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.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

A Dollop Of Reinforcement

     Every now and then, someone who’s read one of my books actually, demonstrably “gets it.” Note the “demonstrably” part. I’m sure there are other readers who “get it” but don’t bother to let me know. I cherish them equally. However, it’s the ones that express their revelations who provide me with the reinforcement a writer needs. One reported in just yesterday evening:

     [Porretto] attempts to ask questions along the lines of "what should a good person do in this particular situation?"

     Exactly. That is my reason for this enterprise, my answer to the question “At an age when you could justifiably declare yourself forever finished with productive work and dedicate your remaining years to relaxation, the enjoyment of the lighter pleasures, and chasing pretty women in short skirts and high heels downhill, why have you chosen instead to do this agonizing, time-consuming, monstrously difficult thing?”

     It’s to get the reader thinking.


     Most people make the overwhelming majority of their decisions without thinking. I can’t fault anyone for that. Thinking is strenuous. It takes time and effort away from other things that might seem more urgent. Worst of all, it can lead you in the wrong direction. As Robert A. Heinlein wrote in Glory Road:

     Logic is a feeble reed, friend. "Logic" proved that airplanes can't fly and that H-bombs won’t work and that stones don't fall out of the sky. Logic is a way of saying that anything which didn't happen yesterday won't happen tomorrow.

     The wrong premises will lead to the wrong conclusions every time – and it’s remarkable how seductive certain wrong premises can be. As Arthur Herzog wrote in The B.S. Factor, a paranoid is just a logician with a fractured premise.

     Part of our inheritance is a vast trove of “pre-made decisions” that apply nicely to a great many known situations. The child’s learning process is largely about absorbing those lessons. Because those decisions have been tested against the situations they fit many times, we can rely upon them – something we often learn by attempting to “go our own way” in such a situation and getting our fingers burned in the process.

     But that inheritance covers only a portion of the human experience. There are infinitely more possibilities than any amount of received wisdom can cover. When such a possibility arises, it’s necessary to think.

     The Futanari Saga is the most challenging of all my fiction to date. It tackles situations many persons would recoil from considering, some of which are active elements in our current sociopolitical milieu. It embeds several speculative elements – the existence of genetically (rather than surgically) produced futanari; human cloning; Rachel MacLachlan’s desire-control technology; Fountain’s apparent miracle-working – but I wrote it principally in the hope that those speculations might help to illuminate some current, real-world controversies.

     Any light arises from the reader’s decision to think: to apply his premises and his logical powers to the unprecedented situations into which I throw my Marquee characters. Without that, the stories are merely transient entertainment, and perhaps not particularly satisfying entertainment at that. But the possibility, however slender, that I could get people thinking about current controversies from an entirely new perspective is why I decided the effort would be worthwhile.


     At the completion of each novel I kick back for a few weeks, mostly to recover from the effort, but also to consider certain questions afresh:

  1. Am I entertaining my readers or just pontificating at them?
  2. What would make my stories more entertaining?
  3. Am I “finished?”

     The answers are never perfectly certain. They can seem more nebulous after the release of a novel than before it. But I must face them squarely, for the reasons I outlined in the first segment.

     If, by contriving novel situations with a degree of relevance to real life and putting believable characters into them, I can get a few readers to think more actively and broadly than before, I’ll answer Question #3 above with a resounding “No!” I’ll keep going. Of course that compels me to face the question “If I’m not ‘finished,’ then what comes next?” But that can wait until I’ve emptied a few more bottles of Harvey’s.

Monday, June 10, 2019

A Correction, For Whoever Cares

     In the past, when one of my novels has been mentioned in the Ace of Spades Sunday Book Thread, it’s been a modest stimulus to sales. Not this time, I’m afraid – and the reason grieves me deeply. Here’s what Oregon Muse, the Book Thread’s proprietor, had to say in announcing the availability of The Wise and the Mad:

     Available on Kindle for $3.99.Or you can get the entire collection for $6.99. This also includes The Athene Academy Collection, which consists of 3 novelettes.

     I have to warn you that these novels are rated NC-17 for sexual content. And if you're unfamiliar with the word 'futanari', you'd best not google it. Especially not images. I'm dead serious about this. Because what you see cannot be unseen. Francis has written other books that aren't quite so hardcore, for example the 'Realm of Essences' series, the first of which is Chosen One, which I've mentioned on an earlier book two three years ago.

     I can’t imagine what Oregon Muse was thinking. There’s virtually no explicit sex in any of my futanari series novels. I can only hope he hasn’t read them, because if he did, there’s no excuse for what he wrote above. Those three novels took me three years and a lot of painstaking effort to write.

     I have no idea what to do about this, but I’m definitely not happy about it.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Project That Lurks

     This one is for all the writers, both actual and aspiring, who’ve ever contributed to “the trunk,” that charming Nineteenth Century metaphor for cherished mementos of one’s failures. As a frame for my main thesis, allow me to include two pithy statements by persons of almost exactly opposed convictions:

Nothing ever goes away. – Barry Commoner
Never throw anything away. – Robert M. Pirsig

     What’s this? Nothing ever goes away? Preposterous. Of course things go away. Sometimes they don’t go as far away as we’d like, but go they most certainly do. I could tell quite a tale about the many things that have gone away from me – in some cases, without my prior consent.

     And what’s this? Never throw anything away? Even more preposterous. Why, it verges on balderdash! If we never throw anything away, eventually we’ll have no room left and no way to move around. Our homes would resemble those that were featured on Hoarders. And let’s not forget what the neighbors would say about the stink.

     Writers know this. It’s a regular feature of our lives that things go away, and that sometimes we throw them. But they don’t always go away forever.

     Way back in the chaotic year of 1997, I started a novel. It was founded on two science-fiction motifs that, to my great surprise, had never been employed by another writer. However, the year was a poor one for me, fraught with difficulty and strife, In consequence, I carried that project forward by about 30,000 words and then…just left it lying there. But I didn’t throw it away.

     In 2009, I stumbled over that novel-fragment in the process of moving from one computer to another. After I’d read it over, I found that I could not remember what it was that kept me from pursuing it to completion. My old passion for the ideas in it flamed afresh, and I drove it to a conclusion that the earlier me would not have contemplated.

     You may have read that novel. It’s Which Art In Hope, the first volume of my Spooner Federation Saga. Many of my readers consider it my best. Sometimes I do, too.

     Something like that may have just happened again. I was reminded, a couple of nights ago, of an idea I popped some years back, just after finishing On Broken Wings. I pursued that idea for about fifty pages and…stopped. I can’t remember why. If memory serves, it’s been in “the trunk” since about 1997. Twenty-two years…but yesterday morning I unearthed it and reviewed it, and it will surely be the next novel-project I address.

     I could have thrown both those fragments away. I didn’t, and I’m glad. But now and then it’s necessary to let an aborted project “go gently into that good night.” I’ve started a project or two of that sort, as well.

     In 2007 I was struck by sudden, unaccountable inspiration. I turned out a novelette that was highly original by the standards of its genre, I was immensely proud of its backstory, plotting, and characterization. It was a hit with my readers as well. Within days after I released it, they began to hector me to fashion a novel from it. And being eager to please, I tried.

     I tried, and tried, and tried. God knows I tried. I’ve been trying for twelve years. Every attempt leaves me more frustrated than the previous one. I’ve come ever so reluctantly to the conclusion that I can’t do it.

     No, I haven’t thrown that novelette away. It’s still available. But I’ve discarded my unsuccessful attempts at extending it to novel-length, and all the ambitions that went with them. It was necessary, that I might get the idea off my mind to make room for things I can do.

     Such judgments are tough calls. Mine cost me a fair amount of anxiety. It’s impossible to be certain that they’re correct, whether at the moment or long afterward. But they’re part of a writer’s life. If you aspire to such an existence, you must be ready for them.

     You see, there’s a project lurking in your subconscious. It might have been there for a very long time, fermenting, gathering force, waiting for the best moment to spring itself upon you. You might or might not know its name. Those things don’t much matter. What’s important is the project’s existence in that murky realm below your conscious perceptions and deliberations.

     If that project has left a few bread crumbs in your trunk, stored there by an earlier, less hopeful you, you could well stumble upon them at any time, find them nourishing, and complete a proper meal from them. That’s why you must exercise restraint about throwing things away. But when that project elects to surface, there must be room for it. That’s why you must make the tough call, now and then, to discard some goal that’s proved unreachable de facto, not worth the grip it has on your efforts and thoughts.

     These considerations arise in every writer’s life. You’ll face them in your turn. You will suffer over them; that’s in the nature of the decisions involved. But it’s part of the price inflicted by the desire to create, and you will be forced to pay it.

     If you’re a writer, that is.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Desires, Fears, Beliefs: Characterization At Its Base

     The political news is still all about the Mueller Report and the reactions of various talking heads, so let’s allow that to rest for today. I have a fiction topic in mind, one that a lot of fledgling writers have a great deal of trouble with.


     In my little tome The Storyteller’s Art, there’s an essay on “The Sin of Over-Management.” Its core thesis runs thus:

     Once you have defined your characters -- i.e., once you've given them their powers, their desires, and their constraints -- you must allow them to act in accordance with those things. Beyond that, you must permit the reader to learn about your characters from the characters themselves.

     Some of that is too obvious to require further development. For example, a character defined as a reasonably ordinary human being must not suddenly develop super powers. Alternately, a character defined ab initio as subject to an inability to face danger must not suddenly become profoundly courageous. These rules are understood by all but the idiots. (Yet one of the best known of science fiction’s progenitors, H. G. Wells, actually broke one of them in his novel The First Men in the Moon. It’s an amusing illustration of human fallibility.) But the part about characters’ desires seems not to be well appreciated.

     The most important thing about your characters is what motivates them: their desires, fears, and beliefs. A character may change in the course of a story – indeed, if none of your characters change at all you don’t have a story – but the changes must be traceable to the events he experiences and the contexts in which they occur. Moreover, he cannot jump an excessively wide gulf: to have a character morph from totally evil to totally angelic simply doesn’t work. The prudent fictioneer leaves that sort of “story” to God.

     Once you’ve defined a character, you must then allow him to act in accordance with his desires, fears, and beliefs as you’ve postulated them.


     Of the four indispensable elements of story, characterization is regarded by most writers as the most challenging. A writer wants his Marquee characters to be both relatable and interesting. There’s tension there. To be relatable, a character must seem familiar enough to the reader for some degree of identification. But to be interesting, that character must differ enough from the common run of Mankind to stand out, to make his decisions at least somewhat off-axis. The launching pad for all of that is motivation.

     “What people want,” from the 30,000 foot perspective, can seem fairly uniform. We want to prosper. We want to be safe. We want acceptance, admiration, and affection. And we want the sense that we’re progressing: getting better, or at least wiser, as time passes.

     But of course at the individual level the details will vary. Not everyone defines prosperity the same way. Not everyone has the same threshold value for “safe.” And so on. It’s within the details that distinguish us as individuals that characterization takes place.

     You can’t make a relatable character completely and utterly fearless. (In Joe Haldeman’s formulation, “the kind of person who would face certain death with a slightly raised eyebrow.”) Automata incapable of conceiving of their own elimination could be made fearless, but not flesh and blood humans. Neither can you make a character completely and utterly selfless. Your decisions about what he fears and to what extent, or what will cause him to sacrifice his own interests for others, are critical – and once made, they must be honored. If they’re to change, the changes must be justified by his experiences in the story.

     How is that done? Ah, it’s time for more coffee!


     The old maxim “Show, don’t tell” relates specifically to how your characters must be revealed to the reader. There are three channels for this:

  • What your character says;
  • What your character does;
  • What other characters say about him.

     Those are the only valid methods. This often chafes the fledgling writer: “Why can’t I just tell the reader what Smith is all about?” Simply put, because it’s intrusive. It’s un-organic. It’s like finding an op-ed essay in the middle of a novel: What’s that doing here? It’s the writer inserting himself into the story, instead of standing back respectfully and narrating the action to us. In other words, it isn’t storytelling.

     The temptation can be strong. It’s your duty to resist. Your readers-to-be are counting on you.


     If you’ve done your characterization well, your character’s decisions and actions will be convincing. The reader will be able to see him as a believable person. To achieve that standard, the best of all aids is backstory.

     Backstory is “the story before the story.” Your character didn’t spring from the brow of Zeus just as the story began, did he? So he has a past you can create, just as you created him. Thereafter you can exploit it as a basis for his decisions and actions.

     Little bits of backstory will make their way into the story proper. It’s not wise to incorporate all of it, of course. But elements from “story past” can, should, and will make their way into “story present.” Here’s an example:

     “What I’m about to tell you,” Holly’s lover said, “I’ve never told anyone else. Shortly before I left for Cambridge I made some inquiries about surgery. You know the sort.”
     Holly said nothing. Rowenna sipped from her glass.
     “It wasn’t that I wanted it for myself, love. I knew I could never be a fully normal woman. But I hoped that if I could just contrive to look normal, it might mend the rift with...”
     “With your father,” Holly whispered.
     “With Sir Thomas,” Rowenna said.
     “But you didn’t go through with it. Why not, Ro?”
     “Because it would have killed me,” Rowenna said. “The surgeon said my body wouldn’t withstand the shock.”
     “Did he know you were...naturally the way you are?”
     “He did,” Rowenna said. She finished her wine and set down the glass. “He was familiar with the condition. He said I wasn’t the first futa to explore the possibility with him. He’s of the opinion that futanari are stuck as we are, that as strange as our condition is, our nervous and endocrine systems are too tightly integrated to endure serious alterations. He said he’d made inquiries among his colleagues, and that they’d left very little room for doubt.”
     I have more options than she does.
     I never would have guessed.
     Holly reached for her lover’s hand. Rowenna looked up and said “Don’t!” Holly pulled back at once.
     “You must hear the end of it,” Rowenna said. “I went to my...to Sir Thomas and begged him to listen to me. I told him what the surgeon had said. He listened, and when I’d finished he pulled out his checkbook, wrote a check for a hundred thousand pounds, and handed it to me. He said it was all the same to him. He said he wanted nothing further to do with me, that I could do whatever I pleased as long as it was far away from him.” She met Holly’s gaze once more, and Holly could see that her face was wet. “And as I had attained my majority, he ordered me to leave Norfolk and not return.”

     [From Experiences]

     Rowenna’s explanation of the rift between her and her father (Sir Thomas) is part of the justification for her extraordinarily strong bond with her lover Holly, a transwoman of the usual sort. While it has moderate importance in Experiences, it blossoms most completely in The Wise and the Mad, which I expect to release this summer.

     (There’s an interesting sidelight here: I’ve been continuously developing Rowenna through two novelettes and two novels. Much that was hidden about her in the early stories comes to light in the later ones. In that sense, backstory can become “story proper,” but great caution is required, that you not slip into “telling” rather than showing character. I may expand on this in a subsequent essay.)

     Rowenna fears to lose Holly. Her fear is founded on the most important difference between them: Holly is the way she is by choice, whereas Rowenna, a futanari, is not. Holly has the option of renouncing the changes she has imposed upon herself and going back to masculinity. Rowenna has no such option…and she fears that Holly, whom she’s known for only a short time, might exercise her option and leave her behind.

     That’s how it’s done.


     Desires, fears, and beliefs. Make it your mantra. They’re what move all of us out here in the “real” world. Let them move your characters as well. Don’t imagine that you can get away with instant, unjustified transitions from evil to sainthood, or cowardice to heroism. Tell the story – or rather, let your characters tell it to you.

     The rest is just typing.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

On Standing Out

     Anyone involved in that elusive pursuit called marketing will tell you: You’ve got to differentiate the product! If what you’re doing doesn’t differ from what scads of other makers and vendors are doing, you’re unlikely to receive enough attention to repay your efforts. So distinguishing your offering from the rest of what’s in your chosen market space is important to the point of essentiality.

     But differentiating the product carries its own risks. Your chosen distinction might not “sell.” It might even antagonize potential customers, poisoning them against your other offerings. In the world of fiction, considering how long it takes to produce a novel, those are hazards to respect.

     Unless you couldn’t care less about selling or being read, of course.


     From my vast collection of funny images:

     If you want to sell books, “being different” is not a good thing to have at the very top of your priority list. In point of fact, “being different,” without regard for any other consideration, is pretty easy. What you seek is an appealing difference: a difference that will connect you to a readership that appreciates your work. That’s not quite as easy...and yet, when I survey the fields of speculative fiction as they stand today and note the trends and fads that dominate them, it strikes me that it “should” be easier than many writers find it.

     (NB: The word “should” is what Douglas Hofstadter once called “a push into fantasy.” It refers to a condition that might not exist...indeed, that might be impossible. That’s why I tend to put quotes around it. Yet there are persons to whom “should” means “If it’s not that way, it’s not fair!” Avoid these persons; they are vexations to the spirit.)

     One way of “being different” is countertrending: take some current trend in your genre and contradict one or more of its premises. Some writers have already done this with some of the larger fads. Another approach, particularly applicable to science fiction, is to set your tales in contemporary reality rather than the past or future. A third is role inversion: make heroes out of your villains and vice-versa. There are other ways as well; it’s a subject that deserves its own essay. Ponder it on your own time.


     A correspondent took me to task over the following snippet from yesterday’s column:

     The aim of the 20BooksTo50K writers is to keep their readers reading them. The method is write fun stuff; write rapidly; keep the pipeline filled. (I hardly need to say that I would never fit in there.)

     My correspondent’s question was “Why wouldn’t you fit in there? Don’t you want to sell books?” It’s a fair question. Yes, I do want to sell books, but I have priorities higher than volume of sales. For one, I refuse to do what other writers have already done, or are currently doing. For another, I want what I write to have some bearing on contemporary concerns. For a third, I am that most terrifying of all creatures, a perfectionist. I know my own abilities, and I won’t release anything that I feel isn’t the very best I could have done. Those three higher priorities are a limiting factor on my sales volume. While I want to sell books, I won’t do so at a cost to any of them. I’ve made my peace with it.

     I look at the sales volumes of much more dollars-and-cents successful writers with a mild envy. I’d like to have their sales figures. But I can’t see myself doing what they do, which is, in the usual case, following a trend. (In some cases it’s a trend the writer has created, but to remain overlong in a groove one has cut for oneself constitutes trend following with a side of irony.) Neither will I rush my work. I’m not quite the fanatic that Ernest Hemingway was, but I come pretty close. And of course, one who writes with attention to some contemporary issue is unlikely to please everyone.

     Priorities are like that.


     So yes: by all means “differentiate the product.” The 20BooksTo50K writers have chosen to do so by emphasizing productivity, escapism, and fun: qualities seldom found in the works of “traditionally published” F&SF writers of today. If the sales volumes I’ve been told about are any indication, they’re getting what they want. As their readers are apparently pleased by what they write, this is all to the good.

     But know your priorities. Know what matters most to you. If it’s sales, then so be it. But if it’s not, ask yourself “What, if anything, do I value more than big-time sales totals?” Answer as honestly as you’re capable of doing. Only when you’ve done so can you decide on your particular way of standing out, and be happy with what you’ve chosen.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Assorted Thoughts On Character Selection And Design

     When I’m in the middle of writing a novel, I seldom take the time to think about the fundamentals of the enterprise. I’ve done enough of this to have internalized those principles. However, some recent experiences have caused me to revisit a subject a lot of fledgling writers struggle over: what makes a character, particularly a Marquee character, plausible and attractive.


     In my little tome The Storyteller’s Art, I posited a three-tier scheme for characters:

  • Marquee Characters: The persons whom the story is mostly “about.”
  • Supporting Cast: Persons involved with the decisions and actions of the Marquee Characters, but whose fates are of less importance.
  • Spear Shakers: Persons who appear where they do in the story simply because there has to be someone in that slot; unimportant except as human stage dressing.

     Broadly, a good story will pose its Marquee characters with conflicts, non-trivial decisions to make, and above all else tests of their values. By implication, they must have values, arranged in some sort of priority scheme. The story will then compel them to confront those values and ponder what they’re willing to say, do, pay, or sacrifice to uphold them.

     The writer’s decisions from that point forward will center on manifesting and demonstrating the Marquee characters’ values through the events of the story. This makes it fairly “obvious” that character design must come first.

     No plot idea is sufficient to make a story “work” if it isn’t first matched to characters who will act out their values through it.


     I inserted a large number of Marquee characters into Experiences:

  • Neurophysiologist and businesswoman Rachel MacLachlan;
  • College dean Amanda Hallstrom;
  • Novelist Holly Martinowski;
  • Holly’s flatmate Rowenna Walsingham;
  • Holly’s “fangirl” Irene Carroll;
  • Security specialists Larry and Trish Sokoloff;
  • “Star-crossed lovers” Daniel Loring and Ching-nien Chen;
  • And Onteora County’s Catholic pastor, Father Raymond Altomare.

     These interacted with one another and a gaggle of Supporting Cast characters of varying importance.

     Ten Marquee characters is about twice as many as even a large novel normally contains. At one point I found myself wondering whether I’d crafted an unmanageable mess for myself. I spent some time dithering over whether to “thin the herd” in the interests of keeping the story coherent. After a while I decided to tackle the challenge around the waist, as the central theme of the story – the power of the human desire for acceptance — required all of them to be depicted in its fullness. It proved to be a great deal of work, more even than Innocents had cost me, though I was ultimately pleased with the result.

     However, the price of that decision has followed me into the sequel to Experiences, tentatively titled The Wise and the Mad. Seven of the Marquee characters from the former book will appear in the latter one, along with a few new ones whose significance to the story is yet to be fully determined.

     If I weren’t already bald from “natural causes,” this would do it to me for sure.


     It’s a blessing to have your characters “snatch the story from you:” i.e., to dictate what the course of events must be, once the setting and initial conditions have been specified. Strong characters can do that for you. Indeed, the stronger they are, the more likely it is. But you must be ready to accede to their demand for control of the story.

     I’ve mentioned this before, which prompted fantasy and science fiction writer Margaret Ball to comment as follows:

     On moderately bad days the characters storm through the ms informing me that they never said anything like the vapidities I've ascribed to them. On really bad days I'm reduced to begging the characters not to hurt me.

     I got a big chuckle out of that, largely because I’ve often felt the same way. Nor is it a condition restricted only to us two. Indeed, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s a condition that should be striven for...but I must admit that I can think of no way to bring it about, apart from making your Marquee characters as vivid as you can.


     Another blessing, this one a bit more mixed than the one above, is to have a Supporting Cast character grab you by the lapels and shout “I deserve to be Marquee status!” That’s happened to me several times. In one case it caused the complete redesign of a novel, and the reorientation of its sequel. In the others I’ve “promoted” the assertive Supporting Cast member to Marquee status in a subsequent novel.

     Now for the “mixed” part. Apart from the eventual benefits, no writer actually enjoys rewriting. As for a large-scale redesign that forces you to discard your original outline, synopsis, and notes, let’s just say I’d rather have another root canal. But there are few assets of greater value than a character strong enough to carry a novel on his own shoulders, so one must learn to pay the price for it.

     Larry Niven, well known for his way with invented words among other things, has counseled us to “Save your typos!” It’s good advice. To that I will add: Don’t just carelessly toss off your Supporting Cast characters, expecting to use them just once. Be willing to think deeply about them. Some of them could be hiding heroic (or diabolic) stature of which you’re currently unaware.


     If there’s any more important brief maxim than John Brunner’s Two Rules of Fiction:

  1. The raw material of fiction is people.
  2. The essence of story is change.

     ...I’m unacquainted with it. The most fundamental rule of all is therefore:

Story == People Changing.

     If the changes are dramatic, the story will be arresting...but that requires that the people -- the characters -- must be plausible and vividly colored. No plot, however original or convoluted, can save a story populated by pallid or implausible characters. On the occasions when I’ve gotten them right, all else has followed. On other occasions...let’s not go there, shall we?

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

What Makes A Novel Rereadable?

     As I’ve mentioned before, here and elsewhere, I own a lot of books: physical volumes, not eBooks, though my collection of those is growing too. At last count I found over 13,000 of the little buggers on shelves, in boxes, and stacked precipitously on assorted surfaces throughout the Fortress of Crankitude...and that was a lot of years ago.

     You could easily get the idea that I like books. And I do. Not only do I read a great deal, I find it next to impossible to give one away, even if I found it inane, insulting, or otherwise offensive. So they accumulate.

     Yet I read so much, and so swiftly, that I often lack anything to read that I haven’t yet read. Most contemporary fiction bores or otherwise displeases me. I can’t abide unoriginality, bad grammar, lack of fundamental storytelling skills, or a story that lacks moral and ethical standards. (Sarah Hoyt has called that last fault “grey goo.”) I also draw the line at “SJW preaching.” That category comprises all “stories” intended to make the reader feel bad for not being a wholly “converged” social-justice asshole warrior to whom the sole worthy purpose of a life is to harangue other people for not being equally assholian virtuous. So even though the independent-writers movement is producing fiction at a rate to boggle the imagination of a Manhattan publishing magnate, I often find myself rereading.

     Mind you, not all of those 13,000 physical volumes get reread. For one thing, a lot of them are textbooks or reference materials. You can only spend so much time on the 2018 Statistical Abstract of the United States before it’s superseded by the all-new, all-thrilling 2019 edition. The same goes for the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. So my rereading is almost entirely of novels.

     Not all novels, however much I may have enjoyed them at first acquaintance, are rereadable. I could reel off hundreds of titles of books I enjoyed – and still own – that I wouldn’t reread. So there must be some characteristic that divides the rereadable books from the ones that lack that grace. Indeed, I’d hesitate to say that there’s only one such characteristic. So let’s have a go at it.


     The major elements of a worthy bit of fiction are:

  • Plot,
  • Characterization,
  • Style,
  • Theme.

     Those four elements are the power cells of all worthwhile fiction. There are other aspects to a novel, of course: premises, setting, its balance between narration and dialogue, dark-light pairings, and still others. But those are less likely to install a book inextricably in the reader’s memory.

     I don’t think a novel must have a complex plot to be rereadable. I’ve certainly read enough such fiction – I’ve enjoyed many a Tom Clancy-style techno-thriller, and such a novel normally has a complex plot – but I can’t think of a book I’ve reread specifically to re-experience its plot convolutions. Similarly, a striking character or set of characters isn’t by itself a reason to reread a book. Many books are animated by important themes (“eternal verities,” as Tom Kratman styles them), but once I’ve encountered them they aren’t enough by themselves to move me to reread them.

     However, there are synergies possible among a book’s plot, characterization, and themes, which strike me as evidences of exceptional auctorial insight and skill, that do cause me to come back to it. These might best be summed up under the heading of drama.

     Not many people could give you a definition of drama. Indeed, the dictionary definition raises more questions than it answers:

     drama noun: any situation or series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking interest or results.

     But what sort of “situation or series of events” produces “vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking interest or results” — ?

     For me this is the question that separates the truly great stories, the ones that can be reread many times over the course of one’s life, from those that are mere transient diversions and entertainments.


     For me, drama has always emerged from a combination of the following:

  1. A well-characterized protagonist with quite definite values;
  2. A morally or ethically challenging situation involving events that clash with the protagonist’s values, whether or not those events were brought about deliberately by a conscious agent;
  3. A high price for the resolution of that clash, which only the protagonist can pay.

     There’s conflict. There’s an emotional coupling between the protagonist and the challenge he faces. And there’s the price to be paid, which should be almost as high as the value the protagonist seeks to defend, on the grounds that nothing valuable can be cheaply purchased.

     Mind you, there’s an under-layer of necessities that shouldn’t be neglected here. They fall into the category of a fiction writer’s tools: valid methods of characterization, viewpoint management, proper use of time and place, and the effective exploitation of Supporting Cast characters. The writer must be proficient with these tools, or his fiction, no matter how potentially dramatic his conception, won’t come off. But that’s a subject for another screed.

     As I type this I’ve been thinking about the stories I’ve found most rereadable. All of them follow the outline I sketched above. Some embellish on it, for example by embedding distinct plot threads that take a whole novel to converge, or by having multiple protagonists who are all good guys but have conflicts with one another. One way or another, the elements I’ve cited are present in all of them – and I’ve returned to them several times each over the years, usually when I was in a “how on Earth can I bring this off?” quandary about one of my own stories.

     I once wrote that drama only exists when men must suffer for being good. It strikes me as a compact encapsulation of the ideas expressed above. It’s also consistent with the books to which I return repeatedly, whether for technical instruction, for characterological insight, or simply for the moral uplift from the stories they tell.

     Such books are the exact opposite of “grey goo.” In a world in which the hero is becoming an endangered species and moral and ethical distinctions are all too often blurred – sometimes by the deliberate action of persons with evil intentions – they make enduring, valued companions. Especially for a writer who repeatedly asks himself “how could I imagine that I might ever equal that achievement?”