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:
- The raw material of fiction is people.
- 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:
- People have a nature that must be respected to make one's characters and their actions and reactions plausible.
- 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.