Thursday 23 July 2009

The Making of Idiot's Mask

Hello, readers. This is your slightly sunburnt host, Cheeseburger Brown.

I'm hard at work making preparations to launch our next serial adventure. In the meantime, I'd like to initiate an experiment in broadening the mandate of this blog. In the past this blog has (almost) exclusively been a dissemination point for new original content. The showcasing of serial stories will continue, but I'm also going to add more meta-content concerning the process of how the stories are actually built.

For my first contribution in this vein I'd like to offer up my raw story notes for the most recent novella to run on this blog,
Idiot's Mask -- my planned Valentine's Day tale which, due to a confluence of meatspace circumstances, took far longer than anticipated to conclude (four months rather than, say, four weeks). Life can be like that.

Please do let me know in the comments whether you find this exercise to be a good or bad addition to this blog. Is this kind of thing interesting to you, or just an annoying distraction? Be candid.

Without further preamble, here is the first in our series of peeks under-the-hood at the works of the Cheeseburger Brown Storytelling Factory. Be sure to heed the warnings of any Oompa-Loompas you may encounter along the way.

Idiots Mask Illustration Rough Sketch by C.B. Brown

2 February 2009


This is a love story. Our boy is a member of revolutionary forces; our girl is the victim of a kidnap plot designed to put pressure on the government. When the plan goes awry, our boy and girl escape together and live in happiness awhile before their secret is unmasked and jutice meted out.


Greater Metropolitan Fingal, Planet Penardun, at Dzigai Star

Historical Context

Ilbis and Penardun are two Solar worlds orbitting the Dzigai Star. The system also features a Jovian world, Hoj, with several moons inhabited by workers of commercial and industrial interests. For the most part, the labourers are Ilbisi and the managers are Penardu.

A century before the events of this story, Penardun seized military control of Ilbis after a collapse of the latter's economy. The Hojan moons, heretofore only loosely organzied under Ilbisi stewardship, are taken over by Penardun who restructure them into efficient and highly profitable enterprises benefitting the entire system.

As a consequence, Dzigai becomes very wealthy very quickly. The standard of living on all worlds in the system is raised. However, as the decades pass many Ilbisi become increasingly concerned as executive power is concentrated in Penardu hands. As the new society coalesces and hardens, barriers to entry prevent or discourage Ilbisi from positions of influence. Cultural legitimacy is eroded as rich Penardu increasingly view their Ilbisi brethren as crude and anti-intellectual, leading to parody and mockery and, ultimately, systemic denigration and bigotry.

Now, a new generation of angry young Ilbisi are fomenting rebellion: staging work stoppages, sabotaging equipment, and even committing acts of terror against the government and military. The political arm of their movement demands a permanent seat for an Ilbisi voice in parliament, regardless of whether the critical mass of voting Ilbisi could support their election. To this end, they have engaged in a continuous series of dramatic manoeuvres in order to force the hand of the ruling party.


Penardun culture traces its roots back to an ancient movement once known as Commercial Islamic Futurism (q.v. Two Moments of Invention).

In its original inception, members of a CIF community gave away all expectation of personal privacy within the community in exchange for having their behaviour continuously monitored by all other members of said community. In this way, each man carries a mass-conscience with him to warn him away from sinful or blasphemous pursuits. As the same time, he can never be falsely accused of a crime since he always has a cohort of witnesses to back up his testimony.

The modern variant on Penardun is called Social Futurism. The key distinction is that citizens are only mass-surveilled when outside the home, by a community of their choice. Many conscientious communities of differing moral systems live side by side on Penardun, each policing their own via apparatuses fitted as heavily stylized masks (basically portable Roman Lararia).

All Penardu people have a series of lares/masks, worn to fit different social occasions or protocols. To appear outside the home without a Lar is not only illegal, but scandalous and obscene. A Lar is capable of relaying perception streams from the wearer directly into the appropriate mass-conscience, thus assuring that the wearer violates no rules. The wearer is also subject to random streams from other citizens, which they judge as either good or bad. Their judgements are tabulated and weighed to achieve a mass-conscience score communicated to the originator of the stream to inform them of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their actions.

There is a niche of the criminal underground that specializes in pseudo-Lars which permit an illegitimate person to move about socially, or a legitimate person to commit secret acts.

A strong tradition of iconoclasm means that human-form robots are not employed on Penardun, though they do exist on Ilbis and exist in great numbers on the Hojan moons. So entrenched is the semantic importance of Lar-based visual conventions that a younger tradition has evolved with Lar-like faces affixed upon everything from vehicles to appliances, in order to convey their function, mood and appropriate use to citizens.

Dramatis Personae

Lithloric "Idiot" Waterpipes.....Our boy
Venus Constant.....Our girl
Vizier Victor Constant.....Our girl's father
Brigadier "The Fist".....Revolutionary
Jan Lifeloaf.....Landlord


* We introduce the telling, and hint at the predicament of the narrator.
* He sets the scene and the times: it's a hard life on Ilbis...
* ...But The Fist provides him an enticing opportunity.

* The job is already underway. Narrator waits with his unit until the kidnap victims are delivered, then they transport them into the mountains.
* On the way it feels like a summer road trip.
* They arrive at the enclave, and the prisoners are loaded into an underground vault, shielded and secure. One breaks away. He is the girl's bodyguard. He mocks The Fist, who executes him, sobering the mood.

* Narrator describes his shifts watching over the female prisoner. Over the course of days, they begin to chat some. She finds his ignorance about Penardun amusing, and he finds her grace hypnotic.

* The Fist is furious. The authorities do not even seem to be LOOKING for the girl. No reply has come to the ransom demands. The media is silent. Narrator is awoken as The Fist roars into the enclave and begins beating the prisoner.
* Narrator interrupts, and is himself assaulted. At this point the girl says she will tell The Fist why no one is looking for her: because she isn't really here. She is, in fact, a facsimile created to replace her already dead self for the sake of her grieving father, powerful enough to own a sophisticated robot despite the law.
* The Fist is scared. This means they aren't facing police or parents, but rather the vizier's shadow guard. The Fist has no bargaining power: they will be massacred if they are found.
* All are distracted by the sounds of forces storming the compound above. Narrator is left behind while the others move to investigate and retaliate. Terrible noises sound from outside the enclave.

* They wait a long time in silence before the narrator emerges to look. Everyone is dead, and the attacking forces have withdrawn. Already, rude scavengers are wandering closer to sift the debris.
* He covers her in shielding and together they set off on foot into the night...
* "Why bother with me?" "I don't know. Should I let you go?" "I don't know."

* They share a modest flat rented to them by Mr. Lifeloaf. Narrator carefully shields her before they go out of doors, so that she cannot be detected. They cannot pinpoint exactly when they have fallen in love.
* They wear counterfit Lars.
* Lifeloaf explains to them the nature of a prison, and how one's heart may make it so. His life, while poor, is good: his boys go to school instead of work. They can choose.
* She has encouraged him to find a proper job, and he has: first as a humble labourer, but then working with delinquint youth. They form a dream and a plan: to save up the funds they'll need to leave this world forever.
* At his encouragement, she begins to craft original musical compositions.
* It's a wonderful life.
* Until in public she is de-Larred by a revolutionary as they storm the city, thereby making her detectable. In obeyance with her programming, she self-destructs.
* Narrator knows he will take her dying note to his grave...and he does.

* The narrator is visited in prison by the vizier.
* His crime is a capital one, and there is nothing to be done, but before he is executed the vizier wishes to know where the compositions found in his flat came from. Narrator explains that the robot daughter gained the ability to be creative.
* The old man laments his attempts to thwart time and make statues of living moments, and suggests he should melt down the current model. Narrator objects: "No, she can be happy! I've heard her laugh! We've even...made love."
* The vizier comes to understand that the version of his daughter really did forge a meaningful connection with the narrator, and grew beyond her static form. And so, after a thoughtful silence, the vizier asks if the narrator would help him arrange it so that she could feel and act that way again: by submitting to be replicated as an illegal robot companion for her in secret, before his real self is terminated.
* He agrees.

Possible Themes to Explore

1) Tension between iconoclastic and iconophilic facets of Penardu culture existing simultaneously, encouraging strange civilization-wide fetish-like behaviours with respect to faces, images, reproductions, anthropomorphicism and verisimilitude (q.v. Plato's Cave, Byzantine/Muslim purges, Russian ikons, Baudrillard).

2) Reductionist versus Gestalt interpretation of objects or events (definition via underlying structure versus definition via emergent behaviours). Which is closer to the Platonic Idea-in-itself of a given phenomenon: the molecules of a virus or the symptoms it causes? Further: can they be meaningfully distinguished at high levels of complexity?

3) Choice and freedom: can they be understood without context? If all choices ride on the backs of underlying foundations of previous choices (and so recursively ad infinitum), in what sense are they artifacts of will versus artifacts of circumstance? In a chaotic universe tumbling along according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, is it arbitrary/illusory to define objects and events as in any way discrete post-First Cause?

4) The relative pragmatic value of truth and falsehood in terms of understanding relationships and the world: can willful ignorance be useful and good? Could it be that the Penardu are over-educated to the point where they cannot recognize the most salient aspects of their own society? Could the narrator's simplicity be a blessing?


"Trust is not a factor if the mind is revealed to you."

"You can fellate my pony, sphincter!"

"Never tell a dying man to be patient; it is unkind at best, and perhaps even dangerous."


Sheik Yerbouti said...

Huh. I wouldn't have connected old Slimfast with the current culture, but the socio-technical similarities are obvious when pointed out.

This is fun. It sates my desire for more Burger-literature while we wait. Fascinating, also, to see the incipient characters and storyline as a data point in the creative process. I'm quite impressed by the number of external influences cited here.

In short, great idea.

Wil Zirkle said...

love it

Simon said...

What Sheik said.

Love the idea, and the insight, after the story is told, adds flesh to it for those of us who begin to lose some of the substance as too much (understandable) time transpires.

Seeing these raw story notes provides a wonderful glimpse into this specific creative process and is at least a little inspirational when shown broken out into the component parts of Concept, Setting, Culture, etc. It would be horrible to see this sort of thing before reading the story (Soylent Green is people!), but getting it after the main course is consumed provides a wonderful post-prandial digestif.

Simon said...

I meant to add that I got my newly-released DVD copy of Watchmen yesterday and was pleased to see that there are an additional 24 minutes of film added to the Director's Cut version on the disc I bought. Also pleasing to my insatiable desire for information was an entire second disc, chock full of explanatory extras -- something I always go in for.

I suspect that folks who regularly go in for the DVD extras on movies bought or rented are the same type who will gobble up your own meta-content re: story-telling and the process.

Bring it!

Jeff S. said...

That was great. I look forward to more of those. Thanks for sharing.

Mike Verdone said...

I think I'll try writing story notes like this before I write any more stories.

Michael Kirkland said...

Ooh, backstory. I love it.

Mark said...

Wonderful. This shows not only how well you plan a thing before foisting it upon us (yeah, sure, like we're force fed or something), but that you are very well-read and actually remember some of the things I forgot from my University days. If I ever knew them in the first place.

Seriously, I only dream of being so well-prepared before writing my first chapter, and will take this as an inspirational example of what TO DO.

Tolomea said...

Tracking comment.

fooburger said...

Hmm.. I always thought people wrote stuff by copying existing stuff and then modifying the crap out of it until it gets to what you want?
Wait a minute.. that's how bad software is written.

It's nice to see some of the process behind the stories.

gl. said...

YES, PLEASE! i know you keep an archive of stories at your site, too, so this helps distinguish the blog a bit. and i love getting to see the inner workings.

Eric said...

It's really interesting to see how genius works like this.

I agree with Simon, I feel like I got to see a great story, and now I'm getting to watch the director's commentary.

Thank you for posting this.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

I'm glad this seems to be working out. Thanks, all. I also enjoy DVD extras, and am chagrined that the copy of Watchmen rented from the village general store included only the feature itself (director's cut) but not the additional behind-the-scenes stuff.

For those of you interested in the mechanics of the telling, I have a few thoughts concerning the process of outlining:

A danger I'd like to warn against is outlining in too much detail, or sticking slavishly to what's been outlined when it comes to the actual writing. You'll note, for example, that there are points where my outline and finished product are very close where in other areas they diverge.

Chapter 3 is outlined in just a few sentences. Chapter 4 resembles the actual fourth chapter only vaguely, and the Chapter 5 outline pretty much has nothing to do with anything.

These areas of divergence are not random.

Chapter 3 is the point where plot advancement is suspended and the momentum of the telling comes instead from character interaction. I don't outline that. When I try, the interactions come off stilted and mechanical; I end up with cardboard cut-outs whose prattle seems rehearsed and directed.

The outline of Chapter 4 is similarly impacted because of the comparatively higher level of character-based advancement -- the advancement of the plot is subjugated to being fit in opportunistically, where it feels natural in the exchanges between characters.

And Chapter 5 goes right off the rails, because the sub-plot devices that come next are directedly generated by the foundation of character interaction established in the previous two installments. This question of "What would be a believable relationship journey for these two people?" is not answerable until I get here, because I didn't who they were very well. But once I do know who they are, what happens next between them arises naturally.

Personally, I am not able to pre-script who a character really is. I know some writers do a lot of pre-production work in that regard, but I just can't seem to make it happen. I have to get to know them by having some stuff happen to them in the story, first.

The finished chapters 6 and 7 come closer to the outlines again, because plot devices take precedence as the action is driven forcibly toward the conclusion. Things happen at this point because of dramatic necessity -- the characters must do as they're ordained, and as the writer I'm just hoping I know them well enough that their responses are appropriate.

When you're a character embroiled in a climax, all you can do is respond. Any action you take must have been written into your roots from the start, or it won't seem genuine. It's puppet time.

And puppets with distinct personalities are very entertaining to watch, pretty much no matter what they're doing. Having them bouncing around the walls of a half-way reasonable plot just enhances the fun, I think.

Having them mashed through a clearly broken plot, however, kills all the joy. This is a lot of the reason Spider-Man 3 sucked so badly. Myself, I don't pretend to formulate bravely original or wildly surprising plots (though I guess I'd aspire to that), instead focusing on plots that are basically servicable. Intact rather than revolutionary.

I would much rather end up with a plot is so pedestrian that the whole audience can see right through it than risk hanging my puppets on a broken plot. Simple is better than stupid.

...And that's all I have to say about that.

Meanwhile: I'd do this same under-the-hood treatment for The Christmas Robots except there's a trilogy brewing in there and the notes for the first story would spoil too much about the other two stories. Ultimately, when all is said and done in that series, a posting of my notes might be even more revealing: across three stories there is bound to be more substantial drift from my original plans.

I've blathered enough. Must do day-job work.

Cheeseburger Brown

pso said...

I like it. It's great for those like like me who are sufficiently interested in this universe to want to understand the story in more depth, but forgetful enough to not remember all the details of past stories, and lazy enough to not want to think too deeply about the themes of the current story... It's perfect to have everything spelled out in a quick "cheat sheet" at the end :)

The insight into the writing process is interesting as well (and knowing our author, probably entertaining and educational too).

SaintPeter said...

I love it! Reading your story notes is like listening to remixes or live versions of my favorite music. It gives a slightly different take on the subject matter and additional insight into your process.

I actually went back and re-read "Two Moments of Invention". One thing that illustrated is how much your skill at writing in a different "voice" has improved. I recall you saying that you were stepping away from the first person narrative to find a different voice and I think TMoI shows why that was a good idea.

I would actually like to see you revisit the first person narrative but attempt to do so with a significantly different "voice" than you used in the past. I always liked those stories and am intrigued to see if your time away brings something new to the table.


I had meant to mention earlier how intriguing the idea of the Lars is. I like the idea of a semi-intelligent mass-conscience. I'm not sure that it would always go well, though, because the potential for strong negative feedback for anti-social behaviors (such as racism). Perhaps the story illustrates that effect - if racism is left unchecked, it becomes the norm and with the Lar system it becomes self reinforcing.

Anonymous said...

CBB - you should create your own 'Encyclopaedia CheeseBurgerium' - kinda like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Burgerverse. The way it all ties together, we could almost use it to catch back up.

Just my .02

Simon said...

Dear Anonymous,

Have you checked out the wiki?

Big t said...

I'm geeked out with the meta!

This is great. The knowledge and insight of your writing process is very interesting. My favorite part is the sketch.

For people that write, this could be very helpful, I glad that you are not afraid to share your "secret formula".

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Big t, forgive me, but I read that as "My favorite part is the stench."

Sorry; going through wife-and-kids withdrawal here, but I hope to have them back today!

Big t said...

Ha Ha, the stench

I hope Mrs. Yerbouti, and the Yerboutikins arrive safely at the Yerbouti Harem.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Thanks! Although Mrs. might not be all that happy about a harem situation (come to think of it, I'm not sure I would either).

Now I'm just going through Cheeseburger withdrawal.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear all,

Right, so. Next story. I'm working on it. I haven't actually started typing it yet, but we're almost there. I can smell it.

Meanwhile: the last "extra" I'll offer on Idiot's Mask because I think it really is a valuable tip for finding ideas:

My wife likes to go to the country auction down the road. At this auction the [junk|treasure] is sold in lots which may not be limited to the individual item that catches your eye...along with that nifty lamp you might also be saddled with an associated cardboard box of unsorted filler kipple. That kipple often takes the form of old books. And since no good hearted person can feel good about unbooking a book, we adopt them. And stow them...wherever.

There are lines of random books packed into any odd corner of this place. I was coming down the stairs the other day and bumped my head on a row of books I'd forgotten were there. So I cracked one open and read a bit while I rubbed my sore head:

"Up in my room the rain was coming down heavily outside on the balcony, and the wind blew it against the glass doors. I changed my clothing and drank some brandy but the brandy did not taste good...They had me look in a glass. The whites of the eyes were yellow and it was the jaundice."

...So that's Hemingway in cheap, book-club hardcover filed next to a mouldering volume The Wisdom of the Chinese on the authority of some guy named "Brian." The rest of his name has been eaten off.

Anyway, so it was in a situation not entirely unlike that in which I hit my elbow on a book by the brickwork. I was, um, engaged in the washroom at the time. I cracked the book open to a random page, and it was Boorstin going on about iconoclasm and Constantinople (not Istanbul), and then I flipped forward to a bit about Venetian masquerades. Which book was that again? Oh yeah, thanks Google: it was this one. (It's a nice thick book, so it helps to separate the soap dish from the dog breeding magazines.)

So that got me thinking about a culture with a iconophilic fetish involving masks. In Wikipedia-surfing for objects made in the name of similar fetishes, via Russian Orthodox ikon displays I came to Ancient Roman genii and laria erected to protect households.

Symbolic guardians, embodied in objects.

Also, I thought about Facebook and gossip. I live in a very small village, and gossip is a weird thing. (I'd expand on the notion but there's secrets I'm sworn to keep. Nudge-nudge.) Could the morality policing aspect of gossip work across a larger, physically abstracted network?

So I made the masks electronic and connected, and from there the backstory of Pernardun pretty much writes itself, obviously.

My advice to aspiring writers: put unsorted books everywhere around your house, and then read random bits of them when you stumble upon them or they fall on you or whatever.

I mean, the Hemingway thing went nowhere, really, but who knows what book I'll find myself hurting myself near next? In this house, anything is possible.

Follow-up advice: if you have a live rabbit roaming the premises, make sure to keep the books above rabbit-level. Rabbits can't read, and it makes them mad. This has been learned in my house from bitter experience. There are some books around here which have been edited against our will.

I'm going north to be further from the cities. I want to see the galaxy naked, where there's no glow. I'll be back in a few days, hopefully with some creative typing accomplished.

Happy summer to you all!

Cheeseburger Brown

Cheeseburger Brown said...


"The discovery, identification and subsequent curing of an illness in animals is a task so fraught with difficulty that it might have made even the stout heart of Florence Nightengale quail. Imagine a patient who not only cannot tell you where the pain is, but, in many cases, takes great care to cover up all its symptoms; a patient who, having decided that you are trying to poison it, refuses all medication, regardless of how carefully embedded in meat, banana or chocolate it is."


Sheik Yerbouti said...

Diagnosing dogs is quite a chore. Of course mine will eat anything, so she's not that hard to treat.

Enjoy your trip; I shall stew in my astro-envy near the big-city lights of Dallas, and await your story-laden return.

fooburger said...

is that a tremor in the force I'm feeling???? is another story close at hand????
wait... maybe it's just my puppy chewing the table leg again... crap... stop it!

Sheik Yerbouti said...

*knock knock*

Anybody in there?

fooburger said...

echo ...

Big t said...

chirp chirp.....

SaintPeter said...

Rather than give a "me too", I'll give you a dramatic reading:

I long for those halcyon days of burger past, where words flowed like digital waterfalls through this glorious blog. Will we, can we ever again return to those glorious days of yore? Will our fearless leader once again have time free from work, wife, and children to bless us with his gifted prose?

I sure hope so, because mine is pretty stale.

Sheik Yerbouti said...

Overheard from a colleague this morning:

"Butt fat is a renewable resource."

Anybody else have a memorable quote?

SaintPeter said...

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.
- Albert Einstein

Grey's Law
Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.