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, 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.