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.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Fiction Writing Notes

     The admirably prolific Sarah Hoyt has something to say about writing and the “Muse” canard:

     My writing career (though it was 10 years before I sold a story) could be said to have started the night my husband told me writers write every day. He's a musician you see. (Not for a living. He's a mathematician, but the two afflictions often go together.) Musicians practice every day. I told him I wasn't even sure that I could write commercially in another language (this was the year I moved to the US). And I might never have been good enough, and besides, well… besides, I really couldn't force myself to write when I wasn't inspired. He looked at me like I had two heads and told me, no, if I wanted to be a writer I had to write every day. Practice has a magic of its own. Just write it....

     The second thing I can tell you is that the muse or inspiration is a lie. Sure, sometimes it strikes and you write stuff in white-hot joy. That's great. But you know what? You can do it when it doesn't strike too.

     Sarah’s observations are worthwhile, but I must add a caveat.

     Yes, writers write. Yes, writing every day is a salubrious way to defeat your hesitance and develop the “habit” of writing that a productive writer would need. But there is a price, and it can appear rather stiff to the aspirant who’s unprepared for it.

     Some of what you write will be bad. Embarrassingly bad. The day after you’ve written it, it will assault your eyes and rattle your brain. You’ll cringe away from it, desperate to believe that you had absolutely nothing to do with its creation, that some evil entity stole your graceful, piercing prose and substituted a deformed mutant changeling. You’ll be tempted to swear off writing forever.

     And there is nothing to do for it but to plow onward.

     In one of his books on writing, Lawrence Block relates a tale about a writer friend who’d contracted to write the libretto for an opera. The friend called Block in a panic. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t catch the rhythm of the thing. The story failed to energize him. Every sentence he wrote frankly stank. But he was under contract, and the deadline was nearing.

     Block gave his friend this bit of entirely unexpected advice: “Then write a bad libretto.” And the friend took it.

     Sometimes there’s no way out. But he who perseveres might find a way through.


     A favorite subject of mine, when conversing with other indie writers, is methods of promotion. I’ve learned a fair amount from such conversations. However, I’ve also noticed that very few fiction writers put much effort into their promotional blurbs. It’s a skill that’s worth refining.

     Terry Lacy recommends an approach:

     Archaeologist Indiana Jones has to get the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis. He wins the treasure and the girl.

     Twenty-one words. The concept is simple enough and one of the many assignments I had to master in grad school. It's based on the simple idea that—according to some psychological study somewhere—if you meet a stranger, you have twenty-one words to get them interested in your idea. That's whatever you're selling, and we're all selling something, from an insurance policy to a novel I want you to read, to a pleasant conversation in an airport lounge, it's all one big sales pitch. If you hook them in 21 words, they continue to listen. If you don't, they tune you out—their minds go elsewhere.

     Now before you decide this is stupid, think about it. It's the elevator pitch, only shorter. You don't have an entire elevator ride—you have a sentence—maybe two—before your audience decides if you are worth their time. If that sounds mean, it's a mean old world out there—and in the faceless world of the internet, it's only getting worse.

     This exercise is valuable for more than one reason. Obviously, a concise, well-focused “elevator pitch” is useful in approaching busy Hollywood executives. But beyond that, it respects one of the ugly facts of fiction marketing: the potential purchaser won’t spend more than about 60 seconds on his decision to buy or not to buy. And if old Will will forgive me, that is the question, isn’t it?

     And, entirely apart from promotional considerations, practicing “precision writing” — producing a coherent narrative in a fixed number of words – is excellent exercise for cultivating the habit of precision in all modes of expression, including oral communication.

     Allow me a brief vignette. A few years ago, a young colleague, more or less out of the blue, complimented me on my “clarity,” both spoken and written. He asked how I’d learned it and whether he could make use of the same technique. It gave me pause for thought.

     After a moment’s reflection, I said “Meetings.”

     “Huh?” he said. “How did that come out of meetings? At the meetings I’ve had to attend, people drone on and on and seldom if ever make a point!”

     “Exactly,” I replied. “They horrified me. I became so determined not to be profligate with others’ time that I concentrated on boiling down what I have to say to the irreducible minimum. It turns out that that doesn’t just shorten your meetings; it makes your statements clearer as well.”

     And he smiled.


     In recent years I’ve become easily irritated by caricatures. Until recently, it hadn’t occurred to me how easy it is to create caricatures among one’s Supporting Cast characters. Some are more irritating than others – the greedy businessman who worships profit and will trample anyone who stands between it and him; the brain-dead housewife who knows nothing beyond Kinder, Kirche, und Kuche; the “crusader” whose motives are pure as the driven snow and whose policies never evoke a second-order effect – but there are many kinds, and all of them are detrimental to the plausibility of a story. The consequences are worse than the typical indie writer thinks.

     Lately the one that’s acted on my nerves like grade 0 sandpaper is the hyperzealous, utterly intolerant Christian cleric who wants his flock to get out there and fight “sin” (as he defines it) physically. Such stick-figure caricatures of priests and ministers appear regularly in fiction about persons from some “oppressed” minority. The use of such a character as a major antagonist can destroy an otherwise worthy story, entirely because of his implausibility.

     (Yeah, yeah, I know: Westboro Baptist Church. Now name another one.)

     A good story does require some sort of tension or conflict, but if the tension or conflict arises solely because of a caricature antagonist, it won’t persuade. It will work serious damage on the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” the asset which above all others the writer must strain to preserve. Without that – the acceptance of the “story universe” and its premises as true enough for the purposes of the entertainment offered – the story becomes trite. Cartoonish.

     If you’re laboring over a fiction that depends upon such an antagonist, I sincerely and solemnly urge you to reconsider. Your “story universe” already has two strikes against it. You can do better, and you should.


     That’s all for today, I think. To those who’ve written to inquire about the status of Experienced, I’m still at work on it...and it’s a lot more work, of more kinds, than I’d expected it to be. I’ve already thrown out two false starts and am straining to develop a third approach wholly divergent from the others. But never fear: it will be finished. I just hope it won’t finish me.

     Enjoy your weekend.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Love And Danger

     Once in a great while, I’ll write a short romance. On even rarer occasions, I’ll write a romance novel. And when it seems fitting, I’ll incorporate a romantic subplot into a fantasy or science fiction novel. So far, my readers don’t seem to mind. Indeed, many of them have commented approvingly.

     Mind you, I don’t do “bodice rippers.” These are also known as “sweet savages,” in the tradition of the Rosemary Rogers novel that inaugurated that particular subgenre. I prefer greater realism...well, when not writing about anarchist colony worlds, alternate Creation myths, or bizarre developments in biotechnology. I consider love too important to be other than realistic about it, no matter how many young women and middle-aged spinsters dream of being carried off by dashing buccaneers or ravished by devastatingly handsome vampires.

     But there’s this about love, or at least about romance: Danger tends to render us more susceptible to its lure. So there’s a natural place for romantic themes in stories that feature some sort of adventure.

     I see no reason to explore the psychology of the thing. What I have in mind on this 74th anniversary of the Normandy invasion is the gradual infusion of romance into the “dangerous” genres over the past few decades. It’s stirred up a lot of dust, especially among “traditional” aficionados of those genres. Many of them have reacted negatively, as if “their” readers’ habitat were being invaded by something that doesn’t belong there.

     I don’t get it, myself. The yearning for love is one of the most powerful of the human drives. According to Maslow, it comes in just after the quest for security – and I’ve sometimes wondered whether the two drives are really distinct. Why shouldn’t it have a place in stories from the “dangerous” genres?

     The subject has become especially heated in discussions of fantasy and science fiction.


     What constitutes “real” fantasy or “real” science fiction is a debate to which there is no final answer. The arts are like that. (I may not know anything about what I like, but I know art.) Consumer preference is all that matters; if it sells, that’s sufficient justification...at least, to the creator thereof. Still, you can encounter a squabble about the issue at any F&SF convention. Sometimes they’re organized as panel discussions. Sometimes they’re “organized” as fist fights.

     I’ll allow that when a genre becomes popular, writers that aren’t selling well will be tempted to try to wedge their stuff into it: square pegs jammed into round holes by main force. I recall a rather humorous story from an agent about a writer of Westerns, a genre that’s been on the skids for some time, trying to rewrite his most recent Western as an SF novel. The protagonist even strove to head off the bad guys at the Horsehead Nebula. This is good for a giggle, and perhaps for the occasional parody, but not for much else.

     But merely to incorporate a romantic element into a novel is no sin. Indeed, many a rather dry story has struck me as demanding an admixture of emotion. It often comes down to the questions “Why does the protagonist (or antagonist) do what he does?” and “What is he looking for?” If these questions aren’t answered adequately, the relevant figure is under-characterized. Under-characterization is almost always a failure by the writer to connect the character to the most important human drives, the ones we all share whether or not we manage to satisfy them.

     (A brief digression: Some drives can be transformed from a constructive and approved form to a destructive and highly disapproved form. I don’t have a word for this. The term for the opposite is sublimation. But consider if you will the character of Tiny from On Broken Wings. I submit that Tiny displaced his yearning for love into a need for dominance. I’ve known real people like that. End of digression.)

     Romantic possibilities can be approached from either of two directions. For example, one of the most striking characters in recent thriller fiction, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, regularly wrestles with his own yearning for love. It manifests in just about every Reacher novel. He encounters an appealing woman in the course of the action. At some point they connect emotionally (and usually physically as well). However, by the end of the tale Reacher’s determination to keep moving prevails over his need for intimacy. It gives him a strange, anti-romantic dynamism that’s part of his appeal. I keep wondering when he’ll meet the girl whose appeal for him is enough to get him to give up the road life. I’ll bet a lot of Reacher addicts do.


     This is on my mind because of the book I’m currently struggling to write. It’s a sequel to Innocents. It also features several of the characters from my futanari stories (“A Place of Our Own,” “One Small Detail,” and “A Daughter of the County”). The story treats with the current foofaurauw over transgenderism, with particular attention to the sociological and psychological aspects. Inevitably, it must address matters of love and sex...and inevitably, I’ll get a few reviews such as this one:

     Unsatisfying mil action, unrealistic romance. Marty Sue hero who ends up forced to do the thing he wants but knows he shouldn't.

     Let’s just say I’m braced for them.

     I know a few high-octane writers – indeed, some very good ones – who shy back from those subjects. They prefer to concentrate on things they know better: technology, combat, political and social strife, or what-have-you. I appreciate the importance of “writing what you know.” I certainly wouldn’t counsel anyone to write about what he doesn’t know. But I’d suggest to those writers, and to many others who share their aversion, that that doesn’t invalidate romantic themes and motifs as elements in stories such as theirs. They might want to try wetting their feet in those waters. It can do quite a lot for one’s powers of characterization.

     After all, what moves a man to risk his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor more often than love?

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Experienced: A Teaser

     [As I’ve received a fair number of inquiries about what fiction project I’m at work on, I’ve decided to post a “teaser.” The novel under construction, Experienced, is a sequel of sorts to Innocents. It also back-references an important plot element in The Sledgehammer Concerto. So if you’re unfamiliar with those books, what follows might confuse you. -- FWP]


Late afternoon Friday, April 20, 2029

     Rachel MacLachlan had powered down all her apparatus, had dismissed her staff, and was preparing to go home for the weekend. The appearance of a camera crew at the front door of her Grand Street clinic took her completely by surprise.
     “Yes, gentlemen?”
     The man carrying the microphone moved to one side and edged into the lobby of the MacLachlan Clinic for Desire Dysfunction. She turned automatically to remain facing him. He smiled and thrust the mike directly at her as his cameraman angled his camera to get an optimal shot of their exchange.
     “Dr. Rachel MacLachlan?”
     “I am.”
     “I’m Dennis Addison of the Onteora Register. This is Phil Wolsey, my cameraman. If you have a few minutes, we’d love to talk to you about your clinic, the work it does, and how you foresee your therapy being used in the immediate future.”
     Rachel was momentarily confused.
     “Why is my clinic suddenly a subject of interest, Mr. Addison? It’s been operating for several months already. We haven’t even had a visit from the county building code inspectors.”
     Addison smiled in that practiced way the professional interviewer uses to deflect a question he’d prefer not to answer. “I’m subject to the whims and vagaries of my editorial staff, Doctor. I seldom get to choose the topics I’m assigned to cover. But if you could indulge us for a few minutes, we might be able to get you some valuable publicity. You do charge for your therapies, don’t you?”
     “Yes...”
     “Then a story that would announce them to a mass audience and praise them for their efficacy would be to your advantage, wouldn’t it?” The fixed smile never wavered. “For example, it’s been suggested that your technique could relieve impulses such as homosexuality and gender dysphoria. Imagine how many new clients that announcement could bring you, to say nothing of how many young people struggling with such desires might benefit.”
     Rachel forced herself to remain calm.
     This is a setup. He’s the reporter that tried to torpedo Sumner by attacking his bodyguard. But he’s already got me on camera. If I give him the bum’s rush, he’ll use it to excite public suspicion that I’m doing something nefarious. That would make an even juicier story than whatever he might get by interviewing me.
     She strove to rationalize admitting the reporter and his cameraman to the clinic. She tried her best to see it as publicity for a highly positive development that no one, regardless of his agenda, could possibly criticize. She assured herself that she could control the direction of the interview, could skirt any loaded questions, could deflect any hostile imputations. She told herself that the gains, both to her and to potential clients, would heavily outweigh any negative consequences.
     The mind of Rachel MacLachlan operated at an extraordinary speed. She spent less than half a second addressing and analyzing all the For arguments before she smiled and said “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Addison, but I have no interest in becoming a subject of the media’s scrutiny.”
     She herded Addison and his cameraman out the door and closed it in their faces.

#

     “This is a dream come true!”
     Holly Martinowski had been about to autograph the copy of Unashamed the speaker handed her when the petite young woman’s effulgent praise burst forth. She looked up with a pleased smile.
     “Thank you, dear. It’s frightfully pleasant to meet fans like you, here in the States.” She winked. “Until I arrived and met a few of you, I had no idea I was being read here.”
     The young woman grimaced comically. “Are you kidding? You have a million readers here. And for what it’s worth, I think Unashamed is going to get you a million more.”
     The line behind the speaker extended to the front doors of the bookstore, and Holly had only until six P.M. for her signing. Yet she was piqued by the comment. “Why is that, dear?”
     “Heidi,” the young woman said. “The first transgender protagonist ever to appear in a best seller.” She giggled. “A lot of us have been waiting for a major novelist to feature one of us.”
     That brought Holly’s eyebrows up. “You’re transgender?”
     The girl nodded. “You couldn’t tell, could you?”
     Holly regarded her with full attention.
     The young woman was short and delicately built. Neither her face nor her hands betrayed her genetic masculinity. She was dressed in a figure-flattering skirt suit and high-heeled pumps. Her makeup was perfect for the daylight hours. Whether the makeup concealed the remnants of a man’s facial hair, Holly could not say.
     “I had no idea.” On impulse, Holly rose and extended her hand. The young woman took it. “What’s your name, dear?”
     “Irene O'Carroll.”
     Holly turned to the flyleaf of the young woman’s copy of Unashamed, wrote For Irene, with love, Holly Martins in her best hand, and closed the cover. “Well, Irene,” she murmured, “if you can wait until I’ve cleared what remains of this line, we can have dinner together. Would you like that?”
     “You bet!” The girl’s expression became nova bright. She stepped out of the line. Holly handed her book back to her.
     “Mustn’t forget this, dear.”
     “Not ever!”

#

     Amanda Hallstrom had never before faced an unsolicited applicant for admission to Athene Academy. For nineteen years, every one of Athene’s enrollees had been scouted by its field agents and encouraged to apply. Yet she’d known it would happen some day. Still, she’d expected that that day would not come until the college had publicly proclaimed the special, entirely non-academic qualification Athene demanded of its students...and of course, that the applicant would be aware of it.
     She certainly hadn’t expected that the first applicant to arrive unheralded would be a young man.
     Daniel Loring was as bright, as articulate, and as self-possessed as any teenager of Amanda’s acquaintance. His trim good looks were well set off by the white broadcloth dress shirt, brown slacks, and navy blue blazer he wore. His brown oxfords gleamed with fresh polish. His pleasant smile suggested neither anxiety nor arrogance.
     “Mr. Loring,” she said in a carefully neutral tone, “from what you’ve told me of your grades and other involvements, there must be dozens of fine schools eager to have you. Surely you’ve received the usual flurry of promotional packets from colleges better known than Athene?”
     Loring nodded. “Yes, I have. Nearly a hundred of them this past year.”
     That’s no surprise. “Well, what, pray tell, brought you to our doorstep?”
     “I only recently learned of Athene, from three of your students. I was surprised to find a baccalaureate-granting school situated in Onteora County that I’d never heard of. A school with no website and not one mention Google could find, at that.” Loring’s smile grew fractionally brighter. “I’d been looking for a good one that would allow me to stay close to home.”
     “And SUC Onteora didn’t meet your requirements?”
     He shook his head. “They don’t have the best faculty for what I intend to study.”
     “Which is...?”
     “Mathematics.”
     Oh dear.
     “Would you mind telling me which of our students you met, and where?”
     Loring’s brow wrinkled briefly. He shrugged. “Wednesday evening at the Foxwood Library. Ching-nien Chen, Sue Perrine, and Sofia Kozlovski.”
     The chess club. “Did you become well acquainted with them?”
     “Moderately so.” He crossed his legs. “We played some chess and chatted for a bit about math and colleges. When the talk turned to Athene I became intrigued.”
     “What was it that particularly caught your interest?”
     “The small size. The standards. The strong emphasis on the sciences.” He grinned. “It certainly didn’t hurt to encounter three lovely young ladies who are all so intelligent, charming, and skilled at the chessboard.” He uncrossed his legs and sat forward. “May I have a look at the rest of the facilities?”
     “Mr. Loring...”
     Amanda’s distress must have shown in her body language. Loring’s expression darkened.
     “Is there some qualification I lack, Dean Hallstrom?”
     He doesn’t expect to be turned away. Probably he’s never failed to qualify for anything before this.
     There’s no evading it.
     “Mr. Loring, all our students are young women.”
     Loring’s expression went from suspicion to shock.
     “Athene is a one-sex school?” he said. “I thought they were against the law.”
     “Not quite, Mr. Loring. For a college to accept only one sex is still legal, as long as it doesn’t accept state or federal funds. To keep Athene within the letter of the law, our students must be able to pay for their educations without any such funding. Any student who comes here must agree to that beforehand. That way we can remain single-sex, which is a requirement of our endowment.”
     Loring sat silent and motionless for a long moment.
     He’s probably never been turned down for anything before. It must come as a blow, especially as he’s apparently serious about staying in Onteora.
     “That’s...disappointing,” he said at last.
     Amanda nodded. “I can imagine. And believe me when I say that from your academic record, your extra-curricular activities, and your exemplary manners, if you met our other requirements we’d love to have you here. But I’m sure you can see—”
     “Yes, of course.” He rose and held out a hand. She rose and took it. “Thank you for your time, Dean Hallstrom.”
     He closed the door of her office gently behind him.

#

     Daniel Loring ambled semiconsciously out of Amanda Hallstrom’s office toward the double doors of Athene Academy’s main building. The guard on duty had to remind him to return his visitor’s badge as he departed. He unlocked his Lexus and seated himself behind the wheel, but instead of starting the engine he pulled his cell phone from a jacket pocket and composed a text message to his father.
     They won’t take me, Dad.
     Arthur Loring’s reply was immediate.
     —What’s the problem? Not enough recommendations?
     It’s an all-girls school.
     —Thought they were illegal.
     Seems not, as long as it doesn’t take govt $$.
     —Damn. I know you wanted to stay home. There’s still the SUC.
     Pitiful math dept.
     —That bad?
     Trust me. It’s Athene or I leave home. Maybe Cornell wouldn’t be so bad.
     —Let me think about this.
     Love you.
     —Same.

     He disconnected, pocketed his phone, reached for the ignition, and paused.
     Should I call Ching-nien?
     The Chinese girl was the most appealing young woman he’d met in years. Her prodigious intellect was matched by her amiability and grace. She’d confirmed a reciprocal interest in him by offering him her cell phone number. The warmth in her eyes and her lingering grip on his hand when he conceded their game underscored the message.
     She did encourage me to stay in touch. It couldn’t have been all about chess. Her schoolmates are plenty good enough to keep her busy.
     I didn’t tell her that I was thinking of applying to Athene, though. What would she think of that?
     Doesn’t matter. I want to see her again. Not necessarily over the board.

     He started the engine and headed for home.

#

     Arthur Loring returned his cell phone to his pocket, planted his elbows on his desk, and hunched forward in thought.
     One of Loring’s most frequently expressed sentiments was that a man can have anything he wants if he’s willing to work for it. It had served him well in business. It had also cost him a wife, but he tried not to dwell on that. He preferred to live in the present, enjoying the prosperity he’d earned with his gift for salesmanship. It had allowed him to retire a millionaire at age fifty, still healthy and vigorous enough to enjoy most of the pleasures of youth. He included in them the pleasures of young women.
     Now and then it chafed him that at age eighteen his only child was so reluctant to enjoy such pleasures along with him. It wasn’t that Daniel was shy or introverted...or, God help us all, homosexual. Rather, he didn’t seem to give women much priority. Mathematics, chess, American and English literature, and other entirely intellectual pursuits got nearly all of his time.
     Daniel was about to graduate at the top of his class without ever having gone on a date. It had drawn the notice of several of Arthur’s tomcatting companions. He’d managed to conceal his displeasure over it by shifting the subject to Daniel’s academic achievements. His drinking and wenching buddies, conscious of the mediocrity of their sons’ school records, usually fell silent.
     It made the matter of Athene Academy a sore point for him. An all-girls college so late in the Twenty-First Century should stand out as the aberration it was. The sexes had been schooling together from kindergarten through graduate school for nearly a century. Governments had made it ever more difficult for a school of any level to exclude either sex. Yet Daniel had stumbled upon one quite by accident. His discovery of Athene’s single-sex requirement had stunned them both.
     Daniel had been lavish in his praise of the three Athene students he’d met at the library. He’d complimented not just their skill over the chessboard, but their beauty and sociability as well. It had given Arthur hope that his son might at last be ready to break out of his shell, perhaps bring a “friend” or two home. Join the ranks of actual men.
     Becoming the first male enrollee of a previously all-girls school certainly wouldn’t hurt his chances.
     Arthur had not yet admitted to himself that part of his hope was that if Daniel were to acquire such a “friend,” it might result in a “friend” or two for Arthur, as well. It cost an older man a lot of effort and a fair amount of money to attract the interest of a nubile young club-goer. It had begun to seem to Arthur that he was overpaying for the attentions he received.
     He resolved to look into what it would take to crack Athene open. The goal immediately coalesced into an absolute. He, noted the time, pulled his phone from his pocket once more, and dialed his attorney.
     It would be best if he could do it legally, but if not, Arthur didn’t intend to accept defeat. It was what he wanted. He’d always had to work for what he wanted, and he’d always succeeded sooner or later. This would be no different.
     For Daniel’s sake, of course.

==<O>==

     [Copyright (C) 2018 Francis W. Porretto]

Monday, May 21, 2018

Affrighted

     It’s an old word, I know. Its meaning “should” be fairly “obvious.” And it describes a condition from which I suffer at predictable intervals.

     There are many kinds of fear, and many sources for each. For an old man whose final horizon is drawing steadily nearer, it’s common to fear that he’ll die before he’s “ready.” Let’s leave aside for the moment what it means to be “ready” to meet one’s Maker.

     My principal fear in these latter days is of deterioration. Aging brings that with certainty. We lose strength, endurance, agility, flexibility, and – most unfortunately – we lose mental acuity. These deteriorations can be slowed, in some cases even halted, by the right sort of effort and enough of it. But the effort becomes harder to maintain as one ages and grows wearier.

     There’s one fear about which I try not to think and of which I seldom speak, because it affects the core of my usefulness to others. It’s the fear that my abilities as a writer are diminishing.

     I’ve been cranking out op-ed drivel for more than twenty years. Occasionally the impulse seizes me to revisit older pieces: my archives from Eternity Road and The Palace of Reason. Some of those older pieces are a lot better – more sharply focused, more neatly phrased, and overall more powerful – than anything I’ve posted at Liberty’s Torch. The recognition draws a graph I dislike to face.

     But I’ve also been cranking out fiction over that interval. Now and then I get the urge to reread one of my earlier novels or stories. I don’t always resist it. I’m beginning to wonder if I should.

     Op-ed writers are plentiful. (Some would say we suffer an oversupply.) But good storytellers, despite the recent surge in fictions available to the reading public, remain pretty rare. My current sense of whatever enduring value my efforts have for others is that it resides mainly in my storytelling.

     And I’ve become afraid to continue it.


     You’ll seldom hear a writer with a substantial oeuvre speak of a fear that he’s losing his powers. At least, I can’t remember the last time I read any such thing from a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed. Still, I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not the only writer who’s ever suffered from that fear.

     My most recent three novels, Love in the Time of Cinema, Statesman, and Innocents, cost me agonies to complete and further agonies to release. From cover to cover of each, I worried that I’d lost my chops – that I could no longer tell the kind and quality of story I’m known for. That fear made me sensitive to reviews and reader email. A review such as this one:

     A superior wordsmith by far than many better known authors, he has a unique ability to write believable characters with extraordinary depth. But the storytelling! My goodness. He holds a near-unique ability to mix religious themes, challenging moral situations, relationship, and some good ol' fashion butt-whoopin' all in one. This text is no exception.

     ...would lift my spirits and (temporarily) reassure me that I was still firing on all twenty-three cylinders. A review such as this one:

     Unsatisfying mil action, unrealistic romance. Marty Sue hero who ends up forced to do the thing he wants but knows he shouldn't.

     ...would leave me in a funk for days, wondering whether I had any business polluting my own record with fresh tripe. And in the nature of things the negative reviews and the negative emails weigh more heavily on the mind than the positive ones. (The average review for a work of fiction at Amazon is slightly over four stars; think about what that implies.)

     The result is an increasing reluctance to start a new story. In case you’ve wondered why the books are being spread further apart in time, now you know.


     I’m not fishing for reassurance here. I’m mostly doing something I think isn’t done often enough. I’m articulating a besetting fear of the old: the fear that one has transitioned from an asset, valued by others, to an encumbrance they’d as soon be rid of. I think more of us older folks suffer that fear than is generally admitted.

     The marvelous recent movie Act of Valor has something to say about this, as well:

     Before my father died, he said the worst thing about growing old was that other men stopped seeing you as dangerous. I've always remembered that, how being dangerous was sacred, a badge of honor.

     Being dangerous is the critical requirement of a soldier. Every occupation has a critical requirement...and every one of us must fear that a time will come when he “just can’t cut it any more.”

     If you have older relatives or friends, and you sometimes see them mired in an unexplained gloom, this could well be the reason. If you’re still in the prime of life, you will probably know that fear soon enough for yourself.

     Food for thought.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Grand Unification Curse

     There have been several large-scale, powerful, and highly observable trends in fiction this past half-century. Paradoxically, the most conspicuous ones have been in the speculative genres: fantasy, science fiction, and horror. I say “paradoxically” because those genres are commonly conceived of as where a writer goes to do something offbeat and innovative.

     The channels into which spec-fic writers mainly funnel themselves are well known:

  • Fantasy has divided into two paths:
    • Traditional (also called medieval or “high” fantasy)
    • Contemporary (also called urban fantasy)
  • Science fiction has also divided itself in two:
    • Technologically oriented (also called hard SF)
    • Sociologically oriented (also called soft SF)
  • Horror’s divisions are much the same:
    • Traditional: i.e., it employs the traditional monsters: vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghouls.
    • Non-traditional: i.e., it employs contemporary motifs such as serial killers.

     There are sub-subvarieties within the subvarieties – e.g., vampire as good guy vs. vampire as bad guy, or zombie horror vs. zombie humor – but those too are “deeply grooved,” such that little discernible deviation occurs within them.

     This seems to me to be a marketing phenomenon. When one particular channel attracts a large following, whether due to a breakthrough novel or a hot new writer, other writers flock toward it in the hope of “getting in on the action.” It might be amplified by the great difficulty of actual innovation, but that’s a subject for another time and another screed.

     However, there’s another trend that unites all these pathways. It strikes me as a dangerous one, for reasons that will shortly become apparent: the trend toward coercing one’s works into a grand unification around a single “future history” or “alternate history.”

     I don’t know who was first to promulgate the notion of a “future history.” I first encountered the idea in Robert A. Heinlein’s early stories, including the ones in The Past Through Tomorrow, Orphans Of The Sky, and Methuselah’s Children. It is notable that while Heinlein continued to develop the characters and themes in those early stories, he also explored several other threads of development that had no relation to them. Nevertheless, he was among the earliest writers to adopt the future history approach to science fiction.

     Big ideas tend to be attractors. The notion of a consistent grand-unified history proved to be one such. These days, a great many speculative-fiction writers go to great difficulty to fit everything they write into that kind of vision. As with the spec-fic subvarieties enumerated earlier, this has had a depressing effect on actual imagination.

     I’m not trying to be critical here; I’ve felt the impulse myself. Indeed, I’ve been encouraged in that direction by my readers. But I’ve tentatively decided that it’s a pull I should resist...and perhaps that others should resist for the same reasons.

     Among other things, an active imagination dislikes to be bounded or blindered. If you’re fortunate enough to possess such an imagination, you know the delight that comes from having it surprise you with an idea you’d never previously entertained. But when it presents you with such an idea, straining to force it into a previously determined paradigm is at best a dubious use of the gift.

     This came to mind this morning when my very own backbrain awarded me a fresh idea for an SF story. After I’d marveled over the uniqueness of it for a few minutes, I sat down to write it out so I wouldn’t forget it...and as I was writing it out, I started to ponder how I could fit it into the established “future history” of my Spooner Federation series.

     A subconscious alarm bell went off at that point, and thank God for it.

     Genuinely fresh ideas deserve to be treated as fresh ideas: not as suffixes to older, already-exploited ideas, however popular they might have been. It’s not because they’re “rare.” As Isaac Asimov has told us, ideas are all around us; all a writer needs to do is observe his own surroundings with an open and receptive mind, and he’ll have more story ideas than we can exploit in a normal lifetime.

     This is a plea of two kinds. I’ve wearied of never-ending series founded on a single set of characters in a consistent setting. I’ve formed the habit of automatically turning aside from any fiction offering that purports to be a volume in a series. But beyond that, I’ve encountered a number of ideas that deserved to be treated with more respect by their originators: ideas that would have been excellent foundations for stand-alone stories, but which the originator forced, Procrustes-like, to fit into a “future history” or “alternate history” structure for which they were not suited.

     The “grand-unified history” series has its attractions. Among others, if such a series starts out well, the reader may reasonably assume that further readable and entertaining stories will be available to him, soon if not immediately. But lately that’s gotten to be a less reliable assumption. Many of us are hungry for freshness, for intriguing departures from what we’ve already read. The “grand-unified history” series doesn’t promise that; indeed, it’s an unbelievable promise in the nature of the thing.

     I could go on, but that fresh SF idea I mentioned a few paragraphs ago is beckoning to me. I simply have to see what I can do with it. Later, Gentle Readers. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Preconceptions

     My praise of John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising series triggered an interesting exchange with a Gentle Reader:

     GR: You enjoyed that? [Imagine a tone of distasteful stupefaction]
     FWP: Very much. Why?
     GR: It’s nothing at all like what you write.
     FWP: That’s true, but what of it?
     GR: I just can’t see anything in it that’s...you.
     FWP: You know, I can’t name even one book by someone else that’s at all close to the sort of dreck I turn out. Contemporary fantasies about an alternate Creation story? A weird Shire-like county in the middle of New York that breeds geniuses and millennial heroes? An anarchist extraterrestrial colony that runs afoul of a planetary Overmind? Christian-flavored erotica about divinely appointed priestesses of fleshly desire? Where have you ever seen anything like that, except from me?
     GR: That’s not the point. Ringo’s stuff just seems so far from your sensibility.
     FWP: But Tom Kratman’s novels aren’t? I like those a lot too, remember?
     GR: It’s just not how I think of you.
     FWP: Would it reassure you to hear me rant about novels I dislike?
     GR: Not really.

     I like competently done military fiction, whether situated in “our” world or in some science-fictional setting. But then, I like a lot of other kinds of fiction, too. I have wide tastes in all the arts, which has caused people to wonder about me for a long time: “How can someone who enjoys X like Y as well?”

     I think it stems from readers’ preconceptions.

     I write so much, and always from a libertarian-conservative Catholic Christian perspective, that I must seem pretty strongly “characterized.” But that’s an effect that arises from knowing me through only one facet: what I write. I wouldn’t doubt that other writers are perceived just as narrowly, on the grounds of what they write.

     As I’ve met a few of them, including some of the more popular ones, I can assure you all that we’re a goodly distance from our characters. We haven’t shared their adventures, either. And without naming names, I shall tell you about those who make really vivid contrasts with their fictions.

     There was one who wrote marvelous adventure fiction. “Man’s man” stuff. Before we met I envisioned him to be a real Indiana Jones type: broad shoulders, chiseled features, and a rock-hard physique. He turned out to be quite ordinary in appearance. His speech was a dual surprise: very diffident and guarded, and in a high tenor at that.

     There was another whose specialty was humor, in several genres. I assumed he had to be a convivial, life of the party sort. I could hardly imagine him without a smile. Yet he never cracked a smile in all the hours I spent in his company. When I learned about his marital history, it made a lot of sense, but only then.

     There was a third whose stories were the oddest things I’d ever encountered. His breadth of imagination made me wonder if I had any business writing at all. I hardly expected him to be the reserved, totally buttoned-down individual he proved to be. (He attended a science fiction convention in a suit and tie, and carried a briefcase wherever he went.)

     Those three have all passed away, so I’m reasonably confident they won’t mind my employing them here as examples.

     Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec cautioned us against imagining an artist from nothing but an acquaintance with his work: “The work is always so much more than the man.” That’s true some of the time, at least, but the reverse is frequently true as well. Many an artist is unwilling to present anything but his art to public scrutiny. The phenomenon of the celebrity-artist, whose movements the cameras follow and whose pronouncements on anything and everything are reported by the media, is a relatively recent development. Then again, so is the phenomenon of celebrity itself.

     If you attend fans’ conventions or writers’ conferences, you’re likely to experience the same sort of contrast between “people you know” and their real-life instantiations, who stubbornly diverge from your imaginings. It’s to be expected. We’re just not what you think. That’s a large part of why I avoid such gatherings as a matter of policy; I’d rather not be compared to the larger-than-life figures that fill the pages of my books. I would be found wanting, and badly wanting at that.

     I hope I haven’t disappointed anyone too badly.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Free Book!

     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.