UPDATE: In October 2020, I published The Crystal Core as part of the collection The Singing Spell, but you can still read it for free on this blog. Here are some personal reflections about writing the story.
Some of Mags’ adventures began as basic plot ideas, some grew out of an idea for a scene or a piece of dialogue, and some started as a concept about an object or situation I thought it would be fun to write about. The Crystal Core is an example of all three of these possibilities combined.
The plot inspiration goes back to The Battle of Vesta 4, where I realized I had given my pirate crew a too-powerful object: the multidimensional “triglyph”. If I had included the triglyph in that story, the conflict would have been far too easy for the crew to overcome. Rather than address the situation, I decided to ignore it for a while and come back to it later—hopefully with a plausible explanation. Along the way, I wrote 1,000 words of notes on possible narrative paths to take with the triglyph.
While writing Small Flowers, I planted the seeds for the triglyph’s return. Plutonian questioned Mags about why she didn’t use it, and she revealed she had forgotten about it. The epilogue ended on a minor cliffhanger. Mags discovered the triglyph was missing from her armory where she placed it at the end of The Lost Crew of the Volya IX. By then, I’d reworked my original notes into an idea to use the triglyph to terraform Titan.
But as I mentioned in my reflections about Small Flowers, I watched a ton of documentaries that influenced that story and the shorter pieces published with it. I’ve been reading about space, stars, and black holes since I was in third or fourth grade, but I don’t recall learning about the diamond cores of white dwarf stars until early 2020. My mind was blown by the idea that these huge diamonds are burning in outer space, but I didn’t know what to do with that concept. So, I asked a friend what she would do with a huge crystal from space.
She said, “Build a radio.”
That was the moment my plot ideas and my “high concept” intersected, and I knew I needed to write that story. I started cranking out more notes and scenes around the concept, but I was confused by some aspects of crystal radios.
Fortunately, a member of my writers’ workshop (the illustrious Jeff Duntemann) is a ham-radio enthusiast, so I called him. He cleared up my misconceptions, enlightened me about a few missing pieces of the puzzle, and showed me where I needed to patch up the science to achieve some minimum standard of plausibility.
This is one of the best things about having writers, artists, and musicians as friends. I can call them unexpectedly and, without much preamble or small talk, say crazy things such as, “Can you help me build a giant crystal radio from a star core?” That’s how I end up having intriguing and educational conversations for an hour or more about things most people never think about.
The Crystal Core became a unique episode in Mags’ adventures. It has long passages of narration about terraforming Titan and building the giant space radio, scenes where I flexed my prose muscles to see if I could write about science but keep it poetic, beautiful, and interesting. Those scenes alternate with discussions that focus on dialogue and character interaction.
But I wanted to do something even weirder with the story: use multiple narrators. I wanted to get inside the characters’ streams of consciousness when they encountered the new rulers of Titan and got their minds messed with, telepathically.
I’ve read a ton of science-fiction prose and comic books that did similar things, but I sometimes find them difficult to follow. I like challenging narrative techniques in prose and film and comics, but I don’t like it when I feel the author is wanking instead of clearly telling a story in the most effective way possible. As I’ve written before in essays on narrators and points of view, the choice to get creative with narrators or structure needs to be more than a demonstration of how clever the author is. I’m not impressed by being incomprehensible. I’m impressed when the choice of a narrator or structure is perfect because any other choice would not tell the story as effectively.
You can judge for yourself how well I lived up to my own standard. Sometimes my reach exceeds my grasp, and that’s a normal part of growing and improving as a writer. Much of my writing in Mags’ adventures is a journey toward being able to live up to my own expectations about what makes a good story, or what makes beautiful prose, or what is entertaining to read. I feel I get closer to my ideals as the series progresses and, like most writers, I’m sometimes frustrated that I didn’t quite have the “chops” to do justice to some of my earliest stories. But with each story, I work on improving everything from descriptive language to comedic timing, from plotting to character development, and the myriad other things that make up a great story.
The Crystal Core continues a trend that began in the opening scene of Blind Alley Blues, which is a diary entry from Mags. In Small Flowers, I incorporated the idea that Mags writes letters to her somewhat-deceased great-gramma, which gives Mags more opportunities to narrate events in her unique voice. These letters have often been “behind the scenes” projects that never saw print. I wrote a good letter for Voyage of the Calico Tigress, but it didn’t quite fit the overall structure, so I cut it from the final version. With Small Flowers, I tried to weave the letters into the story in integral ways, and The Last Patches Story completely hands over the narrative reins to Mags so she can tell an imaginary bedtime tale about Patches. (One of my original ideas for that story involved using Patches as a first-person narrator, but I didn’t care for how that played out.)
With The Crystal Core, I wanted to extend the boundaries of what was possible with using other members of the pirate crew as narrators, too. Other than Hang My Body on the Pier, which featured excerpts from Great-Gramma’s memoirs, Crystal Core is the first story where anyone but Mags gets a shot at narrating. Dr. Plutonian narrates a scene and, like the scene of Mags’ narration that follows it, it takes place while the telepathic octopuses are disassembling his mind. I set myself the challenge of showing this confusing state of mind while making it absolutely clear to the reader who was talking, what was happening, and why.
I feel like it worked, and initial feedback told me it worked, so I considered why it worked. The text contains details that help, such as Mags’ straight-up telling the readers exactly what she thinks is happening to her mind. But in terms of remaining true to a character’s unique voice when slipping into first-person internal monologue, I think the key to success was the amount of time I have spent living in these characters’ heads for more than half a decade now.
They might have started out as comic-book caricatures, but over the years these characters have become more complex and real people to me. I suspect any writer who spends a serious amount of time on long-form stories will tell you the same thing. When you, as an author, share and invest so much of your life and your thoughts and your feelings with your characters, they undergo what I think of as the Pinocchio Effect. At some magical point or phase in the journey, the characters stop being puppets on your strings and become real to you. They take on a life of their own. They place demands on you. They help you understand yourself in relation to them. You know they are mere fictions, but like the golem of Jewish mythology or the monster of Dr. Frankenstein, they become imbued with their own lifeforce, their own desires, their own path in this world.
I’m lucky, compared to some novelists. Many novelists go through the pain of creating and bringing to life a set of characters that will never be seen again after the novel’s final page. But because I am writing an open-ended, ongoing series with roots that stretch for hundreds of millions of years into the past, and branches that extend beyond the end of our universe, I don’t feel any need to finish working with my characters or close the final page on them. I have all the time in the world to get to know them—or at least, all the time I have remaining on this planet.
By the time I got around to giving Plutonian a scene to narrate, I had spent so many years with him that I felt confident I could write in his voice. He delivered an extended monologue in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX where he told Mags about an event in his past. That was the first scene I ever workshopped, about four years ago now. I love a good monologue, but that’s different from being inside the character’s head, which is what happens in The Crystal Core.
I didn’t know for sure how The Crystal Core would end when I started drafting scenes, but my workshoppers will attest to the fact that I am a big believer in writing the ending before the story is finished. As a writer, I’m not interested in taking a mysterious journey into the unknown by simply starting with the first page of a story and writing until it feels finished. The mysterious journey is the reader’s experience, not the writer’s.
People who write by the seat of their pants often encounter the same problems over and over again: not knowing where they are headed when they are in the middle of the story, and therefore not knowing what scenes or moments of character development matter, or how to advance their plot. They often arrive at unsatisfactory endings, assuming they don’t give up in frustration halfway through—something that’s happened to many writers I know.
My advice? Once you are clear on the characters and their motivations and central conflicts, write an ending! Know where you are going! Writing without knowing how your story ends is like trying to play a game of darts while wearing a blindfold. You might hit the bullseye out of pure chance or luck, but it’s doubtful. If, instead, you draft the ending earlier in the process, then you know what you are aiming for, and you can construct a story that inevitably leads to that conclusion. Yes, the ending might need to be revised by the time you finish the rest of the story, so don’t sweat too many of the little details. A draft of the ending is only there to give yourself the gift of direction and purpose.
For The Crystal Core, I had about half of it drafted before I tackled the ending, but I knew I needed a firm finish to guide me through the middle. I asked myself, “What would be the most logical and consistent ending for a quasi-intelligent and supremely powerful object, especially after it encountered my octopuses?”
The ending is influenced by my love of science-fiction comic books where the fate of the entire universe (or even the multi-verse) is at stake on a daily basis, and it’s a logical development of my push to constantly expand the scope of possibilities within Mags’ adventures. The Crystal Core, like The Last Patches Story, is an attempt to connect the lives of the pirate crew to huge, cosmic-level events.
It was a fun story to write. I enjoyed expanding the boundaries of what I could do with these characters and their universe, connecting the cosmic experience to the personal stories, and seeing how big I could go in fewer than 8,000 words.
My only question is, “What’s next?”