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.

Monday, December 11, 2017

What Makes A Writer “Great?”

     In the midst of a delightful flaying of left-wing word mangling, Sarah Hoyt relates this vignette about a Facebook argument over “great” writers:

     [Her interlocutor] entered a discussion on the purpose of writing, and whether writing should/could be good when done simply for money, by saying that since all great writers never made money from their writing, it was obvious that writing for money was a bad thing.

     I countered with the names of six (considered) great writers who made fortunes from writing. He said “Ah, half a dozen out of hundreds” so I continued giving him names, as they occurred to me. It is a fact (perhaps not universally acknowledged, but a fact) that most writers we consider great made money from their writing. If they died in poverty it was because of their spectacularly bad money-management skills. Now, I’m not going to get into an argument over whether writing for money makes writing better. The sample of “writers we consider great” is contaminated by the fact that the writers have to have been widely disseminated enough to begin with for their writing to be known now and considered anything. That implies a degree of initial success, which usually brings money. It’s entirely possible that someone somewhere wrote something great that was never read except by their mother and their cat, but then those writers are not now universally acknowledged as “great.”

     Sarah has exposed a key fact: Circulation is a prerequisite. No writer we deem “great” languished in total obscurity during his working lifetime. All “great” writers were widely read, at least by the standards of their times. Wide circulation brings revenue with it. Whether it was enough revenue to live on is a separate question.

     But writers we consider hacks have also enjoyed wide circulation. Some of them had much wider readerships than any generally acknowledged “great” writer. So while circulation is necessary, it’s not sufficient. I’m sure any of my Gentle Readers could name a number of contemporary hacks who’ve sold millions of books.

     So what does it take? What are the criteria? What makes a writer great? Well, we could say that a great writer is one who has written a great book or books. (Beware the ambiguity of “great book.” We wouldn’t want to use it in the sense of the medieval writer who wrote that “I have before me a great book, for it weigheth four and a half pounds.”) But what makes a book great?

     It’s difficult to become a great writer in certain categories. Take children’s books, for instance. What writer of children’s stories, other than the late, lamented Theodore Seuss Geisel, would anyone call great? The field itself seems to minimize the possibility.

     Similarly, some of the best selling books of all time are cookbooks. But the writers of cookbooks, which they might be accorded respect as great cooks, are seldom (if ever) deemed great writers, despite the painstaking work that goes into transcribing hundreds of recipes.

     Oh, here’s another one: books of mathematical and scientific reference data. Quite a lot of books filled with nothing but logarithms and the values of the trigonometric functions have sold very well indeed. However, their “writers” don’t get a lot of mentions in critical circles. Is that “unfair” in some sense?

     Many persons would dismiss all the above categories as “not real writing.” They have a decent argument for their position. Yet quite a lot of work goes into those books. As they’re relied upon for various purposes by those who buy them, they demand accuracy and precision. That they don’t qualify for literary accolades seems rather sad.

     It appears that in pondering greatness among writers, if we want some degree of commonality about what sort of work would qualify, we must stick to fiction.

     Fiction – the telling of stories – has its own unique demands. The first of them is the toughest to meet:

There must be a story.

     Moreover, the nature of the story is rather narrowly confined. It must be about “people,” broadly defined. Its characters must confront challenges or problems of significance. And whether they succeed or fail, those characters must experience change.

     Let’s tackle the “people” part first. What constitutes “people?” Well, they must be self-aware – sentient. They must have needs and desires. They must have some degree of rational volition – the ability to think through a problem and make conscious decisions about how to solve it. And they must have limitations. That makes it easy to exclude non-rational animals, emotionless and omnipotent beings. Everyone else qualifies, at least prima facie.

     Consider in this light two fantasies: Thomas M. Disch’s The Brave Little Toaster and Richard Adams’s Watership Down. The protagonists in both books are non-human...but they function as people, quite as well as the recognizably human characters in any other novel.

     The “people” in a good story will confront important problems: not a missing sock or a cracked coffee mug; something that calls their convictions and emotions into play. The problem must be clearly drawn, at that; it can’t be something nebulous or puerile such as “finding myself.” And to solve the problem must require that the protagonist experience change: he must grow in some fashion, or learn something about life or himself that he hadn’t previously known.

     Once again, I think we’ve established prerequisites – necessary conditions – for calling a story great, without zeroing in on the defining characteristic of greatness itself. Many a good story has been told that no one, not even the storyteller’s relatives, would call great. There’s something more at work in the crafting of a truly great tale.

     We’re getting into the subjective here, so as usual, your mileage may vary.

     The emergence during the Twentieth Century of fictional styles that deviate greatly from direct narration was accompanied by a great tumult, among readers and critics both. Some of them, such as stream-of-consciousness, were eventually widely accepted. Others, such as the fragmented, difficult to follow approaches employed by Jerzy Kosinski and J. P. Donleavy, have gained only limited popularity. Curiously, in critical circles the latter command greater prestige than the former. Often a critic will deem a writer’s dramatic deviation from the norm reason enough to call him “great” even if his books don’t sell.

     My own take on this is that such stylistic “innovations” are lace edging at best, sense-clouding deviation for deviation’s sake at worst. The quality of the story being told, particularly how deeply it affects the reader, matters infinitely more than any aspect of style.

     A deeply affecting story needn’t be about world-shaking events. It can be, of course; J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy concerns events that could mean enduring freedom or a permanent descend into slavery for an entire world. But Judith Guest’s beautiful Ordinary People is equally affecting, though it limits itself to the troubles of a single family that’s lost a son in a boating accident.

     Note that the two books above tell widely different kinds of story, and are told in markedly different styles. Yet both fit my criterion for greatness: they couple to the great emotions and what evokes them.

     The great emotions are most reliably evoked by a story that illustrates a great truth about human nature. Sometimes, the central truth will be of the sort that we’re loath to admit to ourselves. That’s the case in Ordinary People, where the Jarrett family’s difficulties arise from the way Beth Jarret blames her son Conrad for her son Jordan’s death. In other cases, the central truth will be about something grander in scale that we (should) all know: the inherent goals of those who embrace evil, and the sacrifices good men must make to defeat them, as in The Lord of the Rings. But one way or another, an eternal verity – an abiding truth that’s both universal among men and inherent in our common nature – will stand at the heart of a great tale.

     A writer will sometimes be accorded greatness on the strength of a single book. Consider Margaret Mitchell and Gone With The Wind. Other writers are deemed great on the basis of a consistent level of excellence in their lifetime body of work, such as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. Then there are “split decisions” about writers such as Norman Mailer, who did produce one great book, The Naked and the Dead, and one hell of a lot of schlock. Opinions will always vary.

     The one thing that won’t vary is that people will read their stuff.

     Few writers working today will ever be called great. In part that’s because there are so many writers today, if we allow the title to anyone who’s ever emitted a Kindle eBook. But in larger measure, it’s because there’s a whole lot of detritus obscuring good storytelling in our time. It begins with emphasis on “style.” It ends with “message fiction.” In the middle are the emissions of critics, most of whom couldn’t compose a comprehensible note to their mothers, and literary prizes most commonly awarded by prize juries on the basis of personal acquaintances, commonality of style, and “politically correct” sentiments.

     Most of the garbage will get caught in the filter of time. The good stuff will be read by generations to come. Their readers will select from those survivors which books and writers are to be called great. We won’t be given a vote, except by what we choose to buy, read, and recommend to one another today.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Right, Wrong, Good, Bad, And Tastes

     “De gustibus non est disputandum.” – some Roman or other.

     “Chacun a son gout.” – some Frenchman or other.

     “Jesus, am I tired,” he says.
     “Yeah, well, that’s a helluva big secret you’ve been keeping on yourself,” Berger says.
     “So what do I do now?”
     “Well, you’ve done it, haven’t you? Revelation. She’s not perfect. Recognize her limitations.”
     “You mean, like she can’t love me.”
     “Like she can’t love you enough. Like she loves you as much as she’s able. Perspective, kiddo, remember? Maybe she’s afraid. Maybe it’s hard for her to give love.”
     “No,” he says, “it isn’t. She loves my father, I know that.” He closes his eyes. “She loved my brother, too. It’s just me.”
     “Ah, now we’re back to the old rotten-kid routine. She doesn’t love you because you’re unlovable. So where does that leave your dad? How come he loves you? Doesn’t he know what a rotten kid you are?”
     “That’s different. He feels responsible. Besides, he loves everybody.”
     “Oh, I get it, the guy’s got no taste. He loves you, but he’s wrong.”

     [Judith Guest, Ordinary People]

     Were I able to locate the CD, I’d have included in the above set of quotes a magnificently insightful statement by persuasion specialist Michael Emerling, which I shall now proceed to paraphrase: the quick road to total ineffectiveness at persuasion is to define the other guy’s convictions, preferences, and tastes as “wrong.” Indeed, that’s the quick road to total ineffectiveness at life itself.

     Those of us who sell entertainment must make our peace with the great variety of personal tastes out there. Those of us who sell fiction, even in this era of anything-goes and self-publishing that owes nothing to anyone, must be particularly alert to that diversity. It matters a hell of a lot more than race, sex, or political alignment.

     A couple of years back I locked ‘em up with another writer – not a fictioneer, an opinion-monger – who took me to task for using the word Negro. He claimed it was offensive – that it indicated that I harbor a desire to “make black people feel bad.” A couple of years before that, a different fellow upbraided me for making Angela Farnsworth, the co-protagonist of the segment “Incantations” in my novel Chosen One, a Negro. And of course, as I’m utterly resolved to use (and promote the use of) “he-his-him” as the generic singular pronouns, I get flak regularly from militant feminists, and more recently from transgender activists as well.

     I’ve learned to shrug it off. Why worry about readers whose principal criterion for enjoyment is that their entertainment conform perfectly to their social and political opinions? They won’t be back. I have my own convictions, preferences, and tastes to appease. Why should I devalue them for the sake of some emotionally constipated militant for attitudes I’ve rejected?

     I’ve had a fair number of writing colleagues suggest to me that I’m reducing my potential sales by insisting on going my own way. They’re probably right, but what of it? I’m not a hooker. Indeed, even hookers don’t insist on pleasing everyone.

     One of the truly marvelous things about the present day is that just about anyone can find fiction that will suit his preferences down to the last comma. That immense diversity of personal tastes is just as great a blessing from the writer’s perspective. However, it does make it more difficult to talk about “right and wrong” in the crafting of fiction.

     Way, way back in the Early Obscene, when we were all swinging from tree to tree in search of a perfectly ripe banana and I still harbored a fantasy of conventional publication, I read in several publications for the terminally deluded aspiring writer that the prologue was “passé.” More specifically, these folks put forth the proposition – which for all I know was correct then and remains so today – that opening a novel with a prologue greatly increases the probability that Pub World editors would reject it.

     As the seasons changed and my hairline receded, I gradually became convinced that Pub World would never show an interest in my weird, Catholic-flavored, overtly heroic and freedom-oriented fiction. So I dismissed the advice of all those presumably well-meaning publications and did what I damned well pleased. In late 2009, when I decided at last to “go indie” and self-publish, I put forth exactly what I’d written – what I’d wanted to write. As there were quite a few readers, both in the U.S. and in other countries where English is spoken or widely taught, who’d been looking for the sort of thing I write and were greatly displeased by its absence from Pub World’s offerings, I gained a readership. Those readers didn’t seem at all put off by the prologues to Chosen One and Which Art In Hope. Maybe they hadn’t read my betters’ condemnations of such things.

     “Good and bad” in fiction have always been matters of taste. There are people who think Dhalgren is a work of genius. There are others who consider it vile trash. (I’m in the latter category.) As an engineering colleague of mine likes to say, that’s why there’s chocolate and vanilla.

     It may not be clear what I’m driving at here. (It wouldn’t be the first time, would it, Gentle Reader?) Candidly, it can be reduced to a single sentence:

The writer should write what pleases him.

     (Ah! Those contentious, sententious pronouns! They’re everywhere.)

     Your audience will self-select. Until they deign to speak to you, whether through email, Amazon reviews, social media, or what have you, you won’t know what pleased them and what didn’t. Even when they do, what matters most, unless the collection agents have massed on your lawn, are hollering at you through bullhorns, and are brandishing their battering rams, is, was, and will always be whether your fiction satisfies you.

     That having been said, I do hold that there are “better” and “worse” ways to approach description, dialogue, fictional time management, transitions between scenes and viewpoints, and so forth. I’m not bashful; I’ll readily say so to those who approach me for critiques. But the persons issuing the judgment that really matters will be those who elect to lavish their money and time on your fiction. In a world with 7.5 billion people in it, a great many will find fault with your choices...and many others will applaud. So don’t let the Constipated Ones constipate you.

     This weekend is for giving thanks. If you write, you might include in your personal list some gratitude for the independent-writer / self-publishing revolution. While it has had its costs, it has also made a great many good things possible...including, of course, this essay. Now it’s time to surf over to Amazon and find something decent to read!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

“Why Did You Write This?”

     The news remains drearily predictable, and I have no high philosophical insights about politics or public policy to regale you with this morning (“Does he ever?” rises the mumbling from the peanut gallery), so I thought I might entertain you with some thoughts about why writers of fiction do what we do. It’s freshly on my mind anyway, as another writer who’d just finished Innocents asked me the title question about that novel.

     Fiction writers are as varied as any other walk of life. Our reasons for doing what we do range all over the motivational map. Many would take the title question as an affront, raise one eyebrow in a silent expression of haughty disdain, and stride purposefully away – and not because the answer is “obvious,” for whatever value of “obvious” you might care to apply. That having been said, the answers tend to cluster into categories:

  • Money: Robert A. Heinlein maintained to the end of his life that he wrote “to buy groceries.” I never believed it, but it was his consistent answer to the question, and no doubt it would apply to many other writers.
  • Entertainment: Many a writer simply likes to entertain, and likes being known as a capable entertainer. It’s the same motive that causes some partygoers to tell endless jokes and vignettes, thus becoming known as “the life of the party:” “You can’t throw a decent party without him.”
  • Message: For all the scorn that’s been poured on “message fiction,” there are many writers who write to promote a particular view of Man and reality. Military SF writer Tom Kratman put it thus: “I write to illuminate eternal verities.”

     Those categories probably envelop the great majority of writers’ reasons for writing fiction. But there are some that don’t fit in any of them. My reason for writing Innocents was one of them: curiosity.

     I chose the critical plot element of the book before I wrote it, of course: the emergence of a biotechnologically enabled subculture of perversion and enslavement focused on futanari. But I didn’t want to make the story a simple crusade against this new evil. Instead, I decided to impose one of the “products” of that evil industry on a good man as his personal problem: “What do I do with this girl?” It was only then that I set my fingers to the keys and began to write.

     But even then, I had no clear idea of where the story would go. I had to write it to find out.

     I had a gaggle of useful characters already “in stock” from previous stories: Larry Sokoloff and Father Raymond Altomare, from Shadow of a Sword; and Dean Amanda Hallstrom and her students at Athene Academy, from “A Place of Our Own” and “One Small Detail.” I’d explored their motivations and reactions in those earlier tales, and I was curious how they would cope with the two new Marquee Characters: Fountain, the story’s “problem,” and Trish McAvoy, Larry’s seemingly “difficult” colleague.

     There you have it: I didn’t know how the characters I’d loaded into Innocents would proceed with this new problem. I wrote the novel to find out. To do so, of course, I had to get even more deeply into the mindsets, assumptions, preferences, and convictions of those characters than I’d gone before. I got to know them to a new and startling depth.

     Georges Simenon, who wrote nearly two hundred novels, had the same underlying motivation. He once spoke of his indispensable conditions for producing one: he had to be completely alone and undisturbed for a couple of weeks – often he took up residence in a hotel – and he had to have a problem whose solution he could not foresee: “Otherwise, it would not be interesting to me.” It spurred him to a degree of productivity few other writers have attained.

     While I don’t aspire to Simenon’s level of output, I can testify to the power of curiosity as a motivating force for a fiction writer. I’m unsure about recommending it widely – writers are as individual as snowflakes, and what works for one could prove poisonous to another – but it’s my necessary fuel, as critical as a good supply of coffee and Oreos.® And for those of you contemplating giving “National Novel Writing Month” a spin, it might be worth exploration. I mean, if you know how the story ends, why bother to begin it, much less finish it?

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Innocents: Some Questions

     First, my thanks to all of you who’ve purchased Innocents. My special thanks to those of you who’ve reviewed it at Amazon. My extra-super-interstellar thanks to those of you who’ve recommended it to others. Word-of-mouth is an indie writer’s best advertising. Indeed, it’s the only form of promotion my books receive.

     Second, it’s time for me to provide the answers to some of the questions readers have sent me about the book, most of which begin with “Why?”

     One reader wrote to ask “Why is Innocents so much shorter than your other novels?” And yes, for those unacquainted with my other novels, it’s the second shortest of all the novels I’ve published; only Love in the Time of Cinema is shorter.

     This one is fairly easy. I’ve caused myself a lot of difficulties in the past by trying to control the length of a story. I have a feeling that a lot of writers do that, as we’re all aware that the “big hits” are almost always big books. You’ll seldom see a book at the top of the best-seller lists that’s less than 350 pages (approximately 100,000 words). Indeed, the average length of a best-selling novel is greater than that.

     But to obsess over the length of a story is to demote the story itself to a secondary consideration. However much story there is, that’s what there is. I could not have extended Innocents beyond its existing length without packing it with filler: unsatisfying side crap that would have detracted from the impact of the story proper.

     On the one hand, it’s a high compliment for a reader to write that “I only wish it were longer.” On the other, it’s a terrible temptation to the I’ve striven to resist.

     Several readers have written to ask whether Innocents will have a sequel. This has me torn. The themes in the novel are all fairly well encapsulated there. What would I address in a sequel? Kevin Conway’s pursuit of the villains behind the production of futanari sex slaves? Well, yes, there’s an obvious adventure tale there, especially as a Yakuza organization capable of initiating a sub-business of that sort would be large and mighty. The Athene Academy connection might deserve more exploration as well, especially in light of that most unusual college’s involvement with Larry Sokoloff’s little problem.

     The major problem here is coming up with a theme around which to wrap a sequel. I don’t write vanilla adventure, or vanilla anything else. I need an animating idea, some thesis about human nature and its consequences for human interaction, before I can get my condensers sufficiently charged to write a story. At the moment, I don’t have one.

     But perhaps the previous sentence should be edited to read “I don’t have one...yet.

     The most stimulating of the questions I’ve received is one you might have been wondering about yourself: “Why did you write about this?” At this time, there are no “natural born” futanari. The genetics of the thing might just be impossible, non-viable. The only humans that fit the surface description – i.e., female in all externally perceptible ways except for the possession of male genitalia – were born as ordinary males and have made themselves futanari-like by surgical means. So there’s no demand for an Athene Academy, and Larry Sokoloff’s little problem isn’t a present-day possibility.

     Or so you might assume!

     It’s been observed many times that just about any English-language noun or verb, if prefixed or suffixed by “sex” and plugged into Google, will generate thousands of hits. Sex isn’t just the “oldest funny subject” (Robert A. Heinlein). It’s also the drive most widely shared by human beings of all ages , places, and times. You have to be very young, very old, or very unusual not to be interested in sex. That’s a big part of what made the following passage from Freedom’s Fury hit my readers so hard:

     “May I ask a personal question, Claire?”
     “Go ahead.”
     “Do you have someone special?”
     The bioengineer looked at her quizzically. “No. Why do you ask?”
     “Just curious. How long has it been?”
     “ know. Since there was someone special.”
     Albermayer was slow to reply.
     “There’s never been anyone like that for me, Althea.”
     “What? Are you serious?”
     Albermayer nodded.
     “But you’ were in school with my grandfather Armand!”
     “Yes, I was.”
     “And you’ve never had a lover?”
     Another long pause.
     “I have no sex drive, Althea.” The words were drier than the dust between the stars. “I never have. I could never see the point of an intimate involvement, so I never formed one. I severely doubt one would have lasted.” Albermayer’s slight smile spoke of an isolation beyond Althea’s ken. She squeezed Althea gently, making the pumps in Althea’s suit whine. “This is the closest I’ve been to another person in more than a century....
     “There’s something missing from me, Althea. At least, my parents thought so. I hear other people talk about their emotional attachments—I hear the passion in your voice when you speak of your husband, and in Nora’s when she talks of hers—and it’s like a glimpse into the mind of an alien species. I’ve never felt anything like that for anyone.
     “I’ve been courted a few times. My suitors couldn’t decide what to make of my non-responsiveness. For my part, I never grasped their interest, what attracted them to me sufficiently to justify their efforts. I was always made slightly uncomfortable by that sort of attention, as if I were being told that something was expected of me that I simply couldn’t deliver.”

     Sex isn’t about mere sensation. It isn’t about reproduction, though that’s its biological function. It’s about winning the most intimate form of acceptance from another person. Those who, for whatever reason, can no longer “perform” remember what it meant to attain that degree of intimacy. And they miss it and yearn for it.

     That having been said, there are persons who have sexual or parasexual desires that diverge greatly from what the rest of us feel. Homosexuals. Polyamorists. Fetishists of various kinds. That bulging grab-bag labeled “polymorphously perverse.” Remember that bit about Google searches.

     With an estimated 7.5 billion persons alive at this time, you can bet the rent money that there are persons whose deepest desire is for a futanari lover. Indeed, I can prove it: there’s a substantial “industry” dedicated to serving that desire. Many who are aware of it speak of it as a Southeast Asian phenomenon, but there’s an outcropping of it here in the United States as well.

     So what would happen if some of those folks – the richer ones – were to look into whether it might be possible to have “lovers” made to order? Including the sort of conditioning poor helpless Fountain had to endure? Are you sure it’s impossible? More, are you certain the rest of us would ever learn about it?

     But that’s only half of the reason for the story.

     My two greatest reasons for writing, whether fiction or these interminable op-eds, are to promote Christian moral-ethical norms and to illustrate the importance of human freedom. Those are the fuels that power every last syllable I’ve written. Innocents and the “Athene Academy” stories are not exceptions.

     On the one hand, I continue to believe that the “transgender” phenomenon is a fad that will soon burn itself out. There are very few persons whose emotional health genuinely requires a sex change. Moreover, it seems that quite a lot of transgender individuals regret having transitioned and are coming forward to say so. On the other hand, I’ve made the acquaintance of two transwomen who appear to have needed their transitions for their emotional well-being. It’s on that basis that I find myself unable to condemn the thing entirely.

     Freedom must, by necessity, include the right to “make your own mistakes.” There is no alternative; else we would have no fundamental argument with the bien-pensants who’d very much like to rule us all, down to the smallest detail. Moreover, anyone can be wrong about anything, so posturing as an authority is a dangerous perch to mount. Falling from that sort of perch is rather humiliating.

     Now add this:

     Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why seest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye; and seest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how sayest thou to thy brother, Let me cast the mote out of thine eye; and behold, a beam is in thine own eye? [Matthew 7:1-4]

     The Redeemer was pretty definite about it.

     They whose choices we deplore are individuals with free will and souls of their own. We are not responsible for their choices; we are responsible for our behavior toward them. How much more, then, would we be required to respect, to love, and to protect those whose circumstances have been forced upon them? Futanari such as the students and staff of Athene Academy? Genetically engineered individuals such as Fountain?

     I would agree that were we to discover an enterprise that deliberately turns out genetically engineered futanari, conditioned sex slaves, or a combination of the two, it would be morally imperative to stamp it out and salt the ground from which it sprang. But our proper attitude toward the products of such an enterprise, being humans with souls as valuable as yours or mine, would be quite another matter. Father Ray’s closing statements to Larry Sokoloff proceed from that conviction.

     I see that once again I’ve gone on at greater length than I originally intended. It’s like the problem of the “lazy preacher” who writes long sermons: once he gets to writing, he’s too lazy to stop. But that’s what writers are like, and I’m a writer, so have a little pity.

     A final thought: Time was, all fiction took the form of the play, and plays were categorized as follows:

  • Miracle: The central element was some event that seems to contradict the laws of Nature.
  • Mystery: The story turns on some inscrutable element of the Divine.
  • Morality: The story concerns an aspect of morality and what happens when it’s disregarded.

     I’m comfortable with giving Innocents any of those labels. One way or another, I hope it’s provided you with some food for thought.

Friday, October 6, 2017

It's Here

     For those of you who’ve been waiting:

     A novel of the Onteora Canon, set in the very near future. Genetic engineering and zygotic microsurgery have produced both wonders and horrors. Wonders such as drugs tailored to attack a specific disease in a specific sufferer, or surgery to eliminate genetically borne handicaps before mitosis can begin. Horrors such as blindness or deafness deliberately inflicted upon unborn babies, or pitiable creatures whose bodies and minds are warped to satisfy the whims of wealthy perverts.

     Security specialist Larry Sokoloff is on vacation far from home, straining to forget a woman he loves but cannot have, when Fountain, a teenaged escapee from a malevolent institution, comes under his protection. What he learns of her nature and origins lays bare the darker face of the Janus of biotechnology, and catapults him and his colleague Trish McAvoy into a mission of vengeance and cleansing. For adults only.

     Innocents, an Amazon “KDP Select” exclusive, is currently $2.99. Around the turn of the year, depending on how sales have gone, I’ll consider releasing it at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble. I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Text Versus Subtext

     When you’re bogged down in writing the conclusion of a novel that’s taken far too long to complete, you tend to look for inspiration (and explanations) in a myriad places. Inevitably, many of those places will have absolutely no relation to what you’re attempting (and precious little of anything else to offer you). But you’ll keep looking...if only to take your mind briefly off the fictional corner you’ve painted yourself into.

     Yes, I’m venting about my own agonizingly protracted labors. All the same, now and then the quest for insight yields something worthy of commentary...a good thing, as I’m having an increasingly hard time writing about politics, public policy, and the cavalcade of idiots, swindlers, and miscellaneous con men that we call the government in these United States.

     As it happens, fledgling writers come to me, a veteran of the indie fiction movement, every so often for advice on this or that. Some of their questions are more easily answered than others. In a great many cases, the answer is itself a question:

“Why are you writing this?”

     As it happens, it’s a question that has only one right answer – a curious thing when there are so many to which millions of answers are both acceptable and potentially constructive:

“I’m trying to illustrate X.”

     ...where X is some aspect of the eternal laws of human nature. This is the fourth, and in my opinion the most important, of the components of a worthwhile work of fiction: theme.

     Mind you, themeless works of fiction abound. Some of them make quite a lot of money. Others are what an acquaintance of long ago called “poolsiders:” something to read merely for the sake of filling otherwise idle time. But works that people will remember for a long time after having read them will have a point to make– a theme – and will succeed in dramatizing that theme through the decisions and actions of their characters.

     However, a book that hammers the reader over the head with its theme is inherently a failure. That’s the biggest demerit against Ayn Rand’s novels: never for a moment are you permitted to be anything but fully conscious of the point she’s screaming at you. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are remarkable achievements, to be sure, but they’d have been better if she hadn’t been quite so relentless about her theme.

     So the writer must tread a middle ground: his theme must be present, and must actuate the most important decisions and actions of his Marquee characters, but the story must not be reduced to a Jeremiad that demands the reader’s explicit attention to its theme at all times. This is where the items in the title of this essay, and the effective use of the tension between them, become relevant.

     When I speak of the story’s text, I have in mind the key elements of the plot and how they bear upon the writer’s intended theme. In John Brunner’s analysis of plots and their expressions, he distinguishes among three plot families:

  1. Change that occurs because of the Marquee characters’ interactions with others;
  2. Change that occurs because of the Marquee characters’ introspection (i.e., self-examination).
  3. Change that arises when the Marquee characters confront a challenge from the world around them.

     Since a story must speak of change within and among its characters, it is quite probable that the above three plot families comprise all possible (worthwhile) plots. However, a really involving story will usually have one or more subplots: “action within the action” used for characterization and the insertion of important contextual matters.

     Subplots are an important vehicle for conveying subtext: secondary motivations and emotional currents that make the Marquee characters more real to the reader. Very few of us have a single, all-consuming motivation. Anyway, smart people avoid monomaniacs: they usually have a fistful of petitions they want you to sign, and we’re all way too busy, to say nothing of the dangers attendant upon signing anything these days. The sort of character the reader will enjoy reading about will have several motivations of importance, and some tensions among them that complicate his life.

     Consider in this connection a fairly common protagonist character: the lone-wolf hero, who habitually eschews emotional involvements. Such a hero might have any of a number of reasons for his emotional isolation. However, love and acceptance are primary drives; no one can suppress them completely and permanently. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, perhaps today’s premier lone-wolf hero, repeatedly has fleeting love affairs with extremely impressive women, only to pick up his nonexistent luggage and move on alone at the end of his main adventure. Child uses this motif in just about every Reacher novel, in part to leaven the action, but also because it’s vital to soften the character that much if he’s to be accessible to the reader.

     While this is an important tool in Lee Child’s fictional toolbox, he’s careful not to let it overwhelm him or his protagonist. Imagine the violence it would do to the reader’s expectations were Reacher to fall completely and inescapably in love, renounce his nomadic existence, flip the bird to the conflict that the reader was led to believe is the core of the plot, and settle down to a tranquil life in the suburbs. There are limits!

     I’ve just started reading a novel from a writer of “fantastical, futuristic, down-home salacious kissery.” All by themselves, those words intrigued me. I enjoy a couple of writers of science-fiction romance, and I was impressed by the author’s playful extravagance in the quoted phrase, so I bought her book. But from the very first pages of the novel, she appears to be unwilling to decide which plot thread is the text and which is the subtext. To be more specific, the romantic tensions between the protagonists, a pair of mercenary assassins who’ve contracted to capture or destroy a rare android, are given equal time to the external conflict in which they’ve embroiled themselves.

     Beware, indie writers: here there be tygers.

     A good story must have a main thread of plot development and causation: the text. Whatever subtexts the writer decides to add must be subordinated to the text. If the reader can’t decide which is which, he’ll be unable to discern “why you’re writing this.” In this trap lie the corpses of a number of SF romances.

     Indeed, much of the criticism that’s heaped upon crossbred stories – specifically, stories in the speculative genres that also embed a strong romantic current – arises from the writer’s inability or unwillingness to declare his text unambiguously. That is: “Are you writing a romance with some science fiction / fantasy / horror elements for a backdrop, or a science fiction / fantasy / horror story that includes a romantic motif?” This decision must precede setting one’s fingers to the keys.

     In our time, when brick-and-mortar bookstores have paled in importance because of Amazon and other online retailers, that decision might be a hair less important than it once was, as online retailers don’t need to “put your book on the proper shelf.” But it’s still important to reader satisfaction, and therefore to reader word-of-mouth...and therefore to how well your novel will sell.

     Need I say more?

Friday, September 8, 2017


     If you’re a preparationist – “prepper” for short – or are inclined in that direction out of prudence, this piece might hold a particular interest for you. No, it won’t provide advice on how best to prepare; I’m hardly an authority about such things. It’s pointed in a completely different direction.

     Some time ago, a Website I’ve misplaced surveyed all the ways the writer could imagine in which a world-ending disaster could occur. (Interpret “world-ending” to mean “the end of life as we know it” rather than the obliteration of planet Earth.) He came up with quite a number of them – at least ten, though I can’t remember the exact number – and assigned a probability to each. On the former count, I was impressed: I hadn’t thought of several that had occurred to him. On the latter, I was amused: it’s a bit presumptuous to put a probability to an event that has never happened – indeed, that could, by its nature, happen only once.

     All the same, it’s an exercise with some import, especially if one pays attention to the aggregate probability that none of the possible disasters will occur. If there are N possible disasters to fear, each with its own probability of occurrence (within a stated time interval, of course) Pi, then the probability that it won’t occur is 1- Pi. Accordingly, the probability that none of them will occur is:


     ...where Π indicates “the product of” and i ranges from 1 to N.

     Now, just how many possible disasters are there? Here’s the “off the top of my head” list:

  • Nuclear war;
  • Nearby supernova;
  • Coronal mass ejection;
  • Comet or asteroid strike;
  • Nanotechnology runaway;
  • Medically resistant pandemic;
  • Emergence of a super-predator;
  • Extinction of an ecologically vital organism.

     In reviewing the above, I must note they are categories rather than discrete possibilities. That is: there are many subvarieties of each disaster whose tag appears above. Indeed, the total number of discrete possibilities is very large – perhaps not estimable. But what’s on my mind this morning is the variety among them: the preparations required to survive each differ somewhat from the preparations required to survive the others.

     If the total number of possible disasters were large – say, 30, just as an example – and the average probability of any one of them were quite small – say, around 1% -- the probability that none of them would occur would be about 74%. Therefore, the probability that one of them would occur would be 26% -- but which of them is left to chance.

     What’s the probability that your preparations would be well suited to a disaster randomly “selected” out of a group of 30 that has one chance in four of striking?

     The fun part of this exercise comes when one realizes that while 1% is too large a probability estimate for any one possible disaster, 30 is far too small an estimate of the total number of such possibilities. The average probability of a world-ending disaster is more likely to be about 0.01%, but the total number of possible disasters is more likely to be in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands. So for our second calculation, let the average probability be 0.01% and the number of possibilities be 3000. What do we get then?

Π(1-Pi) == 74%

     How about that, folks? We still have about one chance in four of a world-ending disaster, but with so many possible ways the world could end, which should we prepare for? Do they have sufficient commonality that merely stockpiling food, water, clothing, fuel, and weapons would be sufficient? It’s very hard to say.

     I’ve been thinking about this because of the recent proliferation of “post-apocalypse” novels. Each of them has as its entering motif a “world-ending” catastrophe. The subsequent action and drama presumes the existence of survivors. The subgenre displays a remarkable consistency about what those survivors needed to do to survive: i.e., the stockpiling of the survival basics listed immediately above. But that’s not necessarily the case.

     I’ve recently finished reading a pair of post-apocalypse novels: N. C. Reed’s Fire From The Sky books. Reed’s catastrophe is a huge coronal mass ejection (CME) that strikes the Earth and fries the electrical and electronic supports to contemporary technological civilization. The effects are devastating to the United States. The most impressive thing about the books is the degree of thought Reed has invested in preparing for that development, assuming that one knows it’s coming. Reed’s protagonist family, the Sanders family of Tennessee, assumes that a CME is on the way, and has months of forewarning. Among other things, the Sanders clan puts Faraday cages around its homes, vehicles, and other vital electrical and electronic items, such that some will survive after the great majority of such are rendered useless.

     It’s left me wondering whether any group, however determined could adequately brace itself for a cataclysm that severe in ignorance of its nature. If the Sanders kin had prepared for a nuclear war rather than a CME, would it have fared as well? How would its lot differ from what Reed describes in his novels? Given the many possibilities, is there any point in trying to foresee what specific disaster is most likely?

     Fiction provides us with room in which to extend our imaginations. Many of the scenarios depicted in post-apocalypse fiction are somewhat fanciful. Yet they’ve been an important stimulus to the preparationist movement. Whether the preparations that have resulted have been wise or foolish is a matter of opinion, and well beyond the scope of a brief Friday tirade. However, the associated question “How broad is the spectrum of possible world-ending calamities?” should be of interest to everyone. It’s a spur to thought about how complex contemporary civilization has become...and how interdependent are its parts.