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.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Solving The Tough Problems

     Well, ho-ho-ho and I hope you’ve all had the merriest of Christmases! As a lot of my Web colleagues have apparently decided to take the Christmas season off from their various publications, and as I haven’t penned an original piece these past few days and have begun to feel a bit “backed up” because of that, I figured I might as well throw a few hundred words at this dive. You know, to see if any of them will stick. But — you knew that was coming, didn’t you? – in keeping with the spirit of the season and my generally good mood, I’ll avoid the subjects of politics and public policy. The rest of the year is sufficient for that sort of bilious crap, isn’t it?

     So let’s see: what shall I address? The weather? No, no....My health? Good God, no! Unusual egg nog recipes? I think we’ve had enough of those for a bit.

     Nope. Got to be fiction.

     If there’s a most plaintive question I get from aspiring writers, it would be this one:

“How do I get started?

     (I’ll allow that there are a lot of possible replies to that one, some more sarcastic than others, e.g.: “You want to be a writer but you have no idea what to write? Hmmm...” However, as I’m a famously sympathetic soul with a heart of purest gold who absolutely lives for the chance to help others with their deepest and least tractable problems, I try to respond constructively. Believe me, a lot of thought goes into it.)

     Most of us who are entranced by fiction and the power it has to shape men’s thinking have some central passion we can call on to direct our efforts. In the usual case, such passions become our themes: the ideas that envelop, power, and shape the stories we write. Mine are Christianity and freedom. A writer who lacks such a passion has a harder time getting started.

     Nevertheless, there are substitutes. If you can become fascinated by any kind of human problem, you can find within yourself the fuel and the material with which to write. Caveat: It must be a tough problem. No one will take much interest in a story about how hard it was for you to decide which shirt to wear to work this morning.

     But stories are not about “problems,” per se; they’re about what people do about problems. More specifically, they’re about how addressing a problem changes the people confronted by it.

     The great problems fall into a total of categories:

  • The quest for love and acceptance;
  • Threats to one’s well-being, or the well-being of one’s loves;
  • The discovery of one’s own convictions, priorities, capacities, and limitations.

     That’s right, Gentle Reader: only three. A problem worth a reader’s time will always come from one of the above categories. As they’re very broad categories, that’s not a problem for most of us.

     The process by which a chosen problem becomes a viable story involves matching that problem to a character or characters:

  1. What sort of protagonist would find the problem both important and difficult?
  2. Does the problem require an antagonist?
  3. Does the problem require other characters with whom to interact?

     The first two questions define the Marquee Characters. The third one defines the Supporting Cast.

     The above concisely outlines my personal approach to beginning a new story, whether it be a short-short or a multi-volume saga. In the usual case, an appealing protagonist has been in the back of my head for some time, waiting for a problem worthy of him. Presently a problem occurs to me that works well against his definition. I choose from among the settings I prefer, combine the three, dress with subsidiary characters and a bit of sass, toss lightly, and serve.

     Innocents, my most recent novel, conforms to this pattern in all particulars. Larry Sokoloff had been “sitting on the shelf” since mid-2011, when I released Shadow of a Sword. The poor guy simply screamed for a story properly mated to his character as I’d envisioned it. It took some time for me to come up with a problem he could get his teeth into.

     As I wrote the above, an important codicil to my procedure became clear in my head: The problem must be one the protagonist must change and / or grow to solve. The solution can’t be obvious and immediately applicable, nor can it be in the protagonist’s “wheelhouse.” There are some interesting implications to that codicil.

     The first implication is that the protagonist will likely be frustrated at first. Change and growth are hard. They require both acceptance of one’s “incompleteness” and the willingness to put forth effort to extend oneself. Most persons who confront such a challenge do a lot of hairsplitting, rationalizing, and general farting around to avoid facing the problem directly.

     The second implication follows from the first one: The protagonist will expend a fair amount of his time and effort dealing with matters other than the central problem. In part that will be because those matters are more easily solved by a man with his abilities, but in equal or greater measure it will be to avoid confronting the core of the problem. That provides opportunities for interaction with Supporting Cast members, and time in which he can experience the sharpening tensions and conflicts the problem presents.

     The third implication is my favorite of the bunch: A problem the protagonist cannot solve easily with his defined abilities and resources makes room for reader misdirection. It allows the writer scope for mystery, and for the development and emergence of an “unsuspected hero:” the seemingly secondary character who contributes the real solution, whether or not he’s the one to implement it.

     Quite a lot of fiction conforms to this pattern. That the pattern is so common doesn’t render it banal. It’s common because of our common human nature. That’s just the way we are. It’s also common because reality is a real bitch...just in case you haven’t noticed.

     I wrote some time ago:

     The distribution of writers attempting the e-publication channel goes something like this:
  • 90% or more: Persons who cannot write and should not try.
  • ~7%: Persons with a fair command of English, but who have no stories to tell that anyone else would want to read.
  • ~2%: Persons with a fair command of English who have stories to tell, but whose styles and preconceptions are unsuited to telling them in a winning fashion.
  • ~1%: Capable storytellers, including a significant number who could crack the “traditional” publishing channels (or who already have).

     If I may go by my experiences in reading other indie writers’ stuff, that distribution remains accurate. But that doesn’t mean that you, Gentle Reader, should consider yourself pre-assigned to one of those bins and therefore predestined either to fail laughably or to experience roaring success. If you have a story bouncing around in your head, a little time to give it, and a taste for adventure, you have little to lose by trying to write it. The opportunities to garner a readership have never been better.

     So if you’ve been tempted to try fiction but have been wondering “Where do I start?” consider the above piece my Christmas present to you. No, no, don’t thank me; just buy, read, and review one of my books. I’ll take that quite happily.

     (Cross-posted at Liberty's Torch.)

Monday, December 11, 2017

What Makes A Writer “Great?”

     In the midst of a delightful flaying of left-wing word mangling, Sarah Hoyt relates this vignette about a Facebook argument over “great” writers:

     [Her interlocutor] entered a discussion on the purpose of writing, and whether writing should/could be good when done simply for money, by saying that since all great writers never made money from their writing, it was obvious that writing for money was a bad thing.

     I countered with the names of six (considered) great writers who made fortunes from writing. He said “Ah, half a dozen out of hundreds” so I continued giving him names, as they occurred to me. It is a fact (perhaps not universally acknowledged, but a fact) that most writers we consider great made money from their writing. If they died in poverty it was because of their spectacularly bad money-management skills. Now, I’m not going to get into an argument over whether writing for money makes writing better. The sample of “writers we consider great” is contaminated by the fact that the writers have to have been widely disseminated enough to begin with for their writing to be known now and considered anything. That implies a degree of initial success, which usually brings money. It’s entirely possible that someone somewhere wrote something great that was never read except by their mother and their cat, but then those writers are not now universally acknowledged as “great.”

     Sarah has exposed a key fact: Circulation is a prerequisite. No writer we deem “great” languished in total obscurity during his working lifetime. All “great” writers were widely read, at least by the standards of their times. Wide circulation brings revenue with it. Whether it was enough revenue to live on is a separate question.

     But writers we consider hacks have also enjoyed wide circulation. Some of them had much wider readerships than any generally acknowledged “great” writer. So while circulation is necessary, it’s not sufficient. I’m sure any of my Gentle Readers could name a number of contemporary hacks who’ve sold millions of books.

     So what does it take? What are the criteria? What makes a writer great? Well, we could say that a great writer is one who has written a great book or books. (Beware the ambiguity of “great book.” We wouldn’t want to use it in the sense of the medieval writer who wrote that “I have before me a great book, for it weigheth four and a half pounds.”) But what makes a book great?

     It’s difficult to become a great writer in certain categories. Take children’s books, for instance. What writer of children’s stories, other than the late, lamented Theodore Seuss Geisel, would anyone call great? The field itself seems to minimize the possibility.

     Similarly, some of the best selling books of all time are cookbooks. But the writers of cookbooks, which they might be accorded respect as great cooks, are seldom (if ever) deemed great writers, despite the painstaking work that goes into transcribing hundreds of recipes.

     Oh, here’s another one: books of mathematical and scientific reference data. Quite a lot of books filled with nothing but logarithms and the values of the trigonometric functions have sold very well indeed. However, their “writers” don’t get a lot of mentions in critical circles. Is that “unfair” in some sense?

     Many persons would dismiss all the above categories as “not real writing.” They have a decent argument for their position. Yet quite a lot of work goes into those books. As they’re relied upon for various purposes by those who buy them, they demand accuracy and precision. That they don’t qualify for literary accolades seems rather sad.

     It appears that in pondering greatness among writers, if we want some degree of commonality about what sort of work would qualify, we must stick to fiction.

     Fiction – the telling of stories – has its own unique demands. The first of them is the toughest to meet:

There must be a story.

     Moreover, the nature of the story is rather narrowly confined. It must be about “people,” broadly defined. Its characters must confront challenges or problems of significance. And whether they succeed or fail, those characters must experience change.

     Let’s tackle the “people” part first. What constitutes “people?” Well, they must be self-aware – sentient. They must have needs and desires. They must have some degree of rational volition – the ability to think through a problem and make conscious decisions about how to solve it. And they must have limitations. That makes it easy to exclude non-rational animals, emotionless and omnipotent beings. Everyone else qualifies, at least prima facie.

     Consider in this light two fantasies: Thomas M. Disch’s The Brave Little Toaster and Richard Adams’s Watership Down. The protagonists in both books are non-human...but they function as people, quite as well as the recognizably human characters in any other novel.

     The “people” in a good story will confront important problems: not a missing sock or a cracked coffee mug; something that calls their convictions and emotions into play. The problem must be clearly drawn, at that; it can’t be something nebulous or puerile such as “finding myself.” And to solve the problem must require that the protagonist experience change: he must grow in some fashion, or learn something about life or himself that he hadn’t previously known.

     Once again, I think we’ve established prerequisites – necessary conditions – for calling a story great, without zeroing in on the defining characteristic of greatness itself. Many a good story has been told that no one, not even the storyteller’s relatives, would call great. There’s something more at work in the crafting of a truly great tale.

     We’re getting into the subjective here, so as usual, your mileage may vary.

     The emergence during the Twentieth Century of fictional styles that deviate greatly from direct narration was accompanied by a great tumult, among readers and critics both. Some of them, such as stream-of-consciousness, were eventually widely accepted. Others, such as the fragmented, difficult to follow approaches employed by Jerzy Kosinski and J. P. Donleavy, have gained only limited popularity. Curiously, in critical circles the latter command greater prestige than the former. Often a critic will deem a writer’s dramatic deviation from the norm reason enough to call him “great” even if his books don’t sell.

     My own take on this is that such stylistic “innovations” are lace edging at best, sense-clouding deviation for deviation’s sake at worst. The quality of the story being told, particularly how deeply it affects the reader, matters infinitely more than any aspect of style.

     A deeply affecting story needn’t be about world-shaking events. It can be, of course; J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy concerns events that could mean enduring freedom or a permanent descend into slavery for an entire world. But Judith Guest’s beautiful Ordinary People is equally affecting, though it limits itself to the troubles of a single family that’s lost a son in a boating accident.

     Note that the two books above tell widely different kinds of story, and are told in markedly different styles. Yet both fit my criterion for greatness: they couple to the great emotions and what evokes them.

     The great emotions are most reliably evoked by a story that illustrates a great truth about human nature. Sometimes, the central truth will be of the sort that we’re loath to admit to ourselves. That’s the case in Ordinary People, where the Jarrett family’s difficulties arise from the way Beth Jarret blames her son Conrad for her son Jordan’s death. In other cases, the central truth will be about something grander in scale that we (should) all know: the inherent goals of those who embrace evil, and the sacrifices good men must make to defeat them, as in The Lord of the Rings. But one way or another, an eternal verity – an abiding truth that’s both universal among men and inherent in our common nature – will stand at the heart of a great tale.

     A writer will sometimes be accorded greatness on the strength of a single book. Consider Margaret Mitchell and Gone With The Wind. Other writers are deemed great on the basis of a consistent level of excellence in their lifetime body of work, such as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. Then there are “split decisions” about writers such as Norman Mailer, who did produce one great book, The Naked and the Dead, and one hell of a lot of schlock. Opinions will always vary.

     The one thing that won’t vary is that people will read their stuff.

     Few writers working today will ever be called great. In part that’s because there are so many writers today, if we allow the title to anyone who’s ever emitted a Kindle eBook. But in larger measure, it’s because there’s a whole lot of detritus obscuring good storytelling in our time. It begins with emphasis on “style.” It ends with “message fiction.” In the middle are the emissions of critics, most of whom couldn’t compose a comprehensible note to their mothers, and literary prizes most commonly awarded by prize juries on the basis of personal acquaintances, commonality of style, and “politically correct” sentiments.

     Most of the garbage will get caught in the filter of time. The good stuff will be read by generations to come. Their readers will select from those survivors which books and writers are to be called great. We won’t be given a vote, except by what we choose to buy, read, and recommend to one another today.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Right, Wrong, Good, Bad, And Tastes

     “De gustibus non est disputandum.” – some Roman or other.

     “Chacun a son gout.” – some Frenchman or other.

     “Jesus, am I tired,” he says.
     “Yeah, well, that’s a helluva big secret you’ve been keeping on yourself,” Berger says.
     “So what do I do now?”
     “Well, you’ve done it, haven’t you? Revelation. She’s not perfect. Recognize her limitations.”
     “You mean, like she can’t love me.”
     “Like she can’t love you enough. Like she loves you as much as she’s able. Perspective, kiddo, remember? Maybe she’s afraid. Maybe it’s hard for her to give love.”
     “No,” he says, “it isn’t. She loves my father, I know that.” He closes his eyes. “She loved my brother, too. It’s just me.”
     “Ah, now we’re back to the old rotten-kid routine. She doesn’t love you because you’re unlovable. So where does that leave your dad? How come he loves you? Doesn’t he know what a rotten kid you are?”
     “That’s different. He feels responsible. Besides, he loves everybody.”
     “Oh, I get it, the guy’s got no taste. He loves you, but he’s wrong.”

     [Judith Guest, Ordinary People]

     Were I able to locate the CD, I’d have included in the above set of quotes a magnificently insightful statement by persuasion specialist Michael Emerling, which I shall now proceed to paraphrase: the quick road to total ineffectiveness at persuasion is to define the other guy’s convictions, preferences, and tastes as “wrong.” Indeed, that’s the quick road to total ineffectiveness at life itself.

     Those of us who sell entertainment must make our peace with the great variety of personal tastes out there. Those of us who sell fiction, even in this era of anything-goes and self-publishing that owes nothing to anyone, must be particularly alert to that diversity. It matters a hell of a lot more than race, sex, or political alignment.

     A couple of years back I locked ‘em up with another writer – not a fictioneer, an opinion-monger – who took me to task for using the word Negro. He claimed it was offensive – that it indicated that I harbor a desire to “make black people feel bad.” A couple of years before that, a different fellow upbraided me for making Angela Farnsworth, the co-protagonist of the segment “Incantations” in my novel Chosen One, a Negro. And of course, as I’m utterly resolved to use (and promote the use of) “he-his-him” as the generic singular pronouns, I get flak regularly from militant feminists, and more recently from transgender activists as well.

     I’ve learned to shrug it off. Why worry about readers whose principal criterion for enjoyment is that their entertainment conform perfectly to their social and political opinions? They won’t be back. I have my own convictions, preferences, and tastes to appease. Why should I devalue them for the sake of some emotionally constipated militant for attitudes I’ve rejected?

     I’ve had a fair number of writing colleagues suggest to me that I’m reducing my potential sales by insisting on going my own way. They’re probably right, but what of it? I’m not a hooker. Indeed, even hookers don’t insist on pleasing everyone.

     One of the truly marvelous things about the present day is that just about anyone can find fiction that will suit his preferences down to the last comma. That immense diversity of personal tastes is just as great a blessing from the writer’s perspective. However, it does make it more difficult to talk about “right and wrong” in the crafting of fiction.

     Way, way back in the Early Obscene, when we were all swinging from tree to tree in search of a perfectly ripe banana and I still harbored a fantasy of conventional publication, I read in several publications for the terminally deluded aspiring writer that the prologue was “passé.” More specifically, these folks put forth the proposition – which for all I know was correct then and remains so today – that opening a novel with a prologue greatly increases the probability that Pub World editors would reject it.

     As the seasons changed and my hairline receded, I gradually became convinced that Pub World would never show an interest in my weird, Catholic-flavored, overtly heroic and freedom-oriented fiction. So I dismissed the advice of all those presumably well-meaning publications and did what I damned well pleased. In late 2009, when I decided at last to “go indie” and self-publish, I put forth exactly what I’d written – what I’d wanted to write. As there were quite a few readers, both in the U.S. and in other countries where English is spoken or widely taught, who’d been looking for the sort of thing I write and were greatly displeased by its absence from Pub World’s offerings, I gained a readership. Those readers didn’t seem at all put off by the prologues to Chosen One and Which Art In Hope. Maybe they hadn’t read my betters’ condemnations of such things.

     “Good and bad” in fiction have always been matters of taste. There are people who think Dhalgren is a work of genius. There are others who consider it vile trash. (I’m in the latter category.) As an engineering colleague of mine likes to say, that’s why there’s chocolate and vanilla.

     It may not be clear what I’m driving at here. (It wouldn’t be the first time, would it, Gentle Reader?) Candidly, it can be reduced to a single sentence:

The writer should write what pleases him.

     (Ah! Those contentious, sententious pronouns! They’re everywhere.)

     Your audience will self-select. Until they deign to speak to you, whether through email, Amazon reviews, social media, or what have you, you won’t know what pleased them and what didn’t. Even when they do, what matters most, unless the collection agents have massed on your lawn, are hollering at you through bullhorns, and are brandishing their battering rams, is, was, and will always be whether your fiction satisfies you.

     That having been said, I do hold that there are “better” and “worse” ways to approach description, dialogue, fictional time management, transitions between scenes and viewpoints, and so forth. I’m not bashful; I’ll readily say so to those who approach me for critiques. But the persons issuing the judgment that really matters will be those who elect to lavish their money and time on your fiction. In a world with 7.5 billion people in it, a great many will find fault with your choices...and many others will applaud. So don’t let the Constipated Ones constipate you.

     This weekend is for giving thanks. If you write, you might include in your personal list some gratitude for the independent-writer / self-publishing revolution. While it has had its costs, it has also made a great many good things possible...including, of course, this essay. Now it’s time to surf over to Amazon and find something decent to read!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

“Why Did You Write This?”

     The news remains drearily predictable, and I have no high philosophical insights about politics or public policy to regale you with this morning (“Does he ever?” rises the mumbling from the peanut gallery), so I thought I might entertain you with some thoughts about why writers of fiction do what we do. It’s freshly on my mind anyway, as another writer who’d just finished Innocents asked me the title question about that novel.

     Fiction writers are as varied as any other walk of life. Our reasons for doing what we do range all over the motivational map. Many would take the title question as an affront, raise one eyebrow in a silent expression of haughty disdain, and stride purposefully away – and not because the answer is “obvious,” for whatever value of “obvious” you might care to apply. That having been said, the answers tend to cluster into categories:

  • Money: Robert A. Heinlein maintained to the end of his life that he wrote “to buy groceries.” I never believed it, but it was his consistent answer to the question, and no doubt it would apply to many other writers.
  • Entertainment: Many a writer simply likes to entertain, and likes being known as a capable entertainer. It’s the same motive that causes some partygoers to tell endless jokes and vignettes, thus becoming known as “the life of the party:” “You can’t throw a decent party without him.”
  • Message: For all the scorn that’s been poured on “message fiction,” there are many writers who write to promote a particular view of Man and reality. Military SF writer Tom Kratman put it thus: “I write to illuminate eternal verities.”

     Those categories probably envelop the great majority of writers’ reasons for writing fiction. But there are some that don’t fit in any of them. My reason for writing Innocents was one of them: curiosity.

     I chose the critical plot element of the book before I wrote it, of course: the emergence of a biotechnologically enabled subculture of perversion and enslavement focused on futanari. But I didn’t want to make the story a simple crusade against this new evil. Instead, I decided to impose one of the “products” of that evil industry on a good man as his personal problem: “What do I do with this girl?” It was only then that I set my fingers to the keys and began to write.

     But even then, I had no clear idea of where the story would go. I had to write it to find out.

     I had a gaggle of useful characters already “in stock” from previous stories: Larry Sokoloff and Father Raymond Altomare, from Shadow of a Sword; and Dean Amanda Hallstrom and her students at Athene Academy, from “A Place of Our Own” and “One Small Detail.” I’d explored their motivations and reactions in those earlier tales, and I was curious how they would cope with the two new Marquee Characters: Fountain, the story’s “problem,” and Trish McAvoy, Larry’s seemingly “difficult” colleague.

     There you have it: I didn’t know how the characters I’d loaded into Innocents would proceed with this new problem. I wrote the novel to find out. To do so, of course, I had to get even more deeply into the mindsets, assumptions, preferences, and convictions of those characters than I’d gone before. I got to know them to a new and startling depth.

     Georges Simenon, who wrote nearly two hundred novels, had the same underlying motivation. He once spoke of his indispensable conditions for producing one: he had to be completely alone and undisturbed for a couple of weeks – often he took up residence in a hotel – and he had to have a problem whose solution he could not foresee: “Otherwise, it would not be interesting to me.” It spurred him to a degree of productivity few other writers have attained.

     While I don’t aspire to Simenon’s level of output, I can testify to the power of curiosity as a motivating force for a fiction writer. I’m unsure about recommending it widely – writers are as individual as snowflakes, and what works for one could prove poisonous to another – but it’s my necessary fuel, as critical as a good supply of coffee and Oreos.® And for those of you contemplating giving “National Novel Writing Month” a spin, it might be worth exploration. I mean, if you know how the story ends, why bother to begin it, much less finish it?

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Innocents: Some Questions

     First, my thanks to all of you who’ve purchased Innocents. My special thanks to those of you who’ve reviewed it at Amazon. My extra-super-interstellar thanks to those of you who’ve recommended it to others. Word-of-mouth is an indie writer’s best advertising. Indeed, it’s the only form of promotion my books receive.

     Second, it’s time for me to provide the answers to some of the questions readers have sent me about the book, most of which begin with “Why?”

     One reader wrote to ask “Why is Innocents so much shorter than your other novels?” And yes, for those unacquainted with my other novels, it’s the second shortest of all the novels I’ve published; only Love in the Time of Cinema is shorter.

     This one is fairly easy. I’ve caused myself a lot of difficulties in the past by trying to control the length of a story. I have a feeling that a lot of writers do that, as we’re all aware that the “big hits” are almost always big books. You’ll seldom see a book at the top of the best-seller lists that’s less than 350 pages (approximately 100,000 words). Indeed, the average length of a best-selling novel is greater than that.

     But to obsess over the length of a story is to demote the story itself to a secondary consideration. However much story there is, that’s what there is. I could not have extended Innocents beyond its existing length without packing it with filler: unsatisfying side crap that would have detracted from the impact of the story proper.

     On the one hand, it’s a high compliment for a reader to write that “I only wish it were longer.” On the other, it’s a terrible temptation to the I’ve striven to resist.

     Several readers have written to ask whether Innocents will have a sequel. This has me torn. The themes in the novel are all fairly well encapsulated there. What would I address in a sequel? Kevin Conway’s pursuit of the villains behind the production of futanari sex slaves? Well, yes, there’s an obvious adventure tale there, especially as a Yakuza organization capable of initiating a sub-business of that sort would be large and mighty. The Athene Academy connection might deserve more exploration as well, especially in light of that most unusual college’s involvement with Larry Sokoloff’s little problem.

     The major problem here is coming up with a theme around which to wrap a sequel. I don’t write vanilla adventure, or vanilla anything else. I need an animating idea, some thesis about human nature and its consequences for human interaction, before I can get my condensers sufficiently charged to write a story. At the moment, I don’t have one.

     But perhaps the previous sentence should be edited to read “I don’t have one...yet.

     The most stimulating of the questions I’ve received is one you might have been wondering about yourself: “Why did you write about this?” At this time, there are no “natural born” futanari. The genetics of the thing might just be impossible, non-viable. The only humans that fit the surface description – i.e., female in all externally perceptible ways except for the possession of male genitalia – were born as ordinary males and have made themselves futanari-like by surgical means. So there’s no demand for an Athene Academy, and Larry Sokoloff’s little problem isn’t a present-day possibility.

     Or so you might assume!

     It’s been observed many times that just about any English-language noun or verb, if prefixed or suffixed by “sex” and plugged into Google, will generate thousands of hits. Sex isn’t just the “oldest funny subject” (Robert A. Heinlein). It’s also the drive most widely shared by human beings of all ages , places, and times. You have to be very young, very old, or very unusual not to be interested in sex. That’s a big part of what made the following passage from Freedom’s Fury hit my readers so hard:

     “May I ask a personal question, Claire?”
     “Go ahead.”
     “Do you have someone special?”
     The bioengineer looked at her quizzically. “No. Why do you ask?”
     “Just curious. How long has it been?”
     “ know. Since there was someone special.”
     Albermayer was slow to reply.
     “There’s never been anyone like that for me, Althea.”
     “What? Are you serious?”
     Albermayer nodded.
     “But you’ were in school with my grandfather Armand!”
     “Yes, I was.”
     “And you’ve never had a lover?”
     Another long pause.
     “I have no sex drive, Althea.” The words were drier than the dust between the stars. “I never have. I could never see the point of an intimate involvement, so I never formed one. I severely doubt one would have lasted.” Albermayer’s slight smile spoke of an isolation beyond Althea’s ken. She squeezed Althea gently, making the pumps in Althea’s suit whine. “This is the closest I’ve been to another person in more than a century....
     “There’s something missing from me, Althea. At least, my parents thought so. I hear other people talk about their emotional attachments—I hear the passion in your voice when you speak of your husband, and in Nora’s when she talks of hers—and it’s like a glimpse into the mind of an alien species. I’ve never felt anything like that for anyone.
     “I’ve been courted a few times. My suitors couldn’t decide what to make of my non-responsiveness. For my part, I never grasped their interest, what attracted them to me sufficiently to justify their efforts. I was always made slightly uncomfortable by that sort of attention, as if I were being told that something was expected of me that I simply couldn’t deliver.”

     Sex isn’t about mere sensation. It isn’t about reproduction, though that’s its biological function. It’s about winning the most intimate form of acceptance from another person. Those who, for whatever reason, can no longer “perform” remember what it meant to attain that degree of intimacy. And they miss it and yearn for it.

     That having been said, there are persons who have sexual or parasexual desires that diverge greatly from what the rest of us feel. Homosexuals. Polyamorists. Fetishists of various kinds. That bulging grab-bag labeled “polymorphously perverse.” Remember that bit about Google searches.

     With an estimated 7.5 billion persons alive at this time, you can bet the rent money that there are persons whose deepest desire is for a futanari lover. Indeed, I can prove it: there’s a substantial “industry” dedicated to serving that desire. Many who are aware of it speak of it as a Southeast Asian phenomenon, but there’s an outcropping of it here in the United States as well.

     So what would happen if some of those folks – the richer ones – were to look into whether it might be possible to have “lovers” made to order? Including the sort of conditioning poor helpless Fountain had to endure? Are you sure it’s impossible? More, are you certain the rest of us would ever learn about it?

     But that’s only half of the reason for the story.

     My two greatest reasons for writing, whether fiction or these interminable op-eds, are to promote Christian moral-ethical norms and to illustrate the importance of human freedom. Those are the fuels that power every last syllable I’ve written. Innocents and the “Athene Academy” stories are not exceptions.

     On the one hand, I continue to believe that the “transgender” phenomenon is a fad that will soon burn itself out. There are very few persons whose emotional health genuinely requires a sex change. Moreover, it seems that quite a lot of transgender individuals regret having transitioned and are coming forward to say so. On the other hand, I’ve made the acquaintance of two transwomen who appear to have needed their transitions for their emotional well-being. It’s on that basis that I find myself unable to condemn the thing entirely.

     Freedom must, by necessity, include the right to “make your own mistakes.” There is no alternative; else we would have no fundamental argument with the bien-pensants who’d very much like to rule us all, down to the smallest detail. Moreover, anyone can be wrong about anything, so posturing as an authority is a dangerous perch to mount. Falling from that sort of perch is rather humiliating.

     Now add this:

     Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why seest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye; and seest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how sayest thou to thy brother, Let me cast the mote out of thine eye; and behold, a beam is in thine own eye? [Matthew 7:1-4]

     The Redeemer was pretty definite about it.

     They whose choices we deplore are individuals with free will and souls of their own. We are not responsible for their choices; we are responsible for our behavior toward them. How much more, then, would we be required to respect, to love, and to protect those whose circumstances have been forced upon them? Futanari such as the students and staff of Athene Academy? Genetically engineered individuals such as Fountain?

     I would agree that were we to discover an enterprise that deliberately turns out genetically engineered futanari, conditioned sex slaves, or a combination of the two, it would be morally imperative to stamp it out and salt the ground from which it sprang. But our proper attitude toward the products of such an enterprise, being humans with souls as valuable as yours or mine, would be quite another matter. Father Ray’s closing statements to Larry Sokoloff proceed from that conviction.

     I see that once again I’ve gone on at greater length than I originally intended. It’s like the problem of the “lazy preacher” who writes long sermons: once he gets to writing, he’s too lazy to stop. But that’s what writers are like, and I’m a writer, so have a little pity.

     A final thought: Time was, all fiction took the form of the play, and plays were categorized as follows:

  • Miracle: The central element was some event that seems to contradict the laws of Nature.
  • Mystery: The story turns on some inscrutable element of the Divine.
  • Morality: The story concerns an aspect of morality and what happens when it’s disregarded.

     I’m comfortable with giving Innocents any of those labels. One way or another, I hope it’s provided you with some food for thought.

Friday, October 6, 2017

It's Here

     For those of you who’ve been waiting:

     A novel of the Onteora Canon, set in the very near future. Genetic engineering and zygotic microsurgery have produced both wonders and horrors. Wonders such as drugs tailored to attack a specific disease in a specific sufferer, or surgery to eliminate genetically borne handicaps before mitosis can begin. Horrors such as blindness or deafness deliberately inflicted upon unborn babies, or pitiable creatures whose bodies and minds are warped to satisfy the whims of wealthy perverts.

     Security specialist Larry Sokoloff is on vacation far from home, straining to forget a woman he loves but cannot have, when Fountain, a teenaged escapee from a malevolent institution, comes under his protection. What he learns of her nature and origins lays bare the darker face of the Janus of biotechnology, and catapults him and his colleague Trish McAvoy into a mission of vengeance and cleansing. For adults only.

     Innocents, an Amazon “KDP Select” exclusive, is currently $2.99. Around the turn of the year, depending on how sales have gone, I’ll consider releasing it at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble. I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Text Versus Subtext

     When you’re bogged down in writing the conclusion of a novel that’s taken far too long to complete, you tend to look for inspiration (and explanations) in a myriad places. Inevitably, many of those places will have absolutely no relation to what you’re attempting (and precious little of anything else to offer you). But you’ll keep looking...if only to take your mind briefly off the fictional corner you’ve painted yourself into.

     Yes, I’m venting about my own agonizingly protracted labors. All the same, now and then the quest for insight yields something worthy of commentary...a good thing, as I’m having an increasingly hard time writing about politics, public policy, and the cavalcade of idiots, swindlers, and miscellaneous con men that we call the government in these United States.

     As it happens, fledgling writers come to me, a veteran of the indie fiction movement, every so often for advice on this or that. Some of their questions are more easily answered than others. In a great many cases, the answer is itself a question:

“Why are you writing this?”

     As it happens, it’s a question that has only one right answer – a curious thing when there are so many to which millions of answers are both acceptable and potentially constructive:

“I’m trying to illustrate X.”

     ...where X is some aspect of the eternal laws of human nature. This is the fourth, and in my opinion the most important, of the components of a worthwhile work of fiction: theme.

     Mind you, themeless works of fiction abound. Some of them make quite a lot of money. Others are what an acquaintance of long ago called “poolsiders:” something to read merely for the sake of filling otherwise idle time. But works that people will remember for a long time after having read them will have a point to make– a theme – and will succeed in dramatizing that theme through the decisions and actions of their characters.

     However, a book that hammers the reader over the head with its theme is inherently a failure. That’s the biggest demerit against Ayn Rand’s novels: never for a moment are you permitted to be anything but fully conscious of the point she’s screaming at you. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are remarkable achievements, to be sure, but they’d have been better if she hadn’t been quite so relentless about her theme.

     So the writer must tread a middle ground: his theme must be present, and must actuate the most important decisions and actions of his Marquee characters, but the story must not be reduced to a Jeremiad that demands the reader’s explicit attention to its theme at all times. This is where the items in the title of this essay, and the effective use of the tension between them, become relevant.

     When I speak of the story’s text, I have in mind the key elements of the plot and how they bear upon the writer’s intended theme. In John Brunner’s analysis of plots and their expressions, he distinguishes among three plot families:

  1. Change that occurs because of the Marquee characters’ interactions with others;
  2. Change that occurs because of the Marquee characters’ introspection (i.e., self-examination).
  3. Change that arises when the Marquee characters confront a challenge from the world around them.

     Since a story must speak of change within and among its characters, it is quite probable that the above three plot families comprise all possible (worthwhile) plots. However, a really involving story will usually have one or more subplots: “action within the action” used for characterization and the insertion of important contextual matters.

     Subplots are an important vehicle for conveying subtext: secondary motivations and emotional currents that make the Marquee characters more real to the reader. Very few of us have a single, all-consuming motivation. Anyway, smart people avoid monomaniacs: they usually have a fistful of petitions they want you to sign, and we’re all way too busy, to say nothing of the dangers attendant upon signing anything these days. The sort of character the reader will enjoy reading about will have several motivations of importance, and some tensions among them that complicate his life.

     Consider in this connection a fairly common protagonist character: the lone-wolf hero, who habitually eschews emotional involvements. Such a hero might have any of a number of reasons for his emotional isolation. However, love and acceptance are primary drives; no one can suppress them completely and permanently. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, perhaps today’s premier lone-wolf hero, repeatedly has fleeting love affairs with extremely impressive women, only to pick up his nonexistent luggage and move on alone at the end of his main adventure. Child uses this motif in just about every Reacher novel, in part to leaven the action, but also because it’s vital to soften the character that much if he’s to be accessible to the reader.

     While this is an important tool in Lee Child’s fictional toolbox, he’s careful not to let it overwhelm him or his protagonist. Imagine the violence it would do to the reader’s expectations were Reacher to fall completely and inescapably in love, renounce his nomadic existence, flip the bird to the conflict that the reader was led to believe is the core of the plot, and settle down to a tranquil life in the suburbs. There are limits!

     I’ve just started reading a novel from a writer of “fantastical, futuristic, down-home salacious kissery.” All by themselves, those words intrigued me. I enjoy a couple of writers of science-fiction romance, and I was impressed by the author’s playful extravagance in the quoted phrase, so I bought her book. But from the very first pages of the novel, she appears to be unwilling to decide which plot thread is the text and which is the subtext. To be more specific, the romantic tensions between the protagonists, a pair of mercenary assassins who’ve contracted to capture or destroy a rare android, are given equal time to the external conflict in which they’ve embroiled themselves.

     Beware, indie writers: here there be tygers.

     A good story must have a main thread of plot development and causation: the text. Whatever subtexts the writer decides to add must be subordinated to the text. If the reader can’t decide which is which, he’ll be unable to discern “why you’re writing this.” In this trap lie the corpses of a number of SF romances.

     Indeed, much of the criticism that’s heaped upon crossbred stories – specifically, stories in the speculative genres that also embed a strong romantic current – arises from the writer’s inability or unwillingness to declare his text unambiguously. That is: “Are you writing a romance with some science fiction / fantasy / horror elements for a backdrop, or a science fiction / fantasy / horror story that includes a romantic motif?” This decision must precede setting one’s fingers to the keys.

     In our time, when brick-and-mortar bookstores have paled in importance because of Amazon and other online retailers, that decision might be a hair less important than it once was, as online retailers don’t need to “put your book on the proper shelf.” But it’s still important to reader satisfaction, and therefore to reader word-of-mouth...and therefore to how well your novel will sell.

     Need I say more?

Friday, September 8, 2017


     If you’re a preparationist – “prepper” for short – or are inclined in that direction out of prudence, this piece might hold a particular interest for you. No, it won’t provide advice on how best to prepare; I’m hardly an authority about such things. It’s pointed in a completely different direction.

     Some time ago, a Website I’ve misplaced surveyed all the ways the writer could imagine in which a world-ending disaster could occur. (Interpret “world-ending” to mean “the end of life as we know it” rather than the obliteration of planet Earth.) He came up with quite a number of them – at least ten, though I can’t remember the exact number – and assigned a probability to each. On the former count, I was impressed: I hadn’t thought of several that had occurred to him. On the latter, I was amused: it’s a bit presumptuous to put a probability to an event that has never happened – indeed, that could, by its nature, happen only once.

     All the same, it’s an exercise with some import, especially if one pays attention to the aggregate probability that none of the possible disasters will occur. If there are N possible disasters to fear, each with its own probability of occurrence (within a stated time interval, of course) Pi, then the probability that it won’t occur is 1- Pi. Accordingly, the probability that none of them will occur is:


     ...where Π indicates “the product of” and i ranges from 1 to N.

     Now, just how many possible disasters are there? Here’s the “off the top of my head” list:

  • Nuclear war;
  • Nearby supernova;
  • Coronal mass ejection;
  • Comet or asteroid strike;
  • Nanotechnology runaway;
  • Medically resistant pandemic;
  • Emergence of a super-predator;
  • Extinction of an ecologically vital organism.

     In reviewing the above, I must note they are categories rather than discrete possibilities. That is: there are many subvarieties of each disaster whose tag appears above. Indeed, the total number of discrete possibilities is very large – perhaps not estimable. But what’s on my mind this morning is the variety among them: the preparations required to survive each differ somewhat from the preparations required to survive the others.

     If the total number of possible disasters were large – say, 30, just as an example – and the average probability of any one of them were quite small – say, around 1% -- the probability that none of them would occur would be about 74%. Therefore, the probability that one of them would occur would be 26% -- but which of them is left to chance.

     What’s the probability that your preparations would be well suited to a disaster randomly “selected” out of a group of 30 that has one chance in four of striking?

     The fun part of this exercise comes when one realizes that while 1% is too large a probability estimate for any one possible disaster, 30 is far too small an estimate of the total number of such possibilities. The average probability of a world-ending disaster is more likely to be about 0.01%, but the total number of possible disasters is more likely to be in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands. So for our second calculation, let the average probability be 0.01% and the number of possibilities be 3000. What do we get then?

Π(1-Pi) == 74%

     How about that, folks? We still have about one chance in four of a world-ending disaster, but with so many possible ways the world could end, which should we prepare for? Do they have sufficient commonality that merely stockpiling food, water, clothing, fuel, and weapons would be sufficient? It’s very hard to say.

     I’ve been thinking about this because of the recent proliferation of “post-apocalypse” novels. Each of them has as its entering motif a “world-ending” catastrophe. The subsequent action and drama presumes the existence of survivors. The subgenre displays a remarkable consistency about what those survivors needed to do to survive: i.e., the stockpiling of the survival basics listed immediately above. But that’s not necessarily the case.

     I’ve recently finished reading a pair of post-apocalypse novels: N. C. Reed’s Fire From The Sky books. Reed’s catastrophe is a huge coronal mass ejection (CME) that strikes the Earth and fries the electrical and electronic supports to contemporary technological civilization. The effects are devastating to the United States. The most impressive thing about the books is the degree of thought Reed has invested in preparing for that development, assuming that one knows it’s coming. Reed’s protagonist family, the Sanders family of Tennessee, assumes that a CME is on the way, and has months of forewarning. Among other things, the Sanders clan puts Faraday cages around its homes, vehicles, and other vital electrical and electronic items, such that some will survive after the great majority of such are rendered useless.

     It’s left me wondering whether any group, however determined could adequately brace itself for a cataclysm that severe in ignorance of its nature. If the Sanders kin had prepared for a nuclear war rather than a CME, would it have fared as well? How would its lot differ from what Reed describes in his novels? Given the many possibilities, is there any point in trying to foresee what specific disaster is most likely?

     Fiction provides us with room in which to extend our imaginations. Many of the scenarios depicted in post-apocalypse fiction are somewhat fanciful. Yet they’ve been an important stimulus to the preparationist movement. Whether the preparations that have resulted have been wise or foolish is a matter of opinion, and well beyond the scope of a brief Friday tirade. However, the associated question “How broad is the spectrum of possible world-ending calamities?” should be of interest to everyone. It’s a spur to thought about how complex contemporary civilization has become...and how interdependent are its parts.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

“It’s Been Done.”

     Among my memories – some of which are bolstered by the relevant artifacts – I treasure a record titled When You’re In Love The Whole World Is Jewish. It’s a collection of skits on Jewish themes, every last one of which is sidesplitting. The one I have in mind this morning involves a successful businessman named Leibowitz whose son is about to have his Bar Mitzvah. He’s looking for a spectacle that will outdo what a partner did for his son. When a “Bar Mitzvah consultant” suggests that the son read his Bar Mitzvah address before the General Assembly of the United Nations, Leibowitz considers it briefly, then demurs thus: “Not bad, but there’s something missing. I got a feeling it’s been done.”

     Here’s the skit, and just try to control yourself:

     Now that that’s out of the way...

     I’ve become an absolute beast about unoriginality in fiction, especially fiction in the speculative genres: science fiction, fantasy, and horror. The whole point of the speculative genres is to enable the writer’s imagination to roam freely. A writer who elects to mimic someone else’s ideas is wasting the opportunity. A writer who slavishly follows a “hot trend” – e.g., vampire fiction, which has become so obnoxiously repetitive that I refuse to enter a room that contains an item of vampire fiction – has pawned his writer’s gift for a mess of pottage.

     This is giving me some difficulty – steadily increasing difficulty, it seems – with finding reading material. Most of what’s called “mainstream fiction” is terminally boring. The thriller genre is even more repetitive than the speculative ones. And no one’s done convincing military fiction since Tom Clancy and Ed Ruggero.

     Throw in the contemporary tendency among fiction writers to produce series instead of stand-alone novels, and the hunt for something fresh and new becomes torture.

     Among the writers I most enjoy today is Lee Child, the creator of ex-military cop Jack Reacher. Yet Child, too, is beginning to have trouble coming up with fresh crises and conflicts for his nomadic hero to solve. It’s a tough sort of trap from which to free oneself. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been sealing off the ends of the two series I created: I’d rather not get so covered with their adhesive that I can’t come up with something wholly original.

     I’ve emitted plaints like this before. But just now I’ve got nothing new to read, and having just returned from a fruitless search of the recommendations at Amazon, the urge was upon me to vent once more. So, fellow indie writers and would-be writers: what have you got for me that hasn’t been done? I’m a hungry reader with time on my hands, I have a large fiction budget, and I’m waiting!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Soapy Sales

     Balph Eubank had joined the group around Dr. Pritchett, and was saying sullenly, “, you cannot expect people to understand the higher reaches of philosophy. Culture should be taken out of the hands of the dollar-chasers. We need a national subsidy for literature. It is disgraceful that artists are treated like peddlers and that art works have to be sold like soap.”
     “You mean, your complaint is that they don’t sell like soap?” asked Francisco d’Anconia.

     [Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged]

     This fine morning, Sarah Hoyt has an impassioned article at PJ Media about the offensive campaign by left-wing writers, critics, and publishers of fantasy and science fiction to denigrate – indeed, to delegitimize – older writers and older works in those genres that have remained popular. Here’s Sarah’s counterpunch – and she lands it right on the point of their collective chin:

     If the art is so great, how come no one is buying it? Besides the artist who is spending way too much time with absinthe and way too little time with quill and paper, or brushes and canvas, that is?

     Oh. I see. Because the general public is too stupid to appreciate the greatness of the artist. Because the artist is “ahead” of the public.

     The “artist ahead of the public” conceit has been used to rationalize just about every failure by a critically praised “artist,” regardless of his field, to make it big with the consuming public.

     The leftists’ sotto voce complaint, of course, is that despite their dominance of the heavily politicized Hugo and Nebula Awards, their books don’t sell. But why don’t they sell? They’re award winners, aren’t they? The “critics” praise them, while simultaneously casting aspersions on the “primitive forebears” of their genres. All the “best people” approve and applaud them. So why are their sales weak?

     Now, now, let’s not always see the same hands!

     I think it was Robert Ringer who said that all commercial activity of any sort requires salesmanship, and therefore, that proficiency in salesmanship is the sine qua non of commercial success. The sale of fiction is not an exception; it merely appears to be one because of the “gatekeeper” phenomenon.

     In the simplest terms, a “gatekeeper” is one who stands between the vendor and the purchaser, and who has a deciding role in determining whether the vendor’s product will reach the purchaser. In the pre-Internet era, commercial publishing houses were gatekeepers for fiction: unless the writer was willing to go to a subsidy house, he had no way to present his books to potential purchasers without the willing collaboration of a publishing house. As the publication of hard-copy fiction is a chancy business, there were never many publishing houses, and therefore not a lot of books were published each year.

     It’s possible to feel a certain sympathy for the editorial staffs of publishing houses – I call them, collectively, Pub World – while nevertheless feeling frustrated by their narrowness of vision and angered by their “progressive” impositions upon writers. Pub World editors appear to labor under the delusion that only left-wing obsessives purchase fiction, and therefore, that only fiction that expresses left-wing political sentiments should pass their scrutiny. Indeed, some writers who’ve succeeded in winning the acceptance of Pub World have subsequently lost their publishers’ favor by introducing a conservative motif in an otherwise politically indifferent story; consider Nick Cole’s travails in this regard as an archetype.

     Are there exceptions? Well, there’s Baen Books. I’ve been straining to think of another. I can’t come up with one.

     I must emphasize this strongly: A gatekeeper is not a censor. A censor has the power of the State at his back; the State’s armed agents will enforce his decisions about who may and who may not publish. However, a gatekeeper can accomplish much the same end as a censor...unless a route around him can be contrived.

     What the gatekeeper cannot do is compel readers to purchase the works the gatekeeper has offered them.

     The independent writers’ community – indies, for short – has experienced explosive growth these past few years. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other electronic distribution outlets are ever more heavily populated by fiction that Pub World will not offer us. Granted that the overwhelming majority of indie novels and stories are pretty many cases, multidimensionally poor. Traditionally, Pub World’s gatekeepers prevented poorly conceived, poorly written, and poorly edited or proofread books from being offered for sale, though in these latter years that guarantee has expired. With indie fiction, there is no guarantee; the purchaser is on his own.

     With so many indies importuning the public, and with so much poorly conceived, poorly written, and poorly edited or proofread garbage among their offerings, “big successes” among them will be uncommon. However, the indies have some advantages over Pub World:

  • Low price;
  • Diversity of viewpoint;
  • The willingness to experiment.

     These don’t completely offset Pub World’s advantages of “the mark of quality” and its intimate relations with traditional retail outlets. However, as brick-and-mortar book retailing shrinks and ever more readers turn to eBooks, indies’ edges have helped them collectively to eclipse Pub World in aggregate sales.

     In short, indies are practicing better salesmanship than Pub World. They’re offering more readers something close to what those readers seek to purchase – again, collectively. And it’s sending Pub World and its favored writers into the Slough of Despond.

     Needless to say, I “have a dog in this fight,” being an indie writer myself. However, for analytical purposes I’ve tried to view the field disinterestedly. In doing so, what’s come to mind is the old marketers’ mantra:

Differentiate the product!

     Should Pub World’s offerings become even more homogenized, they would appeal to a more narrowly defined taste, and therefore to an ever narrower slice of the reading public. Readers hungry for something different would peel away from that pack. Indeed, this trend is already in progress. The indies are the beneficiaries.

     With apologies to Ayn Rand, the comparison to soap sales is inexact. Soap is more of a necessity than fiction, at least here in the United States. However, prosperity and a taste for novelty have had their effects on soap marketing just as they have on fiction. Note the explosive variegation in soaps, particularly shower soaps, these past two or three decades. It’s possible that the “old names,” such as Ivory and Dove, still outsell any particular varietal...but the varietals, collectively, outsell the “old names” by a considerable margin.

     From here, it would be all too easy to slip into a discussion of wine and the explosive recent expansion of New York’s wine industry, but the sun’s not yet over the yardarm here on eastern Long Island. Besides, I have a novel to finish.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

An Early Morning Grump

     The something-for-nothing mentality is rampant these days. Everyone seems to think he can get what he wants without somehow paying for it. I find it tiresome. I find many of its practitioners thoughtless.

     To be brief and blunt, I don’t “do” something-for-nothing. When I’m approached by someone who wants something from me, I expect to hear him say what he’s willing to give me in recompense. I don’t always hear such an offer of value-for-value. In fact, lately it happens less often than not.

     There are a lot of indie writers hawking their latest ebooks. Some of them have something good to offer, but these are a minority. Most should have put their time and energy to something else. Good, bad, or mediocre, they all want the same two things:

  • A readership;
  • Revenue.

     For an indie writer, self-published and therefore without the promotional power of a recognized publishing house, the royal road to a significant readership is reviews, particularly reviews at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All other methods of attracting the attention of potential readers and purchasers are lower-percentage plays, though now and then one will strike gold. So the ambitious indie usually tries to goose people into reading and reviewing his book(s) by offering friends and acquaintances free copies.

     In his marvelous high fantasy Lyonesse: Suldrun’s Garden, the late, incomparably great Jack Vance has a Supporting Cast character propose a curious meta-ecological mechanism:

     “A theory propounded by the savants asserts that every niche in the social structure, no matter how constricted, finds someone to fill it. I admit to a specialized occupation, which in fact has not so much as acquired a name. Not to put too keen an edge on it, I wait under gallows until the corpse drops, whereupon I assume possession of the clothes and valuables. I find little competition in the field; the work is dull, and I will never become wealthy, but at least it is honest and I have time to daydream.”

     The quasi-ecological system called fiction writing and publishing has many such niches. One of the more irritating entities to fill them is the “ebook publishing house.” Such a company sells itself to indie writers with ebooks to promote. It offers to assist them by publicizing their offerings and garnering Amazon reviews for them, for a percentage of the proceeds from sales of the ebook.

     I don’t patronize such organizations. I prefer to do my own work and stand on my own merits, even if that should mean that I’ll go unread by many who might otherwise fatten my wallet with their valuta and my ego with their praise. But they don’t feel the same about me, as the following email, which I received just this morning, will attest:

Hi there,

     Nice to meet you! This is Felicity from the publishers Inkitt. I saw your review of Drifters' Alliance, Book 3 and really liked your style of reviewing and think that we have an upcoming novel that you'd really enjoy and would suit your tastes; Eric Olafson: Midship Man by Vanessa Ravencroft.

     We wanted to offer you an exclusive Advanced Reader’s Copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review on Amazon, Goodreads or any other platform.

     I have included the blurb and important information below. Let me know if you would like to read and review and I will send along the ARC.

[Blurb and cover image appeared here, but they’ll get no free publicity from me!]

     Genre: Space-Opera/ Sci-Fi/ LGBT
     Release Date: May 24th, 2017

     So what do you think? Do you fancy coming along for the ride? :)

Over and out!

     It’s not the first time I’ve received a solicitation such as the above. To be perfectly fair about it, it’s not a pure something-for-nothing play: I was offered an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC)of the aforementioned ebook. However:

  • I find the impersonal “Hi there” salutation discourteous,
  • ARCs are legendary for being unedited, barely readable messes;
  • The probability of the book being worth my reading time is about .01;
  • My correspondent Felicity appears quite unaware that I’m a novelist, too.

     That’s four strikes. Felicity and Inkitt ought to go back to the dugout. But I have a soft spot for indie writers, and a penchant for turning the tables on cold-call salesmen and mass-mailing marketers. So I replied as follows:

Dear Felicity,

     First point: Please note that the salutation above uses your actual name. This is considered courteous, at least among those of us who still regard courtesy as worth an effort.

     Second point: I, too, am a novelist. If you had searched Amazon for my name, rather than merely using the email address you found for me, you would have known that -- and you might have included a mention of something I wrote, which would have ingratiated you to me somewhat. That you didn't make the effort counts against you.

     Third point: These review-solicitations-out-of-the-blue are akin to spam, at least when practiced in this fashion. I know you're trying to help your client authors and make a few bucks. Aren't we all? But there are classy, courteous ways to do that. This is on the grubby end of the scale...and it's not the first time I've received such a solicitation from your organization.

     All that having been said, I dislike to disappoint anyone who's praised anything I've written, even if it's only one of my reviews (vanity, vanity, all is vanity), and I like to help other indie writers when I can. But I mean to get something more than a free ebook for my time and effort. So I’ll make a deal with you: If you or someone you nominate will read and review Which Art In Hope at Amazon, I’ll read and review whatever it is you’re hawking. But you must tell me beforehand the name of the person who’ll be doing the review (among other things, so that I can email him a free copy of the ebook) and his review must be as good an effort as the ones I write: detailed and thoughtful, regardless of the star-rating. Otherwise, I’m not interested.

Francis W. Porretto
Liberty's Torch

     Would anyone care to put money on a positive response?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sex In Fiction, Especially Fantasy And Science Fiction

     I must be getting old. At least, I can’t imagine any other reason why it takes less with each passing day to light my boilers, spin my turbines, and send my pile critical. It can’t be the W-plus bosons; I swept for them yesterday.

     No, I think it must be my decreasing patience with persons obsessed with sex.

     Obsessions come in many varieties. A sexual obsession need not be about “not getting any.” This morning it’s a critic’s displeasure about fictional characters who are getting some. (With one another, of course.) It’s not the first time. But it’s got me wondering why such persons dare to read fiction in the speculative genres.

     I need more coffee if I’m to do this properly. Back in a minute.

     Regard, if you please, the panoply of Mankind across the millennia. Consider how widely our customs, especially our customs about mating and procreation, have varied. Consider in particular that many societies, including Jewish and Christian ones, have varied from what Jews and Christians of today mostly view as proper sexual conduct.

     Let me be maximally explicit about this. There have been Jewish and Christian societies that sanctified plural marriage. There have been Jewish and Christian societies that accepted sex between the entirely unmarried as no more than a peccadillo, provided that if any offspring were to result, the couple would then marry. There have even been Christian societies (I don’t know of any Jewish ones) that, while they regarded homosexuality as deeply unfortunate and life-limiting, did not execrate it as a terrible sin.

     And that’s just Terrestrial Judeo-Christian societies. They haven’t all embraced Saint Paul’s dictum that the only licit sex is between spouses in a monogamous marriage.

     But I intend to speak here of fiction and fictional settings. Fictional societies will have fictional norms and customs. A fictional Christian society cut off from its Terrestrial forebears, such as the one I depicted on Hope, is unlikely to share those forebears’ norms and customs in every detail. And needless to say, a fictional non-Christian society will have its own unique norms and customs, which will be influenced by whatever degree of religiosity applies to it.

     Yet persons unhappy about Louis and Christine’s passion, or about Althea, Martin, and Claire’s triad-marriage, continue to berate me, as if such a thing must never, ever be countenanced even in a far-future speculation. What sort of fiction do they read with total approbation? Do the characters in it ever stray from their prejudices? Do they ever use contraception? Do they ever just let their hair down and fuck?

     It seems unlikely.

     Allow me to provide two sidelights of significance. Just now I’m reading Tears of Paradox, a dystopian novel by Daniella Bova. The novel’s two Marquee Characters are afflicted by sexual tension they don’t even begin to resolve until they’ve married. Why? Because they’re Catholic: one much more serious about it than the other, at least through the first quarter of the book. That’s the premise. They behave in accordance with it, as is entirely consistent and proper for persons of those convictions.

     I have no problem with that. Why should I? Miss Bova has created characters with particular convictions. Each one’s behavior accords with the degree of allegiance he feels toward his faith and its teachings. That’s her prerogative as the story’s creator. I would no more dream of criticizing her for it than I would dream of demanding a slice of the Moon.

     Another series I’ve recently enjoyed – and very much, at that – is E. William Brown’s “Daniel Black” fantasy series, which I mentioned illustratively here. The sexual mores depicted in that series are far distant from what contemporary Jews or Christians (if at all doctrinally observant) would countenance. So what? It’s fantasy fiction about a world in which the Norse and Greek Pantheons are fighting a war of extermination against one another. How reasonable would it be to demand that Puritan sexual mores apply there?

     It would appear that for some readers, sex is an untouchable. A story that fails to accord with their prejudices in all details is simply unacceptable. I can’t imagine what they would read for pleasure...if pleasure of any sort is something their convictions would allow them.

     I could go on about this for pages. It’s part and parcel of one of my greatest disagreements with Christian doctrine. But this isn’t the proper time or place for that particular tirade.

     Sexual pleasure and sexual acceptance are among the great motivators of human existence. The great motivators are the things that provide events of substance to fiction. To exclude them reduces the writer’s toolset for drawing his characters into situations worth writing about.

     There was once a time when books would be banned from publication, here and elsewhere, for daring to include sex scenes. The most famous and important case of that sort was U.S. v Ulysses. There haven’t been many cases since then of comparable stature.

     Times have changed. Among other things, we’ve become somewhat more relaxed – dare I say, more realistic? – about sex, at least sex in fiction. At least, some of us have. However, readers who can’t bear to see their prejudices set aside for the sake of an involved story founded on unique premises still exist.

     I pity them.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Where The Books Are Headed

     “I’m only here for the weekend,” he said.
     “I’m dancing as fast as I can,” she replied.

     [Barbara Gordon]

     In the wake of this wholly undeserved praise from Mike Hendrix, enough readers – old and new – have been asking “where’s your fiction headed?” that I figured a brief post about the matter would be appropriate.

     With Statesman, the Realm Of Essences series has left the Earth. I’m afraid my fictional USA (and the rest of the world) are in for some rough sledding. There will be more stories involving characters from that series, but the principal “story arc” terminates with Sumner’s rescue and exile to the Arcologics Habitat.

     With Freedom’s Fury, the Spooner Federation series has left Hope in transition back toward States and their multifarious consequences. As the saying goes, “this will not end well,” at least for the planetside population. But Althea is unwilling to be ruled, and a bit less than willing to live out her indefinitely long life immured inside an airless rock. Further interstellar travel, in search of a new world to colonize, lies ahead for Althea, Martin, Claire, and of course Probe.

     A gratifying number of readers have asked whether there’s anything left to the tale told in Love In The Time Of Cinema. I’m of two minds about this. I love that little novel; I return to it simply for my own refreshment, embarrassingly often. However, just now I can’t find a way to evolve more stories from it. Not that I’m about to stop thinking about it! We shall see.

     The “stand-alone” novels, The Sledgehammer Concerto and Priestesses, occasionally evoke queries, but I’m content to leave them be, at least for the moment.

     Here’s what I have on the drawing board:

  • A novel founded on a “dark” version of the central motif in A Place Of Our Own and One Small Detail;
  • A novel that extends the stories told in The Warm Lands and The Common Good;
  • A novel set inside the timeline of Statesman that explores necromancy and why one might attempt it;
  • And a notional novel that would unite the timelines of the Realm Of Essences and Spooner Federation series with a set of “capping” events.

     As I’ve said before, I don’t write fiction with the ease or speed I enjoy with op-eds, so please bear with me while I sort it all out.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

F.A.C.E. Press Now Considering Submissions

     Are there any other Christian indie writers out there who’d like to have a publisher’s imprint on their books? Perhaps you should talk to the F.A.C.E.:

     Yes, that’s me behind the false nose, fake mustache, and dark glasses. But I don’t intend it to be a purely personal enterprise. It will give me a vehicle for assisting other indies with the several chores involved in preparing an eBook for publication.

     NOTE: The current Website is a “starter home.” It’s likely to be moved to a non-Blogger host at some point. Don’t let that inhibit you if you’ve got material you think is worthy and would like to submit. But do put your best foot forward. My standards are rather high, so don’t submit hastily dashed-off or un-proofread, unedited dreck.