Singularity 3GS

“Please, please come in. Can I get you anything? Coffee? Water? Okay. Let’s just have a seat. We have a lot to discuss and a couple of decisions to make, but I assure you, we’ll keep this as painless as possible. You’ve come to the right place.

“I might begin by offering my condolences. No, maybe that’s not what you expect to hear from me! Ha, ha, yes, but seriously—this is a time of transition for your grandmother, and regardless of what we decide today, there will be some grieving. It’s a natural thing, a human thing, to feel a sense of loss. Even for those of us lucky enough to live in these times. These days, when death has finally lost most of its sting… but not all. I understand exactly how you’re feeling right now. I went through this same process with my father, a few years ago, and I can tell you right now—what you’re feeling is natural. Your grandmother has died, yes. But that doesn’t have to be permanent, not anymore.

“Let me just bring up some graphics on the screen, here, this is just… well, call it inspirational. Are you religious? No? Okay, let me click through these first twenty or so images. Here. This is our facility. Yes, I agree, it looks nice. It’s very quiet—though, not silent, per se. If you ever come to visit the data center, and I hope you will, you might be surprised to hear music playing in the hallways, in the employee areas, even in the server rack warehouse itself. That’s for the benefit of our workers. Some of them report a, well, eerie feeling being around all those resting souls. It’s a purely psychological effect, there’s nothing ghostly or spectral about the work. Mostly our employees spend their days checking the servers, making sure they stay cool, making sure the emergency backup batteries are fully charged. We can’t afford an outage, not even for a moment! Unfortunately, the way the process works, if we ever lost power, well. If a stored personality is ever, you know, switched off, it’s impossible to boot it up again. One of the little problems in the system that we’re always working on.

“I’ve taken the liberty of examining your grandmother’s social media profile, I hope you don’t mind. I wanted to get a sense of how she might fit in at our facility. Ha ha, that’s kind of a little joke we have. I see that she worked in information technology back in the early, wild west days of the internet. Amazing what they accomplished back then, really amazing. And I see she was a fan of science fiction films. That would explain why you’re here. Most people of your grandmother’s generation wouldn’t have made this choice, much less written it into their wills. Though honestly I find that a little surprising. Death is forever, as they say. But now it doesn’t have to be.

“Your grandmother can live forever. And I mean that perfectly literally. Forever. I want you to think about that. She’ll be around when your grandchildren are old. She’ll be around to see the sun burn out. As long as she’s taken care of in our facility. And there aren’t any power hiccups.

“Let’s not worry about that, shall we? I assure you, we take the most extreme measures to avoid any power loss, even for a moment. For the reason I mentioned earlier, yes. So let’s not worry about that. I want to talk to you instead about the packages we have to offer, and the upgrade schedule you can see in this slide here, and—

“Will you be able to talk to her. Well. In a limited sense, I mean, you can talk to her all you like but—her ability to talk back will be limited. There’s a little light on the front of her server. It blinks when she knows someone is there. That’s something, right? We can have a webcam set up to monitor that light, yes, that’s actually part of our Heaven 17 package, and of course it’s included if you purchase Cloud 9 maintenance insurance, and—

“No, I’m sorry, you won’t be able to see her or interact with her. She’ll exist as a layer of information on top of a silicon substrate from now on, and… I know, it’s a lot of jargon to process all at once. Let’s just say that there won’t be anything to actually see. Or hear. But her consciousness will live on forever. Let’s stay focused on that—

“No, no, I get this all the time, but no—she won’t be interacting with any other of our resting souls. That would require far too much processing power, power we need to keep the souls active. Alone? Will she be all alone in there? Well, yes, technically, but as I said earlier, she will have some dim consciousness of the existence of other people near her server rack. We’re not exactly sure how, but we know it has to be true. That’s what the blinking light is for. So let’s not use the word ‘alone’. That makes it sound so grim, when what we have on offer here is—

“I really think we need to stay focused. This is immortality. We are offering the cure to the greatest affliction humankind has ever known. We are offering a cure for nonexistence. For oblivion. For death.

“I see. I mean, I think I understand. Yes, it might seem like a limited existence. But surely it’s better than the alternative. And it’s not like she’ll lack for stimulation. Honestly, we tried that with our first generation product, just keeping the resting souls in a state of sensory deprivation, as it were. Imagine just a featureless white room, and nothing to look at or hear, and you can’t even look down at your own body because you don’t have one anymore. It’s… yes. It was pretty grim. And we discovered that it just didn’t work. A human mind, in the absence of any stimulus, well, it goes insane pretty quickly. If it can, it shuts down. I mean, when we gave the first generation of resting souls the opportunity to shut down, well, they did all take it. Immediately. But let’s not focus on that. We’ve come a long way since then.

“Your grandmother will be given constant stimulation. We feed in video and audio streams twenty-four seven. Oh, we try to keep the program varied. Mostly, though, it’s just old anime shows from the 1980s. I’m sorry? No, no, I understand. Like I said I saw your grandmother’s profile. I know she would have preferred classic movies, perhaps, or just music, but we can’t, at this time, offer personalized stimulation feeds. We have a strategic partnership with a company that owns the rights to, really, a startling amount of anime from the 80s. Honestly, it’s kind of fun! So retro!

“Other kinds of feeds? What other kinds of feeds are possible? I’m not sure what you’re asking, specifically. What, like virtual reality? Oh, no, ha ha, no, no no no, it won’t be like that. We have nearly ten thousand resting souls in our facility alone. Can you imagine the processing power it would take to provide them with a virtual world, twenty-four hours a day? Oh, no, that’s quite beyond the—

“Twenty-four hours, yes.

“No. They don’t sleep in there. No, the reasons are, well, technical. But they’re related to the problem with, ah, power hiccups. Basically, if we don’t keep the resting souls constantly running, that is to say, if their programs ever stop we… well, we don’t have any way to start them up again. So no, they don’t sleep. On the plus side, they don’t need to eat, either, or groom themselves or—or—yes, I understand, you hadn’t thought about that before now. That your grandmother will never brush her teeth again. I know, it’s these little prosaic things that we never consider, that bother us now. Please. Take your time. I’m just going to bring up this next slide, which concerns the financial packages we have on offer.

“Hmm? Financial, yes. Well, we are talking about eternity here, and that’s a very long time. We’ll need to set up some kind of direct deposit system to cover the weekly fees, not to mention the yearly surcharges and then any upgrade package pricing you might want to consider. We suggest, and this is purely optional, we suggest setting up some kind of endowment now. Our investment package can help match inflation and make sure your grandmother is protected for a very, very long time. Of course, any investment may lose money, I’m required to say that. But an endowment really is best. Otherwise, your children, and your grandchildren, and their grandchildren can make modest contributions to your grandmother’s upkeep on a week-by-week basis. It’s up to you. Let me bring up this next slide.

“Yes, that’s what we’re looking at, not including taxes, fees, and package upgrades. Yes. Per week.

“I understand. It’s a big decision I’m asking you to make. I don’t want to pressure you. But I do think it’s important to note at this juncture that the harvesting procedure—that is, the process by which we read your grandmother’s personality state directly from her brain tissue—has to be done within the first twenty-four hours post mortem. Otherwise there could be… glitches. After forty-eight hours the procedure is impossible. So we need to act quickly. Unless you want your beloved grandmother to just… die, like people used to do. Unless you want her to just be gone. Forever.

“You can sign here. A thumb print is fine. We’ll take it from here—you don’t need to do anything else. What’s that? The… the body? Ah, well, it’s sort of, you know, used up in the procedure. You really don’t want it back, once we’re done with it.

“It’s been lovely getting to meet you today. And please, when your own time comes, when you’re ready—please let your children know that I’ll be here. Waiting. Waiting and ready to serve your own post mortem needs.”

FORBIDDEN SUNS is out now!

FORBIDDEN SUNS, the thrill-packed conclusion to the Silence trilogy, is available now wherever books are sold. This third volume finds Commander Lanoe closer than ever to his long-sought revenge–and to saving the human race. Can he trust his new allies to see him through the fight? Can even a legendary fighter pilot take on an entire alien species and hope to survive? What is Tannis Valk becoming, and will it be a friend or foe? All the answers are here. The epic story ends with a final confrontation beyond anything you’ve seen in FORSAKEN SKIES and FORGOTTEN WORLDS!

Also available as an eBook.

The Lessons of Creepypasta

First there were campfire stories–which probably date back to the invention of language. These begat “urban legends”: the Hook, the call coming from inside the house. The Russian scientists who accidentally drilled into hell. Stories without authors, folk tales for a more scientific age. Creepypasta is the direct descendant of that canon. It has its own unique features, true. Typically creepypasta does have a listed author. Like all things in the internet age it competes with itself–stories get ratings, get YouTube reviews. Get followers. Creepypasta generates fan art, and derivative works, and even wikis. Yet creepypasta is experienced best the same way these stories ever were: alone in the dark, shared from friend to friend as a kind of rite of passage. Maybe you can’t toast marshmallows with the light from a touchscreen, but you can still scare yourself silly.

As a horror author I’m fascinated by these stories. So often they’re dismally written and threadbare. Sometimes, though, they pack a terrible, visceral punch in such a short word count. A good creepypasta is like horror haiku.

I want to explore some of the things I’ve learned from reading far too much creepypasta. Below I’ll make reference to many of the stories as if you’ve already read them. If you haven’t, they can be easily googled, so I won’t bother with synopses.

Creepypasta is Fast Fiction

The best pastas are short and to the point. They don’t waste time on deep character studies or establishing mood. You’re already a little scared, clicking the link. That’s enough. We get, typically, a nameless narrator setting up the plot, then a scene or two of rising tension, followed by a big nasty reveal. In many ways creepypasta shares its structure with jokes more than short stories: introduction, complication, punchline. Candle Cove is less than a page, in its earliest (and best) versions. Slenderman is mostly just a couple of forum posts. Longer works like the Russian Sleep Experiment still hold out the promise of a final awful epiphany, but as is the rule in all things, the bigger the buildup the bigger the resolution had better be. Longer pastas are routinely downvoted. Fans come for the quick rush of fear–boring your readers is the kiss of death.

Lots of Villains, No Heroes

Jeff the Killer, Slenderman, the Inverted Mickey of Abandoned by Disney–creepypasta loves its monsters. They tend to be visually interesting (it’s easier to make fan art, that way) and often their mere appearance is enough to scare the narrator into running or screaming or having a heart attack. In fact, we rarely see them at work. Their crimes are often second-hand, mere rumors of atrocity. A bloody mouth or a wild look in the eyes is enough. If we never actually see what they do, our imaginations can run wild–a man with a hatchet is scary, a man chopping up body parts is just, in Raymond Carver’s wonderful phrase, “popular mechanics”. Furthermore it might push focus onto the victim, which is a big no-no in creepypasta. While the killers may be richly, even floridly described the victims and especially the narrators are usually cyphers–they almost never have actual names, nor are we ever told what they look like. They exist on the other side of your computer screen, speaking to you through anonymous media. The fact that the killer pushes through into reality is the scariest thing about them.

Stakes are High, or Pointless

If the protagonist actually wants something in a creepypasta, the stakes in a story tend to be ridiculous, to justify potentially suicidal behavior. In one version of No-End House, you win an astonishing amount of money if you can make it through to the final room (you won’t). Some protagonists, like Orpheus, want to find and restore their dead or missing loved ones (it never works). More often than not, though, there are no stakes at all. Protagonists exist in creepypasta for one reason: to regret their own curiosity–which, of course, makes them us, copies their identity onto the reader who similarly was unwise enough to click on a link they knew would scare them. In many pastas the inciting motive of the “hero” is a simple compulsion. They couldn’t not look, they couldn’t not explore the abandoned Disney park, they couldn’t resist opening that letter with no return address or looking at the one image file on the thumb drive. They exist simply as puppets of fate, victims of a universe that actively wishes their demise.

The Universe is Self-Aware, and it Hates You

If Lovecraft dragged horror fiction into the twentieth century, he did it by throwing away the religious and mystical baggage of the nineteenth. God couldn’t save you from Cthulhu and holy water didn’t kill space vampires. The universe is a cold and uncaring place, and you are contemptibly small. Creepypasta, as the horror literature of the twenty-first century, wants to take it a step farther. The cosmos isn’t just a cold void, it’s also a seething mass of disdain and hatred. There is only one way to survive the events of a pasta, and that is to be left alive so you can tell the tale (and even then, you know the evil hasn’t forgotten you, and your time is limited). Many pastas, like Return to Earth, don’t even allow that level of grace–the narrator is telling his story to no one, watching his own demise creep closer, knowing that no one will ever hear what he says. Reality in creepypasta is fluid, malleable, but it only ever bends one way–toward destroying you. No one in a creepypasta ever learned a spell from the Necronomicon to push the nasty things away. And where Lovecraft saw a kind of hope in ignorance–a delusion that brought blissful sleep–in pastaland the horrors seek you out, through message board posts and text messages. There’s no way to escape, or even deny what’s happening.

Style: Distance and Outsiderness

Creepypasta always comes at a remove. The story you’re reading started with someone noticing a strange link on a web page, or they find hidden files on a game cartridge. Candle Cove’s entire substance is just the narrator remembering a strange television show from their youth. The writers of these stories know that you’re bored with real life. They know you think the world is empty of the supernatural, and so they build a firewall between you and the horror–one which always turns out to be more permeable than you thought. Distancing techniques can also add verisimilitude to a story. The great evolution of creepypasta, the SCP wikia, follows a rigidly anti-entertainment format (there’s a reason the containment procedures come first) and an enforced clinical tone to separate you from the horror. Then it pulls the floor out from under you. It’s a great trick. Because pastas are “documents” that you, the reader, have found you can open them safely, but their very artifactual nature makes them seem more realistic, and therefore less escapable. They force you to engage with, and even participate in, the squick. Creepypasta that eschews the clinical tone has its own distancing technique, one based on reader expectation. The best pastas use their outsider status to great effect. This isn’t some polished story that Stephen King sent to an editor for feedback. This is the breathless recounting of a desperate survivor. A madman’s ravings that no publisher would ever touch. The narrator announces at the beginning that no one would ever believe what he has to say–forcing the reader to enter into a devil’s bargain, the one wedding guest who was forced to listen to the Ancient Mariner.

Conclusions for Horror Writers

Creepypasta is very much an anti-style, a kind of radical reimagining of horror that places it outside the more traditional, more established venues for writing. Channel Zero, SyFy’s attempt to turn pastas into television (just like Freaky Links before it, and a dozen other attempts), misses the central point of the creepypasta format–that it’s something you discover in secret, something you weren’t supposed to see. Not something that gets endless promos and celebrity hype on basic cable. Horror writers can’t just lift creepypasta for their own ends–it’s a type of storytelling that only works in short chunks on a computer screen. Yet there are lessons to take away here, messages from a new wave of horror fandom that has its own values and desires. As horror writers, whether we work in novels or short stories, we’d be foolish not to look at the audience reaction to creepypasta and tailor our work to appeal to this new generation of horror fans. We can respond to the cosmic malevolence of creepypasta, eschewing the more rationalistic horrors of the past. We can examine distancing techniques for use in our own work, and rethink the levels of deep characterization we give to our protagonists (rethink, mind you, not necessarily abandon). If nothing else, creepypasta can serve as wonderful inspiration. I’ve read enough horror novels in my life that I’ve gotten pretty jaded. Evil clowns and zombies don’t really scare me anymore. I’ll freely admit that the pictures of Slenderman did, that Abandoned by Disney got my pulse elevated. Creepypasta works as an incredible laboratory examining what still scares us–and what always will.

Come see Dave at New York Comic Con!

Yes, it’s true–you can come see me, David Wellington/D. Nolan Clark, talk and make jokes at NYCC2017!

I’ll be doing a panel on Friday, October 6, 1:30 PM in room 1a24. What will this panel be about, you ask? Here’s the official description from the NYCC site:

The best science fiction novels pull from current events and make readers question Could this terrifying, alternate reality come true? With the resurgence of movies and TV shows like Blade Runner 2049 and The Handmaid’s Tale, great works of dystopian fiction shine a light on global issues that affect and impact us all (socially, economically, politically, and environmentally). Petra Mayer of NPR explores the likelihood of the possible futures envisioned by Paolo Bacigalupi (Tool of War), Amy S. Foster (The Rift Frequency), Lauren Oliver (Ringer), Scott Reintgen (Nyxia), and D. Nolan Clark (Forsaken Skies).

Come by and hear what we have to say! I will absolutely be available afterwards to sign books or just chat. I look forward to seeing you there!

Why I Don’t Believe in Willful Suspension of Disbelief

We’re told, almost certainly apocryphally, that one of the earliest movies was of a train heading directly toward the camera, and that audiences who saw it ran for their lives. We’re told that a truly great piece of fiction makes the reader forget they’re reading a book (or seeing a movie, etc.) and immerses them entirely in the secondary world of the story.

I’ve never bought it. Oh, I’ve read plenty of immersive stories in my time, but every single time the thought in my head was not “this is real! If the characters die, I will too!” My typical thought is more along the lines of “oh, this is really good! How can I pull off this same effect in my own work?”

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, and I know how the sausage gets made. Maybe my insider knowledge of how stories are put together keeps me from enjoying them in the intended manner. I don’t think so, though. I think pretty much every consumer of culture knows the basics of how entertainment is made. The water cooler talk about the latest Game of Thrones episode is often as much about the difference between practical and CG effects as it is “can you believe character X did that to character Y?”

Then there are the commenters. In one of my books I suggested that a given handgun could hold thirteen bullets (you get a prize if you can guess which book this was. The prize is that you briefly made me feel like I exist). I got an email from a reader who told me he had enjoyed the book up to that point, but really, since said gun could actually hold fourteen bullets, he could no longer appreciate my work and would not be purchasing any of my future books. I actually took this seriously and mentioned, in the second volume of the series, that the gun could hold fourteen rounds.

I then got an angry email from a reader saying that if I didn’t know the gun could only hold thirteen bullets, I wasn’t fit to be writing about vampires.

I mention this story because I think it shows that we, as media savvy entertainment consumers, have stopped willfully suspending our disbelief–if we ever did. Just as some people can watch a movie and check their texts at the same time (horrible people), when we read a book we’re never completely lost in the imagined world. We’re always–always–comparing the story to what we know, to what we’ve read before. We run to wikipedia or at least the dictionary if we find concepts or even just words that are unfamiliar in our texts. We discuss our stories endlessly–Chris Hardwick has made a career out of dissecting TV shows the very second they’ve finished airing. I don’t think disbelief enters into the equation at any point.

Instead I think we are actively participating in cultural transmission. Rather than passively submerging ourselves in words and images, we are all, in our heads, remixing them continuously into nuanced interpretations, hot takes, and snarky scorn. We don’t just absorb texts, we study them, mining for ideas for our own work, or at the very least for sick burns we can share with co-workers.

As media becomes more and more integrated into our psychological landscape we become more adept at using it, rather than being manipulated by it (current politics notwithstanding). We always experience texts at a remove, now. But I don’t know if this is purely an artifact of the twenty-first century. I’ve always been interested in mythology, and one of the first questions you end up asking when you read Bullfinch is whether the Greeks really believed that the sun was a chariot with Apollo at the reins. The answer of course is that some people did, while others simply used the story to organize their lives–just as many people today seem unable to understand the news or the actions of their friends without framing them in terms of scenes from Harry Potter. I think this may be something intrinsic in the way we tell stories.

Think of a stage magician’s show. We are told that the magician will saw a woman in half. We watch it happen. Yet only a very small part of our lizard brains actually thinks it’s real. The vast majority of our consciousness is instead devoted to trying to figure out how the trick is done. We engage with the act on multiple levels at once, almost all of them on a metatextual level–we are outside the thing we perceive, aware of factors beyond what the magician wants us to see. The same can be said for every book we read, every television show we watch. Really interesting art often plays with our expectations and our preconceptions. Think of unreliable narrators, antiheroes and stories that break the fourth wall.

When Coleridge coined the term “willful suspension of disbelief” in 1817, he was specifically talking about genre stuff (what he would call “fantastical tales”) being leavened with verisimilitude and human pathos to make it more palatable. His idea was that readers would scoff at fantasy stories unless they were given enough realism to have something to hang onto. I’m not sure if this was true even at the time; I’m certain it isn’t, now.

What’s the takeaway here, for writers? Be conscious, always, of the fact that your reader isn’t reading your work in a vacuum. She has access to endless secondary sources. She can call you on your bullshit, or she can get in a discussion group with hundreds of other people about the details of your fiction. Don’t let that paralyze you, though. Instead, play with it. Withhold details or intentionally provide false information–which you correct later, for dramatic effect. Don’t be afraid of direct address or other techniques which might damage the illusion of secondary reality. But always remember, when you write, you are not alone. You are not screaming your truth into a void. You are contributing one long twitter thread in the culture conversation that began before you were born and will long outlive you.

Was that helpful? Or are you already rolling your eyes, thinking about how I overwrote that last sentence, and how much of this article I got wrong?

Bad Writing Advice: “Write What You Know”

99% of all writing advice is just inspirational nonsense. Most of it boils down to “sing the story inside of you!” or “don’t give up on your dreams!” If you’re a writer, you don’t need to be told this. If you have the bug, you’re going to write and nothing, not even self-interest, will stop you.

There’s another kind of writing advice, though, which usually gets quoted as gospel truth because nobody every thinks about what it really means. Let’s start with the most famous and most often repeated saying, “write what you know.”

Sounds good, right? Write from your own personal experience, and your stories will breathe with verisimilitude. What if you want to write genre fiction, though? What if you want, specifically, to write about what you don’t know? I can’t count how many times people have told me to write what I know. I try very hard to say thank you and not roll my eyes so hard they get stuck in the back of my head. The whole point of writing for me is to create new worlds. To explore weird ideas. If I only ever wrote what I know, my readers would get very bored, very quickly. The vast majority of my life involves what I’m doing right now. Staring at a blinking cursor on a computer screen, while I lift a can of Coke Zero Sugar to my mouth and fail to actually drink from it because I’m too lost in thought.

Do you want to read that book?

Honestly, this piece of advice is impossible to follow. Any story will, at the very least, abstract reality. A writer knows when to skip over vast swaths of lived reality. You throw away all the conversations that amount to:

“What? I didn’t hear you.”

“Never mind.”

“No, I didn’t–”

“Doesn’t matter.”

You skip the periods of time your character is asleep, or in the bathroom, or just watching television. But beyond mere elision, it’s literally impossible to write from reality. Language is only ever metaphor for describing things taken in by the human senses. No matter how carefully you choose your words, they are symbols, simplified hieroglyphs that represent sensory impressions in your reader’s mind. Except your reader may have very different impressions than you do. Your best attempt to represent your reality will never match up to what the reader experiences in their own head.

Perhaps I’m being a little precious, here. And, to be fair, like most pieces of advice, “write what you know” is actually useful when it’s taken with a grain of salt. It’s very true, for instance, that good writers take cues from their sensory experience when creating even the most fantastical scenes. One of the best bits of imagery I ever came up with was that the queen of an alien species of social insects had breath that smelled like honey. I love that image, and it came from actually getting a jar of honey out of the cupboard and taking a good honest whiff.

But the idea that you can only ever write from personal experience just doesn’t hold up, no matter how much you want it to. Simply because the whole purpose of writing–the reason it was created in the first place–was to catalogue all the things the reader cannot immediately see or feel or hear. Writers do research. We look things up, in others peoples’ books (or, more often these days, on Wikipedia). We draw ideas and images from other stories, or from first hand accounts of things, or scientific descriptions. Maybe the advice should be: “write what you know, or failing that, research the topic until you feel like you know it”.

Finally, to get back to genre writing–how can you “know” what it looks like to fly through hyperspace on the back of a time dragon, or what it feels like to transform into a were-ocelot under a silvery moon? The answer, of course, is that you infer it. You compare it to slightly similar experiences, or you close your eyes and just imagine it. The quality of your writing depends on your ability to then communicate your inference in a way that makes the reader feel it, too.

So maybe the advice should be “write what you know, or what you’ve researched thoroughly, or what you’ve done your level best to imagine given all the mental tools you have available.”

That’s a little long to put into a Facebook meme, though.

Dream Logic: Using Surrealism in Fiction

I heard a podcast recently where the guest talked about the Magical Realist novel he was working on. The host asked, “is that just a fantasy novel but you don’t want to admit you like geek stuff?” The guest laughed and admitted that was pretty much accurate.

Similarly, you hear a lot of people go on and on about “dream logic” as if it’s an excuse not to have to write a plot for your story, or have characters with realistic motivations.

Neither of these things is remotely true. Oh, it’s true that some writers use these terms as excuses. But they shouldn’t.

Surrealism is a style, not an excuse. It can be incredibly powerful when it’s done right. You look at a Salvador Dali painting of people wearing lobsters on their heads and your first reaction is to laugh. Then you move away quickly, and the image haunts you every time you think about it. That’s not just Dali throwing weird crap on a canvas and calling it art. The whole point of Surrealism, according to its creators, was to tap into the subconscious. To make connections between things that seemed separate. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, and almost impossible to do well. When it does work, it’s magic.

“Every dream has its navel,” as Freud almost assuredly didn’t say. I’ve always interpreted this as meaning that any story, no matter how far-fetched, weird, or seemingly dissonant, must contain a connection to reality. At the very least some kind of nod to real, lived experience. Surrealism exists on that thread-like connection, the region where the wild nonsense of chaos bleeds into the stark cold light of day. Great practitioners understand that you have to walk that tightrope to bring back phenomenal stories.

When people talk about Dream Logic they always forget the “logic” part. Or the “realism” in Magical Realism. Let’s look at some of these styles individually, and see where, while they promise chaos and insanity, are actually art at its most carefully controlled:

Dream Logic: Often called “Fairy Tale Logic” as well. In some ways, DL is the opposite of surrealism. It’s the attempt to impose consistent, logical rules onto a nonsensical world, and more often than not, the attempt fails (intentionally). If surrealism is about digging in the deep soil of the Id, DL is about the Superego trying to make sense of a messy room. Alice in Wonderland is dream logic at its finest–Alice is a scientist attempting to solve Wonderland with clear syllogistic logic. The story is about what happens when you push too hard and the crazy thing pops back up behind you. David Lynch is a modern master of DL–Twin Peaks: The Return is a master class in the style. Be careful, though. Readers who expect straightforward narrative will quickly get bored with this “crazy” style. You need to find a way to keep them turning pages.

Stream of Consciousness: Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine is one of my favorite books. It’s the story of a man riding down an escalator, letting his thoughts wander. James Joyce’s Ulysses is often held up as the one and only masterpiece of SOC. It’s not, though. The real master here is Stephen King. King gives some terrible writing advice in his book On Writing: create an incredibly realized character and then just see what happens to them. No one should ever do this. King gets away with it because he has a genius-level aptitude for creating stories out of random events–his brain just naturally gravitates toward a loose, swingy plot, so eventually he gets a book out of his wool-gathering. Do you have Stephen King’s instincts? No? Best to use this for, say, a chapter in a longer work, or just in flashbacks, unless you’re absolutely certain you can bring it back home.

Magical Realism: Argh! No, it’s not just fantasy! It’s a reaction against fantasy! Magical Realism is an attempt to describe the real world–the place you’re living right now–period. The conceit is that the only way to truly explain the beauty and importance of a real place, person, or event is to highlight it with fantastic symbols. Some life events are so big and so impossible to describe that we need metaphors to handle them. The loss of a loved one becomes a story about them growing wings and flying away. But the story, the damned story, is about the loss, not the wings. This might be one of the most misused terms in literary history.

Dadaism: Not just surrealism’s cranky punk rock grandpa. The two movements actually serve radically different ends. If surrealism mines for hidden connections between disparate subjects, Dada is all about breaking apart the established connections of our every day life. A toilet seat covered in velvet is surreal; one covered in spikes is Dada. It forces you to rethink the things you do automatically all day long. A metronome is something you watch. Unless there’s an eye on it, then it’s watching you, pal. A man puts a bicycle wheel on a stool and puts it in a museum. Not just to prove that art is bullshit. No! That was the opposite of the point! The point was to show that objects you encounter everyday become invisible to you. By recontextualizing them they become visible again, which is one of the most jarring experiences you can have. Dada was about iconoclasm, about smashing your face into consciousness.

The last thing to say about invoking surrealism in your work is that it’s dangerous to the writer, first, and the reader, second. The writer who dallies with the unconscious is liable to end up discovering things about themselves–their own personal internal symbol systems, phobias they didn’t know they had. If you find that happening while you’re writing, it’s actually a sign that you’re on the right track. You owe it to yourself to explore those strange feelings. To dig deep and see what you can find. Write crazily. Try automatic writing, where you just type without looking at the screen. Throw a random symbol in your work and see what shakes loose. Just remember–you have to edit it all, later. You have to make it make sense, make sure the reader never feels like you’ve lost control. Whatever happened while you were composing is yours to keep, and doesn’t have to show up on the page.