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.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Words Fail Me Dept.

Courtesy of Vox Day, we are alerted to a new "genre" within the speculative-fiction envelope that must be seen to be believed: Pornography about humans having sex with extinct and / or mythological creatures.

Gentle Reader, there are some sights even my iron constitution has trouble bearing...especially at 4:00 AM on a Thursday. ("I never could get the hang of Thursdays." -- Douglas Adams's galaxy-traveling twit Arthur Dent.) All the same, I had to show it to the CSO.

She couldn't believe it either:

CSO: I can't imagine who would read that sort of crap.
FWP: If it's being published, you can bet your bottom dollar that it has a readership. I'll go further: I'll bet you that there are people who read only that sort of material -- not even other kinds of porn.
CSO: But who?
FWP: There are some things Man was not meant to know, sweetie. But forget thou not the Weirdness Axiom first articulated to me by the late, great William M. Porretto:

"Son, in this world there are people who fuck chickens."

CSO: Ugh.
FWP: Dad didn't say whether I'd meet them some day, though.
CSO: Have you?
FWP: Not as far as I'm aware.
CSO: Well, you have a few years left.
FWP: (unprintable)

And a happy Thursday to you, too, Gentle Reader!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Assorted Fiction Natterings

I recall, from a few years back, an exasperatingly supercilious article that condemned the thriller genre so many contemporary readers love as "a pornography of the nerves." The author and the various "literary authorities" he cited were utterly dismissive of story, and laid 100% of the emphasis on style. I also remember snorting in dismissal and thinking, "I'll bet he wishes his sales figures would ever get that high."

The thriller genre owes much of its popularity to its readers' desire to escape from the mundane. To satisfy that desire, it must provide the reader with a compelling reason to detach his attention from his daily routines and the pedestrian environment in which they're embedded. That demands a certain density of high-voltage crises and events: life-and-death stakes pursued by characters appreciably larger than life. Such crises and events are unlikely to resemble the sorts of problems ordinary people face in their normal affairs. More, they wouldn't benefit from the sort of self-glorifying, "Look Ma, I'm a literary writer" lucubrations the Style Uber Alles types deem superior to plot.

A story in which the crises and events are the central point must be told in a straightforward fashion.

That doesn't mean a thriller should be acted out by stick figures, nor that the author needn't concern himself with the fundamentals of good storytelling. It does command the thriller writer to eschew baroque involutions of wording, unnecessary devices and irrelevant descriptions, and lengthy musings that don't contribute to the elucidation or effectuation of the Marquee characters' motivations.

Ultimately, it's about the point of all fiction, whatever its genre: to provide the reader with a unique and satisfying emotional experience.

Two and three centuries ago, when the first English-language novels were being written and published, pastors in the English-speaking world condemned the reading and writing of fiction more often than not.

Surprised to learn that? I was. But it's consistent with the time and the milieu. Ordinary people didn't have the wealth of free time we enjoy today. Their lives were shorter and far more arduous. They often perched on the ragged edge of starvation. So their clerics wanted them to use what little leisure they had in religious pursuits and devotions. You were supposed to devote your reading time to the Bible.

The fictioneers of that time were just learning how to capture an emotional journey and convey it in an affecting manner. Many of the stories from then seem stilted, awkward, even clumsy by the standards of today. But just as writers of our time strive to do, those writers sought to engage the reader's emotions and take them for a ride. Because they wrote about contemporary events and people, they were able to deflect attention and affection from the dry, exhortative stories told in Scripture.

As is usually the case, those early fictioneers improved with practice, and left valuable lessons for their successors. Over time, clerics stopped trying to discourage the reading of fiction, realizing it was hopeless, and bent their efforts toward the promotion of storytellers who emphasized Christian virtues and piety. Even so, the need to capture the reader's attention with emotional evocation remained paramount; no virtue of any category can be effectively illuminated and efficiently encouraged by dispassionate exhortation.

About twenty years ago, a fellow libertarian storyteller and I were bemoaning the difficulty of promoting the importance and understanding of freedom in an emotionally adequate story. "How do you write a story whose central theme is the importance of the gold standard?" he lamented. I could only sympathize. (I had no solution for him. However, I rather suspect that he hadn't intended to write such a tale in the first place. Even so, it makes for an interesting challenge.)

It can take a while to get certain of the high principles of storytelling firmly seated in one's head. Neither my friend nor I had fully grasped one of the critical ones. I recall feeling a great light dawn when I first ran across it in its most compact form:

John Brunner's First Law Of Fiction:
The Raw Material Of Fiction Is People!

To write about freedom, you must write about protagonists who are passionate about freedom, not about the political imperative of freedom to all men everywhere.

One of the reasons -- probably the most important one -- that Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is so popular on the Right is that Rand succeeded in personalizing the struggle for freedom. That is, she gave the reader attractive, passionate protagonists who were caught up in terrible crises that arose from infringements on freedom, and so dramatized the importance of freedom in an exciting, challenge-filled tale. The theme is freedom, but the story is intensely personal. Had Rand not managed to create such magnetic characters and embed them in a plot of such difficulty, she would have produced a mere polemic.

The same holds true for any imaginable theme. The theme of a story must be integral to the protagonists' passions and the challenges they must face. The events of the story must emphasize, albeit subtly and often indirectly, the importance of the theme to the solution of the protagonists' problems and their route toward the climax. It's about people, always people.

Brunner's First Law isn't a panacea, of course. The storyteller has plenty of work to do beyond what that recognition addresses. (Brunner's Second Law -- "The essence of story is change" -- helps a lot with the rest of it.) But until the fledgling storyteller has properly internalized the First Law, his stuff will leave the reader shrugging and muttering "So what?"

In just about every instance, when I write about fiction and its infrastructure, I'm mainly talking to myself. That's certainly true here, though I allow myself to hope that any other storytellers and aspirants reading this will get some value out of it as well.

In dark and troubled times, the storyteller's work waxes in importance. A good story well told has persuasive and instructive power beyond any amount of exposition or exhortation. It can propose approaches to problems the reader might never have considered. It can illuminate laws of human conduct that altogether too many of us haven't recognized, or are prone to forgetting. Best of all, it can refresh the reader's spirit and renew his hope.

The times in which we live are both dark and troubled. That's why, despite the difficulties and the frustrations involved, I write fiction, and not just these endless essays. I've come to think it's the most important work I do -- that if I have any prospect of influencing America's future course, it's far less likely to arise from my op-ed pieces than from the stories I tell.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Indie Fiction And The "Garbage Problem"

E-publishing, the channel through which most indie fiction (including mine) flows, is a double-edged sword. Altogether too many persons think they can write who haven't the slenderest sliver of the technical skills required, much less the storytelling skills. I'm not the only one to have noticed. When Flannery O'Connor was asked her opinion about how universities discourage fledgling writers, she replied "In my opinion, they aren't discouraging enough of them."

I had that very much in mind when I set out, with far more fear and trembling than you might imagine, to write my first fictions. What makes you think you have the chops, eh, hero? ran the censorious little voice in my skull that's endlessly willing to discourage me from any new venture. Pushing past that set of retardants was quite a challenge.

Ten years of unbroken rejection of my short stories by the periodical markets didn't exactly fill me with confidence. Perhaps it hardened my resolve. At any rate, in 1996, when I sat down to begin my first novel-length story, I was already certain that no one in the above-ground world of publishing would be interested. No matter how much I or my friendly test readers might think of it, it was doomed to go straight into that dreaded legendary repository of storytellers' shattered dreams, that Sargasso Sea of stories born to blush unseen: "the trunk." And so it was the case with the three novels that followed it.

Fast-forward to 2009. I'd been writing opinion-editorial pieces for the World Wide Web since about 1997, and had acquired a readership of some thousands of like-minded persons. One of them informed me of the existence of SmashWords, of its openness to all comers, and that his novel had already garnered thousands of readers though that conduit. With four novels already in "the trunk," and stories yet to tell about characters who refused to leave me alone, I had a reaction that, just maybe, every man will have at least once in his life, whether over asking his "crush" for a date, marching into his boss's office to negotiate for a raise, or casting his fictional bread upon the waters in hope of a 0.000001% return on his blood, sweat, toil, and tears:

"What the hell, why not?"

Accordingly, and with (approximately) no fear or trembling, I formatted Which Art In Hope to SmashWords's standards and submitted it for electronic publication. It appeared there early in 2010. Chosen One, On Broken Wings, and The Sledgehammer Concerto followed in the weeks after that. I made those first offerings free, as I simply had to know whether anyone would be willing to read the decidedly odd stuff I write even at no cost.

Within three months those four books had garnered over 50,000 downloads. I said a quick Hail Mary and assigned them the prices they bear today. Nine months after that, the total had broken 75,000.

The "legitimate" publishing houses, which I collectively call Pub World, had never shown me the slightest favor. Yet I'd garnered readers -- and revenue! -- through SmashWords. I was getting fan mail! Actual human beings were taking the time to write thank me for my books and plead for more! From all over the world, at that!

Yes, I was but one more swimmer in the sewer of self-publishing, wherein the only qualification required is a word processor and a lot of brass. But people were reading my work. People were paying to read my work.

Fifty-eight years of self-doubt dissolved in those plaudits. I was a new man.

It seems an age ago that I set out on this path, though it's been a mere three and a half years. I was overwhelmed from the first by the approval, the revenue, and the sheer joy of acceptance. I wanted everyone to share in it. So, in my desire to help other would-be writers, many of whom had undoubtedly struggled with their confidence and their technical failings, to experience the rewards I'd enjoyed, I resolved to read and review as many SmashWords stories as I could stand.

That turned out not to be as many stories as I'd originally thought.

The late Theodore Sturgeon, when a snooty journalist said to him that "Ninety percent of science fiction is crud," replied, "Well, ninety percent of everything is crud." If we take Sturgeon's Law to be a statistical average of everything Mankind produces, that 90% figure might be pretty close. But as we know, there are channels through which flows a slurry of much more concentrated crud. Indie publishing, at this time, is one such channel.

To date, I've read about 800 SmashWords publications. The ones I've reviewed are the ones that aren't utterly hopeless: about 10% of the stories I've read from there. Perhaps a fifth of the ones I've reviewed -- about 2% of the overall total -- display real creativity and storytelling power, even in potential. The rest are, to put it as kindly as possible, charity cases: their authors' mothers might love them, but the rest of us would prefer to watch test patterns on the television.

There's a real need for a garbage filter if indie publishing is to garner a modicum of respect.

Now is the time to act. Method is the unsolved problem.

The best hint might lie in the existing writers' associations -- the ones that cater to writers whose works have been published by conventional publishing houses. There are a number of them in America: the Science Fiction Writers of America, the Romance Writers of America, the Horror Writers of America, the Zombie-Apocalypse-and-Interspecies-Orgy Writers of America, and so on. (Yes, yes, I made that last one up.) Such associations provide various forms of assistance to their members, such as critique circles, mutual-editing arrangements, lists of recommended cover artists, referrals to other established writers who might be inclined to provide a laudatory back-cover blurb, and so forth. The major difference between those groups and the sort of group I've contemplated is that their members must already have succeeded in getting through Pub World's high and forbidding gates, whereas we would be the gate: a new applicant would have to be approved by a committee of the existing membership.

The implication is that the members would have to accept an obligation to read at least some of the applicants' fiction and pass judgment on it.

Indie publishing being what it is, such an association would lack any real power. It would be unable to prevent an applicant from publishing his garbage. It could only endorse, or decline to endorse, the works it reviews. So there would still be a no-doubt-copious flow of crud in the indie-publishing channel. But the Worldwide Independent Fiction Writers Association's notoriously picky Seal of Approval:

...would bark joyfully from the covers of the books we endorse. That, plus "networking effects" and whatever mutual-aid services a copious membership could provide, just might be enough inducement to earn some respect for our mutual undertaking.

Inasmuch as there's a perceptible hunger for good fiction of varieties Pub World isn't willing to touch, perhaps the iron is sufficiently hot to strike.

In case you haven't yet noticed, I'm getting old. (They say it can happen to anyone. I'd hoped an exception would be made in my case, but...) That has both positive and negative aspects. For one, in less than two years I'll be retiring from my "day job," and will presumedly have more free time than I do today. For another, I'm getting pretty cranky, I have less energy than I once did, and the C.S.O. has taken to composing ever-longer and more taxing "Honey-Do" lists. So I can't do this alone...and I've yet to encounter anyone willing to share the burdens of getting it off the ground.

Hint, hint.

So? Thoughts? Volunteers? Bronx cheers?

C'mon! Help brighten up a curmudgeon's Sunday. Or do you really want to discuss politics?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Why Fiction?

Due to the rapid success of Freedom's Scion, which has in turn stimulated fresh interest in Which Art In Hope, I've been getting quite a pile of email. The question most frequently asked in those emails is "Why?"

No, no! Not "Why do you waste your time writing this crap, Fran, when you could be doing something constructive, like putting diapers on piss clams or sifting the fly dung out of pepper," but "Why do you regard fiction as a suitable vehicle for popularizing the ideas of freedom, Christianity, and perpetually hot intramarital sex?"

In a sense, my correspondents' questions are their best answers. The great majority of them express admiration for the story of Hope and the ideas it promotes. But then, my typical reader is already in 95%-or-better agreement with me on those ideas, so the sample does possess a certain bias.

Nevertheless, the core idea is reliable: Fiction is a more effective vehicle for the promotion of an idea than non-fiction. Ask any of the millions who've been enthralled and uplifted by Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, or...or...well, I can't think of another novel that promotes perpetually hot intramarital sex at the moment. Perhaps one will come to mind later.

Fiction sells an idea by depicting attractive, plausible characters as they put it into action.

This is true even with some ineptly written fiction. No one in his right mind would call Edward Bellamy's proto-Socialist novel Looking Backward a piece of great fiction qua fiction. But it did inspire the Progressive movement of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, which grew inexorably into the horrors we suffer today. The power of Bellamy's ideas eclipsed the one-dimensionality of his characters and the dreadfulness of his prose.

Non-fiction works principally through abstractions. Yes, the non-fictional expositor of an idea can cite examples of the ideas he's promoting as they've occurred in the real world. Indeed, he must. But such depictions are, to use a term I generally try to avoid, bloodless. They cannot move the reader as fiction could, for the "characters" of real life don't get much opportunity to win the reader's affections and engage his allegiance. A novel, to be effective at its primary mission of entertainment, must show its protagonist(s) in a fashion that makes the reader root for him/them. That greatly amplifies the power of the ideas beneath the protagonist's course of action.

Think of it as hero-coupling. The reader hitches his emotional wagon to the protagonist's star. Having done so, he cannot root for the protagonist without also rooting for the success of the ideas that animate him. Should the protagonist succeed, the reader cheers for him and his cause at the same time. Should he go down to defeat in a "new wave" Unhappy Ending, the reader will feel a surge of anger and sorrow...once again, out of sympathy for both the character and the ideas that move him.

So I write fiction. Not quite as much, damn it all, as the voluminous opinion-editorial tirades that appear here, but I'm working on that. My day job tends to get in the way, though I'm certain that once I'm retired I'll find another excuse.

And I hope you who drop a few piasters on one or more of my books will keep writing to me with your ideas. Fiction isn't just a more effective idea-salesman than non-fiction; it's also one hell of a lot tougher to produce. I can use all the help I can get!