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.

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.