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.

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.”]