Chaos Theory For Writers Part Three: On The Edge

What a weekend! Whilst the Monaco Grand Prix itself was not too exciting, Practice and ‘Qualy’ were decidedly awesome. The skills exhibited by the drivers in brushing the famous barriers around the circuit were breathtaking in their brilliance – and equally breathtaking when they weren’t!

I have long been a fan of the Schumacher take on perfection: in order to produce the perfect qualifying lap, one has to know where the edge of the track is, and the only way to know that is to fall off it! An exercise he regularly reserved for practice.

In true respect for that theory, several of the drivers chose to discover exactly how to miss the barriers at a hair’s breadth by closing the breadth of the hair until it no longer existed. How did they know? Ask their mechanics, who had to correct the resulting chaos.

In the course of learning about chaos theory, I recently discovered there is another mathematical concept known as ‘edge of chaos theory’. This is not, as one might expect, a sub-category of chaos theory which sits to one side, exploiting the deterministic randomness of the main theory but in a less committed way – what one might describe as ‘being on the edge of chaos theory’. No, this is a theory in its own right – a theory about what happens at the edge of chaos. Wow!

According to this theory, the conditions that appear on the edges of chaos are quite different to those that can be observed in the general morass. This place is one of transition – a theoretical zone between order and disorder, where edge of components have infinite opportunities to become or behave in an infinite number of ways.

This very special place provides, of course, the very best of creative energy. The most innovative, evolutionary and unexpectedly adaptive ideas take root here, at the very edge of any kind of organised structuring. It is also, obviously, a place where complete breakdown of the known world can occur and, I guess, for many that’s not a risk worth taking.

This is a place where you get to find out just how far you can push things, what happens in a neighbouring universe, what will transpire if you remove the normal and the accepted, what could emerge if the rules are disregarded, even dismissed. It is both exciting and dangerous, depending on the state of mind you bring to it. It is the perfect place for writers to inhabit.

The theory, in various forms, has been adopted by many fields of study, where it has inevitably been anaesthetised and compromised by some, believing, I suppose, they can use it to their own advantage. But there are some interesting quotes about its application. I like this one: ‘Seeking the edge of chaos … is not seeking disorder or randomness but the right balance between order and flexibility.’

The author here must be responding to a comment along the lines of ‘why would someone choose to head towards disorder?’ – which is how so many people perceive chaos. His answer is to shift the questioner towards a different – and very useful – perspective. The interplay of order and flexibility is something we all need to grapple with if we are to be truly creative.

And if we’re going to grapple successfully with it, we may need sometimes to gather the courage and go see what happens if we cross over the final frontier and venture into previously unexplored territory.

There were many drivers on Saturday who took this pilgrimage, some with seemingly disastrous results, but no-one left the race on Sunday because they didn’t know where the barriers were.


Field Notes: Taking A Break

It’s so important to know when to stop. When it’s more productive to sit and do nothing than to push on. When it’s better for your health or sense of well-being to rest and put your feet up (or down) rather than persevere. When the answer or inspiration will come to you if you give it a chance, instead of chasing relentlessly after it.

With all that in mind, today I’m taking a break from intensive writing, from chaos pondering and from trying to force any issues, and I’m enjoying the sunshine, the birds, the wildflowers. I’m joining in their fabulous chorus of spring and early summer celebrations, and simply relishing the experience of existing.

A different kind of blog to share this week – a glimpse of the kind of break we – that’s me and my dog – take every day, so that we stay sane and healthy, so that the work flows, so that we enjoy life. I thought I’d share some photos from some of our regular walks in the local countryside – the perfect remedy to feeling under pressure.

I’m not usually a camera person, but it just so happened that I took it out with me a week or so ago on a number of our meanderings, and some of them came out surprisingly well.

This is one of our favourite walks. When we went, it was just starting to sprout new wildflowers. In a couple of weeks, the place will be alive with colours, bees, butterflies and insects.

A little preview – a suggestion of what’s to come …

And some of the birdlife we saw on that day …

And this is the canal that I’ve written so much about, that I feel has supported me throughout writing my first novel, and that has given me such inspiration over the last few years …

… with its famous canal flies, demonstrating chaos theory …

… its beautiful tree, perfect for sleeping under …

… and its interesting smells …

… and if you look carefully, you can see a surprise visitor …

Have a lovely break yourself today and see what you can enjoy.

‘In What Universe Is That Lightly Toasted?’ – Chaos Theory For Writers Part Two

It all depends on where you start.

We are often berated – by those who know about these things – that the opening salvo of one’s book or short story is vital in keeping the reader with you. A slow or boring start, apparently, loses people quickly, and since most Amazon fiction sales are, these days, initiated by a quick peep at ‘Look Inside’, having an excellent first ten per cent to your book is crucial to sales. Or so I am told.

Of course, there’s a lot of sense in this, as well as a lot of nonsense. Passing trade may well be caught by an unexpected visit to a sales page, and equally may be lost by it, if the writing is not good. But how many books have you read where a very promising start has decayed rapidly into dross, or a slow warm-up has gradually developed into one of your all-time favourites? Not to mention the implied insult to the reader’s intelligence and application, if there are no sex scenes, murders or swearing in the first few pages to excite them.

I digress. See where I ended up by starting where I did. That’s not what I was intending to write about today at all …

And that is why a smattering of chaos theory can be so useful to a writer. Because in chaos theory, it all depends on where you start… I’ll try to explain.

In the mathematical construct which we have come to know as chaos theory, several apparently contradictory notions are true. The theory is used in mathematics to describe what happens within something called a dynamical system – that is a system involving the movement of something where the geometrical position of a single point of it is time-related, such as the pendulum of a clock. (Well, broadly speaking.)

The most important aspect when applying chaos theory to such systems is that the resulting apparent randomness of the system is actually dependent on its initial conditions. In other words, however it starts off, that start will create under-lying, non-obvious patterns that appear random but can be detected, observed and described, and are always related to the initial conditions. Start the system in a different place and you’ll get a different apparent randomness.

Such wonderful logic gives rise to the even more wonderful paradox that dynamical systems are both deterministic and unpredictable. Love it!

Okay, having got spectacularly lost in my own mind-meanderings, I want to suggest that this is great recipe for a fiction writer. Whatever you decide to write at the beginning of your story will determine what happens later, even though you may not know where your story is going, provided you are true to the flow and apparent randomness of what decides to appear on your page.

If you take the approach, as I do, that it is best to start in the middle of a story and find your way out, and in order to do so, you allow yourself to inhabit the universe unfolding before you – rather than merely describe it or, even worse, try to control it – your creation will take on a life of its own, the characters telling you what they want to say, what they need to do and what happens next, resulting in a very real piece of writing that comes alive for the reader, too.

People often think that writers are the ones who determine their stories. It is this premise that lies behind all the fundamentalism about how one should write, I think. But stories have a life of their own, and finding out where they’ll go is what is so fascinating about the process. For example, I believe JK wept when she discovered she’d have to kill off Dumbledore, but she respected the demands of the story in front of her.

I once met a very angry man, who claimed to be a writer and who wanted to know exactly how to write a successful novel. ‘And don’t give me any of that guff about the characters telling me what to do,’ he said. What other advice could I possibly give?

The willingness of a writer to step into a different universe and to discover how ‘they do things differently there’, is an essential ingredient of their talent and if one cannot allow the randomness of the true story to determine the story-line, one will be forced into a dull kind of rigidity. Of course, one can write by rules and formulae but using them that way is as boring as most of the maths that gets taught in schools – it bares little relation to the real thing.

Start with the first words you hear, the first scene you see. Open your heart to the creativity of chaos and jump into what feels like a random universe. Then, what appeared at first to be a complaint, may be revealed as a line of enquiry. To requote Sheldon (from The Big Bang Theory, for the uninitiated): ‘In what universe is that lightly toasted?’

Chaos Theory For Writers Part One

How much chaos do you have in your life right now? My guess is that many of you have responded with a resounding reply such as ‘loads’, ‘plenty’ or ‘more than enough’. For most people, the idea of stimulating chaos deliberately within their daily routine, is anathema, but for writers, I believe it is essential.

Chaos is generally, I think, misunderstood and misrepresented in our culture. We are encouraged to believe, from a young age, that linear thinking, pre-planning and organisation are habits – maybe skills – which should be learned and executed in order to live a successful life. Nevertheless, a huge percentage of our population spends its time in reaction to unpredicted events, in addiction-related behaviours and in stress-relieving therapies, simply because their lives are ‘spiralling out of control’.

I hesitate to suggest that the reason for this collective inability to lead peaceful and sustainable lives probably lies in the very assumption that chaos is to be avoided at all costs. (No, I don’t: more on the differences between chaos, randomness and crisis, another time.)

I was led to reflect on chaos this week when the local summer weather hit the landscape big-time – we are, after all, now into Celtic summer. Beltane was celebrated at the start of the month. One of the fascinating effects of the change in temperature and light levels is the sudden increase in ‘canal-fly’ populations.

I don’t know the exact species involved – I can never get close enough to view one in detail – but my local canal boasts thousands, maybe even millions, of these tiny creatures, hovering above the water in swarms, every year. And every year, I find I’m drawn to watching them more and more closely, as their flight patterns and collective behaviour intrigue me greatly. (You’re listening to a former entomologist, here.)

On first encountering them, I was struck by their apparent busy-ness; there seemed to be a veritable fly-highway above the water’s surface, with a myriad of beings travelling in all directions at astonishing speeds. But, as I honed in on the detail, I discovered that the majority of the flies were actually moving either north-south or south-north along the length of the canal. (I suppose it could be east-west: I’m not much good at direction, but you get my point.)

Only a few flies deviated from this path, and those only to drift gently upwards above the mainstream before descending to join in the mass rush again. What was more, if I chose to follow the route of an individual fly, rather than just take an overview, I discovered that hardly any of them were moving at speed at all. Most were dawdling alongside their neighbours, either in one direction or the other. It was the effect of the two opposing directions that created the illusion of speed.

And I further discovered that no individual fly ever went beyond a designated end-point at the edges of the population. Each fly, as it encountered more space around it on reaching the outer limits, promptly turned round and picked up the stream flowing back in the opposite direction. Until it reached a similar turning point at the other end of the group and repeated the operation.

And because all the flies are intent on remaining a part of the group, none of them ever wanders off onto the tow path where I might get a better look at them.

The impression one gains by paying attention to an individual fly is a life of gentle meandering. A great lesson in taking a different perspective, I think. Perhaps by viewing our own chaos from another angle, we’ll gain something of value there, too. (Please take note that it has not escaped my notice that it was by focusing in on the detail that I was enabled to see beyond the chaos, whereas the usual recommendation is one should take a ‘bigger’ view in order to do this. A nice paradox, probably warranting a further blog.)

The biggest value of chaos, I believe, is that it is generally unformed. We think of things being chaotic when we cannot assign a known structure or pattern to them. It is easy to be scared by that because the way in which you need to respond is not obvious. However, the beauty of the conundrum here is that if you can’t respond in an obvious way, you will have to be creative. And that’s where writers and artists come in.

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, if you write only by following the rules, you’ll never create anything new or authentic. And too much structuring can be seriously detrimental to the health of your creation.

I’ve recently returned to my regular writing practice, having taken a serious detour to get my first book printed and published, and I discover that there’s a very good reason why I left off where I did in Book 2. It’s absolute chaos!

I have, as they say, written myself into a hole. Dead bodies, missing witnesses who may be suspects, no motives, misleading ID’s … it’s great! I’m going to have a whale of a time creating an orderly story out of this chaos!  I’m really looking forward to it.


The In Off Is On

Now that I’ve got the hang of it a bit, I love my new computer. I always loved the colour but now I realise how delightful, and easy to use, the keyboard is. No more fighting to make the ‘e’ button work, or ending up with a sore wrist the next day.

I love the things that it allows me to do without a fifteen-minute wait – like getting on-line. (Slight exaggeration, but of course, I’m permitted to make liberal use of poetic licence these days!) And I love the opening pictures of magical wildlife and stunning scenery which it greets me with when I switch on.

I do not, however, see eye-to-eye with the little darling when I’m writing in creative mode. This new computer has a particularly annoying function that seems to think it can write better than I can! Not what any author wants to hear. It is constantly throwing up brown lines under my phrasing which a right-click of my mouse reveals as ‘better suggestions’.

Have you considered more concise language?’ it will ask, listing some ‘suitable options’. ‘Or using a more descriptive term?’ again, accompanying this with ‘appropriate ideas’.

I’m sure that somewhere in the development of this more up-to-date version of Word, someone thought they would be doing us all a favour by being so helpful, particularly for people who struggle to express themselves in written form; but I’m equally sure that the potential for sinister intent is lurking in the background.

‘What price, creativity?’ I want to shout at the screen when it suggests that my heroine (new novel – a romance), having fallen asleep in a chair with exhaustion and being woken by a stranger at the door, ‘made an effort to communicate‘ would be better expressed as ‘tried to communicate‘ (more concise) but when I have her responding to the stranger’s ideas with ‘‘That’s all … a big help’ she finished rather lamely’, the computer now wants me to replace Lily’s sad phrase with ‘an immense help‘, ‘a tremendous help‘ or ‘a powerful help‘, all of which would be a complete misrepresentation of the story at that point.

I am reminded, perhaps over-dramatically, of the Thought Police in Nineteen Eighty Four. Perhaps this novel has a different impact today, with its title appearing to be such a long time in the past, but when I was a teenager, the date was far enough in the future to be a blip on the horizon and the book became something of an icon for many of us growing up, determined to preserve freedom at all levels and to make people aware of the dangers of not caring about others on this planet.

The idea that the machines described in the book might actually become reality seemed ridiculous to many of us but the sentiment that some humans would use any kind of technology available to subdue those who did not agree with them, or who looked different, or who displayed the capacity for creative thought, was very real.

The scenario I meet daily on my computer appears innocuous at first glance, but so does any form of repetitive programming. How long before the newly-formed channels of the brain, which I believe can continue to be made as long as someone is alive and willing, are predetermined by the texts to which they are exposed, and those texts are controlled by people with very specific agendas?

At the very least, if our machines are constantly supplying answers for us whenever we request them – and even if we don’t – our thinking processes become less creative, automatically. There will appear to be less need to explore more unusual solutions and to stretch our minds for innovative ideas. And that, for me, takes the point out of being alive.

Anyone who watched any part of the World Snooker Championship over the last fortnight or so, will know that what gave us the greatest delight as spectators were the incredible shots that ‘came out of nowhere’ – the ones that required not just the skill to execute accurately but which could barely be conceived by those of us watching.

No surprise then that Shot Of The Tournament was awarded to Shaun Murphy’s unbelievable potting of the red into the middle pocket, in his match with Ronnie O’Sullivan, when it was absolutely impossible for him to hit it. What a stunningly creative solution!

I’m delighted to say that my computer was completely floored when I tried out John Virgo’s intriguing phrase, ‘the in off is on‘ on its brown line selections this morning, and was unable to offer any alternatives. Just for snooker aficionados: I shall treasure that alongside another favourite of his – ‘Where’s the cue ball going?’ There must be a T-shirt …