now even a basic PC can run millions of calculations faster than we could watch the data, and things like the Mandelbrot Set become living art. So who knows about the future? Maybe we'll one day be downloading 'Coby and Ian's relationship simulator'."

"We'll charge for it," laughed Coby. "Make a mint."

"As long as you factor in entanglement," said Alex. "I mentioned it briefly when we looked at the practical applications of physics. It is one thing to calculate the obvious reactions of one thing on another in close proximity - but entanglement theory suggests that particles can somehow affect each other even when they are separated by huge distances. The basis for quantum computing. It's scary to think that you could be linked and affected by things you weren't aware of - hidden connections and effects. Anyway I said I wouldn't talk for too long so I want to leave you with something thought-provoking from the current news. Anyone have an idea what it might be?"

Blank gazes.

"Come on, some of you must follow the news? Something physics-related that has been mentioned?"

Mabel put her hand up - unnecessary in Alex's classes, but Mabel was in her fifties and although she was well-known for liking to gab she was sometimes nervous about proposing answers to questions. Unnecessarily, Alex thought - in his experience mature students tended to pay more attention and understand things at a deeper level than the younger students.

"Yes, Mabel?"

"There was some machine mentioned - some experiment, in Switzerland? About particles?"

"Spot on. I'm glad someone still watches or reads the news. That's the Large Hadron Collider. There are smaller elements than protons, neutrons and electrons. The Large Hadron Collider was built to investigate these mysterious sub-atomic particles. The Large Hadron Collider is the most expensive science experiment in the world. And the biggest machine in the world - a 27 kilometre circular track below the ground in France and Switzerland. You could even say it is the biggest fridge in the world, since the electromagnets that keep particles in place are cooled to -270 degrees Celsius. It accelerates billions of particles up to more than 99% of the speed of light: protons one way, ions another, to smash them together with such force as to shatter them, helping us to confirm or disprove theories about the universe. Up to 600 million collisions per second to create secondary particles that humans have never experienced before. The scientists working on it hope to fill in gaps in the Standard Model of particles and forces. Things like: where is antimatter? Why don't we know more about dark matter and dark energy? How come washing machines make odd socks disappear?

"Freaky facts time. As I said, the track is 27 kilometres long. The temperature of the magnets is -27x10 degrees." Alex started writing numbers on the whiteboard. "The undiscovered element 117 is..." He added the ones, and wrote 27 on the board. "Many of the superconducting magnets weigh 27 tonnes. The first major failure was when a cryogenic magnet support broke on the 27th of March 2007." On the board he wrote '27' '2007' then crossed out the two zeros. "I could go on.

"27 is seen by many mathematicians as being an important number. It is the first composite number which can't be evenly divided by any of its digits. 27 represents a perfect cube (three by three by three). And in a prime reciprocal magic square that has multiples of 1/7, the magic constant is... yes, you've guessed it, 27.

"Back to the Large Hadron Collider. Be aware that the biggest experiment yet is to run on the 27th this month - which happens to also be a Tuesday (second day of the week) in July (seventh month of the year) - another 27 27. So only a couple of weeks into your summer holidays something may happen, if the numerologists are to be believed and physics becomes magic. The point about the news is that some people are claiming that when the experiment runs it will be the end of the world. Others say something strange will happen, and connections will occur between previously unconnected 'things', possibly extending an enhanced entanglement effect back through time. Others think it is just anti-scientific scare-mongering. And some say it is just going to be a further waste of tax-payers' money. But I want you all to think about it during the summer. And bonus marks to anyone who goes and checks up all these facts and confirms them. I'll be around in college this week and next if any of you want to collar me and discuss it. Have a lovely summer."

The class sauntered out early. That left Alex free for the day, but he knew Anne would be finishing her GNVQ Business class down the corridor early too, and if he left at that point then they would bump into each other. Ever since the day in the Lass o’ Gowrie, seeing each other had proved extremely uncomfortable, so he decided to tidy the book cupboard.

It needed doing, honest.


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