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, November 5, 2015

A Safe Distance

     We’ve heard a lot about “Mary Sue” characters: i.e., characters written out of an author’s fantasy about a perfect woman (or man). The “Mary Sue” is usually a Supporting Cast character, but not always. Sometimes such a character will be cast as the protagonist.

     That can cause one of the worst of plot-construction sins: sparing your protagonist harm, difficulty, or unhappiness.

     The genesis of such a misstep is simple: having imbued his protagonist with every attribute he deems admirable or desirable, the writer falls in love with him. He wants nothing but the best for him. He contrives to have him come out on top regardless of the conflicts, and usually without even mussing his hair. Therein lies the death of drama, for:

Drama only exists when men’s virtues compel them to pay a price – i.e., when they must suffer for being good.

     I’ve edged up to the “Mary Sue” line at least twice. In one case, it crept upon me unawares; in another, it was a largely conscious act that required several varieties of corrective action. So let it be known that, though I pontificate against this particular failing, it’s from experience rather than innate wisdom.

     Alongside the excessive love of a character lies another “Mary Sue”-derived problem: the weakening of your theme. A good theme derives from what writer Tom Kratman calls “eternal verities:” the truths about right, wrong, and human nature that are written into the laws of the universe. The very best sort of plot involves people acting out those verities -- after having tried to deny and defy them. At the end of such a story (if it’s been well told), the reader feels that he’s learned a “home truth,” or at least has had one reinforced. Even if he doesn’t consciously realize it, his awareness of how people act, and how they must act to get what they want without creating chaos where order belongs, is brighter than before.

     But the “Mary Sue” protagonist is too perfect to be “people.” He cannot enact such a theme without being wrong, and seriously so, at some point in the story...which would diminish his perfection in the author’s eyes.

     This argues for the maintenance of a “safe distance” between the author and his characters.

     By that I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t love your characters. You should, and the more ardently the better. But neither in real life nor in fiction should love demand perfection. If you’re able to dispassionately enumerate your Marquee Character’s characterological strengths and weaknesses, you’re better off than you would be if you were simply starry-eyed about him, for you can contrive to put him in situations where his weaknesses are being used against him and he cannot deploy his strengths without paying a stiff price, including the enactment of your theme.

     There’s a seeming contradiction in this. All the best fiction overflows with passion: the author’s passion for his characters, his agonies at their trials and sufferings, his regret for the prices they must pay to remain faithful to their virtues, and his determination that what is best in Man shall triumph nevertheless. But that passion must be tempered by a counterbalancing dispassion: the ruthless determination to make your hero endure the sufferings that his decisions entail.

     Yes, you’ll suffer as he suffers. You’ll leak tears at every loss he incurs and every wound he suffers. You’ll wish more than once that you’d never set your fingers to the keys.

     But Nietzsche was right about one thing, at least: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Your vicarious trials will strengthen you by testing your convictions about how things are and how they must be. And you will become better able to produce good fiction thereby.

Friday, October 16, 2015

More On Series Writing And Reading

     I read a great deal. A great deal. Perhaps four to six hours of my every waking day are put to consuming the words of others rather than producing any of my own. (That might have something to do with my low output of late, but that’s a subject for another time.)

     Time was, I eagerly awaited new offerings from several writers who had wholeheartedly adopted the “series” approach. That is, they wrote book after book in the same setting, or about the same protagonist(s) and / or antagonist(s). Some writers can do that without sacrificing originality or freshness. Such writers are jewels to be cherished...but not necessarily imitated.

     This is on my mind this morning because of a recent discovery in my own decision making as a reader. I’d stumbled upon and purchased two book-sets – in each case the first three books of a series that continued on from there – by writers previously unknown to me, and had read both sets with enjoyment. Yet, at the conclusion of each such set, I thought about purchasing the next volumes in the series, and decided against it.

     Why? One who goes through as much reading material as I should happily continue to read a series that’s begun worthily, no? Time was, I’d have thought so, at least in the abstract. But in the real world, I consciously decided not to go on with those two series. It required some thought to elucidate my decisions.

     These days, series tend to go on forever. At least until the death of the writer...and as some recent examples would suggest, even that’s not an absolute barrier to their continuation. When a reader suspects that he’s begun to read such a series, at some point he will decide to continue on with it or not. What basis for decision is he likely to use?

     If he hasn’t enjoyed what he’s read, the decision to stop is automatic and requires no explanation. But if he has, and suspects that the series will continue for the life of the writer, he must decide:

  • Whether the setting and / or the characters are sufficiently attractive;
  • Whether the overarching themes and the characteristic motifs are appealing enough;
  • Whether the gestalt would support further, sufficiently imaginative and intriguing plots;
  • Whether subsequent volumes would illuminate the conflicts and the Marquee Characters’ key decisions satisfyingly;
  • Whether the prose itself is good enough.

     The evaluations of those considerations tend to be subconscious. The reader might not be fully aware of his decision. This is more often the case when the reader decides not to continue with the series: that requires no effort, and inaction is easier to “understand” than action. Indeed, the reader might tell himself several times that “I’ve got to get to the bookstore / Amazon / wherever and get the next book in this series sometime soon,” and never do so.

     I’ve had the experience of discontinuing my consumption of a series even with writers I greatly admire, whose other books and other series I’ve continued to read. Lawrence Block is an example; I read two of his books about professional thief Bernie Rhodenbarr and enjoyed them, but never went on to the subsequent ones, yet I slaver after his stories of private detective Matthew Scudder.

     Clearly, there are pitfalls in series writing. The tale can grow stale; the hero’s decisions can become mechanical, predictable, and unsatisfying. The writer himself might become irritated with the series. It’s happened more than once; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was desperate to kill off Sherlock Holmes, but his fans wouldn’t allow it!

     He who embarks upon a series must remain aware of the trend lines in his work. He must judge for himself – in this regard, his readers will be less helpful – whether his stuff is becoming clich├ęd, repetitive, or otherwise unsatisfying. And he must be willing, albeit with many a tear, to kill off favorite heroes and to terminate adventures that were once exciting but have devolved into formula.

     Otherwise readers such as I will report his deterioration to him through his sales figures...and that hurts worse than any other kind of negative feedback.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Uninteresting Places

     Homes, offices, shopping centers, and sidewalks. They’re where most human drama takes place. And how could it be otherwise? They’re where most of human life takes place. That poses the fiction writer with a number of questions.

     Many a young fictioneer is obsessed with description: the enumeration and depiction of the physical setting in which his characters act out their dramas. This can lead to some ludicrous fiction: stories in which the bulk of the verbiage is about inanimate objects of no particular importance. John Brunner’s two laws:

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

     ...should suffice to steer a writer away from such pointlessness, and toward the narration of actual events: scenes in which his characters make the decisions upon which the plot of the story rests.

     Are there exceptions? Yes, of course. Sometimes elements of the inanimate scenery become important to the evolution of the plot. They might provide evidence about what’s going on that a character needs to notice. For example, imagine a drama set in a hospital, in which the Marquee Character is a pediatric doctor. He completed a routine operation, perhaps a tonsillectomy, on a young patient a couple of hours earlier, and is on his way to check on the lad. He comes to the door of the boy’s room only to find a “crash cart,” laden with the gear used to revive someone after a cardiac arrest, immediately outside. The character must notice that cart – and the reader must hear about it.

     But such decisions are dictated by the plot. They don’t arise out of the luminiferous ether. If, in place of the “crash cart,” the doctor were to come upon a food trolley with the leavings of meals on it, all the object’s significance would presumably vanish. A description of the trolley would be pointless.

     Once in a great while, description for description’s sake will be desirable. Perhaps it will be militated by the need to indicate a sharp transition between contexts. Here’s an example from the great J.R.R. Tolkien:

     Day was opening in the sky, and they saw that the mountains were now much further off, receding eastward in a long curve that was lost in the distance. Before them, as they turned west, gentle slopes ran down into dim hazes far below. All about them were small woods of resinous trees, fir and cedar and cypress, and other kinds unknown in the Shire, with wide glades among them; and everywhere there was a wealth of sweet-smelling herbs and shrubs. The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness. [J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord Of The Rings, "The Two Towers"]

     Tolkien used the contrast between the lands Frodo and Sam had been traveling through and the wild beauty of Ithilien to give momentum to their travels: the sense of motion through lands as various as those of England. Could it have been done another way? Possibly, but we must admit that Tolkien’s method worked very well. He who writes not of grand quests pursued through ever-changing lands populated with multifarious wonders and terrors, but rather of persons situated in familiar environments where most of our lives are spent today, will seldom have such a need. His need will be to keep the story moving, and in the great majority of cases, the best approach will be to speak of his characters’ interactions through word and deed.

     In other words: Don’t worry about the shape and color of that sofa, or that desk, or that tree, or that storefront. Unless those things matter to the plot, that is...but how often is that?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Your New Genre

     So! You’ve come up with an entirely new kind of fiction! Something the world has never seen before...but which (you hope) it’s hungered for since the invention of movable type. And you’re so excited for its prospects that you can’t wait to present the world with your first efforts in this new genre. Away with the editors! Away with the critiquers! All you need is your word processor’s spellcheck and a stock image or two, and you’ll be ready to rock and roll. Fame and fortune will surely follow.

     Slow down there, champ. Have you thought at all about why your new genre is new? That is, why some other bright boy hasn’t explored it before?

     The sad truth about new stuff – all new stuff; fiction is just a special case – is that 90% or more of Mankind’s innovations crash and burn. In the usual case, they fail so completely that no one not connected with their genesis ever hears of their existence. Which means that your hyperlink-festooned fusion of Zombie Horror with Medieval Fantasy and Bodice Ripper might have been attempted by some earlier defier of established categories. Some justly forgotten defier of categories.

     That’s not to say that your efforts aren’t worthy; just that you might not receive the thunderous acclaim you were hoping for. Well, yes, there are...lesser possibilities, too, but let’s not dwell on those. You’ve put your heart and soul into your prose, perhaps quite a lot of prose generated and refined over God knows how many months or years. Let’s assume that you have something to offer, and muse instead over the possibility that it might not find a readership.

     Readers have certain problems that writers don’t. Perhaps the worst of them is choice. If we were to consider only conventionally published fiction, a reader unmoored from other guidelines would have to choose from among roughly 8000 novels published each year. Since the explosion of independently-published fiction, especially as eBooks, their problem has grown by at least an order of magnitude. How are they to determine what sort of fiction entertains and edifies them?

     Of course, the typical reader has certain stars to steer by:

  • Recommendations from friends and acquaintances;
  • Prior familiarity with the works of certain writers;
  • Reviews from reviewers he trusts;
  • Established awards for fiction;
  • The existing genres.

     Given that your new, independently-published book:

  • Starts life unknown to anyone;
  • Comes from a writer without a fan base;
  • Is unlikely to gain the attention of a prominent reviewer;
  • Hasn’t won any awards (of course, there’s always hope);
  • And doesn’t fit into any of the existing genres used to market fiction; are the readers whose tastes would be gratified by your book supposed to find it?

     No, it’s not impossible. But it is an uphill battle, and one you’ll probably have to fight alone.

     Consider the writers you enjoy reading: those whose books you can reliably find in the stores, who command a fair readership and are likely to be stocked from the day they’re published. How many of them started their careers with a novel that neither they nor anyone else could categorize? I’d wager you can’t name any.

     Yes, in part that’s because of the existing system of promotion, distribution, and retailing. But that system exists because those whose business is publishing fiction, and whose continued existence depends upon persuading people to pay money for it, have found that it works better than the known alternatives. Indeed, even if you were to make your book free, you might find it difficult to persuade readers to take a chance on it. When a reader commits his time to a book, he implicitly forgoes any other activity to which he might have given that time. Thus, even a free book exacts a cost from its readers, though there are those who argue that such “opportunity costs” aren’t as meaningful as a monetary price.

     I speak from experience here. My Realm of Essences series is a case in point. I was unable to interest a conventional publishing house in any of those volumes for a single compelling reason: they don’t fit into any of the established genres. Rejection letter after rejection letter expressed some variation on “I like it, but we could never market it.”

     The path of least agony – always assuming you have adequate storytelling gifts and writing skills – is to start your writing career in an existing genre. Accumulate a readership first; then dazzle the world with your hybridization of Time-Travel Romance with Slapstick Comedy. This is not intended as a denigration of your experiments. You might be a genius; indeed, you might be the next Faulkner, Hemingway, or Steinbeck. But you’ll be far less likely to end as an unsung genius if you establish yourself by first exploiting the foundations already laid: the system of categorization that dominates every bookstore in existence...the system employed by Amazon and other Internet retailers as we speak.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

WriterScams: Websites That Supposedly Assist Writers

     Many are the scams that have afflicted aspiring writers. The pseudo-agent that charges you a fee, rather than earning his living by marketing your books, is well known among us. So also is the old-style vanity press that will manufacture your books for a handsome price, but will never approach a distributor or a retailer with them. There’s also the free-lance “editor” who never “edits:” to persuade him that you are worthy of his attention, you must first send him a brief sample of your manuscript and an “application fee.” He’ll reliably reject your sample on nebulous grounds...while keeping the “application fee,” of course.

     Now that eBooks outsell physical volumes and anyone with a computer and a word processor can aspire to “publication,” we have the fake promotional website. Such a website will claim that its services are “free to all writers.” In most cases, the “free membership” comes with nothing but your “registration” in “our database of published authors;” to get anything more requires up-front payment of a fee. In a few cases, the website is a front that promotes “writers’ services:” editors, pseudo-agents, publicity mills, and vanity presses, each of which has a subsidiary agreement – the discreet term for paying a kickback – with the website. Of course, the website will promote those “services” to the writer relentlessly via email. It can be a lucrative racket, while it lasts.

     Writers tend to be optimistic sorts, more trusting and hopeful than is generally good for us. Which is why the following is set in very large font:

You Get What You Pay For.

     There’s a corollary that should be respected:

Anything “Free” Is Worth What It Costs.

     Very few persons will put their painstakingly honed skills at your service for no compensation beyond the warm glow from having done a good deed. Serious craftsmen expect to be paid for their craft. Accordingly, as a matter of policy you should beware anyone who purports to offer you a “free” service, whether analog, digital, physical, virtual, animal, vegetable, mineral, or spiritual.

     No, I’m not about to “name names.” My negative experiences have educated me in the folly of merely providing a tabulation of malefactors; there’s always some new scamster riding into town. So take the above – please! – as a general guideline. For lagniappe, have a snippet from Robert Sheckley, who appears to have understood the principle down to its root:

     “I don’t want any.”
     “Yes you do,” a voice from the other side of the door replied.
     “I’ve got all the encyclopedias, brushes, and waterless cookery I need,” Edelstein called back wearily. “Whatever you’ve got, I’ve got it already.”
     “Look,” the voice said, “I’m not selling anything. I want to give you something.”
     Edelstein smiled the thin, sour smile of the New Yorker who knows that if someone made him a gift of a package of genuine, unmarked $20 bills, he’d still somehow end up having to pay for it.
     “If it’s free,” he said, “then I definitely can’t afford it.”

     [Robert Sheckley, “The Same To You Doubled.”]

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

On Letting Your Characters Do It For You

     A common occurrence in my “fiction writing process” – note the three initials – is a need for me to stop and ask my Marquee characters “What are you all about, really? And how does it bear on what’s happening in this scene?”

     Such moments are important to me. You see, I don’t really have a process of the formal sort. Some writers outline or synopsize; I do that too, but I almost never cleave to it in the actual act of writing. Some writers write character biographies; I’ve done that on occasion, but the finished product seems to diverge from my early conceptions rather dramatically. Some writers write out backstories to which they can make reference as needed; as useful as that seems, I find it more productive to make actual, publishable stories out of something that demands that much work. So ultimately, I’m flying by eye and feel rather than a process of the sort other writers that prefer more preparatory organization would recognize.

     That makes it important that I become intimate with my characters. (No, not in the Biblical sense. Get your mind out of the gutter.) I need to be able to “ring them up” on my mental telephone and converse with them when my plots get thorny.

     Sitting across a cafe table from Louis Redmond, Todd Iverson, or Stephen Graham Sumner can be a most helpful experience. Their voices are familiar to me, as you would expect of an old friend. A chat with one of them can often help me to break a mental logjam about how to resolve a critical conflict. Louis is particularly good on morality and ethics; Todd provides all the engineering expertise anyone could use; and Sumner’s grip on the law goes all the way to its finest details.

     Of course, others of my Marquee characters are harder to converse with. For example, before he was wounded in that assault on Morelon House, Martin Forrestal made a great conversational companion. These days, he’s always trying to remember how he felt about this or that episode. He usually fails. Martine Arnault could be good company, but getting her out of Evenings to Remember is tough and keeping her from returning to it is damned near impossible. As for Devin MacLachlan, forget it. All he wants to talk about are his books.

     Of course, I’m half-kidding here. The inventions of my mind can’t converse in any real sense. Nor can they “know” anything that I haven’t taught them. Still, by compelling them to speak in characterologically consistent ways, I can reacquire my grip on the most important element of any story: the motivations of the Marquee character group.

     It’s a bit like Stanislavsky method acting. If you know your context to a sufficient degree of specificity, and you know which of your characters’ desires, fears, and convictions would come into play in that context, you can get them to write their own lines – in effect, to write your scene for you. That conduces to the kind of fictional plausibility we call realism.

     What do you think, fellow scribblers? Have you used a technique of this sort? If so, how well did it work for you? If not, consider giving it a try and let me know!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Heroes And Realism

     I’m aware that my sort of hero – the genuinely good guy who’s a shade or two larger than life – is not in favor. He’s supposedly not realistic. Everyone has flaws, runs the gospel. If you fail to account for human imperfections, you flaunt your defiance of that reality. And to account for it properly, you have to show your guy giving in to his flaws, at least now and then.

     I dissent for a single, overriding reason: paying attention to the voice of one’s conscience is exactly what distinguishes a good guy from a bad guy or a mostly good but relatively less important Supporting Cast character...and one of the reasons I write fiction is to depict that contrast and encourage my readers to think about it.

     I had my most popular character very much in mind when I wrote Polymath. Louis Redmond is so popular among my readers that not a week passes that I don’t receive at least a dozen emails begging for more stories about him. From the first it was clear that Todd Iverson, the book’s protagonist, could not and would not compare to Louis in the most important ways. As important as I intend to make Todd in the future mapped out by the second Realm of Essences trilogy, it’s critical that he have a number of significant weaknesses. Louis had only one: his suspicion of anything pleasurable that struck him as unnecessary.

     Will Todd give in to those weaknesses? Perhaps. You’ll have to read the books to find out (snicker). But in the main he’ll attend to the still, small voice quite as closely as Louis ever did, because Louis is his hero and model in all human things. When others who matter to him fail to make the right choices, he’ll observe them, and the results, dispassionately, determined to learn from their mistakes. That all-important skill, and the willingness to use it, make the biggest difference between the common run of Mankind and the truly exemplary among us.

     In short, my attitude toward realism goes like this:

  1. There is a pole, determined by the behavior of real people, toward which character decisions and actions should bend.
  2. However, genuine heroes know when it’s vital that they ignore what “everybody else” would do.
  3. They learn such discrimination by watching “everybody else” and pondering their words and deeds.
  4. For a properly happy ending – i.e., one that nevertheless requires that the hero pay a proportional price – he must choose the right path even in full foreknowledge of what it will cost him – and that knowledge and willingness are what really qualify a hero.

     In fiction, there is such a thing as too much realism. Really.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

For Those Who've Requested It

     ...and anyone else who likes a (relatively) decent short romance: This collection comprises my short romances written since 1995. Sex? Yes, a little. Love? Yes, quite a lot. And optimism about the human heart and soul.

     Only $0.99 at Amazon. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Mating Cries Of The Social-Justice Warriors

     Isn’t that what the nearly continuous ejaculations of “Racist!” “Sexist!” “Homophobe!” “Fascist!” and the like are about? I mean, they usually have no impact on their target, who laughs gaily and goes on with his day. So it has to be some sort of mating signal, like the yowls of a female cat in “heat.” Right?

     All kidding aside, the air is thick with denunciations of those awful, retrograde, women-and-minorities-hating “Sad Puppies.” Their offense, of course, is that they dared to do what the SJWs had been doing for about twenty years now: slate voting for the Hugo Award nominations. Having invaded the Hugo process with their insistence that Sf and fantasy should be entertaining, rather than merely politically correct, they’ve polluted what the SJWs had decided was territory duly conquered and occupied. And as is always the case with the Left and its many annexes – wait a second, shouldn’t the plural of annex be annicies? Index, indices; vertex, vertices; apex, apices; Tampax, Tampices...but I digress – the SJWs are apoplectic about it.

     Here’s a recent bile sample:

     The clock is ticking for the public vote in this year’s Hugo awards, which celebrate excellence in science fiction. Sixteen categories are up for grabs, from best novel to short fiction, fan writing, art and dramatic presentation, and the deadline is 31 July. But this year the prizes are not just about celebrating science-fiction – it’s political war.

     There’s usually a kerfuffle of one kind or another – popular authors habitually campaign for fans to vote them on to the list, but 2015 has proved the biggest drama the award has ever seen. That’s because two linked online campaign groups, known as the “Sad Puppies” and their more politically extreme running mates, the “Rabid Puppies”, have been campaigning hard to register supporters and bump their preferred titles on to the shortlists. They have managed it, too: this year’s Hugos are packed with Puppies titles. There’s no avoiding the politically partisan nature of this campaign. Its leading lights range from respectable rightwingers such as US authors Larry Correia and Brad Torgerson, through to those with more outlandish views such as John C Wright and Vox Day (also known as Theodore Beale). It’s the Tea Party of contemporary US sci-fi.

     The Puppies are complaining that recent Hugo winners have been too highbrow, and argue that winners such as Anne Leckie’s smart gender-deconstruction of space opera Ancillary Justice, or John Scalzi’s witty Star-Trek-inspired metafiction Redshirts are too experimental and literary.

     More importantly, as Sarah Lotz says, they’re also suggesting SF has been hijacked by a conspiracy of “social justice warriors” or “SJWs”, intent on filling the genre with progressive ideological propaganda.

     The Puppies’ real beef is that SF, and society as a whole, has become too feminist, too multiracial, too hospitable to gay and trans voices. Anti-SJW rhetoric, most of it proceeding from angry straight white men, has flooded online discussions. It’s been ugly. It’s also proving self-defeating. George RR Martin’s intervention, urging people to register and vote in order to defeat the plans of people he call “assholes”, has galvanised the counter-vote.

     Well, we’ll see about that “self-defeating” bit. The important thing here is the hypocrisy: the slate of works promoted by the Sad Puppies does not discriminate in any detectable way. It contains books and stories by men and women; by conservatives and liberals; by theists and atheists; and by persons of all three recognized races. The SJWs are merely furious at having their tactics used against them – successfully.

     That’s the Left for you. They always proclaim their victories final, so it really frosts their buns to have ground taken back from them.

     I find myself remembering another SJW-driven contretemps of a few years ago: the claim, made at the time Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies were popular, that those movies, and the Tolkien trilogy itself, were racist. The SJWs argument? There are no nice Orcs!

     I highly doubt that any of those making that absurd claim were familiar with the genesis of the Orcs: the Great Enemy, Morgoth, derived them from captured Elves that he tortured and modified. Tolkien mentions it in the “Old Testament” of his saga, The Silmarillion. There were Elves of corrupt and vicious character from the very first, which I would imagine gave Morgoth his “seed material.” In any case, when the One Ring is destroyed at the conclusion of the trilogy, Tolkien describes the effects upon Sauron’s Orc army thus:

     “The realm of Sauron is ended!” said Gandalf. “The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his quest.” And as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out toward them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.

     The Captains bowed their heads; and when they looked up again, behold! Their enemies were flying and the power of Mordor was scattering like dust in the wind. As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope.

     The creatures of evil genesis fell when their Maker fell. Sauron had allowed no speck of rightness or justice to remain in them; therefore, without him they could not live. How could it be otherwise?

     But you can’t say that to an SJW. His premises don’t include the possibility of absolute evil. The very idea! It might disturb his carefully cultivated moral relativism.

     It’s been said many times, and by writers far better known than I, that no end can redeem an evil means. A means must be judged by the same moral standard as all other things. Therefore, a tactic, regardless of the end in view, will be either morally acceptable or morally unacceptable. If it was acceptable for the SJWs to promote the works they favored, then it was acceptable for the Sad Puppies to do the same. Inversely, if the Sad Puppies’ campaign for its slate must be condemned, then so must the use of that tactic by the SJWs. The difference between the two is the degree of concealment applied, and nothing else: the Sad Puppies did what they did in full view of everyone involved, whereas the SJWs preferred sotto voce consensus-building among the like-minded and whispering campaigns against works they despised.

     Ultimately, what will matter most will be whether F&SF is at all improved by the contretemps. Second to that will be whether the Sad Puppies’ campaign widens the field of F&SF fandom, specifically that portion enthusiastic enough about it to participate actively in the Hugos and similar things. The theory of democratic processes holds that the results will improve as participation increases. The Sad Puppies hope to draw more F&SF readers into the Hugo processes. The SJWs hope to limit participation in those processes to themselves and the like-minded. To me that says it all, though your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Romance In Science Fiction

     This is a subject about which some writers get defensive, and others become apoplectic. It’s become a front-burner issue over the past few years, as unprecedented numbers of women have begun writing books heavy with romance and romantic themes, but nevertheless are billed SF.

     No, they haven’t gone to the “bodice ripper” cover styles yet. And let’s be judicious about dismissing all such books as “romances disguised and marketed as SF.” Some of them are quite worthy. They merely contain more romance than earlier, predominantly male SF writers injected.

     I have to declare a particular bias here, as my books are “cross-genre” too. That’s why I had to go independent: the conventional publishing houses have so much difficulty marketing cross-genre work that a writer of such has to strike them as the next James Michener to have a decent chance of getting their approval. (The odds are somewhat better for a writer who: 1) writes explicitly for a susceptible demographic, such as teenagers; and: 2) conforms to one of the trendy fads: e.g., vampires.) So I have a certain sympathy for lady writers who find themselves drawn powerfully to opportunities to insert romantic motifs into the topically neutral genre of science fiction, as lady writers have been throughout history.

     I suppose the question is which “feel” predominates: the idea-and-adventure oriented “feel” of SF or the emotion-oriented “feel” of romance. There’s a fat gray area in there, which is why the fusillades over it have been so furious.

     What frosts a number of fannies in the “SF world,” if it’s at all proper to speak of such things in the wake of the Sad Puppies controversy, is that the writers of romance / SF hybrids, including some whose books might have borne the Harlequin Silhouette sigil a few years ago, have acquired considerable popularity, and their fans have become active within SF fandom. In consequence, a substantial cohort of voters for the major SF awards now give their votes to such books, which some of the older, “traditionalist” writers and readers have come to resent. A few of the “traditionalists” have been vocal about it, on occasion to their own detriment.

     Ultimately, of course, for conventionally published SF it’s entirely a matter of bucks for the publishers, and of course the tastes the readers exhibit with their purchases. Publishing is and will remain a business, and businesses exist first and foremost to make money. That’s not a slam against publishers, merely a recognition of the realities. Therefore, they’ll continue to publish books they believe, on the strength of the sales of other books, will sell well, and will ignore books that don’t accord with those parameters. The fires of the controversy will be hottest when conventions and awards are involved, as such things have been important to a writer’s sales in the past, and though they’ve proved less so in recent years, the future is...well, the future.

     Indie writers don’t have such problems; we only want to write and gather readers. Those of us who don’t dream of conventional publication and the riches of Croesus, at least.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Feel-Good Story

     Yes, yes, it’s been a while. Forgive me.

     Quite recently I penned a group of short romances, all of which are available at Smashwords and most of which are free of charge. None of them have any great degree of tension or conflict in them. They’re essentially “feel-good” stories, happy narratives that don’t involve the sort of weighty problem that’s “supposed” to be at the center of a good piece of drama. Nevertheless, I’m happy to have written them, and from the feedback I’ve received, my readers are happy as well.

     There’s a place for feel-good stories. There’s certainly enough going on to feel bad about, especially as regards relations between the sexes, and counteraction is easy to justify. All the same, the “critics” – why yes, those are “sneer quotes” – are merciless about such things. Their critical treatment of feel-good fiction is about half a degree warmer than what they give to Harlequin romances. (That’s half a degree Fahrenheit, not Centigrade.)

     Why? Dogmatism, perhaps. Also, quite a bit of the “literary” world has a relatively dark, pessimistic Weltanschauung. It serves them in strange and inscrutable ways. Must be a bitch to get the wine and Brie stains off it, though. (Is there anyone out there who actually enjoys Brie? To me it tastes like ammonia. Well, de gustibus and all that.)

     Among movies produced outside the “Hollywood system,” one of the most successful of recent memory is Nia Vardalos’s 2002 gem My Big Fat Greek Wedding. In case you haven’t seen it, this movie is feel-good fiction on the big screen. Viewers’ reaction to it was almost unanimously positive. Oh yes, they all agree that it’s “fluff,” without “important social impact,” destined to be forgotten if it hasn’t been already. But they enjoyed it. They don’t regret paying the price of admission. And no few of them sneak it onto their DVD players when the kids and the Significant Other are conveniently otherwise occupied.

     In short, there’s a market for such fiction. You can make a few bucks writing it, if you have the chops. If you don’t have the chops, the easy-to-write, creatively unchallenging feel-good story is one way to develop them.

     What was I, the relentlessly serious and intolerably sententious author of Chosen One, Which Art In Hope, Priestesses, and similarly weighty fare, doing writing such mental candy floss? Relaxing, dude! Trying to shrug a little of the weight of the world off my increasingly overburdened shoulders. And perhaps pandering a wee bit to my own need for such things. I’m not so rock-solidly self-assured that I never need a break from the load.

     In a way, this is about “guilty pleasures.” There are some pleasures about which one should and must feel guilty -- licking the doughnuts and putting them back on the store shelf is one -- but preferring one sort of innocent entertainment to others, rather than requiring yourself to endure what other people say you “ought to like” is not among them.

     Anyway, don’t you want to feel good, at least now and then? Isn’t that what we all want? Why else do masochists keep company with sadists, after all? (Cf. the above comment about people who claim to enjoy Brie...and the people who serve it to them.)

     Enjoy what you want. Write what you want. Let the critics gnash their teeth. A little harmless Schadenfreude won’t keep you out of heaven. Probably not, anyway. Though I think I’ll say an extra decade of the Rosary tonight. You know, just in case.

     (No German philosophers were harmed in the making of this post.)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Audience Participation

     These days, a writer who allows it will get plenty of feedback from his readers. I encourage it; it helps me to know what I’m doing badly, what I’m doing well, and what I could try that I haven’t yet thought to do. But there are pitfalls to the practice, some of which are less than obvious.

     For one thing, people who merely want to piss you off have as much access to you as those interested in an honest exchange. I’ve received a fair amount of such “input.” I hardly need to tell you that I don’t care for it, but it taught me an important lesson: not to respond. The response, to quote master cartoonist Chris Muir, is what such nuisances want. You have a better chance of getting them to cease and desist if you deny them that reinforcement.

     Another pitfall is excessive praise. It’s in the nature of such feedback that your correspondents will exhibit an “undistributed middle:” nearly all of them will either love you or hate you. The reader who was left essentially unmoved by your stories won’t bother to write to tell you so. You can go quite as badly wrong by wallowing in paeans and dithyrambs as you can by allowing yourself to get riled by insults and condemnations.

     But there’s a third trap, about which I’ve only just learned: the praise that tempts you away from your proper path.

     My principal themes are freedom and Christianity. My love of those things provides the motive power that makes my storytelling possible. I seldom deviate from them, and when I do, I’m even less often satisfied with the result. Which is the “backstory” to today’s little homily.

     Some of the folks I correspond with are other indie writers. They aren’t all oriented as I am; in fact, I can’t think of one who is. I like them as people. I trade thoughts, ideas, and miscellaneous commentary with them just as I would with an in-the-flesh buddy. When one of them hits me with a challenge, I take it seriously, as an avenue that deserves to be pondered and possibly explored.

     Not too long ago, I received such a challenge. It came from another sometime writer of erotica, who likes what I write well enough, but thought I should put my hand to something different. Here’s the meat of what he suggested to me:

     Your erotica is nearly always extremely gentle. You focus on love rather than sex, which is an unusual bent for such stories. I’ve got no quarrel with that, but I’ve several times yearned to see what you could do with a premise that compels you to think sex first and foremost...or a premise that forces you to set aside your religious convictions just to write about it!

     So try this: a story entirely about futanari. Women with “a little something extra.” Have them come by it naturally rather than surgically, so it’s not a matter of willful gender transformation. How would you cope with that premise? How would they?

     You’re a Catholic. You believe to the very bottom of your soul that God does not make junk. So how would such persons, women in all but the members hanging from their groins, cope with their condition? And how would you craft a story – your sort of story, not mine – around them, but without mentioning Christianity?

     I’ve made it a policy not to turn down such challenges, as long as they’re not facetious. So I ran with it. And I had a fair amount of fun doing so.

     (Sorry, I can’t post the story here. It’s not for the eyes of the underage.)

     My writer friend was pleased. He thought the story displayed more skill and sensitivity than he’d previously thought I possess. But that’s not the end of the adventure.

     Quite a lot of readers were pleased with it, too. Readers of a sort I’d never connected with before this. And they’ve descended on me in a body, demanding more...more...MORE!

     It would be ungracious for me to be unhappy about those demands. Nevertheless, I thought of “A Place Of Our Own” as a once-only sort of undertaking. I met my friend’s challenge, but I’m not sure I should do any more along those lines. Indeed, I’m not sure I could.

     But those hungry readers...I really hate to disappoint them.

     See what I mean about the dangers of praise?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Stories That Fail Of Their Purpose

     When a writer sets out to produce a polemically-oriented fiction – i.e., a fiction intended to present a political, social, economic, moral, or religious point of view in a fashion intended to persuade readers to it – he enters upon dangerous territory.

     Granted that several well-remembered works of fiction were written to make such points. Granted that when it’s done skillfully, polemic fiction can be as entertaining as any other sort. Granted that among the reasons any storyteller sits down to his computer / typewriter / drafting table / box of slowly drying mud is to express a theme of great importance to him. None of that diminishes the hazards involved in consciously crafting a polemic.

     The principal danger is shortchanging the reader on entertainment, for the sake of the theme. There are several variations of this trap. The writer can have characters preach to one another. He can make the antagonists too obviously “bad guys.” He can violate the “show, don’t tell” rule so the reader will be certain the various actors in his drama are thinking what they’re supposed to be thinking. He can head-hop – i.e., he can shift narrative viewpoints arbitrarily within a scene, confusing the reader as to whose eyes are really seeing the action. There are other ways to err, but those are the ones most common among polemically oriented writers.

     In a way, it’s all one sin. The writer might be there to make a point, but the reader is not. The reader is there principally for entertainment. The entertainment value of a story inheres in the emotional journeys of its Marquee Characters and how vividly the writer can bring them out. If the writer’s need to drive his theme home is too strong, he could easily slough that journey completely...and in so doing, lose the reader and his purchases of the writer’s future works.

     This is becoming a rather important subject. An increasing number of polemicists are writing fiction. The birth of the independently-published fiction movement has elicited a huge number of such writers. Not many of them are capable of avoiding the pitfalls of their orientation. The stories from the less capable ones often get rave reviews from persons who already agree with the writer’s positions, but they’re unlikely to persuade others.

     I’m in the middle of such a novel now. No, I won’t tell you its title or the author’s name; suffice it to say that the author asked me to read it...some time ago. He’s received a great many five-star reviews on Amazon, but they’re all from persons who shared his views before they picked up his book. Mind you, I share his views, which is almost certainly why he asked me to read his book. But I’m not entertained by it. Indeed, it’s such heavy going, its action so relentlessly telegraphed, the good guys so good and the bad guys so bad, that I might not finish it.

     “Preaching to the choir” is wasted effort. It might bring in some revenue, if “the choir” is large enough...and easily enough pleased. But it will fail its larger purpose, the purpose for which the author created it in the first place. The irony here is that entertainment that persuades successfully does so with incredible effectiveness – which the author probably knew when he first set his fingers to the keys. But it must be entertainment first and foremost.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Discriminating Reader

     That’s the reader at whom I aim my stuff, just as the graphic at the head of this site says. Do I always hit the mark? Probably not. But nevertheless, he – the reader who won’t accept second-best – is my target.

     But how shall I know what he wants to read?

     Part of the answer is provided by one’s existing readers. These days they have a lot of ways to let a writer know what pleases them. The most persuasive of all the methods is his revenue stream, but not far behind that are their reviews, emails, tweets, and other phenomena of our effortless-communication era. These things carry more weight with a writer than any self-appointed “critic” with a column in the New York Review of Books...and they should. A serious writer doesn’t write for the “critics,” any more than a serious director works to please the film critics.

     The discriminating reader seeks the works of the discriminating writer.

     That’s the seed material for today’s screed.

     A discriminating writer is one who crafts stories:

  • About believable characters,
  • In imaginable situations,
  • Confronting imaginable crises,
  • And coping with them according to their natures.

     Though those appear to be easy targets to hit, the great frequency of published books and stories that manage not to hit them testifies to the contrary.

     Of course, this is all purely opinion, right? It’s just about tastes, and everyone knows you can’t argue about tastes, right? Besides, all science fiction, fantasies, and horror stories start out completely unbelievable, right? So that loudmouth Fran is just venting again, trying to present his preferences as commandments from God, right? Right?

     Have you ever seen or heard the saying “Buy the premise, buy the flick?” Said about a movie, of course. It’s the same with fiction, really. If the protagonists and antagonists, however many there are of either, confront a situation plausible within the context premised by the genre and the specified setting, and respond to it plausibly according to their natures – both what they are and who they are – the result will please the discriminating reader. Always assuming it’s been properly proofread and formatted, of course.

     This is a large part of the reason I can’t abide contemporary horror fiction that features “benevolent” vampires. A vampire is, by nature, an apex predator. His attitude toward Mankind must be essentially predatory, no matter how straitly disciplined. Over thousands of years, some vampires would evolve toward a kind of carefully managed symbiosis with living men, but the process would undoubtedly be protracted, painful, and marred by many a misstep.

     John Conroe’s Demon Accords series, which I enjoy greatly, narrowly skirts that abyss. His vampires are predators, and make no mistake about it. But the more successful ones police themselves ruthlessly, and continually seek ways to lessen their dependency on humans as feedstock. Conroe has obviously given some thought to the contradiction of the “benevolent vampire,” for at several times in his books he notes their essential, indelibly predatory nature and the obvious dangers they would pose if unchecked. I tried to do something similar in my little story “Class Action.”

     I want to please the discriminating reader. I want no plaudits for “technique.” I want my reader to finish a story or a novel thinking “yes, that’s what they would have done, and that’s how it would have gone,” and perhaps feeling a bit better about his sense for the natures of men...or five-eyed pentapodal Aldebaranian colony organisms. I will always be happy to recommend to him the works of some other writer whom I’ve encountered, and who’s done it notably well. And I will cherish even above whatever praise I receive the thoughts of such a reader who can show me, in any particular story or novel, where I’ve fallen short of that standard.

     That is the Creed of the Discriminating Writer -- my creed.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Awards, Campaigning, And “The Hamlet Question”

     Recently, the world of science fiction was profoundly and righteously shaken by the so-called “Sad Puppies” affair. (It was “so called” because that’s what the organizers called it, so....) I wrote a little about it over at Liberty’s Torch, my op-ed site, here, here, and here. To my way of thinking, it was all to the good, both because it involved a larger number of SF readers in the fan-awarded Hugo nominations, and because the aftermath revealed the hypocrisy, venality, and mean-spiritedness of the “social-justice warriors” who had contrived to dominate the nominations process in recent years.

     I thought I was done with the subject, but it rebounded on me. My readers started asking me why I hadn’t taken part in the Sad Puppies campaign. After all, I write science fiction...kinda-sorta, why not lend a hand? It might result in one of my books being selected for such an honor in the future.

     I appreciated the enthusiasm and admiration of those readers. However, I could never take part in such a campaign -- not because I have any moral qualms about it, but because I avoid any involvement with groups, regardless of their nature or agendas, with a fervor some have characterized as “religious” and others have deemed “psychotic.”

     “To be or not to be a joiner?” Hamlet would have cried...if he were a kinda-sorta SF writer named Francis W. Porretto. Yes, that is the question...and the answer is a resounding Hell, no! Allow me a quote from a favorite book: Clarence Carson’s The American Tradition:

     In a conversation with one other person, you have discovered that person to be sympathetic, polite, and thoughtful You may go away from such an experience concluding that you have met and are coming to know a genuine human being. Your next meeting, however, may take place in a group. Here the person who was congenial when alone with you may make cutting remarks and align himself with the others of the group against you on matters upon which you were sure you would agree. A little reflection should convince us, if we are not entirely unusual, that we have done the same thing ourselves....

     Anyone who has worked with aggregates of people should have noted some differences between groups and individuals. Groups do not think or reason; that is solely a function of the individual. On the other hand, individuals, feeling the strength of numbers, are emboldened to do things which they would be afraid to do alone. Children in a classroom will become defiant if they sense the class is with them, and one may observe them darting their eyes about over the room to assure themselves that the others are behind them. At a more serious level, anyone who has endured the abuse of massed pickets when he crossed the line can testify to the loss of inhibition which accompanies the merging with a group. People tend to lose their sense of individual responsibility when they become part of a crowd.

     Now, Dr. Carson was mainly concerned with the sociopolitical importance of groups, and the proper measures by which to civilize them. But the essence of group campaigns, regardless of the cause involved, is the submission of the individual will to the predominant will: at some times the will of a powerful or charismatic leader figure, at other times the will of a majority.

     I cannot subordinate my will to that of another person, even theoretically. How, then, should I ally myself with a group substantially more likely to do so and more capable of doing so?

     Perhaps it’s an idiosyncrasy of mine. All the same, the inhibition is a strong one, erected over the decades by youthful involvements and mature interactions with groups and evangelists for groups. I consider it a protection for my integrity, and I will not work to dismantle it.

     Besides, who needs awards? I want readers first and foremost, and a modest amount of revenue after that. True, an award widely recognized as a mark of excellence would help me to get those things. But now that such awards have become prime targets for politically oriented groups – especially left-liberal groups – they are no longer reliable indicators of quality, being more an emblem of the writer’s endorsement for some common political viewpoint.

     So I tend to dismiss literary awards as significant signs of quality fiction, and eschew campaigns such as Sad Puppies. As healthful for the SF field as “Sad Puppies 3” could be, it has already elicited a counter-campaign by “social-justice warriors” determined to re-establish their hegemony over the Hugos. Thus, future Hugo nominations and awards will be more about political alignments and less about good storytelling than ever. That’s the sort of contretemps I prefer to watch from a distance...preferably with a Daiquiri or Fuzzy Navel at hand. (They go great with a good book.)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Besiegers And Demeaners

     If you plan to expose your stories to the world, you have to be ready for the condemnations and derisions that will follow.

     Sounds like an “of course” statement, doesn’t it? At one time I’d have said so myself. But not today. Today, there are legions that exist solely to condemn those who express certain viewpoints – and they’re as vicious about it as they can be but still slide past the slander laws.

     I get a lot of that sort of thing, because:

  • I’m a Catholic;
  • I’m opposed to abortion;
  • I mock the “cult of the victim,” regardless of the victim at issue;
  • I consider homosexuality disgusting, and in-your-face homosexuality a social offense;
  • I’m a believer in sharply limited government, and that no “cause” is sufficient justification for transgressing Constitutional boundaries on government power or activity.

     So I get it five different ways: from the militant atheists; from the abortion worshippers; from the victimists (i.e., the feminists, the racial mouthpieces, the ethnicists, and the “social-justice warriors”); from the homosexuals; and from assorted “cause people” (e.g., the enviro-Nazis). And I won’t kid you: at first, it was daunting.

     At first. Then I realized something: those idiots have never contributed one single thing to my well-being, my edification, or my entertainment – or anyone else’s. All they deserve is contempt.

     Why concern yourself about the derision of those you hold in contempt?

     Of course, there is a line that must not be crossed. Those who cross that line – i.e., those who threaten or attempt to do me actual harm – must be dealt with, and I do so. Happily, there are few such, as most of the abovementioned idiots are as cowardly as they are mouthy.

     The cowardice is easily detected. They almost never reveal their right names. They slink about on the Web behind a gaggle of “handles” – back when actual teaching took place in the schools, we called them “pseudonyms” – to obscure their identities and histories. And of course, they never argue or present evidence; they can’t. They merely howl at the tops of their lungs. It’s the only thing they can do that has a chance of silencing you.

     I don’t generally advocate feeling superior to others...but allowing yourself to feel superior to useless cowardly cretins is fully justified. Especially if you’re merely trying to entertain while promulgating a social, economic, or political point.

     Tell your stories without fear. If they’re entertaining and true-to-life (which really means that you’ve portrayed plausible characters in a plausible setting acting plausibly according to the laws of Nature), your point will come across regardless of what it is. Even those who disagree with it will at least have enjoyed your tale, which is the most important thing a writer can do. It’s the sine qua non of this occupation.

     And if you succeed in making converts to your point of view, well, that’s a bonus. I can only congratulate you on it. That doesn’t mean I won’t argue against it...but I won’t condemn you as an enemy of all that’s right, true and good. Unless you happen to be one, that is!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

"Where Do You Get Your Ideas?"

     Isaac Asimov once wrote that “where do you get your ideas?” is the question fans asked him most often. He found the question frustrating. Ideas for stories are all around you, he said; just reach out and grab one. That indirectly expressed the facility he had for seeing the vast number of phenomena that a curious mind can mine for attractive ideas.

     Let’s go to the bedrock and work our way up from there: What constitutes an idea that would be grist for a fiction writer’s mill? Categorically, mind you; not specifically. Because “idea” is a label for a very general class of things. We want a definition for a more specific category: “an idea for a story.” Let’s see: what characteristics must attach to “an idea for a story?”

  • It must pose a problem for people to confront;
  • The problem must be non-trivial.

     The first of those requirements flows from John Brunner’s Laws of Fiction:

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

     So your idea must involve people – the characters your story will depict – facing a problem and straining to cope with it.

     The second requirement is tougher. There are a lot of trivial problems to be solved, and each of us solves a multitude of them every day. As a mathematician might say, they’re problems with known solutions – in the usual case, many known solutions. We pick one, apply it, and continue on to whatever comes next. It’s a familiar process; we call it “life.”

     But no one wants to read a story about the trouble you had choosing a pair of socks, or washing the coffee residue out of your favorite mug. Trivial problems are...well, trivial. They involve no ingenuity, no hard thought or effort, and change nothing of significance about you or the world around you. A reader wants to see your protagonist “work for it.” His problem should put him through a wringer, whether he solves it or not: something that would change him or others in a definite way. The alien monster must not take one look at the hero, scream, and commit suicide. Neither should the girl swoon and throw herself into his arms without some effort on his part.

     One of my favorite stories, which appears in this collection, arose from an utterly ordinary phenomenon: abandoned babies found on the church steps. That’s been a common way for a mother who can’t (or won’t) care for a baby to divest herself of the problem ever since women first had unwanted babies (and churches first had steps). The Church has a policy of always taking in such infants and doing the best it can for them, whether that means turning them over to an order of nuns to be raised, finding willing adopters, or whatever. But caring for some infants brings more trouble than others. After all, wasn’t that true of yours?

     I was reading about a case of that very sort when the idea struck me: What if the abandoned infant were a vampire? What would the Church do then? Imagining the terrible contradiction that would confront the priest who finds such a baby, and imagining the differences of opinion that could arise among his brothers in the cloth, gave rise to my story “Foundling.”

     “Foundling” is a very emotional and deeply religious story: the former entirely because of the latter. It would have been a lot harder to write for someone who has no faith. But there’s no guarantee that a particular idea will suit the orientation and skills of the writer who comes up with it. That’s just the way the dice fall, sometimes.

     Yesterday’s story made use of a problem I’d been suffering from for a while: the scourge of post-nasal drip. No, it doesn’t kill you; it just makes you wish it would. And millions upon millions of tormented souls are suffering from it as you read this. But what if you were to find an effective remedy? And what if that remedy had a side effect that’s too terrible – or too funny – to be borne? Such that unless your protagonist does something clever, he won’t be able to reap the vast fortune his remedy would otherwise provide him?

     Now there’s a fine story idea! It’s a problem a pharmacologist must face and solve, and a serious one at that: Either successfully suppress the side effect, or no vast fortune!

     And with that, I was off to the keyboard. But where did the idea come from? Why, from my very own post-nasal drip...and from my realization that whoever could beat this terror from the depths of Hell would be able to open his own mint.

     I didn’t have to look too far away for that one, did I?

     “The more you look, the more you see,” wrote Robert M. Pirsig in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Truer words were never spoken, written, or encoded in Braille. Just looking at people, noting their trials and travails and what they must often do to surmount them, will provide a writer with more story ideas than he could use up in one lifetime. That’s the biggest reason a writer must have a life away from the keyboard; he who isolates himself will run dry of ideas faster than you can chug a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. Inversely, he who immerses himself in the life of Man will have the inverse problem: time and energy enough to use all the fascinating possibilities that occur to him as he strolls along, watching others live their lives.

     And speaking of Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters, infinite improbability drives, tea properly made, and the like, where do you suppose the late, hilariously funny Douglas Adams got the idea for the opening of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, hm? Might it have been from a condemnation order against his home, or perhaps a neighbor’s, to make way for a new road? Pretty commonplace stuff...but the idea behind it was priceless, as is Adams’s first and best novel.

     There’s more to say about ideas, of course: plot ideas versus character ideas, picking the best setting in which to stage a story around a particular idea, what sort of protagonist would suit your new idea, what length the story should be, and so forth. But let’s leave that for another day. I have a lot to do today, and I’d like to get in some fiction writing time before I turn to the more mundane chores. You see, I was just thinking about the icky mess that collects at the bottom of the cats’ litter boxes, and it gave me this idea...

     Later, Gentle Reader.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Concerning "A Place Of Our Own"

From the instant of its release, I was braced for a passel of shocked reactions to A Place Of Our Own, and I was not disappointed. What surprised me was that about half my correspondents were shocked at the subject matter – they must have missed the part about it being a fantasy -- while the other half were incredulous for a wholly different reason: “You call this erotica? There’s practically no sex in it!”

Well, yes. That’s because in my view, erotica is about the evocation of desire. Anyone can write about sexual mechanics...and quite a lot of people have done so. I find that sort of “fiction” about as arousing as a medical journal. (Does your patient suffer from prolapse of the anus, Doctor?)

Good fiction must be about people and the changes they experience. When the subject is human desire, the changes can be quite dramatic, which is why sexual desire and its consequences are so important in so much fiction. But sex per se doesn’t evoke desire; it quells it. That’s the whole point!

Desire...longing...the idealized image of one’s unattainable beloved hanging eternally in the mind’s eye: these are things that motivate human contemplation, action, and the consequent changes. Not pleasant friction on the mucous membranes...or anywhere else on the body.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Knowing Why They're There

Today’s subject was inspired by two stimuli. First, there’s Stacy McCain’s tribute to the late Jack Vance, from which I quote:

For what my opinion is worth, Vance has no equals in his mastery of both description and action. His books are filled with desperate deeds and heroic acts done in strange landscapes and bizarre societies, and all of them excellently described.

I concur...but let’s not stop there. Vance’s gifts go beyond those two admitted strengths. His heroes are unique and inspiring. His prose style is incomparably rich and vivid. Like Heinlein, his devotion to human excellence and the sort of milieu in which it flourishes is consistent across all his works. Even his semisatirical “Dying Earth” tales exhibit those strengths, albeit in many cases by counterexample and contrast. Readers unfamiliar with Vance should savor his short novel The Blue World for a concise example of his strengths.

If I have an idol among fiction writers, it’s Jack Vance.

Which got me to thinking: Do I read and love Vance’s stuff because his strengths are so many? Or do I seek out his books for some particular aspect that he does better than all the others...and better than other writers as well?

I can’t answer the question – but questions one can’t answer are the best imaginable prods to continuing hard thought.

The second impetus to today’s subject is a letter I recently received from a reader who sensed from this piece that I might be a bit disheartened about my fiction:

I know that Louis Redmond is imaginary, and that the Planet called Hope is made solely of fairy dust, yet Louis's story never fails to make me want to be a better man. That if I wished to live in a place like Morelon House, I must be as they are: Honest, hardworking, generous, kind, and loyal. If we wish that the President was Stephen Sumner, We must act like him first, and a man of his Character will naturally rise out of a people like those of Onteora County.

I am reading my children the Hobbit, because Bilbo Baggins is a better role model for them than anyone in the newspapers in the last 30 years. When the time comes, I will let them read about Todd Iverson, & Kevin Conway, & Louis Redmond. I would rather my children wish themselves alongside Louis Redmond, lost in the Land of make believe, than wish to be a celebrity, which is equally as likely, and not nearly so edifying. Britain conquered the world with Macaulay's lines on their lips

"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods."

...Your stories, Fran, can give men Hope, and strengthen their Faith, and help them fall in Love. Please do not be discouraged, you have already given a greater gift to the world than you know, and I eagerly await more of your stories. God Bless you and have a blessed rest of Lent and a Joyous Easter.

No writer could ask for – or receive – a higher tribute than that. I hardly deserve it. But the praise is really the lesser of the bounties my correspondent had bestowed upon me. The greater one is this: he told me explicitly what he values in my books.

A writer who discovers why his audience reads his work has been given the keys to the kingdom.

Writers all yearn to find an audience. It doesn’t matter whether we write fiction or non-fiction; what we desperately need to know is what we do that most appeals to those who’ve happened upon us, have loved what they’ve found, and continue to seek our stuff.

The contemporary fiction market offers writers the possibility of easy, non-threatening feedback from our readers, via email and interactive websites (e.g., blogs). Thus, discovering why your readers like your stuff is easier than in previous decades. But once you know, what should you do with the knowledge?

One response is to strengthen one’s weak areas. Do your fans love your action scenes? So practice description and scene-setting. Do your fans love your evocation of emotions? Maybe you should try writing more active stories. This isn’t exactly wrong, but it can lead one astray. For example, at a time when I lamented what I thought was a weakness in my powers of description, I started forcing descriptive passages into stories that couldn’t carry them. It took feedback from a candid test reader to nudge me off that track.

The opposite response, to concentrate wholly upon one’s strengths and slough all other considerations, can be just as treacherous. No one can write “pure” action, or “pure” description, or “pure” anything else, for reasons beyond the scope of this tirade. Even Shakespeare, who concentrated upon depicting the great emotions, had to say something about what the backdrop should look like. Yes, his stage directions are classically brief, but they’re there. Fortunately for him (and us), the brilliance of his characterizations and dialogue makes more ornate descriptions of setting irrelevant.

All the same, one direction is the better of the two. Just as with a good field commander, a smart writer who knows why his fans like his stuff tries principally to reinforce his successes: i.e., to do what he does well better still, albeit without neglecting the other essentials of his craft.

It’s not a hard balance to strike. Acquiring the necessary insight is the hard part...and only your readers can give you that.

After I’d taken a few days to reflect upon my correspondent’s thoughts, I wrote back (in part) as follows:

I’ve let this much time elapse before replying because your note had a large effect upon me. To be brief (which I seldom am, so savor this occasion!), you’ve reminded me of why I write fiction: because when done well, fiction conveys ideas and moral themes better by far than the best nonfiction opinion writing.

I consciously set out to create heroes: men and women in the vein of Macaulay’s Horatius. Readers are more affected by a convincing hero than by the finest, most involute of arguments. A good hero evokes precisely the response of which you wrote. But heroic fiction has a problem these days: plausibility. Contemporary readers all too often greet a genuinely good, genuinely heroic character with “Oh, come on! There aren’t any people like that.”

The cynicism of our age can make life difficult for a writer whose stories have a polemic tilt. When C. S. Lewis wrote his Space Trilogy, the world was a much different place. The West actually had behaved somewhat heroically in the recent past. I doubt his protagonist Elwin Ransom (whom he modeled on his close friend J. R. R. Tolkien) was greeted with the cynicism that Louis Redmond, or Armand Morelon, or Todd Iverson, or the siblings of The Sledgehammer Concerto often arouse.

My goal in writing fiction has always been, in the words of a writer friend, “to illuminate eternal verities:” the truths that envelop all human experience. I do that by creating heroes – and if I may judge by the feedback I’ve received, it’s my heroes that such fans as I’ve acquired value most. Note the causal sequence: the eternal verities aren’t a mere spinoff of the heroes; the heroes exist to actuate the verities. Lewis’s Ransom didn’t create the importance of faith and courage; he depicted them through his adventures. Tolkien’s Frodo didn’t create the importance of dedication and self-subordination to a higher cause; his journey merely illustrated it. Yet the characters are essential, for no quality of men can be depicted at all, much less strikingly or persuasively, without men to depict it.

I’ve said before, and more than once, that good fiction is a more powerful polemic vehicle than any other. Yet the polemic cannot be overt. It’s the heroes who persuade, even if they do so without argument. The verities themselves just sit there waiting for someone to illustrate them, whether by conforming to them or attempting to deny them.

If you write, the most precious knowledge you can obtain is why others read you. Stacy McCain and my unnamed correspondent have helped me to remember that. I wasn’t in any real danger of ceasing to write, but now and then every writer gets mired in his darker thoughts and needs a little goose in the caboose to get back into motion. I’m no exception.

But how does one ferret out the pool of readers who’d love your work as your existing readers do, but haven’t yet happened upon it? That, Watson, is a three-pipe problem!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Messaging Versus Entertaining

Sarah Hoyt notes the hazard in trading entertainment value for a socially approved message:

[A] story that relies on “right think” to justify its right to exist might not bother with less glamorous bits of craft such as making sure your reasoning makes sense throughout, or that you have established the character’s traits to evoke an emotional response from the reader and catharsis at the end of the story....[I]ntroduce a minority character, be it racial, sexual or religious, in one of the approved “categories” and the readership, which are “fans” of social justice will immediately imbue that “victim character” with all the characteristics of noble victims ever penned since Jean Jacques Rousseau rode the noble savage into the sunset.

Because of that, “message writing” will always be inferior to “entertainment writing” when viewed in the dispassionate cold light of day....

But there is more moral peril to “message writing” because of the very mode of thought it encourages amid its practitioners; a mode of thought best described as “seeing oppressors under every bed.”

Sarah's target in the above-cited essay is the "social-justice writing" crowd that seems to be entrenched beyond all possibility of removal at the conventional publishing houses I usually call Pub World. Both her points are valid, but it's the second one that has enduring importance.

When your culture screams that you're a victim, you're far more likely to accept that that's what you are, unalterably. When a culture tells an entire demographic that it's a victim-group, that group is likely to exhibit all the most unfortunate features of such groups throughout history. The worst of those features is the "victim's" tendency to define himself in relation to his "oppressors."

The case of a true victim class, the enslaved Negroes of pre-Civil-War America, is most illustrative. The Negro slave defined his entire existence relative to that of his owner. He had no choice in the matter, for his owner dictated the conditions of every moment of his life. Even once the slaves were emancipated, the former slave tended to view his cone of possibilities from the vantage point of his prior enslavement. That persistence of outlook gave rise to the tenant farming / "sharecropping" economy that flourished in the South for some years after the war.

In contrast, members of the ersatz victim classes of today voluntarily adopt such a perspective. Some of them do so insincerely: i.e., in pursuit of advantages available to officially recognized, legally privileged groups. Some do so for reasons deriving from their personal circumstances, for there are still social pockets in America where the great majority exhibits disdain for members of certain minorities and treats them unfairly. But a great many, perhaps most, do so because the culture in which they're immersed tells them loudly and multifariously that they're oppressed.

The culture, be it ever remembered, swaddles all of us at every instant of our lives. It's embedded in our journalism, our entertainment, our commercial and social conventions, our prevailing modes of dress and conduct, and our habits of speech. Though it cannot dictate with godlike force, it can condition us, cause us to look away from certain possibilities, and refuse to admit that certain alternatives to "the way things are" even exist.

Culture, like motivation, is a field-like force. It presses all of us in the same direction.

“A mechanical process can reverse a bit at random, but motivation acts like a field — the elements won’t change unless the field does.” — James Tiptree, “Faithful To Thee, Terra, In Our Fashion”

Some will resist the urgings of culture, and some of those will be successful. But the pressure will still be there.

One of the best reasons for conservatives to reclaim the American culture is that it's probably the only way, short of mass bloodshed, to put an end to the cult of victimism that pervades today's legal and political environment. The proliferation of self-nominated victim-groups has become absurd. Everyone seems to want to be classified as a victim of some sort, and why not? There are legal privileges to be had. There are social accommodations for victims, all the way from support groups and twelve-step programs to victims-only movie nights, dating websites, and fetish clubs. (Watch out for that "Fifty Shades" stuff; there's no telling what could follow it into your neighborhood.) Companies large and small chafe under de facto hiring quotas designed to mollify victim groups -- and once hired, many such victims demand and receive special accommodations. If we omit government itself, there's no more noxious influence on our social order.

A reclaimed culture that emphasizes individualism and self-determination is the winning counterforce to the victimist tide:

  • A journalistic culture that refuses to treat crimes differently according to the races, sexes, and creeds of the perpetrators;
  • An entertainment culture that refrains from valorizing characters because of their group membership;
  • A commercial culture that ignores group membership and recognizes only performance;
  • Social conventions that recognize race, sex, and creed without privileging particular ones;
  • True tolerance of freely chosen "roles," especially traditional masculinity and femininity;
  • A lexicon and a diction that are indifferent to the assumed sensitivities of various groups.

The heart of this prescription is individualism. Your membership in a group means only that you're a member of that group: i.e., that you conform to the genus and differentia that define the group. If the group is known for certain disagreeable patterns of conduct, it's your job to demonstrate that you diverge from that pattern. This is especially important in matters of race, sex, and creed. It becomes critical when stereotypes are involved.

Something the celebrated Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, once said strikes me as apposite. A mother had written to her about worries about her teenage daughter's social circle. Apparently that group was trending in a destructive direction -- the specifics elude my memory at this time -- and Mom was worried that her daughter would succumb to "peer pressure." Martin's reply was stunning: "Tell your daughter, 'You're a peer too, so why not start some pressure in the other direction?'"

Why not, indeed?

The connection to my personal concerns is, of course, through fiction. Sarah's essay reminded me of a complaint I got from a reader about the religious connotation attached to the name of an antagonist character in one of my books. I was nonplussed. My reader was offended by the idea that a person of her faith might ever turn out to be a villain. Though I let her complaint slide off my back, it has remained with me as a reminder of the insistence activist groups have placed on being represented in some venues and being excluded from others.

Have you noticed how seldom the villain in a contemporary police or detective drama turns out to be a Negro? Yet I can't name a show in which none of the good guys are black -- possibly because I only watch television between paragraphs -- and to cap the irony, the black character is usually cast as a master of technology or some other sort of bulging brain. Impossible? No, not at all. But given what we know about academic proclivities and occupational distributions, how likely is it?

That's rankled me for quite some time. I allowed it to influence certain decisions I made in the Realm of Essences books -- in the reverse direction. Call it my contribution to re-establishing true proportionality. After that set of adventures, when I tackled the Spooner Federation saga, I resolved not to mention race at all.

That's how our fictional culture is formed. Those already in the arena have made their decisions. It's high time those of us who love freedom got in there, too. But, please: always make entertaining the reader your first priority. Don't risk boring or alienating him for "a pot of message."

Monday, February 2, 2015

Prosodies, Threnodies, And Maladies

The indie-writers movement is a thing of great internal variety. Indeed, the one thing we have in common is that we publish our own crap. However, our offerings do display some differences, statistically at least, from the drivel that Pub World puts out. In particular, Pub World fiction puts more emphasis on style than does indie fiction. Indies tend to emphasize plot and excitement.

That cleavage probably derives, at least in part, from the reason we write: the kinds of stories that thrilled us as readers have become rare among Pub World offerings. That’s certainly part of my motive power: at one point before I decided to try my hand at fiction, I felt I’d gone a whole year without encountering a hero-protagonist I could wholeheartedly admire and root for – and I read 150 to 200 novels per year.

But just as tedious is the prevalent demotion of plot in favor of just about anything else. Were it not for murder mysteries and the Clancyesque military thriller subgenre, Pub World fiction would lack plot almost completely. It’s as if Ayn Rand’s caricature of a writer from Atlas Shrugged – the one who opined that “plot is a primitive vulgarity in literature” – had taken over the publishing industry.

Ponder the sentiments of one such denigrator of plot:

Eva Brann cares.

Brann teaches at St. John's College in Annapolis, where the curriculum is driven by the classics and professors are known as tutors.

Years ago she read one of Stephen King's books. She was greatly disappointed. "It was mere plot," she says. "Everything was geared to stimulation by way of action."

Asked if she could recall the name of the King novel, she says, "It left no impression. It left no impression whatsoever." That, she says, is a characteristic of popular fiction.

"There's a pornography of sex and a pornography of the nerves," she continues. The No-Stylists, she says, are penning the latter type of porn. "Things happen -- crude, wild, exciting things. They have no human depth. They're just occurrences."

A derisive, backhanded dismissal of one of the most gifted storytellers of our time! This Brann babe must have some chops of her own, wouldn’t you think? Yet an Amazon search turns up no fiction published under her name. Maybe she publishes under a pseudonym. At any rate, that would help her to avoid having her stories contrasted with King’s. Whatever the case, it’s plain that Miss Brann is very sad about the state of modern fiction.

I don’t write to please the Eva Branns of the world. No indie of my acquaintance does.

The point of storytelling is...well, let’s not go there, as there’s more than one answer. But the principal requirement of storytelling is to entertain the reader. Style fails to address that requirement.

One of the happy discoveries I’ve made since embarking on this adventure is that a writer’s personal style becomes distinctive as he writes, even if his sole aim is to tell a particular story, eschewing stylistic considerations of any sort.

I didn’t set out to coin a style of my own, as if I were composing a signature by which the reader would immediately know he was consuming a genuine FWP product. I had stories to tell. I told them in as straightforward a fashion as I knew how. That’s all I know how to do. But have a gander at the following email I received shortly after I self-pubbed Which Art In Hope, Chosen One, and On Broken Wings:

I greatly enjoy your op-eds, and always look forward to new ones, but your fiction blows me away. But something puzzles me. When you write about fiction writing, which I hope you'll do more of, you always seem to be running down style as a factor in good fiction. Yet you have one of the most unique styles I've come across in all my years (don't ask how many) of reading. What gives?

I read that email in a state of bewilderment. I couldn’t get a grip on what my correspondent was talking about. I just tell the stories as my characters relate them to me. If anyone was responsible for the “style,” whatever it is, of those books, it would be their protagonists, through whose eyes the story is told. I was just the typist.

I had to come back to those books much later, to read them as if they’d been written by someone else, before I could get any sense of the thing. There is a consistent character to the prose of those novels. It screams that all three were written by the same person. That’s what’s usually meant by a writer’s style. I didn’t intend any such thing...but it happened even so.

This seems to be the pattern among the indies whose works I’ve read.

So in one corner we have indie writers, happily churning out the sorts of tales they most love to read, while in the opposite corner are the writers beloved of Pub World, the majority of whom spin plot-deprived non-stories about antiheroes and victims of fate who spend most of their time lamenting their lots in life. Who’s ahead on points? Hard to say, as Pub World houses tend to keep sales figures confidential from everyone outside their orbit. But if Amazon is a gauge, there are more indie writers than ever before, and they’re producing books at a really impressive rate. Some of them are even good.

One of the recent critical “responses” to developments in contemporary fiction went like this:

    The central question driving literary aesthetics in the age of the iPad is no longer "How should novels be?" but "Why write novels at all?"...
    The scarcer or more difficult to access an aesthetic experience is—the novel very much included—the greater its ability to set us apart from those further down the social ladder. This kind of value is, in [sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's] analysis, the only real value that "refined" tastes have.
    It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary this riposte to the aesthetics of "transcendence" must have seemed 30 years ago....
    We who curate our Twitter feeds and Facebook walls understand that at least part of what we're doing publicly, "like"-ing what we like, is trying to separate ourselves from the herd....
    Writers since at least the heyday of Gore Vidal have bemoaned their audience's defection to other forms of entertainment. But pop-Bourdieuvianism deprives them of the sense of high-canonical purity with which they've traditionally consoled themselves....
    To hell with style, then; the novelist now has to confront the larger problem of what the novel is even for—assuming it’s not just another cultural widget....
    This is where "The Marriage Plot"'s titular enjambment of literature and love—those two beleaguered institutions—is so clarifying....
    This isn’t to say that, measured in terms of cultural capital or sheer entertainment, the delights to which most contemporary "literary fiction" aims to treat us aren’t an awful lot. It's just that, if the art is to endure, they won't be quite enough.

If you’re an indie writer, as I am, the above should elicit approximately the following reaction:

“What the BLEEP! is he talking about?
Did he go off his meds?”

It should also reassure you that the “critics” no longer matter to any substantial degree.

Tell your stories and let the chips fall where they may. Trust your readers to let you know whether you’re getting the job done. Mine always do.