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.

Friday, November 21, 2014

On Thrillers

As an indie writer, I take an interest in other indies, their achievements, and the degree of success they experience. Many indies craft thrillers by preference. That might be because that’s the genre they most enjoy; indeed, I’d say that’s the overwhelmingly most common reason. But sadly, most of those writers haven’t bothered to master fundamental writing skills – and that includes many who have plotting and storytelling gifts that their lack of writerly chops under-serves.

I’m not talking here about stylistic arabesques of the sort identified with “literary” fiction. Anyone who’s been reading my thoughts on fiction for any length of time will already be aware that I regard gratuitous verbal vermiculations as the writer’s equivalent to masturbation – and in public, at that. No, I’m thinking first of the sort of sins for which grammar-school children were once castigated, and second of some egregious sins against the reader’s patience that a really accomplished storyteller would instinctively avoid.

That first category is, of course, about slovenliness in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Such slovenliness is often made manifest in the writer’s promotional blurb, which once moved me to publish this mini-tract. For there’s no better guide to a writer’s seriousness than the care he puts into a length-limited bit of promotional prose intended to sell his wares. If that fails the grammar-school-kid test, I pass by his novel without a backward glance.

The second category is at a more advanced level, but not so advanced that its principles should be incomprehensible to a reasonably intelligent writer – say, intelligent enough to format a book manuscript for Amazon’s CreateSpace publishing subsidiary using Microsoft Word. Those principles are quite few in number:

  1. Maintain viewpoint consistency. (In other words, don’t “head-hop.”)
  2. Avoid the expository lump.
  3. Use description to tell your reader what he needs to know and nothing more.
  4. Show character; don’t “tell” it.
  5. Your reader is there for an emotional journey; respect him and it.

It’s possible that many of the indie thriller writers who’ve recently perplexed me have never even heard of those principles; there’s no way to tell from their novels. They certainly violate them often enough. The violations can turn an otherwise engaging adventure story, the sort that many men who read specifically seek and enjoy, into a trial of the reader’s endurance.

Gentle Reader, I could give classes on those rules. Many, many indies desperately need to learn them. Sometimes I think it would make for a good retirement career. Yet the typical indie thriller writer seems to think he’s “got it knocked” already. Many of them dribble on, novel after novel, repeating the same sins.

I assure you, the tragedy is more than superficial.

The reason the late Tom Clancy was an important writer has little to do with the overall quality of his novels. It’s far more about how his fiction drew men back into the fiction reading marketplace, which had largely become a women’s preserve. When The Hunt For Red October was first published, the trends in fiction were all feminine, politically correct, and dreary beyond words. Even my own long-time favorite genres (as a reader), science fiction and fantasy, had grown so tiresome that I’d all but abandoned my search for worthy new works in those fields. Nothing could be more distressing to an addict to the printed word.

Clancy’s first book was virtually an instant success. Despite being the offering of a small, virtually unknown press and the target of an ocean of critical contempt – when the critics deigned to notice it at all – it sold hundreds of thousands of copies in hardcover and millions more in paperback. The predominant buyer was one who had long been absent from the fiction marketplace: the adult American male.

The rush by the major publishing houses to “get in on the gravy train” was almost as swift. Thriller writers and their novels multiplied like toadstools after a rain. Most of them, of course, were nowhere near as gifted (and were received nowhere near as enthusiastically) as Clancy, but the sheer number of them was enough to imply that something important had it had.

It is a testament to the impact of that development that the proliferation of thrillers continues today, with indies pitching in as never before. But that merely sharpens my ultimate point.

I read thrillers. Indeed, these days they seem to constitute the bulk of my fiction reading. However, I don’t write them, which will cause many an indie thriller writer to shrug off this tirade as that of a “non-practitioner” whose opinions are of no value. That is as it may be; I stand by them nonetheless.

The ultimate determinant of success in entertainment is the “bottom line:” how many units one sells. In the indie-fiction world, that can be tough to determine; a single copy of an eBook is often passed around to several readers, yet only counts as one sale. That’s not really a negative thing, despite the near-term impact on the writer’s revenue, for “eyeballs today” engender “revenue tomorrow.” A writer who keeps on writing – hopefully growing more skillful and more confident as he goes – will ultimately benefit from eBook lending, just as writers have always benefited from lending libraries.

Nevertheless, the fundamental skills must be there. Should the thriller market be deluged with eBooks replete with the sins I’ve decried here, the “Clancy trend” will be reversed: male readers will abandon the fiction market once more. The PC crowd and the dreary, too-precious-to-be-borne litterateurs will regain dominance.

This matters more than you might think. What a nation reads with pleasure and enthusiasm is a barometer of its ethics, its convictions, and its overall attitudes...which suggests that this piece is about politics after all.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Human Wave, Or Humans Waving?

Yesterday, a dear friend of mine -- some of you from the old Eternity Road days will remember Duyen -- sent a young friend of hers named Minh to me for writerly advice. In this case, young doesn't mean "a few years younger than I am," it means young. Duyen felt ill-equipped to counsel Minh on her writing efforts, for two reasons:

  • Minh writes fiction; Duyen never has and, she says, never will.
  • Minh writes erotica. Really heavy-duty erotica, with all the horns and hooves still on it.

So, in an irony to eclipse all ironies, my sweet Catholic friend Duyen sent Minh to her not-quite-so-sweet Catholic friend Fran -- your humble Curmudgeon Emeritus -- for advice on who, what, when, where, why, and how to go about publishing her efforts and establishing herself among other writers of erotica. Minh sent along a story of which she said she's particularly proud, with a plea for my comments.

Glory be to God! I thought I'd seen everything. It's amazing how wrong I was. I must remember. When I finished reading Minh's tale I felt I should wash my brain out with soap. Lye soap.

But it was good. Really good. Well plotted, well characterized, and well written. It edifies while it entertains. More, it's true to life, instructive despite the coarseness of its subject matter and the shudders it would induce in many of its readers. How much more can a reader ask of a story?

And it left me wondering what I could say to this young woman who'd approached me, quite humbly, for advice on how to pursue, improve, and promote her fiction. "Don't be so in-your-face about the sex" -- ? Nope. The sex was the central driver of the human drama, as it so often is. "Soften the characters' edges" -- ? Nope. She wrote them as what they had to be, in every sense. "Refine your vocabulary" -- ? Nope. As rugged as they were, the words Minh employed were the right ones for the tale.

It caused me to think over some of the comments I've received about Freedom's Fury, which includes a plural marriage -- one man, two women -- as a critical motif. Several readers have written to say "It was great overall, but why'd you have to put that in?"

I "put it in" because it was necessary. It was essential from the very first; indeed, I'd unwittingly written the requirement for it into Freedom's Scion. From the first it was the path my characters had to follow. Had they turned away from it, the story would not have worked.

Take the admittedly rough sex and sexual language out of Minh's story, and it wouldn't work either.

There's an aspect of fiction writing that most non-practitioners would find surprising, perhaps even contradictory: the need for humility.

I'll admit there's also a requirement for a certain amount of brass. After all, you need to believe that you've got worthwhile tales to tell, the chops to tell them, and can get readers' eyes onto your stuff despite the millions of others who believe the very same things. But the humility requirement is subtler.

John Brunner's famous Laws of Fiction tell us that:

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

Both these laws are titanium-clad. A writer violates them at mortal peril. The consequence of ignoring either one is the very worst thing that can happen to a storyteller: his stuff will be boring.

The first-order implications of the laws are, of course, the point:

  1. People have a nature that must be respected to make one's characters and their actions and reactions plausible.
  2. If a tale's Marquee Characters experience no changes, particularly no emotional changes, there is no story.

The requirement for humility lies in never violating -- indeed, never even toying with the idea of violating -- either of those precepts. No matter what motifs you choose as drivers for your story, you can never allow your characters to act in a fashion that violates what we know of human nature, no matter how badly you'd like to have them do so. More, they must change in reaction to the story's developments, even if the change seems ugly or bizarre. More still, the changes they undergo must be consistent with the way you've defined them.

And with that, we come to the Human Wave.

Sarah Hoyt's "Human Wave Manifesto" is an important, valuable piece of thought. It unflinchingly addresses the critical diseases that have infected the speculative genres, and slightly more arguably, modern fiction overall, and prescribes a batch of remedy-principles for averting contagion. Yet as with every set of rules or guidelines for doing anything, Bruce Lee's Maxim applies: "Respect the principles without being bound by them." There are bits of Sarah's prescriptions and proscriptions that simply must be violated when writing about certain subjects in certain contexts. Take this one:

Unless absolutely necessary you will have a positive feeling to your story.

The qualifier is important: unless absolutely necessary. When addressing certain subjects, such as the one Minh addresses in her short story, you cannot have "a positive feeling to your story." Indeed, in some cases doom must be approaching, and obviously so, from the very first sentence, even if it takes a meandering path to get there. If you choose to write about such a subject, prescribing a positive feeling is a violation of Brunner's First Law. Indeed, it's an illustration of the importance of writerly humility.

I'd say that in the majority of cases where a writer tells a reader that "My character(s) had to do that," he's simply citing Brunner's First Law and his submission to it. He might have struggled with the decision beforehand, much as I struggled with the need to have Althea seduce Claire in the early going of Freedom's Fury. The struggle might have been as unavoidable as the decision. It's the willingness to be humble before the First Law that matters.

So Minh's story, which I found worthy and illuminating despite its rough character, might not qualify as "Human Wave." Yet it does qualify as "Humans Waving:" characters taking a course they might have known better than to take, while striving to "wave aside" the inevitable consequences, but suffering those consequences all the same.

There is room for such tales. An uninterrupted diet of them would be very unpleasant, of course, but as leavening for more positive fiction they provide an important contrast. You can probably hear my Catholicism coming through in that. After all, we're a fallen, fallible race. Mistakes, including the very worst mistakes of judgment, will be part of human existence until the Second Coming.

Which is an important perspective, not only on fiction, but on Man in general.

If you want to read Minh's story, it's here. Just don't say I didn't warn you. By the way, Duyen met her in church. Draw what conclusions you will.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Assorted Fiction Natterings

1. The Death Of The Masculine Hero.

Quite a lot of the science fiction and fantasy currently emerging from conventional publishers strikes me as androphobic. That is, the writers – nearly all women – are either unwilling or unable to write a believably masculine protagonist. Neither will their protagonists be at all feminine: she’ll be a “tough chick” of the sort currently in vogue, who will display contempt for both conventional masculine and conventional feminine tastes, pastimes, and attitudes. If there’s a male co-protagonist, he’ll either be markedly subordinate to her or will factor into the plot principally as a love interest.

I have no problems with female-centered stories. I’ve written a few myself. But when a writer establishes a pattern of avoiding masculine – not merely “male” – protagonists, I start to wonder if there might be a disability involved...if not something worse.

“Worse” would be a dislike of masculinity that demands its subordination under all circumstances. It seems to me that there’s a lot of that in contemporary genre fiction coming from Pub World these days. That says some unfortunate things about that industry and its prospects for the years to come. When your market is confined to women, you’d better remain appealing to double-X tastes...and there are no guarantees about that sort of thing.

Ironically, successful male writers in the speculative genres display equal facility at crafting both masculine and feminine protagonists, and no reluctance to craft stories around either sort. That, too, says something unfortunate...but I’ll leave the inference thereof to you.

2. Series Writing.

The series protagonist has become a dominant feature of contemporary fiction. When done well, a series protagonist can give a series of novels a sense of growth and thematic continuity; when done poorly, it can make the product banal or worse. There’s also a side effect on the writer of locking himself into a series character: he can deaden his ability to innovate characterologically, and sometimes with regard to plot as well.

If you really like writing series of novels that feature a common protagonist, one way to avert the negative effects while positioning yourself to reap the benefits is to write two or more series concurrently...each with a distinct protagonist, of course. Several writers I’ve recently encountered have adopted that tactic, and to my eyes it’s served them well.

There is a downside, of course: the writer must learn to “keep it all straight.” Events in one of his fictional realms must not bleed over into the others. Characters and settings must be forbidden to cross over. This implies that the temptation to go for a “grand unified” scheme of the sort that successfully seduced Isaac Asimov in his final novels must be resisted. Nothing else is as likely to draw “Oh, come ons” or jeers of disapproval.

So far, the writers I’ve seen attempt this have done reasonably well by it...but that “grand unified” temptation is lurking in the shadows along each of their paths. We shall see.

3. Undying Characters.

While we’re on the subject of series characters, I must include that I’m afflicted by one that I tried (Lord knows I tried) to kill off. Conclusively. Never to rise again. I even wrote about his soul detaching from his body and flying toward God’s arms. It was, of course, Louis Redmond of Chosen One and On Broken Wings.

Louis is by far my most popular character. Yet I created him with a very specific end in mind, and when I say “end” I mean end. His death in On Broken Wings was foreordained by the role for which I created him. But he refuses to stay decently buried, mainly because readers who’ve loved him keep telling me how angry they are at me about my murdering him and demanding that I bring him back for a few dozen encores.

So the novel in progress, working title Polymath, will include a role for Louis. However, Louis won’t be the protagonist; he’ll be a critical Supporting Cast character who (I hope) will help to tie Polymath properly into the developing “Onteora Canon” while simultaneously placating the screaming hordes of readers protesting his death.

I’m between two weeks and a month from finishing this thing. I’ve already contacted my favorite cover artist, and she’s locked, loaded, and peering over the trench lip. Watch this space.

4. Another Popular Character Whose Return Has Been Demanded...

...isn’t coming back just yet...but soon!

Among readers of my dreck, just after Louis Redmond in popularity stands presidential candidate Stephen Graham Sumner, lineal descendant of the great William Graham Sumner, ardent Constitutionalist, and generally good guy. The demands for more about Sumner, his quest for the presidency, and his tenure in office – of course he’s going to win – have been almost as strident as those clamoring for the return of Louis.

Yes, there have been a few scattered stories about President Sumner. I could write a few more, release them as a modest collection, and hope that his admirers would let me off the hook, but that feels like a cop-out. He deserves to be the protagonist of a novel of his own, or at least co-protagonist to a figure of comparable stature. The latter approach is what I have in mind: currently contemplated title Statesman. I expect that will be the next effort after Polymath is off my desk.

No, don’t hold your breath while you wait. It takes me a year, on average, to turn out a novel. But there will be one, so hang in there. Momentous events will soon come from – and upon – the world-shakers from the Shire-like realm of Onteora County, New York. Will the nation survive? Will the forces of Transnationalist Progressivism and Moral Relativism finally meet their match? Will wrongs be righted, villains reap their just deserts, and Christine D’Alessandro finally find a sweetie who isn’t doomed to an early death? And what about Naomi?

Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Indie Writers' Movement Part 3: Prisoners

The Prisoner is my long-time favorite among television serials: for its originality, for its consistently excellent scripting and acting, for the presence of Patrick McGoohan, and for its exploration of the meaning of freedom, a thing of inestimable value to me. Over the decades that have passed since McGoohan's iconic production first graced the small screen, nothing even remotely comparable for theme, quality, or style has emerged.

It brought home to me the magnitude of one of the worst sins of modern fiction and its practitioners: our propensity to leap onto the current bandwagon as if we were incapable of an original thought. It's saddening beyond measure that that sin against one's own imagination has become just as prevalent among indie fictioneers as it is among conventionally published writers.

A few years ago, when I was also maintaining Musings of an Indie Writer, I wrote:

Fiction, like other forms of entertainment, is frequently afflicted by fads. Readers of contemporary fantasy are already aware of the fads for vampire and werewolf-oriented stories. Science fiction recently experienced a fad for stories about the extremely far future, and before that, what a friend called the “my artifact is bigger than your artifact” trend. And of course, “high” (medieval) fantasy often seems like one enormous, decades-long fad for quest adventures.

Many a writer will hop onto a fad in the hope of gathering a little of the gravy while it’s still flowing copiously. Being a devout capitalist (among other things), I cannot and shall not condemn such writers; they’re following the star most important to them. But the samenesses of faddish currents in fiction don’t speak well to the creativity of the participating writers.

Of course, a genre can experience two or more fads concurrently. Right now, contemporary (a.k.a. “urban”) fantasy is enduring trends for zombie-oriented stories, along with all the dreck about werewolves and vampires. Possibly it started with the “Resident Evil” series of video games, which were enormously popular and spawned an equally popular movie series starring the beautiful and talented Milla Jovovich. One way or another, we’re being overrun with zombie fiction. It’s become a campy motif: We have parodies such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the hilariously funny movie Zombieland, op-ed essays that use a plague of zombies as one pole of a sociopolitical comparison, and assorted bits of humor such as the bar that posted, as a reason to drink there, that it’s well prepared for the “Zombie Apocalypse.”

...and so forth. But leave aside for the moment the readiness of the reading public to consume mass quantities of fiction about vampires, or zombies, or whatever. What accounts for writer Smith's decision to produce such material, given that there's already so much of it out there?

Smith might be personally fascinated by the central motif of the fad. Or he might think he has a truly original idea for exploiting it. Or he might be a hack, who just wants to slurp up a trickle of the gravy from a booming subgenre. Or -- and this is the part that fascinates and saddens me, because my review of other indies' works makes it seem the most likely explanation -- he might not have any original story ideas, but wants to write anyway.

If you have no original ideas, why write? Why inflict your story on a reading public that has seen too many such already? Isn't the first lesson of success in business -- any business -- that you must "differentiate the product" -- ?

As for the "striking experience," here's the morning's illustration of how desperate many readers are for something they haven't seen before:

I don't wish to comment on the main topic, which I have never seen and do not intend to amend that fact. Your "about the author" made me laugh so loud it made my children come running. Keep writing. You've got your "writers' voice" you just need to find your wider audience. And you will good sir, you will.

The sweet woman who penned that comment wasn't even interested in the subject matter of my article. She was merely surfing PJ Media and her eye caught on my piece: specifically my "About the Author," which I copied from my SmashWords profile page.

What tickled "Katherine in RB" so greatly? She's probably seen as much humorous prose as any casual Web reader. My self-deprecating pseudo-bio -- alright, yes, I do have bad acne and crooked teeth, but I have no effect on local property values...I think -- isn't even all that funny. But it's a contrast to the praise so many indie writers have heaped upon themselves, to say nothing of the plaudits they award their own books.

Lack of imagination and "bandwagoning" even afflict writers' self-descriptions.

Yes, there are considerable risks involved in striking out on a wholly new path. For one thing, you can fool yourself about the degree of originality of your ideas. For another, they might not provide sufficient substance for a novel-length story. And for a third, there might not be any readers interested in the motifs you've employed or the themes you've chosen to highlight; as one who writes explicitly Christian-themed science fiction and contemporary fantasy, I know that particular risk very well. But there's an even greater risk in blandly following the crowd.

The crowd has power but no mind. Its decisions are approximately random, and often randomly destructive. By submerging yourself in it, you surrender your imagination, your latitude of action, and your self-respect. Should the crowd take you somewhere you'd rather not go, there'd be no guarantee that you'd be capable of freeing yourself.

If we eschew original thought for the current fad and its evanescent appeal, we cease to be independent minds. We become prisoners of others' decisions. Is that a status to which an "independent" writer should aspire?

Food for thought.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Indie Writers' Movement Part 2: Room For Everyone

If anything is likely to promote the independent writers' movement from "promising" to "has hit the big time," it's most likely to be independent publishing's absence of barriers to forms, motifs, and themes disfavored by conventional publishers.

Of course there are no such barriers in indie fiction. Who is there to erect and defend them? Writers won't do so against themselves, while publishers, publishers' editors, and literary agents are completely excluded from the field. So elements and approaches of all sorts that would never be accepted by Pub World will proliferate in indie fiction to the extent the market will bear.

That is: as far as "the market will bear" and no farther. When no one stands between the creator and the consumer, the market is the sole arbiter. Those who attempt to defy the market simply won't sell. Over time they'll cease to try. New entrants, observing what works and what doesn't, will emulate the successful, as is the case in all commercial arenas. And of course, as tastes change, so will the market's winnowing dynamic.

Here's a quick survey of the currently most conspicuous divergences between Pub World fiction and the indie world:

1. Military fiction.

During Tom Clancy's glory years, Pub World grudgingly made room for his sort of military-adventure fiction for a simple reason: it brought millions of men back into the fiction market at a time when all the major publishers were hurting badly. However, it's noteworthy that they had to have their self-inflicted wound rubbed in their faces. Clancy's first, overwhelmingly successful novel of naval adventure, The Hunt For Red October, was rejected by every major publishing house and no small number of lesser ones. Only after it was picked up by the Naval Institute Press and became a multimillion seller were Pub World's major players willing to concede that they might have overlooked a profit opportunity.

But note: since the decline of Clancy's market power -- which preceded his demise by some years, sad to say -- Pub World's attitude toward military fiction has reverted approximately to its previous condition. Whether that's because no one of Clancy's stature has arisen since he, Stephen Coonts, and Dale Brown dominated the field is impossible to say, but with so little military adventure coming from the big houses, we cannot be sure.

2. Masculine protagonists and feminine leading ladies.

Gender-war feminism and Robert Conquest's Second Law have worked upon Pub World's purchasing patterns to eliminate, for practical purposes, traditionally manly men and feminine women from their offerings. This is in part due to the rise of "tough chick lit," in which a heroine with traditionally masculine assets, including physical strength and courage, uses them to prevail in a conflict that would once have centered on a male hero. However, even in stories that lack a "tough chick" protagonist, we seldom see a female Marquee Character who's feminine by the standards that prevailed before the rise of gender-war feminism.

It's not impossible to create a strong, brave heroine who's also feminine in outlook and in her relations with men. I've done so. Indeed, I've done so more than once, not merely to demonstrate that it's possible. But you wouldn't know it from the novels that emerge from the Big Six publishers, nor from most of the smaller establishments.

In this regard, the recent tumult within the Science Fiction Writers of America is highly illustrative. For as I mentioned only yesterday, writers' associations are as subject to Conquest's Second Law as any other kind of organization -- and have the added pressure of assisting their members in marketing their products, as well.

3. Freedom.

Given that freedom has come under attack both rhetorically and in practice, perhaps it shouldn't surprise anyone that novels that celebrate it, or that portray protagonists willing to fight and sacrifice for it, are rare among Pub World's offerings.

Writers to whom freedom is a critical theme get very little shrift from Pub World. Hearken to one such writer, whose cri de coeur just happened, coincidentally or otherwise, to appear on Bastille Day:

Things started changing for so many of us in the publishing industry when there was finally a viable alternative to traditional publishing available to us. No longer did we have to keep our mouths shut about how we felt for fear of having our options dropped or of being blackballed in the industry. Still, it was a slow journey into the light. We’d hidden our political beliefs for so long and had been so indoctrinated with the belief that admitting we were libertarian or – gasp – conservative would lose us readers.

But then events started happening that pushed us to the point where we could no longer hold our tongues. Looking around, authors who had been hiding in the political closet for so long saw the new indie authors saying what they thought in social media and on their blogs. Looking at the best seller lists on Amazon, hearts beat a little faster and a spark of hope flared to see authors who shared the same libertarian values these long-silent authors held not only selling their books but selling well.

Clearly, if we go by population movements, there remains a great hunger for freedom. That hunger extends to entertainment, particularly fiction. Longtime readers will be aware that I have a dear friend named Duyen who risked her life and future on a homemade bamboo raft to escape from North Vietnam and find freedom. You'd expect someone like that to be sensitive to the subject when she encounters it in a story...and she is.

Among recognized publishers, only Baen Books has provided an outlet for freedom-promoting, freedom-celebrating fiction. Baen sells a lot of books. Its roster includes some of the most popular SF and fantasy writers at work today. You'd think that, were profit of great interest to Pub World, it would draw the moral. So far, it hasn't.

4. Christianity and Christian Ethics.

This might be the most tragic of all the exclusions practiced by the major houses, in part because of the way it operates. I don't speak here of "Christian fiction" as such, because, not to put too fine a point on it, most explicitly religious fiction of any kind is narratively abysmal and unbearably preachy. There's another aspect to the thing: conventionally published fiction's treatment of religious clerics and religious characters generally. Protagonists with deep, sincere religious convictions are rare; even honorable Supporting Cast members are exceptional.

As I'm a devout Catholic, I'm particularly sensitive to this, but once again, market indications ought to constitute a corrective force even if simple decency is lacking. Taken together, I've sold over 75,000 copies of Chosen One, On Broken Wings, and Shadow Of A Sword, all of which are explicitly Catholic in protagonist and theme. For that matter, one of the best selling novels of all time, The Lord Of The Rings, is explicitly Christian in theme and treatment -- and J. R. R. Tolkien said so right out in front of God and everybody.

Everything Pub World disdains has flowered in indie fiction, as if it had been waiting for the outlet to emerge. Granted, the indie milieu is equally open to the sort of tale Pub World embraces, but that's only as it should be. The point is that the independent writers' movement has room for everyone, that it spurns no one and no kind of story, and that the success or failure of some new subspecies will depend solely on its progenitors' storytelling ability and the market's reaction to their offerings.

A businessman of acuity knows that the most precious of all things is an underserved market segment. Verbum sat sapienti -- and there are more than 1300 such words here.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Indie Writers' Movement And "Writers' Guilds"

Yes, the emergence of the independent fiction writers' movement was a brave and promising thing...back about six years ago, when it first gained steam enough to get noticed. I was certainly pleased to become part of it. I've contributed my modest skills to it ever since, and have seldom failed to be gratified by my readers' responses.

But here we are, several years and many thousands of independently published books and stories later, and it's still mostly a promising thing, rather than a full-blooded competitor for the affections and wallets of readers. The reasons are several: inadequate attention paid to marketing, a persistent crudity of appearance in the product, and, sadly, the prevalence of low quality fiction. And those of us who've given it our hearts and our fondest creations continue to search for remedies.

No, I'm not about to back away from the indie movement. (No one in the conventional world of fiction publication would come near me, anyway.) But I keep wondering what it will take to elicit the sort of support structures -- proficient editing services; high-quality cover designers; marketing and publicity consultants; etc. -- that assist "con-pub" writers. Of course, given the greater revenues that the con-pubbies receive for their efforts, the problem might be that the supports are out there, but priced beyond the typical indie's means. That offers no relief, of course; it just sharpens the frustration.

A comment to Sarah Hoyt's latest PJ Media column speaks as plaintively about the problem as I've found to date:

Wanted 'Indie Writers Guild'!

And as a fan, let say one benie for this proposed 'Guild' would be low cost EDITING. Which is my only real quibble with 'Self Pubing'. I've lost count of the INDIES that I've bought, started and set aside unfinished because of lack of an editor (grammar/plot/character/dialog etc. weaknesses) that made reading through to the end just to much of a chore what with SO MUCH MORE on my list else to read...

So just my 2cents.

(written while attending an Indie Writers Banquet{sitting alone in front of a computer eating a bowl of Ramen})

In a bare hundred words, the commenter has accurately pinned the major faults that retard the acceptance of indie fiction by the reading public -- and in an irony beyond irony, he incorporated four spelling errors, three errors of grammar, two errors in punctuation, one badly run-on sentence, and (for lagniappe) a missing "Oxford comma." Clearly, the lack of affordable editing services is quite serious.

Mind you, there are excellent free-lance editors out there who'll happily rake your work over the coals. I've worked with one: Kelly Tomkies of Columbus, Ohio. They're thorough, they probe plot structures and character development in depth, and they express themselves unabashedly about the flaws they perceive. But they tend to charge amounts near to $1000 for a typical novel-length manuscript: an amount that, while it might not "break the bank," would certainly give the typical indie fictioneer pause, considering his prospects for revenue from his novel.

Similarly, there are excellent free-lance cover artists available as well. My favorite is Donna Casey, a.k.a. "Digital Donna," who's done most of the covers of my books. But the best of them are getting to be expensive, too.

The one area where support for indie fiction seems to be lacking is marketing and promotion, but this might be merely a flaw in my knowledge. At any rate, when it emerges, I'd expect it to be as pricey as good editing and cover design services. Supply and demand play no favorites.

An "indie writers' guild" might contribute to the solution of the editing problem, or it might not. It might become a funnel for high-quality cover-design services, or it might no. It might assist its members with their promotion and marketing efforts, or it might not. Regardless of the verdicts, it would do something else, as well -- something writers with pro-American, pro-Christian, and pro-freedom views must beware:

Robert Conquest's Second Law of Politics:
Any organization not explicitly right wing
will, over time, become left wing.

The forces that bring this about are in plain sight: Whereas righties are mainly interested in enterprise, achievement, and profit, lefties are obsessed with power over others. Therefore, when a position that offers power, even of the only influential or indirect sort, is created anywhere, lefties will pursue it far more ardently than righties, who mostly want *someone else* to take the role and "get the job done." In the usual case, a little time is all it will take for the control of the organization to pass to left-wingers, with all that entails.

We can easily see this dynamic operating in the conventional publishing industry. Hell's bells, I could show you examples from suburban critique groups! So a formally organized "indie writers' guild" would be vulnerable to it, as well.

The only approach that doesn't open itself to left-wing corruption is the smallest and most intimate of all: a small, closed "mutual assistance circle," in which all the members know one another and agree on moral, ethical, and political fundamentals, and to which no stranger is ever admitted. The members must bind themselves -- morally, at least -- to perform mutual critiquing and editing, to assist with cover concepts and design, to perform "mutually assured pimping," and other generally helpful chores on request.

Even this approach has drawbacks. For example, when one member is much more proficient, or much more successful, than the others, the asymmetry can cause considerable tension. But at least it's armored against being suborned by persons with a toxic agenda.

At any rate, the problems will persist as we search for alternate approaches. But so will indie fiction. As Sarah Hoyt points out in her Book Plug Friday column, the sense of freedom is inexpressibly valuable to those of us with stories to tell. It's especially important to those of us with relatives, friends, and neighbors whose ears are already callused over from listening to us.

Apropos of which, all my drivel over at Smashwords is free of charge until the end of July. If you appreciate the gesture, why not toss one or two of my novels a nice review? Thanks.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Myth And Modern Fiction

Courtesy of Sarah Hoyt at InstaPundit comes this brief but thought-provoking piece about the importance of myth. Not some specific myth or myths, mind you, but myth as an abstract subcategory of story. It's worth your time to read it all.

Certain stories are accorded the status of myth, while others are not. The reasons are fairly easy to adduce from the myths we commonly recognize:

  • Myths feature protagonists and antagonists appreciably larger than life;
  • Mythic conflicts are large, and their stakes are extremely high;
  • Myths are free of peripheral distractions from the main event.
  • Myths are almost always morally unambiguous.

Perhaps the best one-word summation would be grandiosity. Myths are big stories. They're about big events in which big characters fight over big principles. Matters that bedevil ordinary men such as remembering to pay the gas bill on time are never mentioned. Not coincidentally, stories of mythic character are far easier to remember than others, which is why they persist through the centuries while lesser stories are forgotten.

Modern times have their candidate mythmakers, as the article mentions, but they also have a far greater number of storytellers who disdain to attempt mythic grandiosity, whether from disinclination or incapacity. That stands to reason, as among a large candidate population only a small fraction will possess the imagination, the skill, and perhaps most important of all, the character to compose a story of mythic dimensions.

This is not intended to denigrate those who produce more mundane entertainment. (It had better not be; my wife is a murder-mysteries addict. I just got her a Kindle for Mother's Day, and she immediately filled it up with murder mysteries. She loaded it with free games and crossword puzzles too, but that's a tale for another day.) Good entertainment doesn't have to be about huge conflicts over important principles; it only needs to divert the reader from his real-world cares for a while. Still, we tend to put myth-level stories "above" the others on the scale of values we use for such things.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to attempt the construction of a myth. It's obvious how easy it is to create an unintentional counterfeit of a truly classic tale; quite a number of contemporary works of fantasy are pale shadows of Tolkien. It's just as obvious -- if it isn't, it should be -- that to attempt so great a leap and fail is to fall very far indeed. It invites derision and humiliation to which writers of more modest ambition are never exposed.

Several of the elements of the Western Canon, by which I mean that group of tales that has become a hallowed foundation of our culture, are of mythic or near-mythic stature. Shakespeare's tragedies hit the mark. Le Morte d'Arthur and the Ring Cycle make the cut. Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick, reviled by innumerable high schoolers, bids for inclusion. But in the Twentieth Century we have a dearth of grandiose tales, though certainly there was no shortage of great writers and storytellers.

From roughly 1900 onward, the gage of the mythmaker passed to the outright fabulists: the men who dared to write in the speculative genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, without concern for the "unreality" of their settings and motifs. It takes some brass to work in those domains, which is consistent with the willingness to tackle grandiose stories, characters, and themes. Needless to say, not all the works in those genres deserve mythic status; indeed, the vast majority of them are utterly forgettable. But a few exhibit the degree of imagination, scope, clarity, and eloquence that suggests that a story might join the immortals. My candidates:

  • C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy
  • J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
  • Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  • Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
  • Greg Bear, The Forge of God and Anvil of Stars

A fledgling writer of SF or fantasy could do worse than to study those books closely, to steep himself in their breadth, the sharp contrasts between the contending forces, and the clear moral principles they depict in action. Yet not one of them is written in a grandiloquent or "literary" style. Like the myths we already cherish, they concentrate on story and character. Their authors trusted the power of their material, and were wise enough not to conceal it behind a wall of literary devices.

It takes more than a brilliant idea to make a candidate-myth; it takes genuine confidence.

The contemporaneous appearance of the Intercollegiate Studies article with this citation at has me wondering if the whole notion of coincidence is a divine joke:

The historic contributions of white heterosexuals are under attack again from the left. Salon has a piece genuflecting to Pulitzer Prize-winning author and MIT professor Junot Díaz, based on a New Yorker piece Díaz wrote in which he blasted MFA programs for being overwhelmingly white....

Díaz wrote in the New Yorker essay:

From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male....

Díaz pontificated to Salon:

If race or gender (or any other important social force) are not part of your interpretive logic—if they’re not part of what you consider the real—then you’re leaving out most of what has made our world our world. This is a long way of saying that it’s not the books you teach, but how you teach them....

The writer of the Salon piece, Prachi Gupta, had already championed a movement started on May 1 to push for more diversity in fiction:

It’s well known that even in 2014, America needs more diversity in, well, pretty much every field imaginable. But the same goes for realms beyond real life: Our fiction is sadly just as dominated by straight white men as the physical world is.

Mr. Dostoevsky, Mr. Tolstoy, Mr. Defoe, Mr. Swift, Mr. Stevenson, Mr. Dickens, Mr. Melville, Mr. Hawthorne, Mr. Twain, Mr. Faulkner, Mr. Hardy, Mr. London, Mr. Hemingway, Mr. Fitzgerald: sit down and shut up.

Have you sampled any of the works of the writers Diaz cites above? I have. Dear God in heaven, what a waste of prose! Obsessed with "oppression" by us eeeevil white heterosexuals. Filled with self-pity. And replete with the sense of entitlement by virtue of having been "silenced." None of them deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as even the least of Steinbeck's tales, as small-scale as those could be. Compared to any of the works of the Western Canon Diaz is so determined to demote, they're garbage.

What Diaz and his ilk are unable to see is that a worthwhile story must be more than a rant about one's own sorrows or "marginalization," regardless of whether one is justified in feeling sorry for oneself or deserving of better at others' hands. But a writer obsessed with himself is unlikely to have the vision or the confidence required to attempt a story of mythic scale.

Such writers are forgotten rather swiftly, as they deserve.

The West is in a certain sense founded on its cherished myths. Note that a myth need not tell of an event that actually occurred to be valuable. Whether there ever was a King Arthur is open to question, much less whether the story in Le Morte d'Arthur is at all historical. The Battle of Thermopylae happened, but not quite as Frank Miller or the producers of 300 tell it. To be valuable, a myth must elucidate some important value, preferably in service to an important moral principle.

In keeping with C. S. Lewis's observation that courage is the supreme human virtue:

[C]ourage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty or mercy which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky. [C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters]'s no coincidence that our most cherished myths depict courage in action: men following a perilous course, likely to cost them greatly, because a value dearer to them than their own lives commands it of them.

Food for thought.