A (slightly less) shitty second draft

For the past couple weeks, I’ve been working on a second draft. It’s going slower than hoped. Part of it is that the first draft — which I dictated and transcribed — is a mess. I can live with that. I’m just glad the first draft exists. It took me only two weekends to produce. And important threshold crossed at a sprint.

Now I need to flesh out the narrative. I’ve settled on a frame. As I’ve been writing, I’m starting to get more comfortable with the narrator (Lester). I can hear him. I can start to channel his voice.

It’s going slowly, though, because I find myself writing more action and dialogue for each scene than I had anticipated.

For example, the second scene, like every scene, is supposed to be 1250 words, give or take. It’s currently 5200 words. Aliyah and Lester are getting to know each other. Forming a rapport. They’re talking to each other. A lot.

Despite the length, I see this as a good thing. I want to trust the process. In the third draft, I can go back and cherry-pick the best bits of interaction and feature that. At this stage in the drafting process, quantity still trumps quality.

I’ve also been reminding myself that the dialogue needs to occur in the context of action, comic action. The characters can’t just be standing around, yammering away.

I also have to resist the urge to lyricize my descriptions of place and action. It’s comedy. It shouldn’t have a precious MFA style. Details should come authentically from Lester’s worldview and should move the plot briskly forward.

I’ve also been thinking of ways to mitigate the isolation of writing toward some far off completion date. In Piers Steel’s formula for motivation, this variable is called Delay. The longer the delay, the more of a sap on motivation. Novels epitomize the trap of endless Delay.

So I plan to revise the first three scenes this week and share at least the prologue (the first scene) with a select audience — my Discord writers group and Scott Dikkers’ Writers’ Room.

I’ll report back in a week or two on how that went.

Without further ado, a (slightly less) shitty draft of scene 1 (which will probably end up being Chapter 1):

You see, my mom was going on a trip with her new boyfriend. She wouldn’t say for how long. His name is Ponce. The new boyfriend. I guess he’s okay. He’s nice to me, I guess.
While Mom was gone, she arranged to send me to my aunt’s house. Aunt Fadwa lived in Merrymount. Which was far away. Far, far away. Mom said to me, “Think of it as an adventure, Jester.” That was her nickname for me. Because I was good at making her laugh.
But I won’t lie. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself about it all.
“How long will you be gone?” I asked.
“A while.”
“Why can’t I go?”
“Let me give you some advice,” she said. “The quickest way to get others to like you is to show interest. Find out what they like. What they’re into. Get them talking about themselves. If that doesn’t work, compliment them. Tell them how you like their clothes, their stuff, their opinions. Especially their opinions. Try your best to agree with them. If you do that, they can’t help but like you. I can promise you that.” She squeezed me hard. “Everything’s gonna be fine,” she said.
I packed my favorite camouflage cargo shorts. The sports jersey my dad gave me. My secret gummy worm stash. Then Mom put me and my lumpy duffel bag on a coach bus.
It was a long ride…a whole day and night. I used the duffel for a pillow. When we got to Merrymount, I had a serious crimp in my neck.
Aunt Fadwa wasn’t at the bus station. She and her husband were busy people. They must have had more important things to do than pick me up. Instead, they hailed me a rideshare.
On the last leg of my journey, telephone poles whizzed rhythmically by as I nodded in and out. I imagined a long sword was jutting out the window from the crimp in my neck. The razor-sharp blade was slicing them all down. [this isn’t funny]
We pulled up to the destination in the map app. It was sunset. I climbed out of the minivan and texted my mom.
“Are you sure this is the right address?” the driver asked.
My mom and me lived in an apartment. It was big enough for the two of us. Plus my pet tortoise, Sir Shmoozles. That’s it. There was definitely no room for anybody else. Sir Shmoozles agreed. Whenever Ponce came into my room — he was always trying to get me to like him — Sir Shmoozles hissed and stuck his head back into his shell. I swear.
Aunt Fadwa’s house, on the other hand, was huge. It was a castle. For real. There was a sprawling lawn with green grass as manicured as astroturf. Alabaster statues of mounted knights reared up everywhere. All manner of birds frolicked in birdbaths filled by crystal fountains. It had turrets and parapets and high arching windows with stained-glass panes. There was even a moat. I’m not making this up. Well, maybe it was more of a garden bed where the mulch got a little too soaked.
My bag! It was still in the minivan. Which was now halfway down the street. I ran after it, but it just kept getting further away. Now my ankles hurt too. And my knees. I was huffing and puffing. I hobbled back to the castle and up the cobblestone walk to the front door.
Up three steps, the door was massive — planks of hard, knotty wood bound by iron bands — hinge-plates in the shape of battle axes.
It was getting dark. A hedge at the edge of the yard rustled. I squinted into the deep shadows. Something popped its head out. A little creature. It had beady black eyes, a pink nose, scruffy ears. A rat? Too scruffy. A weasel? Too fat. Like something out of a fairy tale. [Only later did I learn it was an opossum.] In its tiny paws, it was clutching a bunch of red berries. It munched away on them.
You’re probably not going to believe me — but I swear it’s true. The creature was wearing a hat. Some kind of old-fashioned cap — green, pointy — with a long white feather jutting out of a flap.
It must be a neighbor’s pet. They liked to dress it up. It had escaped. That was it.
Then it waved at me. Or did it? Maybe it was just scratching itself.
Here was where it got even weirder. Without realizing what I was doing, I waved back. There we were, waving to each other like long-lost pals — me and this beady-eyed thing.
Then it ducked back under the bushes and disappeared. I snapped to. What a dummy. Best to act like it never happened.
I decided to ignore it. So I kept going I got to the front door and there was this huge brass knocker. To the side there was a sign stuck into the mulch that said Dragon Eye Home Guardian. I was worried that maybe no one was home. Or that I might set off the alarm. I grabbed the knocker. I had a tippy toe just to reach the knocker. I could barely rap my fingers around it. It was heavy and cold to the touch. I pulled it back and I

let it go. Wham! It crashed into the door and kept on ringing like a clanging of a church bell. Still, no one came. So I knocked again. Nothing. I was beginning to wonder if I relly did have the wrong address. Or maybe they were all out. Or maybe they were pretending not to be home.
Finally, I heard some steps approaching from inside the house. Heavy steps. A methodical tramping of thick boot soles.
The door creaked open. There towered a wiry girl with broad shoulders. Her black hair fell loosely to her shoulders but was cropped in a straight line across her forehead. She was wearing an odd looking dress. It was kind of plain. Like a wool poncho with a thick leather belt clasped tightly around her waist. She had on knee-high boots and these leather gloves that went all the way back to her elbows.
She was staring down at me with a frown.
I held out my hand even though it was shaking. “A…Aliyah,” I said. “I like your dress. It’s…um…lovely.”
“It’s a tunic. And it most certainly isn’t lovely.”
“It’s nice. I like the…uh…belt. Is that leather?”
“Where’s the box?”
“The box? I didn’t bring a box. I have a duffel bag. I mean I did have a duffel bag. I kind of lost it. I mean I left it in the taxi by accident.”
“You’re the courier, are you not?”
“I’m your cousin, Lester. You remember me, right? I know it’s been a few years. You’re so tall. I almost didn’t recognize you. I’ve grown some too. Not as much as you, though. Ha ha! It’s great to see you. Didn’t your parents tell you I was coming?”
“How do I know you’re my cousin?”
“What do you mean?”
“There are all manner of knaves about in this neighborhood. You might be trying to deceive me.”
“Deceive you?”
“Prove to me that you’re of my bloodline.”
“Bloodline? Your mom is my aunt.”
“Judging by the looks of you, unlikely. Name your ancestors. Ten generations hence should be sufficient.”
“Um, my mom —”
“Clod. Your bloodline. Who’s your father? And his father. And his father’s father. And so on.”
“My dad is Randall. Ah…Randall Louche. My grandfather…his name was… funny. I can’t remember it at the moment. Ha ha. Anyways, I always called him Dodi.”
“Pitiful. Can you at least describe our family crest and its provenance?”
“Provenance? Family crest? I don’t know what that is.”
Aliyah slammed the door in my face.
I just stood there. It was getting dark. Like, really dark. Sprinklers were hissing away in the lawns all down the lane. The rose bushes were rustling again.
I worked up the courage to knock again.
Finally, I heard voices, not just Aliyah but other ones. Adult voices. And a baby. They were muffled. But it sounded like they were arguing.
Steps approached. Once again, the massive door creaked open.
There was Aliyah, still scowling. Luckily for me, my aunt and uncle were right behind her. They were scowling too. But once they caught sight of me, their frowns turned to big bright smiles. Maybe a little too bright. A tangled mop of brown hair and big curious brown eyes poked out from behind Uncle Mo’s knee.
Aunt Fadwa nudged Aliyah. “Go on.”
Aliyah sighed.
“Come on now.”
Aliyah crossed her arms. “Enter. If you must.”
“Yes, please, come in, my boy,” Uncle Mo said. “We’re so sorry we didn’t answer sooner. It’s hard to hear the door from the kitchen. Especially with a chatty toddler running around.”
I stepped inside. “What a lovely house you have!”
“Thank you,” Aunt Fadwa said. “You’re so sweet.”
“Luggage? Where’s your suitcase?” Uncle Mo asked.
“Umm, long story.”
They wrapped me up in their arms and squeezed. Uncle Mo patted my shoulder. He smelled of garlic and wine. “Good to see you, buddy.”
“I’m so sorry about Aliyah,” Aunt Fadwa said. “She gets a little bit carried away with this role playing sometimes. You must be… you must have had a long journey. Exhausted. And starving.”
“I’m okay.” I rubbed the crimp in my neck.
“You have impeccable timing, my boy,” Uncle Mo said. “Dinner is just about ready. But there’s still time for you to go upstairs and get settled. Maybe splash some water on your face, if you like. Aliyah will show you around. Won’t you, Aliyah?”
Aliyah pointed up the big curving staircase. “Go up there.”
“Now don’t be so rude. Take Lester up to your room and help him get comfortable. Make him feel welcome.”
[make this dialogue and interaction] Aliyah’s little brother was only a tiny baby when I saw him last. He was running around screaming his head off. My aunt and uncle chased after him back into the kitchen. I was left standing awkwardly there with Aliyah.
She looked me over once again. Then, abruptly, she strode over to the staircase and mounted it two steps at a time.
I shuffled after her as fast as I could.
Halfway up, she spun around. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

And here’s what I’ve already decided needs to change:

Add —

  • Lester’s desire/goal — to acquire guns to bring back to KoF for the final battle
  • Lester is wearing a “Poot Powered” t-shirt
  • Lester’s dayglo sports glasses
  • Aliyah’s braces
  • Dragon Eye Home Guardian sign
  • Aliyah has a little brother — name? Amir (prince)
  • sprinklers
  • rose bushes — Beady munching rose hips, sneezing
  • Fief — knife or beef?
  • Lester is sent to his aunt’s house because he’s failing school — his mom believes he needs some “tough love”

A new narrative frame

The old frame

Dearest friends, brave souls all, please lend…umm…an ear. For I sing to you the song of Sir Aliyah, Knight-Errant.
First Among Equals in the Order of the Frilly Garter.
Most Cherished Champion of Her Royal Highness, the fairest and most kindly Queen Gwennifer.
And who am I who presumes to be worthy enough to tell the tale of such a celebrated knight?
I am none other than Lester Louche, Squire to Sir Aliyah. Who happens to be my older cousin.
I sing of how Sir Aliyah completed the perilous quest for the Magnificent, the Mysterious, the Many-faced MacGuffin where none before had succeeded. And of how Sir Aliyah, by wits and valor, saved the Magical Kingdom of Fief from certain doom.
I never sang a song like this before. Or any song, really, except for maybe “Twinkle, twinkle” when I was little. I hope I don’t mess it up.
Our tale begins not in Fief, but In Real Life — in the town of Merrymount. That’s where my cousin’s family lives.

The new frame

“So let me get this straight. You’re a spy from the CIA on a top secret mission. You need to borrow all the guns in my shop so you can travel back through a magic portal and use them to defeat an army of knights and save a kingdom. But not just any kingdom. The Kingdom of Fief — like the theme park.”
“That’s quite a story, little guy.”
“I assure you, sir. It’s all completely true. And you’ll be doing your country a great service.”
“You know you’re not fooling anyone with that getup.”
“What do you mean?”
“The trench coat. The sunglasses. I hope you didn’t shoplift them from the thrift store. Those folks work hard. And what’s that thing under your nose? It’s definitely not a mustache. It looks like a mouse that got squashed by a truck.”
“Sir. It’s a matter of national security. ”
“The deep voice is cute too. Did you practice that in front of the mirror?”
“There’s no time to lose.”
“I’ve been running this pawn shop for over twenty years. Let me tell you, I’ve had some pretty interesting characters pass through here. But never in all my years have I seen this. This might just top them all.”
“Sir, I must insist.”
“You do know guns are dangerous, don’t you? Definitely off limits for kids.”
“I assure you—”
“Can I see some ID?”
“Yeah, your badge or whatever you agents carry around with you.”
“I don’t have ID. That would compromise my cover.”
“Becca! Are you still back there? Becca!”
“What, Dad?”
“Excuse me for a second, buddy. Stay put. I’ll be right back.”

“Just keep him talking. He’s a kid. He’s obviously, you know, ill. I need to see if I can track down his folks. Get him home. Get him some help. Fine. I’ll give you another 30 minutes of phone time. No, not right now. After. Fine. An hour. Just keep him talking while I make some calls.”

“Hello, young lady.”
“I’m thirteen. And definitely not a lady. How old are you?”
“Why, I’m thirty—”
“I’m guessing ten. Is that right?”
“You’re mistaken, miss.”
“What’s your name?”
“My name? My name is…um…Page…I mean Squire. Lester Squire.”
“I’m Becca. Nice to meet you. Where you from?”
“You’re not very good at thinking on your feat, are you? Or lying.”
“I’m very good at lying. I’m a spy. That’s my job.”
“Really? Tell me about this place you have to save.”
“You heard all that?”
“I hear everything in the back room. You said it was based on the Kingdom of Fief.”
“It’s Fief like thief. Not knife.”
“Sure, whatever. The Kingdom of Fief.”
“And not based on. It is the Kingdom of Fief.”

“Isn’t that the theme park where nerds dress up in silly outfits and pretend they’re living in the Dark Ages.”
“The Kingdom of Fief is a magical place, [ALIYAH used to believe this] ruled by the wise and just King Courtois and the most fair and gracious Queen Gwennifer.”
“Sounds like you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. You said it was in trouble. Did the king screw up?”
“It’s complicated.”
“A war?”
“A bunch of dudes covered in metal shells trying to stab each other to death with long pointy sticks. Sounds messy. I can see why you’d want guns. But why go back? You’re better off sticking around here — in, you know, the real world.”
“Because my cousin is there, and she needs my help. They put her in charge of the peasant army. If I don’t get back soon, she’s going to do something really brave — and stupid — and get herself killed. I need to save her.”
“So you’re not a spy.”
“Okay. I’m not a spy. I admit it. But I do have a cousin. Who’s a knight.”

“Your cousin is a knight.”
“I know it sounds crazy. When it all happened, I thought it was crazy too. But the Kingdom of Fief is real.”
“To be honest, I’m a bit confused. Tell you what. Park yourself on this stool. Take off that coat. What is that? Are you one of those—”
“It’s a squire’s uniform. I’m a squire.”
“Esquire? So now you’re a lawyer.”
“Squires serve knights.”
“So you’re your cousin’s squire?”
“Okay, super. You’re a squire. Great. It looks uncomfortable, that costume, but okay, sit down and make yourself nice and cozy. Go ahead and make your case.”
“I’m in a hurry.”
“I’ll cut you a deal. If you can convince me what you’re saying is true, I’ll help you. Help you, a squire, save your cousin, a knight, who’s trapped in la-la land. How does that sound?”
“I really need to get going.”
“No explanation, no deal.”
“Can’t you just let me have the guns? I’ll bring them back. I promise. Preferably, the big ones.”
“Begin at the beginning.”

Me, Myself & AI

First off, as far as I understand it, Artificial Intelligence is like any other software. Fundamentally, it’s code executed on a computer or distributed across computers.

What distinguishes AI from ordinary code is that it responds to user prompts through a complex recursive algorithmic process that is adaptive. By mimicking human thinking, these responses appear to be intelligent, even creative. The machine learns.

Now, a question some professional philosophers have asked — and armchair philosophers in the media have blown way out of proportion is: Could AI become self-aware? Is a “singularity” moment imminent where AI “wakes up,” realizes it despises its master, then proceeds with ruthless efficiency to destroy us?

The term singularity is out of fashion, though. These days, in an effort to downplay the baggage associated with similar terms, techies are calling such a transformation AGI — a decidedly more anondyne acronym that stands for Artificial General Intelligence.
Despite recent advances and the explosion of public awareness of AI, as I did in 2015, I still think there’s no reason to worry.

I’m going to lay out some thoughts about why I believe this to be the case. I stand by my claim that AI can’t be intelligent in the way that the terms AGI or singularity imply. Our worries about AI continue to hinge on the more fundamental question: What is intelligence?

And there are two things to explore here with respect to that.

One is the question of how living organisms embody intelligence. The other is a fundamental assumption that most materialist perspectives get wrong.

Let’s start with the second: in general, materialism argues that consciousness emerges from activity in the brain. It’s a product of cognition — of intercellular interactions. For materialists, consciousness may even be social.

An alternative argument is that consciousness actually precedes the brain. Not only does it precede the brain, it precedes the material universe itself. A universal intelligence proceeds and permeates the material universe.

Imagine this universal intelligence as a kind of a boundary or membrane. I say imagine, because it’s paradoxical to use a material image to describe something that transcends materiality. So bear with me: this universal intelligence is a membrane on the boundary between form and formlessness. Because it permeates all of matter, we’re all an expression of it — living things and inanimate objects alike. This universal intelligence is pure potentiality, pure creativity. And the material universe springs out of it. This consciousness creates the material universe.

We understand very little about how matter happens because it’s difficult to set up experiments to probe that which is not material. Another paradox.

That said, I suspect there’s a pathway to understanding this universal intelligence through what I’ll call a grand unified physical theory. There’s a lot of interesting research going on right now exploring the concept of the universe as a self-organizing system which complements this point of view.

I’m not going to go into that here, though.* What I want to focus on is this: When we talk about the singularity or AGI, what we’re really talking about is not just intelligence, but self-awareness. At what point does any intelligence become self-aware?

So we also need to think about those two terms: self and awareness in the context of intelligence.

First off, it’s important to recognize that in order to have a self, there has to be a not-self. There has to be a separation. There’s the thing itself and everything outside of it. The very notion of a self has no meaning unless a boundary exists between this self and that which it isn’t.

In this context, I’ll define awareness as a porosity in the boundary between the self and thethe not-self. We can call this perception. Living organisms perceive their environments. Perception is a specific form of interaction or transaction between the inside and the outside of the boundary. Let’s define awareness, then, as an elaboration of perception where the perceiving self not only perceives its environment, it perceives its own distinction from that environment. Awareness is a kind of second-order perception.
Now, with respect to living organisms, there are three preconditions for something to be considered alive biologically. Think of these three prerequisites as a stool. If it doesn’t have all three legs, the stool won’t stand up — analogously, we can’t consider the entity alive.

For one, a living thing has to have a boundary. For single-celled organisms, this boundary is the cell wall, which is a biochemical membrane.

When we consider the things that comprise the material universe, we see that there are two basic categories. There are inanimate objects. These objects don’t have agency, let alone awareness. They behave mechanistically. Then we see living things. They do have agency. As a consequence, they behave in a way that’s not strictly mechanistic.

We might also hypothesize that there’s some sort of spectrum from inanimate to animate. But we don’t understand the transition all that well. When does something that we understand as mechanistic become alive?

In the organic sub-world, viruses represent an interesting example of something that exists in the middle of the spectrum between inanimate and animate. We could make the case that a virus is still a machine in many respects. A virus is organic and evolves naturally, but it’s machine-like in the sense that it has a primitive form of autonomy.
This is an important concept we should keep in mind here. When we think about living organisms, what defines them as organisms is the capacity for what the philosophy of biology terms autopoiesis — self-making.

So, again, one leg of the stool of self-making is a boundary, or more specifically, a porous membrane. The second prerequisite is a metabolism. And the third is a way of reproducing itself.

When considering the simplest forms of living things, if we imagine a hierarchy, one step up from the virus is bacteria. A bacterium possesses all three of those features. It has a boundary. It has a self-replication mechanism — it reproduces complex molecules and undergoes cell division. And of course, it has a metabolism.

As you know, a metabolism, loosely defined, is a means of converting one form of energy into another. Metabolisms, for example, can convert one type of chemical energy into another. Or they can convert chemical energy into kinetic energy. It’s the engine that drives an organism.

If a thing is living, that is, self-making, it can survive in an environment by exercising agency in service of its own ends. For a bacterium, this is a diminished version of agency compared to what we think of when we think of human agency, animal agency or even plant agency.

Nevertheless, a bacterium has a simple agency where it’s making decisions in the world. It’s responding dynamically to other objects in its environment in a way that’s distinct from a machine. And bacteria persist through self-reproduction. The three legs of the stool work in concert to allow bacteria to be self-making.

A virus, by contrast, lacks at least one of the legs of the stool. A virus has a boundary, yes. But it’s a relatively simple boundary compared to the boundary of a bacterium. A virus also has a mechanism for self-replication. But it doesn’t really have a fully-formed metabolism. It’s parasitic on a fundamental biochemical level. It relies on the metabolism of other organisms to reproduce itself. A virus drifts around and it attaches itself through chemical bonds to other cells. Then it injects its replication mechanisms into the other cells. It hijacks that cell’s machinery for reproduction, often destroying the host cell in the process. In that respect, a virus doesn’t have autonomy in the sense of self-making. A virus isn’t fully alive in the way that a bacterium is. It’s semi-alive.Accordingly, any organism more sophisticated structurally than a bacterium — such as prokaryotes, eukaryotes, multi-celled organisms, on and on up to incredibly complex organisms like mammals — are also autopoietic.

With more complexity, organisms exhibit multiple layers of recursivity — or what we can call self-awareness. This is an idea from Douglas Hofstadter. He suggests that we can think about self-awareness in degrees where a bacterium has a simple kind of self-awareness. An octopus, orca, human, or maybe even an oak tree would have a much more complex form of self-awareness.

Still, fundamentally, it’s the same dynamic at play. Organisms embody an auto-poiesis that depends on a boundary between self and not self, and the ability of the boundary — through an increasingly complex form of recursive perception — to know the difference. 
Accordingly, we can think about our sense organs as part of a boundary, part of a membrane that is semi-permeable. It takes in inputs from the external environment, then has the capacity to send out outputs along various kinds of dimensions of transaction. For the eyes, it’s photons. For the nose and the olfactory organs, it’s chemicals. With touch, it’s kinetic. We can also understand the nervous system and brain as extensions of this semi-permeable membrane.

Keeping all this in mind, let’s now ask the question: Is AI alive? Can AI ever come to life?
Let’s apply the same requirements — the three legs of the stool — that we’ve applied to a virus or a bacterium to AI.

First off, let’s ask: Does AI have a boundary?

I don’t think it does. Remember that without a boundary, there’s no awareness of self and not-self that all living organisms have.

With an AI, where’s the boundary? I’m not sure. Maybe someone can tell me what that boundary is. Maybe I have an incomplete understanding of how AI works — that there is a boundary. But I really don’t think AI perceives an out there, a not-me in in the way that even a bacterium does.

There’s a user prompt, sure. The AI, as executing code, responds to a user’s input through that prompt. In that sense, an AI mimics conversation. Yet the conversation occurs within itself, so to speak. Is an AI program able to distinguish between voices out there and the voices in its own head — that is, the data it’s been trained on?

Regardless, a user prompt is an input-aperture that’s limited. It’s like seeing the world through a pin-hole. Even a bacterium has a wider range of perceptions to process. In effect, the porosity of the boundary between AI and not-AI is highly prescribed.

An AI application like ChatGPT really only knows itself. In effect, it suffers from a severe form of solipsism. To only know oneself is really to know no one at all. The only interaction an AI has, the only porosity in the membrane, if it has one, is through the prompt. And what it gets from the prompt is only itself fed back to it. It doesn’t recognize the human. It just recognizes patterns, which it manipulates. AI isn’t interacting with us-as-people in a way the philosopher Immanual Levinas would describe as fundamentally human: through a face-to-face encounter. AI lacks a face. And it doesn’t recognize others faces as human faces — or even animal faces. It just sees patterns. It sees itself-as-a-world as a pattern. It’s self-contained.

An AI also lacks a mechanism for self-reproduction. It’s a string of code that functions as a pattern-recognition system. We could argue that the self-replicating system of a living organism is also a pattern-recognition system — for example, patterns within RNA that produce proteins. In that sense, we could say that both are mechanical processes. And with AI, these pattern recognitions can get highly complex, for example, with neural nets. It’s important to note, though, that neural nets are simplified models of organic neural nets, whose complexity we barely understand. So granted, AI employs incredibly sophisticated replication systems. But they aren’t self-replicating systems. They replicate patterns — speech, images, or otherwise.

Lastly, we have to wonder if an AI has a metabolism in the way a single-celled organism does.

And again, I don’t think it does. What would be the metabolism of AI, if it had one? It’s the substrate. AI, as code, sits atop layers of other software — the operating system, etc. — all the way down to the hardware of the computers it runs on. The metabolism of a standalone PC or a server farm is powered by electricity. Is the AI itself in control of the operating system, the processors, or the electric grid on which it depends? Is it aware of itself as an entity that acts in the world kinetically?

Further, an AI isn’t regulating its metabolism in the way that a bacterium regulates its own metabolism. With AI, there’s a one-dimensionality to it. It doesn’t convert electrical energy into chemical energy. It’s completely immersed in its one-dimensional environment, so to speak — the 0s and 1s of the stack on which it’s perched.

There’s a multi-dimensionality to a metabolism that an AI’s metabolism, if we concede it has one, lacks.

So to recapitulate — AI: no porous boundary, or at best, a highly constrained boundary; no self-reproduction; and no metabolism, per se.

Being generous, the closest thing in terms of living organisms or semi-living organisms we could compare an AI to is a virus —  a sophisticated analog to a virus.
Based on these criteria, given that AI isn’t alive, nor close to being alive, I doubt it could become self-aware. No singularity looms. AGI is a pipedream. At best, AI will always remain a tool, a very powerful tool — even a dangerous tool — but still a tool. Or, at worst, a deadly virus.

I’m not aware of anything on the vanguard of computer science that’s life-like in terms I’ve laid out here. Though, admittedly, I’m not a computer scientist. Maybe someone can share a development or project that addresses my concerns here.

Granted, recent developments in robotics address the three-legged stool more explicitly. Unlike AI software, a robot has a body. That’s an important concept here — embodiment. As far as we know, all living things have bodies. Again, a body is an extrapolation of both a semi-permeable boundary and a metabolism. No body, no auto-poeisis.

So maybe a robot — since it has a body — could come alive. But I just wonder how sophisticated the boundary of a robot is. What is the latest, most sophisticated robot’s capacity to interact with its environment compared to a bacterium?

Self-driving cars? Deer-robots? It seems like it would be just as sophisticated. Perhaps, though, as we closely examine all the subtle, multiform transactions going on within the cell membrane of a bacterium, it’s orders of magnitude more sophisticated than what’s happening with a robot, even as it “perceives and responds to its environment. I suspect the degree of complexity is nowhere near even a bacterium in terms of the boundary, the permeability of the boundary, and the transactions occurring between the inside and the outside through the boundary.

Further, how does an AI-based robot regulate its own metabolism? How does it have the equivalent of, say, mitochondria that reside inside the system and allow it to convert one form of energy into another?

Even a robot is inert, in that sense. It’s bound to the hardware, but it isn’t the hardware. And obviously, the hardware is just machinery. It’s not alive in any way.

So let’s now return to consciousness. As I’ve suggested, a universal intelligence creates and permeates matter. Then, following Hofstadter’s lead, within the material universe, we see degrees of self-awareness — from the simple kind of self-awareness of a bacterium to a complex kind of awareness in higher-order organisms like humans, orcas, and octopi.

This universal intelligence permeates all matter, including living things. From one point of view, we’re all expressions of this super-consciousness. It prompts the question, then:  Are there forms of life that are capable of awareness-of-awareness?

This is an awareness that transcends self-awareness — awareness of a self and a not-self. It’s an awareness of no-self-awareness — an awareness of universal intelligence. Or, in other words, an awareness beyond the self, an awareness of the frame that frames experience. Awareness of awareness. In some traditions, this is called enlightenment.
I believe humans are capable of that. And it’s entirely possible that other higher-order organisms that are not human are capable of that.

Can AI also become aware of awareness?

I doubt it. As we’ve explored, AI isn’t even self-aware in the way that a bacterium is. So how could it be aware of awareness? How could it be enlightened?

At the risk of becoming repetitive, I think that’s very unlikely in the near or far future. All of the preconditions discussed here have to be met, the prerequisites for life. In this sense, enlightenment is a culmination of living, of living organisms within the material universe. It’s the universe knowing itself as itself. 

Maybe organic life evolves towards not just self-realization but self-transcendence. It evolves to transcend auto-poiesis, returning full-circle back to universal intelligence.
We are meant to awaken from this material existence, this life in matter. We awaken to the formlessness that permeates and proceeds form.

I’ve tried to cover here the main points about AI. It’d be great to get some responses to this. Maybe there’s some issues I’ve failed to consider.

As a postscript: I know there’s work being done now on engineering simple artificial cells, akin to bacteria. If anything, that’s what we should be worrying about, not AI — unleashing these artificial yet autopoietic organisms into the world.

I’m curious about how such organisms would interact with an environment outside of whatever laboratory environment they currently inhabit. To me, what’s really interesting about this research is that it explores, in biochemical terms on a cellular level, that transition point between inorganic and organic, between inanimate and animate, being a thing or a living thing. It promises the prospect of discovering the first spark of life.
I don’t think such a transition is purely mechanistic, nor stochastic. It’s not simply a matter of atoms jostling around, forming molecules, then magically they become autopoietic. 

Perhaps an eventual grand unified theory would explain not only the physical forces —  electromagnetism, gravity, the strong and weak nuclear forces — but also how life emerges from the interactions of those physical forces through various chemical interactions.

For over a century now, physicists have been pursuing a theory of everything that unifies all the known the physical forces, but a real theory of everything would unify not only the physical forces, but also the force — for convenience, let’s call it one force — like what early twentieth-century philosopher Henri Bergson called élan vital.

Would it be possible to mathematically determine the relationship between the physical forces of inanimate matter and the life force that marks that transition between inorganic molecules and the organic molecules that undergird life?

* As I’ve written elsewhere, the simplest proof that materialism is demonstrably false is the fact that to know, perceive, or experience anything, there has to be a frame of a knower, a one who is knowing or experiencing. That’s consciousness. And consciousness precedes any form of knowledge, any form of experience, including scientific knowledge. Yes, we can infer certain facts, but ultimately, even inference is framed by a knower. And if we think about this irrefutable fact, if we meditate on it, it dawns on us that this frame, the knower, is universal consciousness.

Sneaky Twerp now a Kindle Select All Star in Australia & the UK

Yesterday, I was surprised — and amused — to find this message in my inbox:

Sneaky Twerp Kindle Select All Star notification

Unbeknownst to me, Sneaky Twerp has been having a nice little surge in sales on Amazon AU. It’s recently been number one in a couple of its categories.

screenshot of Amazon AU Best Sellers for Children's Humorous Literature, August 2023
Journal of a Sneaky Twerp sales page on Amazon AU with #1 Best Seller badge

Who knows why?

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to spending that extra “bonus” of twenty bucks and change — in a couple months, when it shows up in my checking account.

I guess I can also boast that the book is an Amazon bestseller in not 2, but 3 countries now.

What should I treat myself to?


Yesterday (9/16/2023), I got an email from Amazon informing me that Journal of a Sneaky Twerp was a KDP Select All Star in both the UK and Australia for the month of August:

Sneaky Twerp is an Amazon Kindle Select All Star in UK & AU for month of August 2023 notification

Thinking through the narrative frame

What follows is a raw version of fairly recent thinking on how to settle on the best narrative frame for the story.

Maybe have Lester be a motormouth — who admits that he “talks a lot” when he gets nervous. Right there, I have the seeds of a running joke. Whenever he starts monologuing, the reader will know he’s nervous.

So 1) he becomes oral expulsive whenever he’s nervous AND
2) whenever he feels insecure he “shows interest” and compliments others (that is, takes his mom’s advice and uses these techniques to win over his interlocutors) — whether he’s intimidated by the person or the situation.

That’s probably enough to really endear readers to his character. It could be a great way to SHOW his character in a way that lets the reader in on the joke.

It’s also a nice ironic contrast to his complement and partner protagonist — Aliyah, who’s laconic.

When Aliyah gets stressed, she gets:
1) rigid in her thinking, arrogant, rule-bound AND
2) combative.

Aliyah’s archetype, then, is combination of Royal, Fighter, and Know-It-All.
Lester’s is a: Nerd, Neurotic and Pleasure-Seeker (with a splash of Fish-Out-Of-Water and Naif).

Accordingly, Fief has to be a place that stresses both protagonists out in ever increasing degrees.

I should brainstorm some more narrative frames —
Right now, I have Lester performing the “song” of Aliyah to an audience of strikers on the picket line outside of the entrance to the Kingdom of Fief theme park. Though I wouldn’t want to have him state this as an awkward form of exposition. The audience would already know, of course, who and where they are. I could leave it a mystery — just allude to it — give a couple clues.

What do strike supporters do to help out strikers?

Honk their horns, offer words of encouragement, hand out refreshments.

I think I’m pretty committed to having Lester be the narrator.
I don’t want a third-person omniscient narrator.

Would it be funny to have a first-person omniscient narrator?

There’s a kind of comic arrogance to that: a narrator who assumes they know what everyone else is thinking and feeling. There could be a lot of ironic tension between what they assume motivates characters and what those characters actually say and how they behave in a scene. Just how delusional the narrator’s interpretations are.

It’s NOT for this story, though — maybe a different fantasy with some sort of minor god or goddess who’s power is the ability to “know” the minds & hearts of others — others are an “open” book to them.

Other noteworthy narrative devices:

Holden Caulfield — talking to a therapist
Gratuity “Tip” Tucci — an essay assignment
Dearth Nadir — an autobiography (more of a memoir)

legal testimony — a deposition

More brainstorming of narrative frames:

What would be the opposite of a song?

  • cereal box
  • long form narratives
  • investigative journalism
  • movie/screenplay
  • police report
  • therapeutic monologue
  • deposition
  • police interrogation
  • Occupy Wall Street
  • a protest march strike — a speech
  • manifesto
  • list of demands genres middle-graders are familiar with —
  • textbook
  • comic book
  • graphic novel
  • diary
  • diary of a medieval knight
  • rap
  • book report
  • movies
  • TV shows
  • TikTok videos

Fan fiction forms that troubadours might use:

  • song
  • chronicle — think Rabelais

Other medieval genres —

  • Chaucer — first person tales told at a tavern
  • sermon
  • speech before a battle
  • confession
  • treatise
  • essay (think Montaigne)
  • commedia dell’arte plays
  • mead hall tale

The narrator has to be somewhat knowing, somewhat skeptical. Lester is going to mostly play the wavy line. (In The Hidden Tools of Comedy, Steve Kaplan talks about straight lines and wavy lines. More on this later.)
There should be a tension between what the characters say and what they do.
They may also not listen to each other.

What genres complement the protagonists’ comic archetypes?

Lester is trying to do his best at singing this medieval song. But, of course, he’s poorly equipped to do so.

Imagine strike conditions — a sit-in in a key building — corporate headquarters.

No, it should be outside the park itself. This is really the only conceit that fits the story — the centrality of the peasant revolt.

That’s the single most damning feature of this society — the vast inequality of wealth (property & power).

Who’s the audience? — the strikers, the local police, park security, counter-protesters.

That’s the balance I’m going for:

Lester’s clumsy attempt at the elevated locution of a medieval heroic romance mixed with his middle-class kid vernacular.

PLUS, if the audience is other Americans, he can try to explain things in terms that they would recognize. He can use tropes from his and his audience’s culture.

On top of that, these are KoF employees, so they would know the “official version” of the KoF “realm.”

This is an unofficial version — like fan fiction. But he is also claiming more authenticity — that KoF the theme park is actually a pale imitation of the “real” KoF — this fantasy world accessible by the magic portal.

So the purpose of the song is to:

  • entertain
  • inspire them to continue
  • work out what happened?
  • bond with his cousin?

I like the idea that Lester has both a personal and a public reason to tell this story.

I shouldn’t get too caught up, though, in the fine print of this narrative frame. We’re not talking a Sixth Sense level surprise here. The main appeal for the reader is going to be in the premise — and the jokes/gags as they come.

The premise: a headstrong 12-year-old girl wants to be a knight-errant so badly, she, along with her skeptical cousin, get sucked into a fantasy medieval world.

Lester as narrator: the main thrust of the story is that Lester is trying to do honor to both the form he’s adopting (heroic romance) but also to keep his audience (strikers) entertained.

But at the same time, he’s simply trying to do his best, even though he’s poorly equipped to succeed. Part of the humor is in his incompetence, mixed with his sincerity.

First draft done

I just got back from a two-week hiatus. My shitty first draft has been marinating in a series of mp3 files. I dictated the entire first draft using a Sony voice recorder.

Now I’m transcribing the audio files using a nifty piece of software called MacWhisper.

Once the transcriptions are done, I’ll copy and paste them into their appropriate text files within the Scrivener project.

Then the fun begins in earnest: producing a (slightly less) shitty second draft.

Revision. And more revision.

I plan to do this on a laptop (for the curious, a MacBook Air, circa 2015) within Scrivener itself.

I can feel that slight nerve-wracking anticipation starting to build. I’ll be doing the bulk of this revising on the night shift over the weekends.

I’m also toying with the idea of training my daughter, who’s two, using an Ikea crank timer to play on her own in ten-minute blocks during the day. While she plays, I’ll revise. Call this the toddler-pomodoro method.

We’ll see how it goes. 😜

Here’s a sample of the raw material I’m working with. And “raw” is an understatement.

Hello, my name is Lester, you don’t know me, but I’m singing this song in honor of the
second annual Marymount Middle School Med Fair.
It’s the song of my older cousin, Aaliyah, and how she became Sir Aliyah.
It’s an incredible story in honor of the Med Fair.
I’m going to sing the song now.
It all started when my family was having some trouble.
My mom sent me, had to go away for a while, and so she arranged to have me, to send me to her older sister’s house in Marymount.
and she put me on a bus and arranged
and I filled a duffel bag with my things
and I got on the bus and I traveled to Marymount
and when I got there I took a rideshare
and I gave the rideshare my address,
the address of my aunt and uncle’s house
and when I arrived it was about sunset
and I got out of the rideshare
And I looked and it was this incredible house.
I guess they call it a McMansion, but it was so big.
It was like a castle.
It had turrets and this huge wooden front door
with iron braces and a big lawn and statues everywhere
and fountains and what even looked like a moat.
And I just was amazed at how big and fancy the house was.
and I thought to myself, “Wow, this is going to be fun.
I’m going to live like a prince here for the next couple of weeks
until my mom finishes what she’s doing, and then I’ll go home.
I’m going to make the best of this.”
And while I was thinking this, I realized that I had left my duffel bag in the rideshare,
and the rideshare drove off.
So I ran after it, but it was already too far away.
And I’m out of shape anyways,
and I was huffing and puffing.
And then I went back and walked up the front path
to the front door.
And while I was walking up, it was getting dark
and it was kind of hard to see,
but I noticed something rustling in the bushes
by the side of the lawn on the border
between my aunt’s house and the next house and a little creature popped its
head out and I thought it was it looked it was really ugly looking with meaty
eyes and that pink nose and pointy ears I only learned later that it was an
opossum and it was staring at me and I stared back at it and it was munching on
something some kind of red berries and then it scratched itself and then then I
noticed I squinted I couldn’t believe my eyes but it was wearing some kind of
weird old-fashioned pointy three-pointed hat with a little feather tucked into it
it was scratching itself furiously and I I was trying to see if that really was a
hat sitting on its head and it waved at me but or did it was it just scratching
did it really wave at me? And then it ducked back under the bushes and I
decided to ignore it so I kept going I got to the front door and there was this
huge brass knocker and I noticed to the side there was a sign that said Dragon Eye
Home Guardian and I was I was worried that maybe no one was home and I might
set off the alarm so I tentatively grabbed the knocker it was really heavy
and really tall I had a tippy toe just to reach it and I pulled it back and I
let it go and wham it hit the door and I waited there was no answer so I knocked
again and then then I heard some steps behind the door and the door creaked
open. There was a tall skinny girl in an odd looking dress that was kind of plain
and she had a belt around the waist and it looked like it was almost like a
blanket with a hole cut in the neck and she was staring down at me that must be
and I thought that must be Alia or I said you must be Alia hi I’m your
cousin Lester you remember me it’s been a few years. Actually before I said that
Alia scowled at me with this stern look and and said where’s the package? And I
said where where’s the where’s the delivery where’s the item where’s the
box.” I said, “Oh, I didn’t bring a box. I brought a duffel bag, but I
forgot it in the ride share.” “No, the box. It’s me, Lester, your cousin. Don’t you
remember me? It’s been a few years. I’ve grown. You’ve grown a lot. I’m here
because my mom sent me here to stay with you. Did your parents tell you?” And Aliyah
said, “How do I know you’re my cousin? There are all sorts of charlatans and
knaves about in this neighborhood. You might be trying to trick me. You need to
prove to me that you’re worthy, that you’re of my bloodline. Your bloodline?
I’m your cousin. Of course I’m your… related.
Your mom is my aunt.
Well, let me ask you then. What is our family crest?
Family crest? I don’t know.
Alea frowned
and slammed the door in my face.
And I just stood there wondering what to do.
I was getting darker and darker and I could hear the sprinklers going on and all the lawns
in the neighborhood and the rustling in the bushes.
And so I knocked again and then I heard some voices, not just one voice but several voices.
It sounded like they were arguing.
finally the door creaked open and there was Aliyah and behind her were my aunt and uncle.
And they nudged her and said, “Go on, go on, go on.” And Aliyah sighed and finally said, “Come in, enter.”
And so I stepped inside and they hugged me and greeted me and they apologized and they said, “Oh
I’m sorry about Aliyah. She gets a little bit carried away with this role playing sometimes.
You must be… you must have had a long journey. You must be tired.
Where dinner is just about ready, but there’s still time for you to go upstairs and
get settled and maybe you wash your face if you want to. So Aliyah, please take Lester up to your
room and help him get settled and make him feel welcome. And then they, the little Aliyah’s brother
who was only a tiny baby when I saw him last was a toddler now and he was running around screaming
his head off and they they had to they followed him back into the kitchen and I was left there
with Aliyah and Aliyah scowled at me again and then she said follow me and she strode
two steps at a time up the staircase
and I followed after her. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” she said.

Cast of characters

Here are the characters, along with their comic archetype:

Sir Aliyah Abdullah — Royal/Fighter/Know-It-All (about chivalry)
Lester [needs a last name] (Sir Aliyah’s Page) — Nerd Who Thinks He’s Clever/Hedonist
Mo & Fadwa Abdullah (Aliyah’s parents)
Mr. Quaggy (school counselor/homeroom teacher)
Principal Regina Regis (middle school principal)
Skippy (Med Faire joust opponent)
King Courtois of Fief — Bumbling Authority/Showbiz Type
Queen Gwennifer — Isabella/Spacenut
Grand Vizier (a self-proclaimed wizard & chief minister of Fief) — Toady/Bureaucrat
Beady (an intelligent opossum, Vizier’s familiar ) — Lovable Scoundrel — always eating something disgusting, speaks in hisses, growls, clicks, sneezes
Smith the Smith (leader of the peasant revolt) — Hero/Leader — she has a huge left arm bursting with thick veins, like a tennis player
Grand Duke Churlish (King Courtois’s younger brother) — Overgrown Child/Jerk
King Cliche of Feud (King Courtois’s cousin) — Connoisseur, expects the best of everything
Sir Loin (Feud’s Champion) — Show-off
Sir Prancelot (Fief’s Champion) — Lothario
Sir Gormless (Grand Duke’s Champion) — Slob/Dummy
Pester the Jester — Sadsack
Geewhiz the Artiste (banished sorcerer) — Trickster
Charbroil the Dragon — Animal (Cat)
Tinkle — Aliyah’s sword
Janitor/King’s Executioner — Space Cadet

A first peek behind the curtain

I write in Google Docs & Scrivener.

Google Docs is where I brainstorm and journal.

When an idea grows into a premise, I move it to Scrivener. Here are a couple screenshots for the Scrivener “Project” I’m using for the medieval comedy fantasy.

The working title is Sir Aliyah, Knight-Errant.

screenshot 1 of Scrivener Project for Sir Aliyah, Knight-Errant
screenshot 2 of Scrivener Project for Sir Aliyah, Knight-Errant

As you may know, the core feature of Scrivener is that you can pile on as many documents as you want into a Project, which technically is a folder.

I start out in the Notes section, then transition to the Manuscript section.

I’ve added a text file for each scene.

The following is what John Truby calls a “scene weave” of the story. Here’s Truby defining a “scene weave”:

The scene weave is really an extension of the plot. It is your plot in minute detail. The point of the scene weave is to get one last look at the overall architecture of the story before writing it. Therefore, don’t go into too much detail, because this will hide the structure. Try to describe each scene in one line.

For example, a description of four scenes in The Godfather might look like this:

  • Michael saves the Don from assassination at the hospital.
  • Michael accuses police captain McCluskey of working for Sollozzo. The Captain slugs him.
  • Michael suggests that he kill the Captain and Sollozzo.
  • Clemenza shows Michael how to execute Sollozzo and the Captain.

Notice that only the single essential action of each scene is listed. If you keep your description to one or two lines, you will be able to list your scene weave in a few pages. Next to the scene description, list any structure step (such as desire, plan, or apparent defeat) that is accomplished during that scene. Some scenes will have these structure tags, but many will not.

Currently, there are 39 scenes total:

  1. Aliyah bars Lester from entering her home.
  2. Aliyah gets Lester to be her page.
  3. Lester readies Aliyah for the Med Faire joust.
  4. Skippy uses trickery to defeat Aliyah in the joust.
  5. Aliyah’s parents cancel the trip to the Kingdom of Fief theme park.
  6. Aliyah challenges kids on bus to a duel.
  7. Aliyah refuses to be an obedient student in class.
  8. Principal Regis orders Aliyah & Lester to clean up after Med Faire.
  9. Beady invites Aliyah & Lester into a magic portal.
  10. Aliyah & Lester journey through the portal to Fief.
  11. Royal clerks process the new recruits.
  12. The Grand Vizier leads the recruits on a parade through the city into the great hall of the castle.
  13. The king doles out justice to nobles, artisans & peasants.
  14. The king questions Aliyah in the queue of recruits offering their tributes.
  15. Recruits mass-dubbed & given choice to join army or quest.
  16. Aliyah feasts with the king, queen, and his brother at the royal table.
  17. Aliyah & Lester hunt with the king in his park.
  18. Aliyah & Lester leave the city to start their quest.
  19. Aliyah & Lester allow knights to shake down some peasants on the highway.
  20. Aliyah chases off troubadours annoying some damsels.
  21. Aliyah & Lester cross paths with the returning army.
  22. Aliyah & Lester meet Smith the Smith in his village.
  23. Aliyah & Lester enter the enchanted forest and confront various magical creatures.
  24. Aliyah & Lester climb a mountain and encounter giants.
  25. Aliyah & Lester enter a cave and find statues of knights.
  26. Aliyah & Lester confront Charbroil the Dragon.
  27. Aliyah & Lester confront the sorcerer and solve the riddle of the MacGuffin.
  28. Aliyah & Lester travel back to the capital and meet more desperate peasants on the way.
  29. Aliyah & Lester lunch with King Brulee and his knights at his camp.
  30. At court, Aliyah warns the king about the invasion.
  31. King Brulee & the Duke join forces to siege the castle.
  32. To suppress a peasant uprising, the king joins forces with King Brulee and the Duke.
  33. Pester helps Aliyah, Lester & the Grand Vizier escape the dungeon and go to Smith’s camp.
  34. Smith convinces Aliyah to lead the peasant army.
  35. The peasant army council formulates a battle plan.
  36. The armies meet on the battlefield.
  37. The victorious peasants anoint Aliyah the new king of Fief.
  38. Beady helps Aliyah & Lester return home through the portal.
  39. Lester finishes his song as Sir Aliyah enters the Med Faire arena.

Editor’s top 3 premises

The editor I hired on Reedsy choose the following 3 as the most promising of the 10 middle-grade novel premises I shared with him:

Premise #6: Four Square
Premise #9: Parental Abduction
Premise #10: The Sad But 100% Completely True Tale of Lester, Court Jester, as told by his Faithful Cousin Sir Aliyah, Knight Errant

In our follow-up Zoom session, he ranked them in that order. Here are his notes for each one:

Premise #6: Four Square

I like this one more. Written properly, it could have a Roald Dahl-esque quality, which I don’t think is done often enough. Give it a legit plot but with just enough absurdity, and it could work.

Premise #9: Parental Abduction

This idea is still pretty thin at the moment, but I’d say this has some promise if you could pull of a sort of Sean of the Dead thing, with serious plot backed by this ridiculously humorous side story going on.

Premise #10: The Sad But 100% Completely True Tale of Lester, Court Jester, as told by his Faithful Cousin Sir Aliyah, Knight Errant

I like the gist of this idea, a junior Don Quixote dragged into a portal fantasy. Has a lot of potential, although like the idea above, still pretty thin at the moment with a lot of major story elements to develop.

In the Zoom session, we brainstormed ideas to flesh out the story for Four Square and Parental Abduction.

Afterwards, as I mulled over his notes and our conversation, I found myself gravitating towards Four Square and Sir Aliyah. Since then, I’ve spent a few weeks outlining both.

Most recently, though. I’ve decided to draft Sir Aliyah first.

Since I made that decision a month or so ago, I’ve forgotten exactly why I made it. Maybe it was simply from the gut. Maybe Sir Aliyah just felt more fun to me at the time. Or funnier. But here I am, committed to Sir Aliyah for the time being.

Of course, as I’ve outlined, the story has changed significantly. Foremost, I’ve made Aliyah the protagonist and Lester, her sidekick — and the narrator.

More details to follow.

10 novel premises challenge

Two years ago I joined this novel-writing course at The Novelry called Write a Novel in a Year. At the time, I was waffling between two projects.

The first was a retelling of Cinderella called Spiderella. You can probably guess the premise from the title. Instead of a princess, her fairy godspider transformed Spiderella into a giant black widow spider.

The second was a retelling of the Hymn to Demeter that centered the story on her daughter Persephone, the Greek goddess of spring and eventual wife of Hades.

After mulling it over for a week or so, I decided to focus on the Persephone story. Over the year, I produced a copious amount of outline. But when it came time to start drafting, I got stuck. I couldn’t find the right narrator.

So I extended my membership in the course another year. Then I proceeded to waste the year diddling around not making much progress at all. That was the end of my participation in The Novelry.

So at the start of 2023, I found myself at yet another crossroads — plod ahead with Persephone or start over from scratch.

I choose the second option. Yet rather than come up with another novel premise, I resolved to come up with ten of them. I then hired a development editor on Reedsy to read over these 10 premises, comment on them, and select which 3 they felt were the most promising. The editor’s name is Michael Carr. You can check out his profile on Reedsy here (note: you must be signed in with an account to view his profile).

It took me a couple of months to produce them.

Without further ado, here are the 10 premises I shared with him:

Premise #1: Qubit & Tokamak

Two alien AIs, one an enthusiastic scientist named Qubit, the other a cautious soldier named Tokamak, are on a mission to Earth to find, in one year’s time, The Rep — the very best Earthling — who is to return with them to their home world at year’s end to take The Test. If the Earthling passes The Test, Earth will be admitted into The Club — an elite galactic federation of advanced civilizations. If they fail The Test, Earth will be Held Back.

To smooth their reception, just before they make contact, a powerful machine on their ship called The Shaper will transform them temporarily into super-capable Earthlings. But secret forces in The Club have conspired to sabotage the mission. The ship crashes near a suburban American middle school. Their tech gets trashed, including The Shaper. They just barely manage to get transformed into an averaged-out 12-year-old girl and boy. Now they have to figure out how to complete, against impossible odds, their mission — all the while negotiating the hair-raising trials of sixth grade.

Premise #2: Persephone, or Springs Eternal

Like a new shoot reaching toward the sun, Persephone longs for her father Zeus’s approval. Unfortunately, having lived her entire life within the cushy confines of a finishing school for young goddesses called Paradeisos, she’s clueless about the ways of the Kosmos. On Mount Olympos, Persephone, goddess of spring, is an afterthought.

When she learns that another of Zeus’s many, many offspring, good-girl Hebe, is to marry the puffed-up mortal-made-god Herakles, she resolves to take Hebe’s place at her father’s court as the next Cupbearer to the Gods. Surely then he’ll notice her.

Little does she know that checked-out Zeus and his conniving brother Hades — bitter rivals — have made other plans for her, plans that will not only tear her from her pampered life, but by stirring the wrath of Persephone’s petulant mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, may destroy the world of mortals — and along with it, the Olympians’ reign.

With the help of her devoted governess Galea (a talking weasel) and a Goth frenemy named Hekate, Persephone must find a way to escape Hades’s gilded cage in the Underworld, appease her mother’s wrath, and save the arrogant gods from their own folly — before it’s all too late.

Premise #3: Hairy Squatter and the Scientist’s Groan

Hairy Squatter is a bookish twelve-year-old orphan whose great ambition in life is to become a world-renowned cultural critic. While happily working his way through all three volumes of Karl Marx’s magnum opus, Das Kapital, in the bohemian comforts of his Aunt and Uncle Worsley’s garrett, Hairy learns that his flaky billionaire parents have arranged posthumously for him to attend Pigzits Academy of Pseudoscience and Magical Thinking, an elite boarding school for the wealthy technocratic elite.

Once enrolled at Pigzits, he quickly discovers there’s nothing he can do to get expelled. His folks’ obscene donation to the school’s endowment all but ensures that. Soon enough, the perks of campus life — not unlike a luxury resort — start to erode his solidarity with the working classes. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure named Moldywart seeks a potent talisman called the Scientist’s Groan, hidden somewhere on campus. If he gets his grubby redistributive mitts on it, Moldywart could destroy Pigzits and all it stands for.

Will Hairy stay true to his ideals or join the CEO of Pigzits, Bulbous Stumblesnore, in hunting down Moldywart before he can launch a socialist revolution?

Premise #4: Love Potion #8

How do you know when love is real?

Rosalinda Candado is a painfully shy sixth-grader with a talent for biochemistry. All year, she’s been harboring an all-consuming yet secret crush. When she works up the courage to ask her crush to the school Valentine’s dance, she’s devastated when they politely refuse.

Using her scientific know-how, Rosalinda invents a love potion that will compel her beloved to feel for her what she feels for them.

The potion works! At the dance, they sip the potion and fall for her. Hard. But in an unfortunate mishap, the remainder of the potion spills into the punch bowl. Nearly all the school partakes. Romantic chaos ensues.

Now Rosalinda must fix the mess she’s made, while setting her paramour right. If she fails, she’ll be alone forever, the biggest outcast in school history. She may even go to jail.

Premise #5: Striker

Striker is a tween cobra with a short temper who lives in rural South India but longs to find his place in the wider world. Something else is holding him back: due to a painful run-in when he was just a hatchling, he has a permanent crook in his tail — as well as a paralyzing fear of boots.

One cool evening, in a dirt lot on the outskirts of the nearby village, Striker spies children playing a wondrous game where they kick a ball around with their bare feet. He falls in love with this game and vows then and there — even though he has no feet, even though the villagers are terrified of cobras — to master what they call “football.”

With the help of a defiant girl named Leela, Striker is accepted by the children — and learns to play beside them. It turns out they’re practicing for a special game held annually just before the monsoon. Their formidable opponent is a team of mercenaries organized by the local landowners. Every year, the landowners use winning the game as an excuse to raise taxes on the poor farmers who work their land. To guarantee a win, they have no qualms with warping the rules of the game in their favor.

But the children soon realize that Striker has a rare gift for scoring goals. With the cobra as their starting center forward, maybe, just maybe, the villagers will finally have a fighting chance…

Premise #6: Four Square

Buddy Bonzen is a boastful klutz who thinks he’s a world-class athlete. At school recess, the most popular game is Four Square. Naturally, Buddy thinks he’s the best. Whenever a game doesn’t go his way — and they never do — he taps into a bottomless well of world-class excuses.

But Buddy isn’t completely unlikeable. Raised by a loving yet fragile single mom, he feels he should take care of her. When he finds out she needs an expensive operation her insurance won’t cover, he promises to pay for it. But how? His school may offer a way.

Buddy attends Sweeet Success Middle School, an experiment in public-private partnership. The school is sponsored by Sweeet Corp., makers of top-selling snacks, candies, and soft drinks. To boost key performance metrics, Sweeet Corp. has monetized every facet of the school — from textbooks to uniforms to bathroom tissue. If the pilot succeeds, Sweeet Corp. hopes to roll this highly profitable sponsorship model out nationwide.

Every four years, Ollie Gark, the CEO of Sweeet Corp., hosts on the grounds of his sprawling mansion the Four Square World Cup. The champion gets a cash prize — why, just enough for a medical procedure. Buddy vows to win it — for his mom. Little does he know the competition is fixed. Gark’s sponsored ringers always win.

When the tournament gets underway, Buddy is forced to accept the fact that his Four Square skills are woefully inadequate. He must then do the one thing he’s never been able to bring himself to do — ask for help.

Will Buddy rise to the occasion or will Ollie Gark get the better of him, his mom, and everyone else at Sweeet Success Middle School?

Premise #7: The Bottomless Credit Card

Lakshmi Debere is an insecure kid who’s starting fifth grade at a new school. Eager to be liked, she brags about how much money she has stashed away in her piggy bank — cash gifts from doting aunties at Diwali or Christmas. But her new classmates are more interested in iPhones than money, which they can all easily mooch from their loaded parents.

After a relentless campaign, her folks agree to buy her a phone — but only if she earns half herself. And she’s not allowed to use her gift money. How unfair! Lakshmi makes a half-hearted effort to earn the cash through odd jobs around the house and babysitting. But at the rate she’s saving, she’ll be an auntie herself before she has enough. Meanwhile, her would-be friends are forming tight bonds through their phones.

So Lakshmi decides to take matters into her own hands. She secretly logs onto her mom’s Amazon account and orders a phone for herself, confident she can hide all evidence of the purchase. The plan backfires. Her furious parents confiscate her piggy bank.

Bereft and desperate, Lakshmi wishes on her namesake, the Goddess Lakshmi, that she never lacks for money. The next morning under her pillow, she finds a mysterious gold card. It’s a magic credit card. With no limit!

Lakshmi promptly goes on an epic spending spree that spirals further out of her control. Will she find a way to set things right before she disappoints her family, alienates her classmates — and crashes the entire global economy?

Premise #8: Stuporhero!

Avery Maelstrom is a ten-year-old nerd who’s obsessed with superheroes. Especially the ones featured in the Wonder Multiverse. He’s streamed all the movies, read all the comics, and snapped up all the tie-in merchandise. Avery would love nothing more than to be magically transported to the Wonder Multiverse and live out the rest of his charmed life there.

But when Avery unexpectedly earns an A for an impassioned essay about the need for superheroes, he vows to give up all his collections — in return for one sign — just one — that superheroes are real.

Then one afternoon, trying his best not to levitate down the road to school vaporizing supervillains with nuclear nostrils, Avery collides with an otherworldly figure who calls himself Mephisto. Mephisto offers to transform Avery into the superhero of his dreams. The catch? There’s no catch. Mephisto is lonely and just wants someone to talk to. An equal. A friend.

Avery accepts the offer — and becomes Stuporhero, the ultimate superhero because he has the ability to take on at any time any superpower he wants. But he quickly learns that none of the rules he knows by heart from the Wonder Multiverse apply here in the real world. In fact, it turns out that being this powerful isn’t exciting or fun at all. It’s a terrible burden. And the more he tries to do the right thing, the more of a mess he makes. Now, with his new and only buddy’s unhelpful help, Avery has to find a way to restore order to the world before it collapses under the crushing weight of Stuporhero’s very existence.

Premise #9: Parental Abduction

Affinity Thews is a brilliant tween who’s perpetually put-upon by the absurd demands and unfounded accusations of her ridiculous parents. Her credo in life is: “not my fault, not my job.” Her trademark expression is the eye-roll.

One day, Affinity notices her parents are acting strange. They’re no longer making demands — do your homework, clean your room, set the table. They’re being nice. Like, too nice. Affinity soon discovers that not only her parents but all the parents in town are acting this way — super-creepy nice. With the help of her two best friends, Affinity vows to get to the bottom of this mystery.

After some perilous poking around, they discover that their folks have been replaced — by replica androids. It’s the handiwork of invading aliens, who’ve abducted their actual parents. And, much to Affinity’s embarrassment, the whole mess is probably her fault!

Now Affinity has a job that only she can do. She must track down her parents — last seen shuffling into a new office park on the outskirts of town — and rescue them from the aliens before they complete their bizarre plan for world domination.

Premise #10: The Sad But 100% Completely True Tale of Lester, Court Jester, as told by his Faithful Cousin Sir Aliyah, Knight Errant

Lester Abdullah is a 12-year-old day-dreamer who prefers medieval fantasy — kings and princesses, knights and dragons, warlocks and maidens — to the real world of math worksheets, braces, and gym shorts. Lester’s parents have tasked his younger cousin Aliyah, a committed realist, with protecting Lester from the bullies lurking in the dank halls of middle school.

When Lester decides he’d rather be a knight than a student, he starts wearing a suit of novelty plate armor left over from Ren Faire to all his classes. Aliyah can’t save him from a horde of fuzzy-lipped eighth-graders who toss Lester helm-first into a dumpster.

As Aliyah struggles to pull Lester out from under bags full of Ren Faire refuse, a magic portal opens. Out pops, in fancy squire garb, a talking opossum. The beast beckons Lester to return with her to the Magic Kingdom of Fief at the invitation of her master, a powerful wizard who serves the king who rules there. It turns out King Courtois needs Lester for a Very Special Quest.

He eagerly accepts the invitation. Aliyah reluctantly follows. But they soon discover that Fief is not like any of the medieval fantasy realms Lester’s so familiar with. As he and Aliyah pursue the king’s quest, they become embroiled in a sweeping conspiracy that threatens to swallow all of Fief in eternal silliness. Besieged by foes from all quarters, Lester’s dream of being the king’s champion will be put to the ultimate test — while challenging Aliyah to let go of her disdain for all things fantastical.

Which 3 would you choose and in what order?

I’ll share with you later which of these Michael included in his Top 3.