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.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Vocabulary: A Writer’s Plaint

     The patrons of Liberty’s Torch have seldom said anything negative about the vocabulary I wield. They probably figure it’s their job to look up any terms I might use that aren’t familiar to them – and they’re right; that is their job. Moreover, most online op-ed writers share that attitude; they select the words and phrases they’ll use for their utility and their impact; anyone with an Internet connection is expected to be able to find an online dictionary, should he decide that he needs one.

     Fiction readers tend to hold the opposite opinion. At least, I’ve been gigged more often for “obscure words” than for any of the other supposed fictional sins. The premise seems to be that a story “should” be comprehensible to anyone who was passed out of eighth grade, without any need for him to expand the size of his lexicon.

     Until fairly recently, I allowed such comments to trouble me. Then I had a flash of insight:

You cannot buy an eBook without an Internet connection.
Therefore, fiction readers also have access to online dictionaries!

     Whereupon I decided that being deemed the William F. Buckley of 21st Century fiction isn’t all that bad a fate.

     Other writers, including some of considerable fame, have allowed themselves to use words that were probably known to very few beyond themselves. Only in the postwar period has anyone dared to demand that readers’ ignorance be considered privileged. It might have something to do with the deterioration of American schooling; I, having been very well educated by a gaggle of Dominican nuns who brooked no nonsense and who regarded it as my duty to win all the county spelling bees, cannot say.

     Be that as it may. I write the way I write. I don’t limit myself to the vocabulary of a marginal graduate of eighth grade from an American public school. Readers who enjoy my work are many; readers who don’t...well, I can’t say, as I hear from very few of them.

     So when I find that I’ve written something such as:

     A Dream Of Freedom was a ship that had once been a world.
     It first entered the Solar System in 2117, moving at ninety-three miles per second, at a slight angle to the solar ecliptic. It was a near-perfect sphere with a diameter of twenty-one miles. It had a nickel-iron surface, but showed a considerable luminosity in the gamma-ray portion of the spectrum. Its trajectory would bring it to a perigee of one hundred forty million miles, about two years after its first sighting.
     The International Astrophysical Congress assigned it the identifier X3J11 and immediately dispatched grant petitions to the world's one hundred eighty States. All one hundred eighty petitions were rejected; the war with the Spooner Federation was entering its final phase, and all resources had to be husbanded toward that end.
     The IAC continued to watch the object. As it approached, the great orbiting telescopes gradually made out more details of its composition and structure. Numerous cavity radiators became apparent in the gamma-ray images. Anomalies in its trajectory as it passed the outer gas giants caused the watchers to ponder its density. Shortly before X3J11 passed the orbit of Jupiter, the watchers could tell that the interstellar wanderer was honeycombed.
     The United Nations' combined forces had pushed Spoonerite resistance back to upper Yukon. The Spoonerites dug in for a last stand above the Arctic Circle, and the States massed their forces for the blow that would put an end to Spoonerism on Earth.
     Supreme Commander Ewan MacDonnell planned for a three-pronged strike, two land forces and an enormous amphibious group. There were ample forces available, though the supply lines were a chore to maintain, especially in view of the underenthused participation of the Russians. His staff labored for three months, calculating the affair to a nicety, allowing for an overkill factor of three and permitting no conceivable routes of egress from the killing zone. The two hundred ten thousand Spoonerites in MacDonnell's sights would have nowhere to run.
     The word went out quietly to all commanders, down to the battalion level: Spoonerite surrenders should not be deemed trustworthy. The taking of prisoners was strongly discouraged.      X3J11 approached perigee. The watchers of the IAC were electrified by what they saw. The spectra from the planetoid's cavity radiators indicated an immense core of nuclear fuels. Millions of tons of something dearer than pitchblende or carnotite resided at the center of the worldlet.
     IAC petitioned the States again, and belatedly received their respectful attention. Funds flowed into the watch group. Government representatives and advisors were attached to the effort. Spacecraft that had gone unused for more than a century were pulled out of mothballs, and a frenzied effort to recommission them began.
     MacDonnell's meticulously planned triple assault began exactly on schedule. For a full day's advance, it encountered no resistance at all. For the first few miles, he and his troops assumed that the Spoonerites had run out of fuel, or ammunition, or hope. When the advance guard first came upon abandoned Spoonerite emplacements, well stocked with shot and fuel, they began to wonder.
     The wonder culminated in a pillar of fire seen on United Nations broadcasts by more than three billion people. It was followed by another, and another, and another.
     Maddened beyond all restraint, the UN forces slew and spared not. The inner core of resistance around the Spoonerites' makeshift spaceport was incredibly tough, but before the massed military power of all the States of the world, it had to fall. The victors eventually counted nearly two hundred seven thousand Spoonerite corpses within the Arctic redoubt. The Secretary-General proclaimed the viciously immoral ideology of Spoonerism to have been extinguished for all time.
     Statists say things like that.

     ...I don’t trouble myself over the terms “ecliptic,” “perigee,” “luminosity,” “trajectory,” “cavity radiators,” “pitchblende,” “carnotite,” “egress,” or “redoubt.” Learn enough to read the book and enjoy it is my mantra. Inasmuch as a healthy sample of the book is available before one is required to make a purchase decision, I sleep untroubled by the decision. If it costs me readers, they’re readers who probably wouldn’t have comprehended the rest of the story anyway.

     (I cited that passage because it baffled a writer who’d importuned me for a review of his book: a “science fiction novel” that was a waste of perfectly good pixels. But I digress.)

     But on a lighter note, would you be surprised to hear that someone actually gigged me for the use of the word slew? “What’s that? Something to do with cole slaw?” he wrote.

     Gentle Reader, I kid you not.

     Some write for “the masses;” others write for those who seek something out of the ordinary. I’m in the latter group. If I were determined to have an audience of millions, I’d write in simpler terms, the sort a bright twelve-year-old would grasp without needing his Webster’s Unabridged near to hand. That’s not my ambition. I seek readers who can grapple with a difficult issue set against a challenging backdrop. Readers who’d as lief immerse themselves in prime-time sitcoms are of no use to me.

     Some writers write entertainment, nothing more. I seek to challenge my readers’ assumptions. If I must challenge their intellects to do so, very well. Matters of vocabulary run a distant third.

     So to anyone out there who might be thinking of purchasing one or more of my novels: Of course I’m flattered by your interest, and of course I hope you’ll enjoy what you’re about to read, but please, please don’t assume that the journey will ask nothing of you.

     If you find that my fiction writer’s diction goes a bit “over your head,” before you toss my book aside – or as you do so; I’m no dictator – perhaps you might ask yourself, “Where ought my head to be?”

     Just a quick tirade, Gentle Reader. Ignore it if you prefer. We now return you to your regular Friday evening debauchery.

     (Cross-posted at Liberty's Torch.)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Cancerous Lumps Continued: The Dreaded Prologue

     As yesterday’s piece on this subject has proved surprisingly popular, it’s impelled me to think further about the subject, particularly as it connects to the all-important realm of backstory.

     Every writer struggles with backstory. It’s a particular challenge for those of us who work in a speculative genre: science fiction, fantasy, or horror. SF writers, in particular, are under immense pressure to explain things: the sociopolitical nature of their fictional world; the scientific discoveries and technological developments that have occurred in it; the social, economic, and political positions of its most important figures. There’s this sense that the reader needs the information to grasp what will follow: what brought about the story’s initial conditions and why the actions of the characters are rational (if they are). That sense is not always incorrect. (NB: The periphrasis in the concluding sentence of the paragraph immediately above should imply something. That’s the only hint I’ll give you. And now, back to our Swedish movie.)

     To serve that sense of a need, the writer will often resort to a prologue.

     The purpose of a prologue is to convey backstory information to the reader. It can be as narratively clever as any segment clipped from the story-time present, but it is not part of the story; it is prior to the story, often separated from story-present by a large number of years. In most cases, no one involved in the prologue participates in the story’s present events.

     Just now, Pub World editors deem prologues to be bad things. They have a good case, for a prologue puts the reasons the reader bought the book some distance from the front cover. A long or awkward prologue can cause the reader to toss the book aside. If the writer has done his job really badly, that can happen in the bookstore.

     Yet there are cases in which a prologue is vitally necessary. I’ve written one that I felt the novel couldn’t do without. I might have been wrong, but so far no one who’s gone on to read the whole book has complained about it. Of course, that omits the opinions of those who didn’t read the whole book, which might be the most important ones.

     The need or lack thereof for a prologue will always be a judgment call. No one but the author is qualified to make it. Accordingly, it behooves us to consider the following questions:

  • What makes a prologue desirable?
  • How can a prologue enhance the story?
  • How can a prologue discourage the reader?

     One of the most important architectural techniques in fiction goes by a Latin name: In media res. In English, that’s “in the middle of the matter.” It denotes the technique of dropping the reader into the middle of the action without any preparation: i.e., without prior acquaintance with the setting, the characters, or the backstory. The reader is immediately confronted with events important to one or more of the Marquee Characters and is compelled to claw for a purchase on them. The opening to On Broken Wings provides a good example:

     At first, there was only darkness, and a dim sense of upward motion, like swimming through dark water. Then there was light, and noise, and incredible pain.
     Christine half-remembered the crash, but had no idea where she was or what was being done to her. The flood of pain from her face blocked her rational powers. The perception of restraint threatened her sanity. A single phrase roared through the torture.
     "She's coming awake!"
     She surged upward against whatever was holding her. Strong hands pressed her back. Something metallic attached to her face, pulling upon it, tore loose and fell off to rest against her ear. Her scream could have shattered stone.
     A needle pierced her arm. Her terror flew beyond any recall. She dropped back into the darkness, certain she would never see light again.

     What’s happening in the above? If you’ve read the whole book, you already know, but did you have a firm idea before you proceeded to the subsequent material? If I managed to pique your interest with the opening, such that you felt a strong desire to discover what was going on, then my employment of in media res architecture was a success. If you frowned, muttered “I don’t have time for this,” and tossed the book aside, then I failed.

     When in media res works, which is often, it obviates the need for a prologue. Indeed, it makes adding a prologue a redundant notion, something that would insult the reader’s intelligence. But it will only work if the subsequent narration introduces the necessary information about what the reader has just read in a smooth and timely fashion: i.e., without creating any significant expository lumps. That, too, is a judgment the author isn’t guaranteed to get right.

     Perhaps the most famous dispute over whether a prologue was necessary concerns J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The first volume thereof, The Fellowship of the Ring, contains a fifteen-page, single spaced prologue packed densely with important information about hobbits, the Shire, and the world of Middle Earth. Quite a number of Tolkien’s critics considered that prologue unnecessary, owing to the existence of The Hobbit, his earlier novel about the adventures of the young Bilbo Baggins. Yet a considerable percentage of those who’ve read The Lord of the Rings did so without having read the earlier novel. Perhaps for them, the prologue was vitally necessary. Needless to say, the matter will never be unanimously agreed.

     A prologue can enhance the subsequent story when:

  • It’s kept brief;
  • It doesn’t digress;
  • It functions as a story of its own.

     Brevity, of course, is relative. Tolkien’s five thousand word prologue to The Lord of the Rings is followed by a half-million word fantasy adventure. The ratio is appropriate. But were that prologue attached to a shorter novel, it would look grotesquely disproportionate.

     The prologue to Which Art In Hope is just under 1800 words long. I fretted over it, fearing that so much precursory narrative might detract from what follows. Nevertheless, I found that I couldn’t reduce it in length without omitting details I felt the reader had to have before I dragged him into the story proper. In any event, “what follows” proved to be longer and wider in scope than I’d anticipated, which eventually allowed me to relax about the length of the prologue.

     A prologue can discourage the reader in several ways:

  • By being overly long or discursive;
  • By drowning the reader in too much detail;
  • By being unappealing as a separate narrative.

     I trust the first of those conditions is self-explanatory. No one picks up a 50,000 word novel – approximately 200 mass-market paperback pages – expecting to slog through a 50 page prologue. Proportion is essential. So also is a sense for the proper degree of detail. It’s vital to remain rigidly within Chekhov’s Law:

     “Everything not essential to the story must be ruthlessly cut away. If in Act One you say that a gun hung on the wall, then by Act Two or Act Three at the latest, it must be discharged.” – Anton Chekhov

     If you violate that precept in your prologue, you risk the very worst sort of “loose end:” the sort that has the reader wondering “why did he tell me that?” throughout the rest of the novel. So don’t!

     The third condition discriminates between narrative prologues, which tell a brief, dramatic story of their own, and “encyclopedia” prologues, which do nothing but convey information. The latter are inherently dry, anti-fictional. They’re very hard to get away with. It’s been done – see the earlier material about The Lord of the Rings -- but successes of the “encyclopedia” sort are rare.

     If you decide upon a prologue for your novel, try to structure it as a narrative of its own. Imagine a Marquee character or two within it, even if none will actually appear, and write it from their perspective. One constructive approach is “a story told around the campfire.” I heartily recommend it.

     So much for prologues. If you intend to pursue “conventional” publication, remember that the majority of editors frown upon them. If you decide to “go indie,” there’s still reason for caution. You want readers; more, you want those readers to finish the book. If they don’t, how likely are they to purchase your next book – or, God help us all, this one’s sequel?

     Best of luck.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Beware: Cancerous Lump!

     In your fiction reading, have you ever run into a passage that reads like a segment cut and pasted out of an encyclopedia, or perhaps a geography text? Perhaps something like the following:

     At last, after eleven years of traveling at trans-light seven, the Earth colonists had arrived at the planet his grandfather, Emilio Nandez, had discovered almost a century ago. Suspecting conditions on the planet were favorable for life, Emilio had convinced the Colonization Alliance of Independent Nations to send an auto-ship on a scouting mission. What the ship found exceeded even Emilio’s wildest dreams.
     Even though the planet had one small continent above sea level, it offered an interesting geological formation: a huge fissure that split the continent in half. Millions of years ago, the planet’s tectonic plates had formed a mountain range, leaving two valleys on either side. Dark green moss covered the thousands of canyons of the planet’s large valley, which was thousands of kilometers in length and stretched for hundreds of kilometers in width.
     Rivers, some a kilometer or more wide, and others narrow enough for a man to jump across, ran through the canyons, which split off from the large valley like branches on a tree. Spectacular waterfalls fell thousands of feet to the valley below.

     Behold, in all its dread beauty, the expository lump.

     What’s above is only half of the lump. It goes on for two more long paragraphs: approximately 400 words in toto. I simply haven’t the patience to type out the rest. It’s one of the most egregious cases I’ve seen lately...and it’s from a writer who prides himself on his writing and will tell you so.

     Anyone can fall into this trap. I certainly have. It had to be pointed out to me by a crack editor. It was a harsh but quite necessary lesson of a fundamental sort:

The reader is there for an emotional journey.

     The writer’s fascination with his imaginings (or his skill with words) is of no importance to the reader. The reader is there to experience events and changes in the lives of your characters, especially your protagonists. This flows from the never-too-often repeated Two Great Commandments of Fiction:

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

     A landscape can be attractive, but what’s more important to the fiction reader is how the viewpoint character reacts emotionally (if he does) to the landscape. The backstory events of a novel can be critically important, but again, what really matters is how they influence the viewpoint character as he remembers them in the context of some significant story-time event.

     When a writer departs from the lives of his characters for a sizable expository lump, he risks causing the reader to disaffiliate himself from the characters – in other words, to lose his reason for reading the story. No matter how important the facts being conveyed in the lump, it’s a bad bargain. It risks a reader reaction so deadly that it’s usually referred to by its acronym: MEGO, or “Mine eyes glazeth over.”

     As if more were necessary, the innate dynamic of the expository lump, like all cancers, is to expand. The lump swells; the reader’s distance from the characters’ story-time lives and events tends to grow. The narrative loses focus from being drowned in exposition.

     The lethal power of the expository lump is one of the reasons for Elmore Leonard’s famous advice about descriptive passages:

Avoid writing passages the reader will be tempted to skip.

     Long descriptions of physical settings are the most obvious kind. Backstory exposition is just as poisonous to reader involvement, though often less obvious. There are other temptations toward the creation of an expository lump, but these are the most important ones.

     If you’ve ever encountered the fiction writer’s maxim “Show, don’t tell,” it’s advice that should immediately warn a storyteller away from such lumps. At the very least, he should be ready to recognize them when he rereads his own work. A number of indie writers I’ve encountered recently seem never to have heard that maxim. A pity.

     As a writer of fiction, your principal task is to engage the reader’s emotions and take him for a dramatic ride. No matter how charmed you might be by the factual details of the setting you’ve imagined, your reader will stay with you – if he does – because of the drama you depict. Drama is about emotion, and emotion stems from the changes in your characters’ lives. It can be found nowhere else.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

When It’s This Easy: One Writer's Problems In The 24-7 Internet-Enabled World

     As the indie-publishing revolution has gained steam, a mated phenomenon has risen as well: the swelling of the writer’s email inbox. Readers like to open dialogues with the writers whose work they enjoy, and email makes it easier than it’s ever been before. Moreover, most writers enjoy hearing from their readers, and do little or nothing to throttle the incoming missives. Communication in the Internet age has become almost effortless, at least as long as it’s one-way.

     As I’m aware of the possibility of misinterpretation should I fail to respond, I try to make it two-way. Yet despite all the time I spend chained to this Cyclopean monstrosity, I do get behind on my communications now and then. I get a lot of email: perhaps two hundred pieces on any given day, not counting the spam. Should I fail to answer a particular item immediately, it will sometimes “fall off the back of the stove.” I hope my Gentle Readers won’t conclude that I’m ignoring them, though inevitably some will. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who has this problem. If I may speak for my colleagues in this matter, please think kindly of us. We do care what you think. In fact, we care about you personally, and more than you might imagine.

     But there are hazards. Some of them are more serious than one might imagine. Now that essentially every literate person on Earth has Internet access, those hazards are becoming unpleasantly visible. As the news remains unpleasant and ho-hum – yes, it’s possible to be both simultaneously – I thought I might spend a few words on the subject.

     The first aspect of this I’d like to discuss is the division of the globe into time zones. A writer who has readers in faraway places will sometimes receive email from them that he won’t see until many hours later, simply because his morning is their night or vice-versa. If he hasn’t responded promptly, it’s likely to be for that reason alone.

     Shortly after I first published Chosen One and On Broken Wings, I received a large number of emails from readers in India. That surprised me at first, as I hadn’t reckoned on the international reach of electronic publishing. (I also hadn’t factored in the status of English as the de facto international language.) Those emails were almost uniformly positive, which warmed the cockles of my spiny little heart. I tried my best to reply to each of them promptly and individually.

     However, one young Indian woman believed that because ten or twelve hours would elapse between her missive and my reply, I was ignoring her. Over time her emails became rather shrill, accusatory, and eventually sarcastically self-deprecating and despairing. I tried my best to dispel that notion in my replies, but to no avail. Eventually I ceased to hear from her. I’ve worried over that ever since.

     I suppose there isn’t much one can do about such a phenomenon, but those Gentle Readers entering into the electronic publishing realm, or considering doing so, should bear it in mind.

     The second aspect of the thing is the inability or unwillingness of many readers to grasp the immense difference between a writer and his characters. I’m nothing much, really, just a retired engineer who writes. I hope that by doing so I can both entertain and edify my readers, while making a few bucks in the process. But a surprising number of my correspondents assume that I resemble my male protagonists in important ways.

     That’s dangerous, Gentle Reader. Especially in my case. In fact, my kinda-sorta bios at Amazon and Smashwords are tongue-in-cheek attempts to disillusion anyone who might think that when I write about Louis Redmond, Todd Iverson, Armand Morelon, or Stephen Graham Sumner I’m actually writing about myself. I’m not! Really! I’m not a hero; I write heroes. Genuinely heroic figures are desperately needed in our time. Few other writers are producing any such icons, though there are exceptions.

     In short, I can’t solve anyone’s problems, be they political, legal, economic, academic, or romantic. I wish it were otherwise, but...well, I’m only what I am, a retired engineer who writes. (Also, I’m married.) I’m sure other writers have this problem, too.

     The third and final aspect I’d like to address today is the weirdly stout resistance of the creative faculty to direction. On this subject I can’t speak for anyone but myself. Other writers might not share this problem with me. However, I suspect that it afflicts many of us, maybe even most of us.

     Now and then I receive requests from my readers to write about a particular subject or hero, or to continue a particular saga. This is immensely flattering, and I love them for it. Often the request will mesh with my own desires. In such a case, I might sit down to this monstrosity fully determined to do as I’ve been asked, as it accords with my own inclinations and has verifiably pleased at least a fraction of my readership...and get absolutely nowhere with it.

     I can’t explain this. If I want to do it and my readers want me to do it, then by the Law of Wishful Thinking Regnant I should be able to do it, right? But in the great majority of such cases I can’t make it happen, and I don’t know why.

     For example, this short romance novel has evoked a slew of requests for more about Jana and Tim. Believe me, I appreciate the feedback, and I love those of you who’ve read and loved that little story. It’s a book I sometimes can’t believe I wrote, simply because romance has always seemed alien to me. (To any Gentle Readers contemplating romance with an engineer: beware! Here there be tygers.) I can’t even remember the chain of events and impulses that led me to write it. I doubt that I could produce more along those lines, at least at the moment.

     And once again, it’s not that I disdain to give you what you want.

     I hope my Gentle Readers won’t be put off by the above. I certainly hope you’ll continue to write to me. You matter to me more than you know. I just thought it appropriate that you hear about some of my limitations. When there’s so great a gulf between a writer and his fictional imaginings, the possibilities for failing his readers are many and vast. Louis Redmond would tell you so, but he’s dead.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Whose Story, Yours Or Your Editor’s?

     I’ve been making the acquaintance of an increasing number of other indie writers lately, in consequence of having joined Quite a few of them have expressed frustration at their difficulties in completing a project. Many of the complaints come from writers who have quite as much to say about their frustration with their editors.

     At least one category of the complaints involves the editor acting as if he were the creative force, and arrogating to himself the privileges thereof.

     To make that plainer and more sharply pointed, such an editor criticizes not the grammar, spelling, punctuation, timing, scene-setting, characterization, plausibility of sequence, naturalness of dialogue, or other technical or quasi-technical matters but the causal underpinnings of the story: in other words, the author’s theme. The editor then tries to steer it in a different – sometimes wholly contradictory – direction. And many a writer, insufficiently sure of himself and his aims, allows such an editor a wholly inappropriate degree of influence.

     An editor who does such things doesn’t deserve to be heeded; he deserves to be fired. But that, too, is often beyond the confidence of a relatively new writer.

     Maxwell Perkins, one of the most brilliant and effective editors of all time, was scathing about such editorial assertions of a co-creative role:

     “The first thing you must remember: an editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to its author. Don’t ever get feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing....If you have a Mark Twain, don’t try to make him into a Shakespeare, or make a Shakespeare into a Mark Twain. Because in the end, an editor can get only as much out of an author as the author has in him.”

     Perkins edited F. Scott Fitzgerald, Erskine Caldwell, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway, among other literary giants. No doubt the great gifts of those writers helped Perkins to remember his famous credo – “The book belongs to the author” – but he worked in the same, self-effacing fashion with other, less well known writers.

     Contemporary editors, both of Pub World and free-lance, have largely failed to grasp Perkins’s lesson.

     I’ve worked with a couple of gifted editors who did understand the Perkins maxim. One of them, Rafe Brox, was responsible for cleaning up On Broken Wings. The other, Kelly Tomkies, was instrumental in grinding the burrs off Shadow Of A Sword. I won’t go so far as to say their efforts were what made those books readable, but it wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

     By contrast, I’ve also worked with an editor, who shall go unnamed just in case he’s repented of his sins, who wanted to recast my story in a wholly different direction. Ultimately, I ignored his “suggestions.” (It was made easier by his predilection for exclamation points and writing in ALL-CAPS.) Though it took a while – I was a newly fledged novelist and still tended to pay excessive attention to an editor – I sensed, that what he and I both wanted to do was to write the book. I decided that he could jolly well hare off and write his own novel, without my financial contributions.

     Now, there’s a moral in this. Many an editor is himself an aspiring writer. Why he hasn’t struck out on his own might be a mystery, but that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the author’s authority and the editor’s proper place in the scheme of things. Maxwell Perkins got it right. You, the author, should enforce Perkins’s dicta on any editor you entertain the notion of hiring.

     That can be a difficult undertaking, especially as many a free-lance editor requires payment before undertaking the job in prospect.

     The great irony of the overly intrusive editor lies in this: the most effective editor for your book will be someone who genuinely enjoys the kind of story you have to tell. Thus, he’s highly likely to be a writer himself, and one who writes in your chosen genres, at that...and that will predispose him to the very over-intrusiveness of which I speak here.

     It doesn’t matter. You must be firm. If you’re not, he’ll succeed in twisting your tale to point in a direction alien to your wishes. The final product might well contradict the premises with which you started your project. Indeed, it might express a theme you believe to be wholly incorrect, perhaps even evil.

     That makes membership in a critique group of like-minded writers one of the most valuable alliances a writer can form. Writers who hold to common moral and ethical values can serve one another as editors, often to far better effect than many a “professional.” Of course that, too, has its costs. The largest of them is obligatory reciprocity: if he agrees to critique your manuscript, you are morally obliged to do the same for him.

     I needn’t go on about this at great length. Remember, “The book belongs to the author.” Don’t allow an editor to snatch it out of your hands and transform it into something you never intended. Imagine the shade of Maxwell Perkins looking down on you from heaven and clucking – not at him for his unholy cheek, which is all too common these days, but at you for your boiled-vermicelli spine.

     [Cross-posted at Liberty's Torch.]

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Frame Stories And Interlocutory Narration

     Many a storytelling technique has gone by the boards these past few decades. Though novelist and critic David Lodge has told us that “everything is in and nothing is out,” nevertheless it’s obvious to anyone who reads widely that certain forms are less frequently found in contemporary fiction than was once the case. Consider, for example, the epistolary novel: a tale told in letters sent by and to the story’s characters. I’ve encountered only one recent example of such: Steven Brust and Emma Bull’s Freedom & Necessity. (Wikipedia, however, lists several other contemporary examples, including Andy Weir’s The Martian.)

     A format such as that is often called a “frame story” or “framing device.” In effect, the writer tells two stories, one enclosed by the other, in a single volume. The “outer” story might be separated in time from the events of the “inner” one; indeed, this is usually the case. However, the two stories are linked in an unambiguous fashion: by protagonist and subject matter.

     “Frame stories” can achieve an end that was once pursued in a different fashion, via another technique deprecated today: the omniscient narrator, not bound to any character’s viewpoint. The writer can use the frame to introduce a narrator other than himself. He then permits that narrator some of the liberties that were once marks of the omniscient-narrator style.

     Among the requirements of the “frame story” technique is that the writer must have “two stories to tell.” They needn’t be wholly separate. In fact, they shouldn’t be, for the “outer” story exists to narrate the “inner” one. Therefore, they must be firmly linked, whether through their characters or their focus.

     Focus is always important. The “outer” story, however important to the characters in it, dictates the focus of the “inner” one by the selection of scenes and events described. Whatever the circumstances of the “outer” narrator, he must be principally concerned with the “inner” narration. The Kevin Spacey / Kate Winslet / Laura Linney movie The Life Of David Gale is a highly dramatic example of this requirement: the “outer” narrator, David Gale (played by Spacey), is facing execution in a few days’ time...but his focus is on the key events of his life other than the one that brought him to that condition, rather than on his “outer”-time jeopardy.

     I’m fond of this technique, as anyone who’s read Chosen One, Polymath, Priestesses, or Love In The Time Of Cinema might imagine. One of my two novels-in-progress uses it as well. A few readers have bridled at it – I can’t imagine why – while others have noted it with surprise and pleasure. I find that it often goes well with my subject matter, which is episodic though focused on the life and times of a single Marquee character.

     One of the criticisms that’s been leveled at my stuff is its patina of archaism: the resemblance between my style and that of writers of bygone days. The frame-story approach and the interlocutory narration it supports, approaches no longer favored by contemporary writers, are part of that. But when your core story is episodic in nature, being spread over a long time interval and omitting the greater part of the events thereof, framing is exceedingly useful for emphasizing what really matters. Much of the history of even the most significant, most active, and most compelling character is “just day-to-day life.” It would be boring to the reader to need to sift through it all, to say nothing of the burden it would impose on the writer.

     Episodic novels are also disfavored today. There’s a notion going about that dramatic unity is impossible when the events of the novel are widely separated in time. Needless to say, I disagree. Dramatic unity isn’t just an artifact of causally linked events closely spaced in time, but by the evolution of the Marquee characters’ natures and significance: more specifically, the reasons they do what they do, and the effects they have on those around them.

     The speculative genres – science fiction, fantasy, and horror – feature few examples of the episodic novel, and therefore few examples of the frame story. In part, this is because the technique is unsuited to the sort of adventure tale most frequently told in those genres. But in equal or greater measure, it’s because the events in speculative novels tend to occur over short time spans. Nevertheless, some examples exist; the ones that leap to mind at once are Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, in which the “narrator” of the frame is the Encyclopedia Galactica, and Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love, in which Heinlein’s perennial rogue-hero Lazarus Long tells of the high water mark events of his two thousand year life.

     What examples of frame-story narration have you encountered in your reading? When has it struck you as suitable and well exploited, and when has it seems an unnecessary intrusion upon the “real story” you were being told by the interlocutor character or device?

     (Cross-posted at Liberty’s Torch.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Finishing Things

     Readers of my fiction have asked me on several occasions why there are significant gaps between my issuances of new books. I received another such query just yesterday. It’s an uncomfortable question to face, not because I don’t know the answer, but because I do.

     Many writers enjoy the process of composition: the actual writing, as opposed to the conceptualization that precedes it. I’m fairly sure that some of those writers “make it up as they go:” they start with a couple of Marquee characters and a plot embryo, and let the characters tell the story to them. I know from experience that it’s an entirely valid approach that offers considerable positive feedback while the process runs. The late Georges Simenon made it his method in composing his Inspector Maigret novels; he actually told an interviewer that it was what made his stories interesting to him.

     However, in these latter years I find that I need a much fuller concept of the plot and cast of characters before I can even begin a new novel. The embryonic plot that matured into On Broken Wings would not suffice to get me into motion today. The reason is that I’ve become afraid that I won’t finish what I start.

     Yes, Gentle Reader: writers have their own special fears. This is mine.

     With one exception, each of my novels is prefixed with a dedication that includes:

And to the greater glory of God.

     Of course, I’m a believer: a Catholic Christian. If I were a nonbeliever, I would hardly include that phrase. More to the point, my faith is an important element in my fictional undertakings: not because I intend them as polemics for Christianity, but because the act of artistic creation – in my opinion, the only human act that can justify being called “creation” – is itself an act of worship. You might even call it a form of prayer. I dislike having a prayer interrupted; there’s no guarantee that I’ll pick it back up where I left off.

     I write fiction for several reasons, but that one, if memory serves, is one I haven’t previously disclosed. Well, now you know.

     It’s all of a piece, really. I write:

  • To depict genuine heroism;
  • To explore difficult moral and ethical conundra;
  • To extend the range of thought about important “secular” subjects;
  • To show readers Christians and our clerics doing what we should be doing;
  • And as a prayer of thankfulness to Him who equipped me to tell stories of that kind.

     One of the saddening things about our milieu is how dismissively most good storytellers treat religion. The typical well-received novel makes no room for faith whatsoever, even though here in the U.S., complete nonbelief – atheism – is a view held by a small minority. The most recent Gallup poll (December 2015) reported that 75% of Americans self-identify as Christians of one or another denomination. Another 15% are distributed among other religions. Only about 10% profess complete nonbelief. So why does contemporary fiction fail to depict churchgoing, behavior animated by sincere religious conviction, or the typical religious practices of an American believer?

     Actually, it’s even worse than that: when religious belief plays a part in a plot, it’s almost always in a negative way: e.g., clerics who practice pedophilia or the antics of highly intolerant sects such as the Westboro Baptist congregation.

     To make it worse yet, most writers who allow religious elements into their stories in a positive way surrender to the desire to preach. Unless you’re C. S. Lewis, you should leave preaching to the preachers. Readers of fiction want to be entertained, and perhaps to learn a little something along the way. They don’t want to be hammered with religious doctrine.

     So I take a special interest in allowing the majority of my protagonists to be religious and to do good things out of religious conviction and / or affiliation. I see it around me often enough that I know it to be the way ordinary people really behave. However, that approach also charges me with a special responsibility: to finish what I start.

     There are a few fiction writers today who treat religion as an important positive component of their stories. Theodore “Vox Day” Beale is one. John Conroe is another. Declan Finn is a third. Tom Kratman is a fourth. But the tendency among the great majority of writers is to exclude it. It’s possible that that’s not a conscious decision. It’s also possible that it’s motivated by that greatest bugaboo of our time, the fear of offending someone.

     (Funny that the writers who reflexively treat religion as evil and destructive don’t share that fear, isn’t it?)

     Anything one writes is guaranteed to offend someone. There are seven billion people alive today. Every last one of them finds some range of things offensive. A significant fraction of them seem to go out of their way looking for reasons to be offended. The probability is damned near 100% that one of those, at least, would be offended by any arbitrarily chosen novel. So I don’t let it bother me.

     However, I do concern myself with God’s opinion of my crap. If there’s a Christian element in something I’ve begun, I feel I must finish it or face His disapproval. So In recognition of my failing energies and dwindling years, I don’t begin unless I can clearly see the end...and given he sort of story I tend to write, seeing the end is often very tough.

     Here’s an admission for you. If you’ve read Shadow Of A Sword, which concludes the Realm of Essences trilogy, would you have imagined that until I actually wrote the climactic scene, I had no idea how to end the story? Three quarters of the way through the book, I still didn’t know:

  • How to contrive the face-off between Malcolm / Franz and Zlugy / Tiran;
  • How to tie off reform developments within the Onteora police;
  • What to do with Aaron Randall / Anatoly Rodionov;
  • Who the ultimate hero would be.

     There were days I sat down to work on that manuscript almost paralyzed by my fear. I had to finish it. Leaving aside my personal convictions, I’d promised it to a large number of readers – people all over the world who had written me personally to plead for a conclusion to the story arc. But how could I write something without knowing what I would be writing about?

     I got lucky. I was inspired exactly when I needed to be. The inspirations covered all my needs, including the proper treatment of several Supporting Cast characters who really deserved more closure than I’d originally intended for them. But it was a harrowing experience and one I’ve grown reluctant to chance again.

     There’s a possibly apocryphal anecdote about an exchange between Winston Churchill and his air defense commander, shortly before the Battle of Britain during World War II. Churchill asked the commander what his plans were founded on. The commander replied that he was “counting on radar and trusting to God.” At that time radar was a relatively new, barely tested technology. That caused Churchill to reply that “It sounds as if you’re counting on God and trusting to radar.”

     Though I believe that God does give us what we need, I’m reluctant to assume that He’ll tap me on the shoulder with a perfect plot resolution while I’m sitting at the keyboard, staring at a blank screen frozen with terror. It just seems sort of...presumptuous.

     And that, Gentle Reader, is why my novels are taking longer to produce!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Originality: A Writer’s Rant

     I’m a writer. Therefore, I read.

     A bit too much of a jump for you, Gentle Reader? Nevertheless, it is so. A writer must read. Nonfiction writers must read to know what’s going on, and who’s covering it, and to what effect. Fiction writers must read for pretty much the same reasons. The penalty for stinting one’s reading is unoriginality: If you don’t read, you’re practically guaranteed to reproduce the works of others. Something about the “great oceanic racial unconscious,” or some such rot.

     However, the reverse is not true: reading widely and determinedly doesn’t guarantee the originality of one’s own work. As exhibits 1 through 10100 I offer just about everything that’s been written these past fifty years.

     This is of particular importance in the speculative genres: fantasy, horror, and science fiction. These genres exist solely to provide room in which to explore possibilities that go beyond the realities around us. But one who reads extensively in those genres can’t help but notice that the same motifs and tropes are being used to exhaustion. The sin is not confined to a few hacks; it’s afflicted damned near everyone in the field.

     Fantasy – especially fantasy set in the present day – is particularly badly afflicted by unoriginality. Vampires. Werewolves. Shapeshifters. Zombies. Magic. Every now and then, an angel. Find me a writer of contemporary fantasy who’s completely eschewed those motifs. There aren’t many.

     I know, I know: A lot of writers are afraid to try something new for fear that it won’t find an audience. It’s a legitimate concern, though it was more so before indie publishing exploded. But what does it profit it a man to gain an audience at the price of seeing someone else’s reflection in the mirror?

     Why do something others have done before you – possibly more vividly than you?

     If you’re a writer, probably the worst advice anyone has ever offered you (or ever will) is about your “voice.” “Find your unique voice.” “Respect your voice.” “Don’t imitate the voices of others.” Bah! For reasons beyond human comprehension, this “voice” crap has almost completely obscured the most important aspects of storytelling:

  1. Plot,
  2. Characterization,
  3. Theme.

     For those who consider those “undefined terms,” I will elaborate:

  1. Plot: The events in your story and the causal connections that link them together.
  2. Characterization: The values, motivations, and individualities of your Marquee and Supporting Cast characters.
  3. Theme: The aspect of human nature you intend to illuminate with your story.

     These are the meat and bones of a good story. And none of them have a single damned thing to do with “voice.”

     What’s that you say? What about your style? Permit me to guffaw. If you’re at all concerned with your “style,” you’re more concerned with self-glorification than with your story.

Tell the BLEEP!ing story!

     Tell it clearly and transparently. Resolve not to become a part of it: i.e., not to inject your desire to be noticed into the text. Be guided by how you would tell it orally, to a friend or acquaintance sitting next to you. What would you want from such an effort?

  • His undivided attention from beginning to end;
  • His apprehension and appreciation of the reasons your characters did what they did.

     You won’t get either of those things if you permit yourself to become concerned with “style.” Yet “style” has become so important to so many writers that they’ve ceased to care about plot, characterization, and theme.

     The above segment might appear to be a digression from the opening subject of originality. It is not. It’s a look at what too many writers are focused on at the expense of their stories. Originality lies in the story, not in “voice” or “style.”

     I have a naughty suspicion that when Flannery O’Connor said:

     Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.

     ...she had this obsession with “voice” / “style” in mind. On another occasion, she said that “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.” There is nothing of “voice” or “style” in what one is “able to make live.” That’s a function of human nature: what God has made us.

     By implication, we cannot be original about our themes, for they must proceed from human nature and the way it operates among us. There are also severe limits on originality in character construction: some from the extent of the writer’s acquaintance with others, still more from human nature itself. But at the minimum we can be original about the setting into which we cast our characters and the events in which they become embroiled.

     A few nuggets for consideration, specifically for science-fiction writers:

     Space travel as a motif is all very well...but why are your characters doing it? What do they hope to gain, and what price must they pay for it? What conflicts will arise among them along the way?

     Superhuman powers? Well, they’ve certainly been used quite a lot...but the patterns SF writers have followed have worn the tread off most of them, and as for the comic-book industry...well, perhaps we shouldn’t go there. Can you come up with a new one? This writer did.

     Time travel? I’m not sure you want to go there. The problems involved are so great that even Gregory Benford, one of SF’s true geniuses, had trouble making such a story consistent – and his story won the Nebula Award.

     Indefinitely prolonged life? This is another extremely familiar motif in SF. Many have fantasized about its attractions...but who has written even a word about its drawbacks? Who has dared to speculate upon the emotional maladies that would afflict one who cannot die – or is afraid to die? Who has dared to write about the upheavals that would arise in a longevity-capable society in which some choose to live no more that threescore and ten? And what about the possibility of an unanticipated, severe contraction in human lifespans? Who has written about what would flow from that?

     Use any or all of the above if you must -- I did -- but try to do something new with them. Find a conflict no one has thought to use before. Make it one that forces your Marquee characters to come to grips with desires or fears others have not thought to address. If you can, give them antagonists that aren’t merely standard-issue villains.

     I’m about ranted out for the moment, but I trust the message is clear: If you must write, be original. Produce something that, at least as far as you know, is yours alone – and by that I don’t mean a story written entirely in anagrams, or every third word in Esperanto, or told without use of the letter “t.” Readers everywhere are desperate for new experiences, experiences that go beyond what the writers of the past have explored. They want to feel the great emotions, and they’ll be very generous to you if you can take them on such a journey, but in the name of God give them a new vehicle in which to do it.

     I have spoken.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Quickies: For The Other Writers In The Audience

     Perhaps you’re familiar with the relatively recent phenomenon of authors putting playlists at the ends of their novels. Sometimes they’re presented as a notional soundtrack to the action of the book. Sometimes those lists of tunes are simply what they were listening to while they wrote. The latter case has always struck me funny, because I can’t listen to music while writing. I can’t deny it my attention, which of course deprives the story on the drawing board of the attention it requires.

     It’s a bit of a handicap, for two reasons. First is my tinnitus, which can be as obtrusive as anything audible. The second is that playing music helps to shut out other background noise that can be just as distracting. Anyone who shares his home with children or animals, or who lives in a busy area, will know how annoying those background noises can be.

     However, I may have made an important discovery: the genuine soundtrack, which is entirely without vocals and usually designed merely to enhance the emotional impact of the action on the movie screen. I’ve tried playing one of those as I wrote this morning, and not only was it not distracting, it served admirably to blot out the noises from the regiment of plumbers laboring over my pipes, the groundskeepers mowing my front yard, and the gentleman I’d engaged to power-wash the house.

     Here’s the first one: the soundtrack to The Bourne Identity:

     The second of the soundtracks I played this morning wasn’t for a “real” movie but for a video game: Tomb Raider: A Survivor Is Born:

     They worked excellently well for me, providing coverage for the background noise (and my tinnitus) while allowing me to concentrate on my prose. If not being able to play music as you write has been a problem for you, try the above and let me know about the results.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Realism In The Speculative Genres

     (This is what a writer who’s down in the dumps about his spell of low productivity does, Gentle Reader: Instead of writing, he writes about writing. At any rate, it strikes me as preferable to wallowing in my old fan mail. -- FWP)

     We who write in the speculative genres – i.e., science fiction, fantasy, and most horror fiction – are often torn over questions of consistency. This is a subject with iceberg-like proprtions: only a few percent of it shows above the waterline of auctorial consciousness.

     A storyteller starts with a story to tell. Why does he want to tell it? Perhaps it strikes him as a good bet for increased revenue. Or perhaps he thinks it will illuminate an important truth about Mankind. Or perhaps, still more imperatively, his wife has threatened to poison his Chianti if he doesn’t get his ass into gear and finish the series of stories she’s come to love. One way or another, he has a reason to write it. But he has a problem.

     To make the story come out the way he wants, he needs an element that’s implausible under current circumstances:

  • Science Fiction: Faster than light (FTL) travel, time travel, mental powers, and the like.
  • Fantasy: Magic, magical creatures, pantheons at war with one another, etc.
  • Horror: Monsters of some sort.

     This is the speculative-fiction writer’s special challenge, one that “mainstream” writers don’t face. His “what if?” isn’t just the premise for a plot line; it’s a request for an alteration of the rules of reality as they’re enforced between the covers of his book. To make it play requires the reader’s willing suspension of his disbelief. And Mankind is sufficiently various that there are millions of readers willing to make that suspension, for which God be most profusely thanked.

     But the problem isn’t limited to the writer’s opening premises. It also embraces the plot itself. Some plot developments require the amplification and extension of the unreal premises. That’s where consistency comes in, and with it the problem of realism.

     My first science-fiction novel, Which Art In Hope, made a “conventional” suspension-of-disbelief demand upon its reader: He was required to allow for:

  • Psi powers, including telepathy, telekinesis, and clairvoyance;
  • The possibility of a sentient entity whose body is an entire planet.

     These are known motifs in science fiction. Thus, many who’ve been reading SF for a very long time are familiar with them and ready to allow them. However, newcomers to science fiction would have to “swallow hard” to get past them for the sake of the story. That willingness to suspend disbelief determines whether one who’s never read science fiction before can “make the jump.” (Alternately, you have to get your story out of reality’s gravitational singularity before you can engage the FTL engines.)

     One of the things I didn’t ask the reader to swallow in that first book was the possibility of faster-than-light travel. I didn’t need it; indeed, the existence of FTL would have contravened one of the essential conditions of the story I wanted to tell. But when reader demand made me contemplate a sequel to that book, it became a requirement.

     That forced me to think about the challenge involved in making my science-fiction setting internally consistent. How realistic would it be to have FTL developed by this colony world of pacifistically inclined anarchists?

     I pulled it off in Freedom’s Scion– at least, I think I did – but it took a fair amount of hard thought. The technological base of the Spoonerite society of Which Art In Hope would not support ab initio the development of an FTL drive even if it were physically possible. So my realism problem went beyond the physics of the thing.

     Magic-based fantasy has a version of the problem that isn’t immediately apparent to most readers. Broadly, it goes like this: Magic must have a basis in the laws of the universe. It must be available on certain conditions; it must be powered by something; and it must observe certain limitations. Those requirements imply that magic must have one of the following inner natures:

  1. Magic is either a property of the magician, which arises from certain characteristics he possesses that others do not; or:
  2. Magic is available only by persuading non-human entities with greater-than-human powers to act on the magician’s behalf; or:
  3. Magic, in Robert A. Heinlein’s memorable formulation, is merely “something Western Electric will build once Bell Labs works the bugs out” – in other words, a matter of science yet unexplored and technology yet undeveloped.

     (In the above partition, I’m omitting the tiny subcategory of fantasies about omnipotence. I contend that such stories are inherently unappealing, since there are no rules – the protagonist can arrange to have whatever he wants, on any conditions he wants. Thus, he faces no problems that present non-trivial difficulties to be overcome. As a plot premise that’s undramatic and unsatisfying, and anyway, God doesn’t approve of such stories.)

     One way or another, all magic-based fantasy will fall into one of those slots. By implication, whatever the protagonists do must conform to the overarching rules of its sort. That allows for problems that even a sorcerer will have difficulty solving – and that’s at the core of all drama.

     Realism is ultimately a matter of sticking to the rules, whatever they happen to be. The writer must decide upon the rules before he sets forth. He must make them plain to the reader early in the game. Thereafter, he must adhere to them rigidly, for to depart from them would reduce his story to a kind of RoadRunner cartoon.

     Realism is quite as important in speculative fiction as it is in any other sort of entertainment. Failures to abide by the requirement for realism result in implausible, unsatisfying stories. Which is why so many writers who attempt to write in a speculative genre eventually find themselves muttering that “this is harder than I thought.”

     (Cross-posted at my op-ed site.)