My Fiction Site

In the right sidebar are clickable images of the covers of my novels, which will take you to their Amazon listings. Other posts will link to available free works – mostly shorter ones – and assorted thoughts on the writing of fiction.

Wednesday, 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.