From March 2 through March 6, my science-fiction novel Which Art In Hope, the opening volume of the Spooner Federation Saga, will be a free download at Amazon. I’m trying to reignite interest in the series, so please tell your SF-reading friends about this offer.
Tuesday, February 20, 2018
As I’m rather old, I have memories of pleasurable past experiences that retain a kind of glow. In some cases the glow is not really representative of the experience in any objective sense. Rather, it derives from my tastes at that time, which were...other than they are now. This is particularly striking when it comes to the science fiction I once read and enjoyed.
Now, I read voraciously from an early age. A very early age, actually. And it does stand to reason that a child’s tastes will be less well developed – not to say immature, though the word cannot be summarily dismissed – than those of the man he will become. All the same, reacquaintance with the affections of those early years can be seriously embarrassing, even if no one else is around to witness it.
“What’s this about,” you ask? Simply, an encounter with some old, much loved books that have left me wondering how I could have been so easily pleased, and pondering the considerable improvements in the writing we find in genre fiction today.
(Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis. Ovid said it, I believe it, and that settles it.)
There was once a science fiction writer, much beloved by his readers, who wrote long series of novels that vaguely prefigured the interminable series of today, except for one thing: they ended. Apparently this writer, a widely knowledgeable man who was highly accomplished in his chosen field, was able to create the conditions for an extremely long and complex plot, and foresee how it must be resolved six or seven novels down the road. Anyway, that’s what he did in his two best known series, to which many thousands of young readers thrilled in his heyday.
I’m not going to name that writer. I don’t want to besmirch his reputation any more than necessary to make my point. But it’s possible, if you’re near to my age and have been reading SF for a comparable length of time, that you have his name in mind already. That writer deserves credit for his strengths. He was very imaginative, and took risks in scientific and technological speculation that other SF writers of his day elected to avoid. He also dared a political speculation the possibility of which few today would be willing to entertain even for the sake of an entertainment. In short, he was no lightweight or pansy.
However, if you were to put his writing alongside recent, widely approved examples of the genre, you would be hard pressed to rule it competent, at least by contemporary standards. By those standards he committed a number of mortal sins:
- Uncontrolled narrative viewpoint;
- Frequent narrative intrusions not bound to a character’s viewpoint;
- Dialogue exchanges poorly suited to the context;
- Quite a lot of unbelievable dialogue, as in “people don’t talk that way and never have;”
- Wildly excessive, cloyingly florid descriptive passages;
- Habitual use of far too many adjectives and adverbs, especially in their superlative forms;
- Exclamation points a outrance.
He never, ever relented from those practices. They can be found throughout his major series. And in reading his books with fresh eyes, I find myself embarrassed as much for his sake as for my younger self.
We might think of him as science fiction’s own John Galsworthy, an early Twentieth Century English writer of great renown. Galsworthy’s best known novels are soap operas about the Forsyte clan and its offshoots. They were amazingly popular; indeed, they made him one of the most popular writers in the world. He got the Nobel Prize in Literature for them. But they’re not well written, at least by the standards of our time.
Such is the natural condition of an infant genre.
As a genre matures, so do the skills of its practitioners. No one could get away today with writing like that of the SF writer I left unnamed above. Even the allegiants of the “Pulp Revolution” and “Pulp Revival,” movements which are demonstrating considerable vitality, don’t allow themselves such liberties and extravagances. They hew to contemporary standards and contemporary tastes.
This is all to the good. While it’s commendable to mine past treasures for their virtues, it’s equally important to recognize their flaws and to move beyond them. SF, fantasy, and horror writers are more proficient today, in part because their readerships are more demanding. It could not have been otherwise. Our fictional forebears wrote for smaller and younger audiences that had self-selected according to their preferences for imaginative speculation. Indeed, it’s possible that many of those younger readers were thrilled by extravagance, floridity, and narrative intrusions that embellished earlier extravagances.
But we grew up. We heeded God’s commend to “be fruitful and multiply.” In the process we bequeathed portions of our reading tastes to our children. But as the audience for speculative fiction grew, and the writer’s prospects for becoming established in one of those genres expanded, it became more demanding. After all, there were other things an adult could read...in some cases, that he had to read. His tastes became more discriminating. In the everlasting nature of things it was inevitable that he would discriminate.
And the writers of old who had delighted us with their less disciplined but highly imaginative works were slowly but inexorably left behind.
We hope to get better as we age. We hope general conditions will get better as time passes. In a free society, this is usually the case. But as with all other things, there is a price.
The price is the recognition that one’s childhood loves weren’t up to the standards of today. When one elects to revisit those loves, the reverie will be mixed with considerable embarrassment: “How could I ever have thought this was great storytelling?”
Well, perhaps that’s a bit unfair. It certainly pleased our younger selves. That’s what it was intended to do; therefore, it was a success. And perhaps the right perspective on those early genre delights, for those of us acquainted with more disciplined and refined writing, is simply to say, “That’s the way it was.” (Alternately, “Ah! Those halcyon days of yore!” If you want to confuse those who have no idea what you’re talking about, anyway.)
(Cross-posted at Liberty's Torch.)
Tuesday, December 26, 2017
Well, ho-ho-ho and I hope you’ve all had the merriest of Christmases! As a lot of my Web colleagues have apparently decided to take the Christmas season off from their various publications, and as I haven’t penned an original piece these past few days and have begun to feel a bit “backed up” because of that, I figured I might as well throw a few hundred words at this dive. You know, to see if any of them will stick. But — you knew that was coming, didn’t you? – in keeping with the spirit of the season and my generally good mood, I’ll avoid the subjects of politics and public policy. The rest of the year is sufficient for that sort of bilious crap, isn’t it?
So let’s see: what shall I address? The weather? No, no....My health? Good God, no! Unusual egg nog recipes? I think we’ve had enough of those for a bit.
Nope. Got to be fiction.
If there’s a most plaintive question I get from aspiring writers, it would be this one:
(I’ll allow that there are a lot of possible replies to that one, some more sarcastic than others, e.g.: “You want to be a writer but you have no idea what to write? Hmmm...” However, as I’m a famously sympathetic soul with a heart of purest gold who absolutely lives for the chance to help others with their deepest and least tractable problems, I try to respond constructively. Believe me, a lot of thought goes into it.)
Most of us who are entranced by fiction and the power it has to shape men’s thinking have some central passion we can call on to direct our efforts. In the usual case, such passions become our themes: the ideas that envelop, power, and shape the stories we write. Mine are Christianity and freedom. A writer who lacks such a passion has a harder time getting started.
Nevertheless, there are substitutes. If you can become fascinated by any kind of human problem, you can find within yourself the fuel and the material with which to write. Caveat: It must be a tough problem. No one will take much interest in a story about how hard it was for you to decide which shirt to wear to work this morning.
But stories are not about “problems,” per se; they’re about what people do about problems. More specifically, they’re about how addressing a problem changes the people confronted by it.
The great problems fall into a total of categories:
- The quest for love and acceptance;
- Threats to one’s well-being, or the well-being of one’s loves;
- The discovery of one’s own convictions, priorities, capacities, and limitations.
That’s right, Gentle Reader: only three. A problem worth a reader’s time will always come from one of the above categories. As they’re very broad categories, that’s not a problem for most of us.
The process by which a chosen problem becomes a viable story involves matching that problem to a character or characters:
- What sort of protagonist would find the problem both important and difficult?
- Does the problem require an antagonist?
- Does the problem require other characters with whom to interact?
The first two questions define the Marquee Characters. The third one defines the Supporting Cast.
The above concisely outlines my personal approach to beginning a new story, whether it be a short-short or a multi-volume saga. In the usual case, an appealing protagonist has been in the back of my head for some time, waiting for a problem worthy of him. Presently a problem occurs to me that works well against his definition. I choose from among the settings I prefer, combine the three, dress with subsidiary characters and a bit of sass, toss lightly, and serve.
Innocents, my most recent novel, conforms to this pattern in all particulars. Larry Sokoloff had been “sitting on the shelf” since mid-2011, when I released Shadow of a Sword. The poor guy simply screamed for a story properly mated to his character as I’d envisioned it. It took some time for me to come up with a problem he could get his teeth into.
As I wrote the above, an important codicil to my procedure became clear in my head: The problem must be one the protagonist must change and / or grow to solve. The solution can’t be obvious and immediately applicable, nor can it be in the protagonist’s “wheelhouse.” There are some interesting implications to that codicil.
The first implication is that the protagonist will likely be frustrated at first. Change and growth are hard. They require both acceptance of one’s “incompleteness” and the willingness to put forth effort to extend oneself. Most persons who confront such a challenge do a lot of hairsplitting, rationalizing, and general farting around to avoid facing the problem directly.
The second implication follows from the first one: The protagonist will expend a fair amount of his time and effort dealing with matters other than the central problem. In part that will be because those matters are more easily solved by a man with his abilities, but in equal or greater measure it will be to avoid confronting the core of the problem. That provides opportunities for interaction with Supporting Cast members, and time in which he can experience the sharpening tensions and conflicts the problem presents.
The third implication is my favorite of the bunch: A problem the protagonist cannot solve easily with his defined abilities and resources makes room for reader misdirection. It allows the writer scope for mystery, and for the development and emergence of an “unsuspected hero:” the seemingly secondary character who contributes the real solution, whether or not he’s the one to implement it.
Quite a lot of fiction conforms to this pattern. That the pattern is so common doesn’t render it banal. It’s common because of our common human nature. That’s just the way we are. It’s also common because reality is a real bitch...just in case you haven’t noticed.
I wrote some time ago:
The distribution of writers attempting the e-publication channel goes something like this:
- 90% or more: Persons who cannot write and should not try.
- ~7%: Persons with a fair command of English, but who have no stories to tell that anyone else would want to read.
- ~2%: Persons with a fair command of English who have stories to tell, but whose styles and preconceptions are unsuited to telling them in a winning fashion.
- ~1%: Capable storytellers, including a significant number who could crack the “traditional” publishing channels (or who already have).
If I may go by my experiences in reading other indie writers’ stuff, that distribution remains accurate. But that doesn’t mean that you, Gentle Reader, should consider yourself pre-assigned to one of those bins and therefore predestined either to fail laughably or to experience roaring success. If you have a story bouncing around in your head, a little time to give it, and a taste for adventure, you have little to lose by trying to write it. The opportunities to garner a readership have never been better.
So if you’ve been tempted to try fiction but have been wondering “Where do I start?” consider the above piece my Christmas present to you. No, no, don’t thank me; just buy, read, and review one of my books. I’ll take that quite happily.
(Cross-posted at Liberty's Torch.)
Monday, December 11, 2017
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:
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
“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:
(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
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
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 writer...one 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?”
“Do you have someone special?”
The bioengineer looked at her quizzically. “No. Why do you ask?”
“Just curious. How long has it been?”
“Since...you 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?”
“But you’re...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.