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.

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.