My Fiction Site

In the right sidebar are clickable images of the covers of my novels, which will take you to their Amazon listings. Other posts will link to available free works – mostly shorter ones – and assorted thoughts on the writing of fiction.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

To See Your Way Forward, Try Looking Backward

     Sometimes the clearest vision of what’s ahead comes from a frank look at what’s behind us.

     Does anyone here remember Philip Wylie? In his day he was a successful writer of fiction and non-fiction. His 1930 novel Gladiator is believed to be one of the seminal influences on the comic-book character Superman. But most who are aware of him today remember his two novels When Worlds Collide (1933) and After Worlds Collide (1934), which he co-wrote with Edwin Balmer.

     Literary style has changed greatly since the Thirties. Many who stumble upon these books today find them uncongenial. Even in its time, reviewers were dismissive of When Worlds Collide. In part that was a criticism of Wylie’s overt use of the Great Deluge and Noah’s Ark, one of the most famous stories in the Old Testament, as his inspiration for the story. But in equal part it was because he was unashamed to quote the Bible in the text. Consider the following segment, from shortly after the scientists at the thematic center of the story confirm that the Earth is doomed. The speaker is Eve Hendron, daughter of physicist Cole Hendron and beloved of the major protagonist, stockbroker and man about New York Tony Drake:

     “We’re in a very solemn time, Tony. I spent a lot of to-day doing a queer thing—for me. I got to reading the Book of Daniel again—especially Belshazzar’s feast. I read that over and over. I can remember it, Tony.
     “‘Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand.
     “‘They brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God; and the king, and his princes, his wives and his concubines, drank in them.
     “‘They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone.’
     “Isn’t that a good deal like what we’ve—most of us—been doing, Tony?”
     “‘Now in the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace; and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.
     “‘Then the king’s countenance was changed; his knees smote together. The king cried aloud to bring in the astrologers, the Chaldeans and the soothsayers.’
     “And Daniel, you may remember, interpreted the writing on the wall. ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it. Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting. And in that night was Belshazzar, the king of the Chaldeans, slain.’
     “It is something very like that which is happening to us now, Tony; only the Finger, instead of writing again on the wall, this time has taken to writing in the sky—over our heads. The Finger of God, Tony, has traced two little streaks in the sky—two objects moving toward us, where nothing ought to move; and the message of one of them is perfectly plain.
     “‘Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting,’ that one says to us on this world. ‘God hath numbered thy kingdom and finished it.’ But what does the other streak say?
     “That is the strange one, Tony—the one that gives you the creeps and the thrills when you think of it. For that is the afterthought of God—the chance He is sending us!
     “Remember how the Old Testament showed God to us, stern and merciless. ‘God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth!’ it said. ‘And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth. And the Lord said, I will destroy man, whom I have created, from the face of the earth; both man, and beast and the creeping things, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. And then, God thought it over and softened a little; and He warned Noah to build the ark to save himself and some of the beasts, so that they could start all over again.
     “Well, Tony, it seemed to me the second streak in the sky says that God is doing the same thing once more. He hasn’t changed His nature since Genesis; not in that short time. Why should He? It seemed to me, Tony, He looked us all over again and got disgusted.
     “Evolution, you know, has been going on upon this world for maybe five hundred million years; and I guess God thought that, if all we’d reached in all that time was what we have now, He’d wipe us out forever. So He started that streak toward us to meet us, and destroy us utterly. That’s Bronson Alpha. But before He sent it too far on its way, maybe He thought it all over again and decided to send Bronson Beta along too.
     “You see, after all, God had been working on the world for five hundred millions of years; and that must be an appreciable time, even to God. So I think He said, ‘I’ll wipe them out; but I’ll give some of them a chance. If they’re good enough to take the chance and transfer to the other world I’m sending them, maybe they’re worth another trial. And I’ll save five hundred millions of years.’ For we’ll start on the other world, Tony, where we left off here.”

     Who, among the speculative fiction writers of today, would dare to use the Deluge and Noah as the pattern for a tale, much less to quote the Book of Daniel? Is there anyone with the courage and willingness required to look to the Bible for his inspiration? Never mind whether the tale of the Deluge and the Ark is literally true. No one knows, and no one can. The tale itself is the thing: its open paralleling of God’s wrath as narrated in Genesis to an astrophysical calamity that would make all the rest of human experience seem trivial.

     Wylie’s other fiction includes similar stories of world-girdling disasters. But his explicit use of a famous Biblical narrative, and the implications it held for Mankind’s past, present, and future, are what I find most striking today – more than eighty years since the publication of When Worlds Collide, and more than fifty years since I first encountered it.

     Time was, a Hollywood producer might bring out a movie about the ministry, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ and title it King of Kings, or The Greatest Story Ever Told, release it to the theaters, and “pack ‘em in.” People were inspired by such movies, as well as being entertained. Movies founded on Old Testament tales, such as The Ten Commandments, were equally popular. These stories were acknowledged to be important elements in Americans’ cultural heritage. We weren’t embarrassed by them; rather the reverse.

     Thigs are different today. Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ was greeted by dark and ominous forebodings from critics before its release. Many a theatergoer was derided for saying he wanted to see it, or for praising it afterward. The Old Testament tale of the Deluge was rewritten as an enviro-Nazi tract for Noah. The moral and ethical elements of the original tale were absent from it. Despite the presence of Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, and several other big-ticket stars, the movie was about as large a disaster at the box office as the Deluge of which it spoke.

     The Bible’s various stories are morally and ethically aimed. Such things make producers uneasy in our time. I trust I need not thrash this into the magma layer for my Gentle Readers to get my drift.

     When Worlds Collide doesn’t depart from contemporary practice solely in its antecedents. Wylie had a point to make: the one that Eve Hendron made in the segment I quoted above. Beyond that, it stands as an example of unabashedly dramatic storytelling, told in a fluid and grandiloquent style that critics have dismissed as “florid.” Rereading it after a fifty year hiatus has reminded me of what’s possible to a writer who ignores contemporary fads and fashions and hews resolutely to his own conceptions, preferences, and style.

     Sometimes, to get a sense for where one should go, one must look behind: at where he has been, but also where others have gone before him.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Figure And Ground

     An engineer facing a communications related problem must resolve one distinction before all else: what is “signal” versus what is “noise.” In layman’s terms, “signal” is your attempt to say something to your interlocutor or vice versa. “Noise” is anything and everything that competes with the “signal” and therefore must be excluded from your attention. Of course, context matters. In a conversation in a crowded, noisy restaurant, “signal” is your voice or that of your interlocutor, whereas “noise” is any other sound, including other diners’ conversations, that the two of you are straining to ignore. If you can’t distinguish them, you can’t communicate.

     There’s a related phenomenon in visual depiction: what is “figure” versus what is “ground.” Consider the most famous painting of the Renaissance era: Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa:”

     The conventional interpretation of this portrait is that the “figure” is the woman depicted “front and center,” whereas the “ground” is the landscape depicted behind her. Much attention has been given to the woman’s subtle smile and the details Da Vinci captured in her expression. But were you aware that scholars of the fine arts devote as much attention, if not more, to the backdrop, and the delicacy with which Da Vinci captured its colors and shadings? To such critics the “ground” matters quite as much as the “figure” – and why shouldn’t it?

     That having been said, have a couple of deliberate attempts to confuse the viewer’s eye by making the “figure” and “ground” interchangeable at will:

     The first of these is by noted graphic artist Scott Kim. The second is from that inveterate composer of visual conundrums, Maurits C. Escher. Both eliminate any depicted “preference” for “figure” over “ground,” such that it becomes a matter of what the viewer chooses to see rather than any assertion by the artist.

     Mind you, these are not items you’re likely to have framed and hung on your living room wall. They’re essentially puzzles, or more accurately solutions to a puzzle: how to eliminate any conception of “ground” from a composition. They’re clever and thought-provoking, but very few persons would prize them as decor items.

     “What the hell is he driving at?” I hear you mutter. Well, it’s mainly about fiction: a phenomenon some of my indie colleagues have noticed as they pump out their stuff.

     Every now and then a reader of my fiction will ask why I haven’t tried to produce anything in some sub-genre he favors. In the usual case, my answer is that “it’s been done,” sometimes with a sotto voce “to death” at the end. I dislike to have my name associated with anything formulaic or commonplace; I prefer to be thought of as a writer who boldly goes where no writer has gone before.

     Yet there is this about those “it’s been done” subcategories: They sell like beer at a ballgame in August. Why else would Harlequin be carting bucks to the bank in wheelbarrows? A popular subcategory can make a writer very well to do -- if he can get himself recognized among his competitors. Of course as always, the most important word in that previous sentence is if, but if the premise be fulfilled, the consequence is undeniable.

     (Agents and publishers are well aware of this. I once had an agent who was forever after me to “Write a nice romance, Fran.” Her love of the genre was at least partly because a romance that “catches on” will sell in big numbers. She couldn’t fathom why I kept demurring.)

     With regard to indie versus traditional publication, Sarah Hoyt mentioned an important aspect of this phenomenon:

     I’ve met young, (thirty something) indie authors making a living after 1 year. I’ve looked at and read their (usually fairly short) books, and there is no magic sauce. They read like very young-in-writing authors, who will get better in time. Some of them are eminently readable but I have to turn off the part of my back brain that groans and goes “oh, hey, I used to do that.”

     …. So, what gives?....

     This morning I realized why your traditional career might give you a little boost (or a significant boost) in indie, but it won’t be at the same level starting out. And why even those who have dual careers need to start out again in indie, even while they’re still doing fine (and are sometimes megasellers) in traditional. And also why traditional publishers think the indie market doesn’t really matter and fail to understand the significance of ebooks.

     Are you ready for this? Once you see it, you can’t unsee it: it is because traditional and indie play to fundamentally different sets of readers.

     But what, pray tell, differentiates those sets of readers? Who are the readers gobbling up the emissions of those young-but-successful indie writers and what’s their secret? Sarah will tell you:

     They go by many names from super readers to compulsive readers. To call us — yes, I’m confessing — by our real name, we’re story addicts. The threshold to be one is RIDICULOUSLY low: 3 books a month. I have no clue what they call people who in slow times average three books a week, and when on vacation or otherwise not busy can do that a day, but I know we exist, and I know I’m not alone. (Right, I’m not alone? Right?) We’re the people who sneak a book into the pocket of our formal clothes and panic because you can’t figure out how to sneak a book into your wedding dress. We exist, and we won’t live in the shadows anymore. I mean… ahem… whatever.

     And why should the most financially successful indie writers have hit it big with those “super readers?”

     You see, Indie by its nature, the fact that books are cheap (and a lot of us lunatics are subscribed to Kindle lending library, too) and that they are varied, but mostly THAT THEY’RE IN SERIES and series that are published two to three months apart for new installments, caters to the 5% who buy 80% of the books.

     COMPLETELY different market from traditional. And one about which I can speak authoritatively because, again, I AM THAT market, or a typical member of it.

     If you write anything remotely readable and non offensive in one of our genres or subgenres, (we can now be picky) we will find you and we will read you.

     Now, this is not a uniform characteristic of the “super reader.” I should know; I’m one such. On average I read a novel a day. (Yes, all the way to the end.) The last time I spent an entire week on a single book, the book was Kristin Lavransdatter. But I’m averse to the interminable series, especially if it falls into one of the “it’s been done” subcategories, even though such a series would satisfy my reading addiction better than any standalone novel.

     The reason is the “figure versus ground” phenomenon.

     Within a single story, we may think of the “figure” as the cast of characters and their actions as the story progresses. The setting, and some of the events to which the characters must respond, constitute the “ground.” One approach to a genre / subgenre categorization is to think of it as those characteristics of the “ground” that may (or must) appear in stories in that category. For example, within the genre of fantasy we have the subgenres of medieval fantasy and “urban” fantasy. A story of the former sort is set in a largely nontechnological milieu and will involve magic and / or non-human creatures some of whom have special powers. In contrast, an “urban” fantasy will be set in a milieu that resembles present-day human society. It may involve magic, and it probably will involve paranatural creatures: e.g., vampires, werewolves, zombies. The stories common to those two subcategories differ considerably from one another in style and tone.

     Each subcategory has a large number of dedicated readers. Those readers will read anything in their preferred subcategory if:

  • It’s not too expensive;
  • It doesn’t offend their sensibilities;
  • It’s competently executed: i.e., not too many glaring errors.

     God bless and keep those readers! They’re getting what they want and helping a bunch of indie writers pay the bills. What could be objectionable about that? Nothing I can think of. But I’m not one of them. My immediate reaction to a new book in either of those categories is “it’s been done.”

     The “ground” against which those stories are told is simply too well-trodden for me.

     I don’t write in those too-well-trodden categories for a related reason: Stories in them tend to be less than memorable. The problems characters face in those categories tend to be as well-trodden as the categories themselves. Now and then an innovator will come up with something novel within the category – John Conroe’s “Demon Accords” series is an example – but that possibility attracts me less as a writer than a field with plenty of unplowed ground. I want to write stories the reader will remember for a long time – hopefully not in a “Why did I waste my time and money on Porretto’s crap?” fashion.

     All the same and beyond all dispute, the big revenues are going to the hyper-prolific writers whose works are aimed at a popular subcategory and its addicts. If revenue is his goal, the indie writer should do as those hyper-prolific writers do:

  • Choose a popular subcategory to write within;
  • Invent a few protagonists who can move from one novel to another;
  • Pump ‘em out as fast as possible: thousands of reading addicts are counting on you!

     There’s nothing ethically wrong with this. It’s just one more trade-off. You’ll make money – always assuming you can get noticed in the first place – but your stories won’t stand out or create long-term remembrance in your readers.

     It’s just not for me.

     This piece arose in large part because of the difficulty I’m having completing my novel under construction. I’m a perfectionist; I want every word to be exactly the right one, and every sentence to ring with a rhythm that compels the reader to press onward. That costs a lot of time and effort. Add to it an absolute commitment that this tale shall be one never before told, and you’ve got a formula for slow production.

     So I manage to write about one novel a year. And I don’t make much money. Those are the downsides. But the choice was and is a conscious one. It derives from my scale of priorities, which I have no power to alter. At the top of that scale stands this mandate:

The Ground shall be fresh and fallow;
The Figure shall be new and memorable.

     You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Reasonable Expectations

     When I have occasion to look at one of my own novels, it is sometimes the case that I spot a flaw in what I’ve written. It might be a homophone error, or an extra-word or missing-word error, or perhaps a minor problem in formatting. Whatever it is, the discovery will irritate me greatly, in an “I should be better than that” sort of fashion. The reaction is an expression of my expectations for myself, and the responsibility I feel toward my readers.

     In these days of Independent Publishing Triumphant – and it is triumphant, Gentle Reader; sales of indie fiction now far exceed those of conventionally published fiction – this brings a serious question to mind:

Given that the typical indie writer is a person of modest means who mostly “goes it alone” from story conception to production, editing, packaging, distribution, and promotion, should our expectations of his “error quotient” be somewhat more relaxed than what we would impose on fiction from a conventional publishing house?

     Today’s fictioneer does have better tools at his disposal than a mere typewriter. Moreover, they’re not at all expensive. Some of them are essential to producing a publishable manuscript at all. We can reasonably expect that a writer will use the facilities built into those tools, spelling checkers being at the top of the list. But as anyone who’s ever bruised his fingers against a keyboard can tell you, spelling checkers can miss quite a few kinds of errors. The same goes for grammar checkers. And there are problems of other kinds, including some quite serious ones, whose detection and capture isn’t currently automated.

     Given our awareness that the job is large and demanding and the indie is all alone in doing it, what is it reasonable to expect from him?

     Since I became involved with indie fiction about ten years ago, I’ve read some brilliant, meticulously produced stuff, some unconscionable crap, and a great deal of fiction that stood between those poles. I recall one writer, whose stuff grabbed me by the collar novel after novel, who seemed to disdain proofreading. His stories were incomparably better than their physical instantiation. Errors of every kind in the book could be found on every page of any of his novels. But the originality of his story concepts and the brilliance of their expression got me past those technical flaws.

     Just now I’m working my way – mild emphasis on working — through a military SF series written by an indie whose name you might know. The stories aren’t entirely original; indeed, they fall into a category most readers of that subgenre would have encountered before. They aren’t all that well told, either. The author is low on technique and seems unaware of certain conventions that could have made the books easier to write and easier for the reader to follow. There are also many low-level errors: misspellings, wrong-word errors, missing-word errors, and so forth. (I can’t be any more specific than this without revealing the identity of the writer, whom I do not wish to embarrass.)

     But I’m reading them. I do have to suppress irritation at the errors and poor storytelling technique, but I’m reading them. I find them valuable for their themes, which aren’t the sort the barons of conventional publishing would find appealing. Indeed, the climate of political correctness and rampant leftism that reigns in Pub World would probably get these books rejected without any consideration whatsoever. The central character is something of a role model for the profession of arms: the sort of figure one who aspires to a military career would do well to study.

     Now, while it might be arrogant of me to feel thus, I’ve been itching to volunteer my services to the author as a technique tutor and editor. I have a feeling any such offer would be indignantly rejected; after all, no mother wants to be told her baby is deformed. But the impulse is an expression of the value I find in the works even as they are today. It’s also a gauge for the importance of indie fiction as a conduit for stories and themes the conventional houses are unwilling to consider. There’s a moral in there.

     Sturgeon’s Law, unlike Theodore Sturgeon himself, is alive and functioning in the realm of indie fiction. You have to wade through a lot of garbage to find a jewel...and at that, some of the jewels are semi-precious at best.

     Even so – and believe me, I’m fully aware of how far indie fiction still needs to develop – it’s a field of great promise. Indie is where the originality is. Yes, there’s a lot of hackneyed stuff in the indie orbit: vampires, zombies, space wars, Tolkien derivatives, and other clich├ęs. But the stodginess of the conventional houses is such that hackneyed crap in well-traveled subgenres, easy to categorize and market, is essentially all they’ll publish. Genuinely original fiction has essentially no chance of making it past their gatekeepers. How can we know it will sell? And indeed, that is the crux, for conventional publishers must sell lots of books to meet the bills, whereas the indie is usually under less pressure to do so out of his book revenue.

     So I’m in favor of cutting writers who tell decently original stories with important themes a lot of slack. It’s bit like a taste for moonshine: You can’t get it in the store, so if you want it, you have to be willing to accept a jug without a label or a Surgeon General’s warning on the side. Hell, you might be socially obliged to commune with the vendor over a jelly-jar full of the stuff while he complains about his no-account brother in law, his lazy kids, and how his bunions are just killing him.


Monday, October 7, 2019

Notes On Characterization: Learning From A Master

     I find it worthwhile to revisit old favorite books from time to time. I find it instructive to contemplate what it was about them that struck me most powerfully on my original acquaintance, and to ponder whether I feel the same after many years and writing adventures of my own. Sometimes the lessons are more powerful for having been so long delayed.

     Here’s the introductory passage of a novel that bowled me over in 1971, when I first read it. You might recognize it:

     “Pain is instructive,” Duncan Chalk wheezed.
     On crystal rungs he ascended the east wall of his office. Far on high was the burnished desk, title inlaid communicator box from which he controlled his empire. It would have been nothing for Chalk to sail up the wall on the staff of a gravitron. Yet each morning he imposed this climb on himself.
     A variety of hangers-on accompanied him. Leontes d’Amore, of the mobile chimpanzee lips; Bart Aoudad; Tom Nikolaides, notable for shoulders. And others. Yet Chalk, learning the lessons of pain once more, was the focus of the group.
     Flesh rippled and billowed on him. Within that great bulk were the white underpinnings of bone, yearning for release. Six hundred pounds of meat comprised Duncan Chalk. The vast leathery heart pumped desperately, flooding the massive limbs with life. Chalk climbed. The route zigged and backswitched up forty feet of wall to the throne at the top. Along the way blotches of thermoluminescent fungus glowed eagerly, yellow asters tipped with red, sending forth pulsations of warmth and brightness.
     Outside it was winter. Thin strands of new snow coiled in the streets. The leaden sky was just beginning to respond to the morning ionization poured into it by the great pylons of day. Chalk grunted. Chalk climbed.
     Aoudad said, “The idiot will be here in eleven minutes, sir. He’ll perform.”
     “Bores me now,” Chalk said. “I’ll see him anyway.”
     “We could try torturing him,” suggested the sly d’Amore in a feathery voice. “Perhaps then his gift of numbers would shine more brightly.”
     Chalk spat. Leontes d’Amore shrank back as though a stream of acid had come at him. The climb continued. Pale fleshy hands reached out to grasp the gleaming rods. Muscles snarled and throbbed beneath the slabs of fat. Chalk flowed up the wall, barely pausing to rest.
     The inner messages of pain dizzied and delighted him. Ordinarily he preferred to take his suffering the vicarious way, but this was morning, and the wall was his challenge. Up. Up. Toward the seat of power. He climbed, rung by rung by rung, heart protesting, intestines shifting position inside the sheath of meat, loins quivering, the very bones of him flexing and sagging with their burden.
     About him the bright-eyed jackals waited. What if he fell? It would take ten of them to lift him to the walkway again. What if the spasming heart ran away in wild fibrillation? What if he eyes glazed as they watched?
     Would they rejoice as his power bled away into the air?
     Would they know glee as his grip slipped and his iron grasp over their lives weakened?
     Of course. Of course. Chalk’s thin lips curved in a cool smile. He had the lips of a slender man, the lips of a Bedouin burned down to the bone by the sun. Why were his lips not thick and liquid?
     The sixteenth rung loomed. Chalk seized it. Sweat boiled from his pores. He hovered a moment, painstakingly shifting his weight from the ball of the left foot to the heel of the right. There was no reward and less delight in being a foot of Duncan Chalk. For an instant nearly incalculable stresses were exerted across Chalk’s right ankle. Then he eased forward, bringing his hand down across the last rung in a savage chopping motion, and his throne opened gladly to him.
     Chalk sank into the waiting seat and felt it minister to him. In the depths of the fabric the micropile hands stirred and squeezed, soothing him. Ghostly ropes of spongy wire slid into his clothes to sponge the perspiration from the valleys and mounds of his flesh. Hidden needles glided through epithelium, squirting beneficial fluids. The thunder of the overtaxed heart subsided to a steady murmur. Muscles that had been bunched and knotted with exertion went slack. Chalk smiled. The day had begun; all was well.
     Leontes d’Amore said, “It amazes me, sir, how easily you make that climb.”
     “You think I’m too fat to move?”
     “Sir, I—”
     “The fascination of what’s difficult,” said Chalk. “It spins the world on its bearings.”

     [Robert Silverberg, Thorns]

     That passage is about 750 words long. Consider the enormous amount we learn about Duncan Chalk and his associates from it:

  • We learn of Chalk’s enormous bulk;
  • He chooses to do something difficult, painful, and dangerous to start his day;
  • He revels in the pain of the ascent to his office;
  • He controls an “empire,” about which we’ll soon learn more;
  • His associates are vicious jackals;
  • They’re also sycophants;
  • However useful he finds them, he holds them in contempt;
  • Pain is exceedingly important to him.

     Though it describes only one event – Chalk’s climb to his office – the passage throbs with power. It shows the reader a creature of vast appetite, hints at his essential nature, outlines his emotional gestalt, makes clear his relationship to those around him, and underscores what’s most important of all things to him: pain.

     Duncan Chalk is a pain vampire. The suffering of others is his critical nourishment. His “empire,” an entertainment corporation, thrives by purveying curiosities and grotesqueries to a public ever hungry for more. He feeds on the agonies of his subjects as he vends them to the viewers.

     Robert Silverberg was only thirty-two years old when he wrote Thorns. At the time he was pumping out novels and stories at a rate that boggles the mind. According to some sources, he sometimes produced 10,000 words of fiction per day. He’s rumored to have released four novels in a single month, three of them under pseudonyms...and we can’t be certain we know of all the pseudonyms he’s used.

     On a good day I might manage a thousand words...much of which will later be rewritten. I’ve never produced anything as striking and evocative as the above passage from Thorns. I doubt I ever will.

     Thorns, an exploration of human suffering and the parasites who live on it, isn’t to everyone’s taste. Moreover, it was published at a time when science fiction was generally thought of as adventure fiction, “all rocket ships and ray guns,” unsuitable for consumption by sophisticates. It could easily have been overlooked by “traditional” science fiction readers...but it wasn’t. Its popularity resulted in a Hugo Award nomination and a second-place finish behind Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. It was also nominated for the Nebula Award, which was won that year by Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection.

     The success of Thorns underlines the most important aspect of effective storytelling: the importance of knowing what your reader is there for. The juvenile reader might be there for the “rocket ships and ray guns.” Indeed, that’s more often than not the case. But the adult reader is almost certainly there for an emotional experience. Such a journey is inseparable from good characterization.

     How did your Marquee characters arrive at the situations they’re in? Why are they doing what they’re doing? What’s the basis for their decisions? How do they relate to those around them? What’s their principal emotional need? What actuates them – and equally important, what inhibits or restrains them?

     The answers are your characters. Yet the ironclad rule to “show, don’t tell” commands that you reveal them without stating them baldly. You must show their characters acting and reacting, to developments and to one another. The reader’s emotional experience comes from inferring your characters’ desires, fears, convictions, and beliefs from what you put them through.

     Robert Silverberg outlined a monster in the cited passage. He gave the reader reasons to continue learning about Duncan Chalk, whose evil becomes more fascinating, and ever more vivid, as we watch him go about his business. And there were more characters to follow: Chalk’s chosen victims, mutilated spaceman Minner Burris and discarded experimental subject Lona Kelvin, from whose agonies Chalk contrives to feed.

     While the story told in Thorns is anything but pleasant, the novel is a master course in the delineation of character and its exposure through action. Few readers escape it without being deeply moved by its terrors and its pathos. It’s especially worth your time if you write.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Fantasy, Science Fiction, Or What?

     Yesterday, David L. Burkhead addressed one of the most contentious subjects in speculative fiction: whether there is any clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy, or whether those terms are largely a matter of opinion:

     Some folk have given long, involved definitions about when something is Science Fiction and when it’s Fantasy. Me? I like one similar to Orson Scott Card’s from one of his writing books. Science Fiction has rivets and engineers. Fantasy has trees and elves.

     It’s a good piece, if you’re interested in such arguments (which I am). As I write tales that have been called by either term and was feeling intellectually frisky, I decided to take it up with him. We’ll never come to any conclusions, but the discussion itself is the sort that stretches the mind, even a rigidified old boulder like mine. And just a few minutes ago, it occurred to me that the border between F and SF, even if one can argue cogently for its existence, moves with time and technology.

     For example, David, who believes the terms to be expressions of opinion rather than objective meaning, noted this:

     Psychic powers on one hand and the genius who understands things that are impenetrable to other are both well establish SF tropes, as is the alien who can do things that humans cannot.

     Psi powers, which I’ve employed myself in a tale that’s generally regarded as science fiction, are an interesting case. At this time, they’re definitely fantastic; the brain, being a direct-current organ, cannot muster the power required to transmit a perceptible signal beyond the confines of the skull. But we’re learning how to interface the brain with devices of all kinds. It might well be the case that someday, an implantable device will make “telepathy” possible. It might not resemble “traditional” telepathy. Indeed, it might be confined to the transmission of Morse code. But head-to-head communications of a sort that resembles telepathy would then be a matter of technology rather than fancy.

     Consider also the case of “elves.” Now, Tolkien’s elves – potentially immortal beings with magical powers – might be a stretch, but as we get more capable with genetic engineering, beings that physically resemble the “traditional” elf might enter the realm of possibility. A great deal would be required, including the ability to create a very unusual zygote that would survive full-term gestation. Nevertheless, the possibility is difficult to dismiss.

     If we venture a century or so into the past, we can find cases of the dividing line having moved since then. Consider Jules Verne’s early tale From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon. Both were deemed fantasies when they appeared. There was no technology capable of propelling living human beings to the moon; Wells’s “Cavorite” and Verne’s giant cannon capable of propelling a vessel to the moon were plainly fantastic. The same is true for Edward Weston’s solar-radiation-powered interplanetary vessel in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.

     But technological development since then has allowed men to reach the moon, albeit at great expense, with great difficulty, and at great danger. The line has moved to make interplanetary travel scientifically plausible. Whether it will move further, such that casual travel among the planets – say, for a weekend jaunt by a couple weary of “city life” – no one can say at this time. As for interstellar travel, let’s just say I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime, and I doubt you will either.

     When the late Poul Anderson, a highly accomplished writer of both fantasy and science fiction, addressed this subject some forty years ago, he took a position similar to mine here, except that he omitted to consider the possibility of technological developments unimagined at that time. Anderson was regarded as the foremost practitioner of “hard” science fiction – another fuzzy term – before the ascendancy of Larry Niven. His novel Tau Zero, which was shortlisted for the Hugo Award (and lost, albeit narrowly, to Niven’s Ringworld) was a valiant attempt to write a completely plausible tale of an interstellar journey gone really badly wrong. (I shan’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it.) He came very close...painfully close. But he had to postulate zero-loss recycling to do it, a blatant violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. So even the greats have to fudge a little. (Ask Alastair Reynolds about his “Conjoiner drives” someday.)

     As I said, conclusions are difficult to reach, and could well change with time. But it does keep the brain from petrifying completely. Meanwhile, I’ve got this fantasy novel on the anvil that’s been giving me absolute fits. As a former physicist I have a really hard time with anything involving magic, so I’ve been toying with the idea that the utility of sorcery is merely a matter of very small changes to a couple of fundamental physical constants that divide our “real” universe from the one where my tale is set. Eventually, of course, we learn how to alter those constants within a defined region, and...oh, never mind.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Short Cuts And Long Delays

     When I embark on a new novel-project, I’m usually tempted to look for a short cut, a quick way to “get into” the effort. Sometimes I find one. Sometimes it’s suitable. More often, it proves to be a detriment, though that might not be obvious for some time.

     The kind of temptation that’s proved least destructive to the ultimate creation is the substantial fund of short stories I’ve written over the decades, some of which prove extensible, with enough thought and effort. Love in the Time of Cinema emerged from such a story, and I’d say it worked out well. But needless to say, not all short tales lend themselves to being used in that fashion. I’m working on and with one such today, and it’s been giving me fits.

     The most destructive temptation – and I’m pleased to be able to say that it’s one I’ve successfully resisted – is the one that whispers “Just borrow this idea, add a couple of characters and a few grace notes, and call it your own!” It’s not necessarily plagiarism to do so; the narrative archetypes are few, and their skeletons can be detected in every decent story ever written. But unless he can come up with an original motif or two and frame the story around them, the writer cannot honestly call the tale his own creation.

     Yet innumerable writers copy well-trodden paths, add nothing significantly original or fresh, and publish the results. That’s the prevalent practice in fantasy today, especially “urban” fantasy. I have little respect for such “creators.” I disdain to read their “creations,” once I can discern their lineaments. But many of them are far more successful in dollars-and-cents terms than I.

     In all fairness, it’s extremely difficult to remain within the confines of a long-established, strongly patterned genre yet produce something genuinely new. The difficulty romance writers have with it gave birth to the Harlequin line, which recycles a publication back to pulp after it’s been on the shelves for a single month. The grooves are too deep. They admit of too little innovation. Such books appeal directly to the reader who wants to keep reading “my favorite story” over and over and OVER.

     The “short cut” available from such a strong, innovation-averse pattern can result in a long delay in a writer’s maturation – and no, I don’t mean “finding his voice.”

     The late Isaac Asimov, when asked the most common of all fan questions – “Where do you get your ideas?” – replied that story ideas are all around us; just reach out and grab one. They practically attack the attentive writer, for a simple reason: they’re about people struggling with problems. Usually they’re problems of the sort people have always had.

     If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you’ve seen these before:

John Brunner’s Laws Of Fiction:
1. The raw material of fiction is people.
2. The essence of story is change.

     People’s problems are about the challenges they face and must surmount: from their surroundings, from their personal limitations and inhibitions, and (of course) from other people. Some problems are too trivial to produce drama – to the best of my knowledge, “He needed a clean pair of briefs and didn’t have one!” has never inspired any writer to greatness in storytelling – but there are innumerable ones that writers have used to evoke drama, heroism, and the reader’s sense of the breadth and depth of human existence. Even a barely educated person will be familiar with many such problems and their fictional exploitation.

     In a way, the reason for the speculative genres – fantasy, science fiction, and horror – is that they allow the imaginative writer to shed new light on a classic problem. Consider the problem of survival. While there’s still ample room for stories of survival against great odds in the here and now, the unique moral-ethical cast it can acquire from a science fiction setting can enable it to stimulate readers who might never have considered its complexities. Perhaps the problem is how to defend an innocent against a predator, or a predatory force. A technological motif can make such a contest vivid in a way tales of Mafia dons or serial killers cannot. Possibilities abound; reach out and grab one!

     Some short cuts can be useful as a “leg up” to prominence. For example, now and then, a precast setting, created by a successful writer, is offered to other, less well known writers as an environment in which to tell a tale and gain an expanded readership. This has become fairly common in the speculative genres. Larry Niven’s “Man-Kzin Wars” anthologies are a good example, as are George R. R. Martin’s “Wild Cards” collections. On August 6, military SF writer Tom Kratman will release an anthology of that sort, centered on his imagined colony world of Terra Nova. Our beloved Co-Conspirator Dystopic/Thales (he uses both monikers) will have a story therein, so don’t miss it. But such supports should not be regarded as reliable in perpetuity; to mature and earn personal distinction, a writer must strike out on a path he can justly call his personal creation.

     “Short cuts make long delays,” saith John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He would surely know. If you aspire to write fiction, be aware of the dangers inherent in mimicry. It can trap you as surely as quicksand, and to the same ultimate effect. A leg up here and there is one thing; walking slavishly and undeviatingly in the footsteps others have left is another. The only way to become a writer others will respect – and I don’t necessarily mean other writers, but I don’t necessarily not mean them, either – is to create your own brand from the fertile if tangled resources of your imagination, experience, and heart.

     Get busy.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Story Recipes

     I’ve made such an obsession out of originality that at times I can blind myself to the possibilities that could arise from a different perspective.

     No, I’m not talking about exploiting the enormous commercial possibilities from hopping onto one of the current “hot” bandwagons and showing the world what a real storyteller can do with it. What I have in mind is more what a creative cook does when he seeks a new approach to the preparation of some basic item.

     Even the most creative cooks don’t invent entirely new ingredients. They work with what God has given us: the minerals, plants, and animals that already inhabit the Earth. They look for new combinations of those things that might prove pleasing to the palate. I have no doubt that an adventurous cook would need to discard the results of many unsatisfactory experiments...always assuming he didn’t face the severe choice of eating them himself or starving to death. But when he finally hits on something both new and genuinely pleasant, he presents it to the world with pride as his creation. It is legitimately his even though, as with “the figure in the marble” a sculptor seeks to reveal with his chisel, it was always there to be found by anyone sufficiently determined to seek it out.

     Recently there have been some impressive breakthroughs of this sort. E. William Brown’s “Daniel Black” and “Alice Long” novels come to mind, as do Margaret Ball’s “Center for Applied Topology” series and her recent novel Salt Magic. The “atomic” elements that underpin those creations have been around for a while, but the way Brown and Ball assembled them, in each case previously untried, made them into something new and fresh – i.e., original.

     By contrast, I rack my brain for completely original “atomic” ideas around which to craft my stories. As that organ already has sixty-seven years of wear and tear on it, it doesn’t produce such things simply for the asking. It involves a process that takes time and the convergence of a variety of stimuli (usually including copious amounts of port or sherry). All the same, now and then I find one, and – wonder of wonders! — it manages to sustain a tale. To those who’ve wondered why my books are so widely spaced in time, that’s half the answer; the other half is the agonizing difficulty, as Ernest Hemingway once put it, of “getting the words right.”

     Since the release of The Wise and the Mad, which concludes the “Futanari Saga,” I’ve been casting about for another genuinely new idea, something that would take me in a completely new direction. I haven’t found one, and it’s been giving me fits. At intervals I’ve wondered whether I might have shot my wad. So as of yesterday evening, the pain from that frustration, liberally sauced from a freshly opened bottle of Villa Bellangelo’s exquisite “Elizabeth” port, has me thinking about the “recipe” approach instead.

     J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, considered to be the bedrock for fantasy of its kind, was actually derived from the Arthurian legend, albeit with a twist. King Arthur had his magical artifact – Excalibur, “the sword of power” – and a villain to defeat: Mordred, the son of Arthur’s half-sister Morgawse, who desired the throne of Britain for his own. Tolkien adapted the Arthurian pattern by exchanging Excalibur, a weapon loyal to Arthur’s hand, for the One Ring, a wholly malevolent creation of Sauron.

     Because Tolkien worked with a richly imagined world with an intricate backstory, populated by a variety of creatures with special characteristics, the relative simplicity of his “plot drivers” was no impediment to the telling of a long, persistently gripping story. The combination of those drivers with that elaborate backdrop, largely derived from Catholic theocosmogony, and with Tolkien’s gifts for storytelling made his tale a new creation that’s enthralled readers for decades. It continues to be the iconic work in its genre, against which all other works of “high” or medieval fantasy are judged.

     C. S. Lewis wanted to spin a tale from the Arthurian loom but wanted to emphasize the Christian elements and set it in modern Britain. His Space Trilogy has some explicitly Arthurian elements, notably his use of Merlin as a character in That Hideous Strength and his elevation of his protagonist Dr. Elwin Ransom to “Pendragon of Logres,” Logres is an ancient name for Britain in the Arthurian tales. Lewis transformed it into a mystical society whose function is to keep political Britain on the moral straight and narrow. Note, however, that the revived Merlin takes the place of Excalibur as the critical magical “artifact.”

     The patterns these two master talespinners created from Arthurian elements are so compelling that the great majority of their successors in the realm of “high” fantasy have proved unable to depart from them. There have been a few exceptions, notably Orson Scott Card’s “Alvin Maker” series. However, the Arthurian / Tolkienian pattern continues to exhibit a tractor-beam-like effect on writers who approach “high” fantasy today. It suggested to me that the vein might be “played out”...or it did until this very morning.

     I resisted suggestions that I try fantasy until I had the inspirations that produced a handful of short stories: “The Object of His Affection” and “The Warm Lands,” my two magic-based fantasies, and “Foundling” and “Class Action,” my two vampire stories. Paradoxically, these relatively minor expositions are more popular with my readers –i f I go by email feedback, at least – than all the rest of my fiction taken together. I’ve received many, many requests for continuations and “sequels” in each of those “worlds”...and have been unable to produce them. The original ideas in them fought being extended into longer tales, and I could not find new ideas that would supplement them compatibly.

     But as of this morning, owing to the cooking analogy from the first segment, one of those tales has gripped me afresh. I’ve found ways to combine well-worn elements used by other writers to create a wholly new “recipe.” At least, I can’t think of any existing work that follows the pattern I have in mind. So with dedication, perseverance, and a spot of luck, some, at least, of those aforementioned vainly importuning readers will have something to gratify their yearnings, later this year or early in 2020. Beyond that, deponent sayeth no more...for the present!