Tag Archives: reading

Regret is the mind killer

I read this great post, “The Reading Police of the Young,” and found myself remembering the weirdly inconsistent way my reading habits were monitored when I was a kid.

For example, I remember longing to read my mom’s copy of Dune, the paperback sitting squeezed between a bunch of her Agathe Christies and Robert Heinleins. Mom had told me I wasn’t old enough after she finished it. When she realized I kept looking at the book–not reading it, not even opening it, just looking at the cover–she moved it to the small shelf in the bedroom, the one that had Dad’s books that I wasn’t allowed to read (mostly Matt Helm and James Bond books, whose sexual situations were considered pornographic back in the day, but are rather quaint and downright prudish when compared to modern prime time fare).

And so I wondered what forbidden topics were hidden within. When I finally did read it, some time in my teens, I was a bit disappointed. Not at the book, I found the story quite interesting. I was disappointed because there didn’t seem to be anything in it that should have been forbidden.

I mean, yes, it is clear that the Baron has a thing for pretty young men, but there is nothing about the way it is described that anyone could call erotic. And Herbert’s unconcealed homophobia, manifested primarily with the old cliche that the more gay a character is, the more evil they are, should have resonated quite nicely with Mom’s evangelical sensibilities.

Those evangelical sensibilities waxed and waned throughout my childhood. At one point she was encouraging me to read Asimov (both his fiction and nonfiction), Tolkein, LeGuin, and Bradbury. At another point we had the first book-burning incident–when under the influence of a new pastor, she decided that the astronomy books I’d checked out from the library were astrology books, and since astrology is the same as satanism, the books needed to be destroyed.

(I still occasionally have bad dreams that include a reenactment of my tearful explanation to the librarians about why I couldn’t bring the books back. When they called Mom to ask for the books, she harangued them for letting children check out satanic books. The library set up a special spot for my books from then on. I could check out books and read them in the library, but couldn’t take them home.)

The second book-burning had been Dad. Dad’s reasons weren’t overtly religious, my dad is the kind of atheist who is angry at god for not existing (think about that for a bit). No, he decided that I was getting bullied at school so much because I spent too much time “living in a fantasy world.” His book burning was worse because he forced me to pile up the books, pour the accellerant on, light the match, and watch it burn. With random slaps and punches because I was crying while doing it.

Then a year or so later, he bought me an encyclopedia set and told me that I was going to go to college and “make something of yourself” or else.

For the longest time I attributed those mixed messages to the ebb and flow of Dad’s alcoholism and abusive behavior. The worse Dad got, the more intense Mom’s fundamentalism got. When Dad appeared to be changing for the better, Mom loosened up and re-embraced her inner sci fi and comics fangirl.

Those were definitely major factors in the dysfunction in our family, but I wonder how much of the inconsistency was also due to their youth. My parents were both 16 years old when they married, then I was born 6 days before my dad’s 18th birthday. Current brain research indicates that the prefontal cortext (the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, foreseeing consequences, emotional modulation, et cetera) doesn’t fully develop until around the age of 25.

That couldn’t have helped.

While both of them were readers who believed in the value of education, I know both of them felt they hadn’t done as much with their own lives as they could have or ought to have. So while hope for their kids drove some of their decisions, regret played a very big role, as well. Regret drove them to push me to do better in school, which is a good goal. But regret also drove them to micromanage my behavior on all levels, which isn’t just impractical, but if they had been successful would have had the opposite of the desired effect.

We can’t learn how to do anything correctly without learning from our mistakes as well as our successes. That’s just as true for thinking and imagining as it is for basketball or playing the piano. And while there is value in studying what other people have done, it isn’t sufficient. You have to try, fail, and improve on your own. Avoiding someone else’s mistake is no guarantee you won’t make new mistakes. Trying to duplicate someone else’s success may help you find a good way to do something, but it should also lead you to new directions they couldn’t explore.

And when you are buried in your own frustrations and regrets, you’re least likely to possess the objectivitely required to identity just which if your own past actions were mistakes, and which weren’t.

Regret, in that case, becomes both the mind-killer and dream-destroyer. You can’t wallow in the regret. Face it, yes. Let it serve its purpose of motivating you to do better. But then, let go. And become the better you.

Told in flashback

One of my pet peeves as a reader is the story told in flashback. Admittedly, one of the reasons I dislike it is because, having been involved with several small press and fannish projects over the years, I’ve read, in an editorial capacity, a huge number of stories written by aspiring/beginning writers. And a beginner usually doesn’t understand how to use a flashback.

The most common problem with the told-in-flashback story is simply that there is no dramatic tension. In the opening scene we meet a character interacting with some other people. The dialogue is often a bit of clever banter. Something happens in the scene which causes the main character to mention something that happened to him a long time ago… and in the next scene we are in that long ago time, and we watch the stuff happen.

The reason there is no dramatic tension is because usually the plot of the flashback portion of the story seems to place the main character’s life in jeopardy—except the reader knows that the character isn’t in real danger because in the opening scene set far in the future the character is alive. These amateur told-in-flashback stories suffer from an additional problem. Most of them all fall into the same outline:

  • Opening scene in which protagonist gives the story’s ending away by saying something like, “This reminds me of the time I almost died because of an engineering mistake…”
  • Several scenes of story in which the character gets into trouble because of said mistake, nearly dies, then survives somehow.
  • Closing scene in which we return to the opening and the other characters say something along the lines of, “Wow! That’s some story. You almost died because of an engineering mistake.”

It took me years of reading those stories or complaining about those stories before I finally realized what was going on. What is the most common way people are taught to write either informative essays in school, or to make presentations in either school or business: 1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, 2. Explain it in detail, 3. Reinforce their memory by summarizing what you just told them.

When I reviewed such stories in an editorial process, I always advised the same thing: drop the opening scene! It’s unnecessary and gives away the ending. Start when the character actually gets into trouble and tell how he gets out of it. If you want to then flash forward to a a point long afterward to make an additional plot or character development point at the end, that’s fine, but don’t just rehash what the reader has just seen.

Which is not to say that there isn’t some value to be had in the story told in flashback. Particularly if you have a story in which it takes a while for the plot to develop (and that while is necessary, not simply a matter of the author rambling), a scene that grabs the reader’s attention, making them strongly want to know how the character(s) got in that situation, without giving anything away, can be a good opening. There are a couple of things you have to keep in mind even thing: the opening has to be quick—don’t spend a lot of time getting the reader involved in the framing sequence before you flashback, don’t give away anything.

I know I repeated the “don’t give away anything” part, but it is so important.

I’m watching a new TV show right now, mostly a typical modern police procedural with the soap opera-ish ongoing character plots. My main reason for watching it is because one character in the show is played by an actor I like a great deal. Only four or five episodes in, I’m already at the point where I’m putting up with the rest of the show just to see the actor I like doing his usual excellent job.

One of the things I’m putting up with is that not only is the entire series told in flashback, but each individual episode is also told in flashback. Each episode begins with another scene from the future period of the original flashback that introduces the incident about to be shown. Then each episode closes with another flashforward that ends with some sort of “shocking” revelation about the future of one of the other characters featured prominently in the episode.

So far, the individual opening scenes have always managed to either a) give away a plot point of the enclosed story of police solving a case, b) telegraphed in often laughably obvious ways the shocker we’re going to get in the closing scene, or c) both!

One reason they keep doing this is because the opening scene is always too long. Worse than that, they aren’t really all that interesting. The protagonist talks to someone while they walk from one place to another, generally.

If you think you need to tell a story in flashback, keep the future scene as short as you can. Make it intriguing, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to cleverly drop hints about what’s going to happen. For a story in flashback to work, the only thing that needs to be in the reader’s mind is a single variant on this question: how did this come to be?

Anything else gives things away, which makes the entire story a waste of the reader’s time.

It is a sin to waste the reader’s time.

Abyss gazing

It was 1986 and I was twenty-six years old, attending a regional science fiction convention with a bunch of my friends. One of the guests of honor was an author (we’ll call him Mr. C) that two of my friends were very fond of. I had read a couple of his short stories and thought they were good, but he hadn’t really wowed me.

But hearing Mr. C talk about the writing process, his influences, and so forth, made me much more intrigued. It didn’t hurt that when another panelist made a disparaging joke about my favorite science fiction author (who was not in attendance), Mr. C rather emphatically jumped to the defense of my favorite author.

After that panel, one of my friends commented that Mr. C’s takedown of the other panelist had been mean. It was true. Mr. C had ended the rebuttal with something along the lines, “…and it infuriates me when writers who don’t have a fraction of his understanding of how to write or a sliver of his talent make thoughtless critiques.” But, she had called my favorite author a fossil, I pointed out. Once one makes an ad hominem attack, you invite something similar in return. Since it was my favorite author being defended, I was more than a bit prejudiced.

So I wound up standing in line with one of my friends, clutching a pair of just-purchased books of Mr. C’s work, waiting for his autograph. That is the one and only time I have met Mr. C in person. He was pleasant enough, despite having had to smile, listen, and sign however hundreds of times.

After the convention, I tried to read one of the books. It was a collection of his short stories, which included the couple I had read before. They weren’t bad by any means, but after reading a few in a row, an unsatisfying feeling was developing. I sat the book down, not quite sure why I wasn’t enjoying the reading.

A few weeks later, I picked it up again and started on the next story. Again, the story itself was well written and interesting. I read another, then started on the next after that and, well, a few paragraphs in I realized that same feeling of wrongness was building up.

I did eventually finish the collection, but it took a few months, reading only a few stories at a time. And by the end I couldn’t really say that I’d enjoyed them all, but I also couldn’t put my finger on their shortcomings.

The other book was a novel. A novel for which he had won a lot of awards. It was based on one of the short stories in the previous collection. And the short story in question had been one of those I had enjoyed more than the others. Plus, I had friends who swore this book was a masterpiece. And it had garnered all those awards, so it had to be good, right?

I couldn’t finish it. I don’t think I’d even gotten a quarter of the way through before I found myself intensely disliking it.

I tried explaining what I didn’t like about it to one of my friends who loved it. As we were talking, I kept finding myself talking about abstract concepts, rather than actual events in the story. My friend said it sounded more like my baggage than the story. So I started explaining how a similar philosophical assumption underpinned one of the short stories. And that’s when I finally managed to connect the dots and say what was bothering me about all of the stories.

There was a fundamental notion forming the foundation of all the tales: if you don’t know your place and stay in it, horrible things will happen to you. A corrollary was that if you prevented someone else from achieving what was “rightfully” theirs, even more horrible things would happen to you.

When I articulated that, my friend began to argue. That wasn’t what was going on at all, he said. So then I made a guess at how the book I hadn’t finished would end. Specifically what would happen to certain characters.

My friend blinked. “How did you know?”

“Because, if you don’t know your place and stay there, forces, whether they be social, cultural, or fate, will strike you down. And if you stand in the way of someone else’s destiny—”

My friend grinned and interrupted. “Oh, wow! You’re right! That’s so messed up, because it’s like the opposite of what the main character says, but it’s really what happens!”

“Mr. C believes in hierarchical, patriarchic societies in which you behave according to societal expectations, and people who have the temerity to want to choose their own way of living are evil,” I said.

My friend shrugged and said, “You’re probably right. But I still love the stories.”

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Just a few years later, a controversy erupted in a forum dedicated to Mr C on the (now long defunct) Prodigy network. The controversy was about a protagonist in another of Mr. C’s novels who experimented with gay sex midway through the book. Some people were angry Mr. C had included an “abomination” as a sympathetic character. Others thought people who thought gay people were abominations were bigots.

As the arguments raged, Mr. C waded in with a rather long discussion about the sin of homosexuality, why he felt he had to include it in the book (his reasoning, as I recall, was that in any community where people amass power there will be people who must dominate, possess, and destroy others, and of course homosexuality is all about dominating and destroying each other), and then had the gall to claim that anyone who called him homophobic were themselves bigots. Because he didn’t hate any gay people. They were just sinners, and if they refused to repent and stop being gay, well, they would face consequences.

His comments were quoted far and wide. And he got angrier and angrier as people “mischaracterized” his comments. He repeated, again and again, that he didn’t hate gay people. He wound up writing (in 1990) a long essay and getting it published in a magazine that catered to the members of the church Mr. C had been raised in, in order to explain his side in context.

While the essay repeatedly said that he did not condone violence against sinful people, it talked about how just as children must be punished in order to learn right from wrong, then adults will face greater penalties when they continue to act outside the bounds of propriety. He talked abstractly about the “day of grief” that each homosexual would eventually experience if they did not repent. He talked about the horrible consequences homosexuals face if they refuse to adhere to propriety. But he was not advocating violence even then, he said. If the faithful, such as himself, had been compassionate but firm in condemning the sin, they would “keep ourselves unspotted by the blood of this generation.”

It’s an old lie that bigots of a religious persuasion tell themselves all the time. They don’t advocate or condone violence, it’s just that god’s law causes these things. And when it happens, they pretend that the people who did resort to violence never took all the words of condemnation as permission to commit violence.

Think about it: if it’s god’s will that homosexuals should experience a “day of grief”; if god’s law demands that “blood of this generation” must be shed, then the person who inflicts the violence is doing god’s will. They are a special tool of god!

Heck, it isn’t just permission to commit violence: it’s encouragement!

I had already guessed most of this about Mr. C before he began writing publicly about his reasons for opposing the decriminalization of gay sex and other topics back in 1990. And so I had already made my decision not to buy any more of his books. I didn’t post rants about him, nor try to organize boycotts of his work. If I was asked, I would say that I disagreed with what I perceived to be the underlying philosophy espoused by his work.

Once he did make his very public statements, I felt it was appropriate to go a step further and point out that Mr. C was a hypocrite and a bigot who advocated against the rights of myself and others. I would suggest that perhaps there were other writers whose works were more deserving of people’s money, but wouldn’t go further.

In the years since, he has continued to write and speak out against gay rights of all sorts, eventually becoming an officer for a large organization that says it is out to protect “traditional marriage.” They try to portray themselves as narrowly focused on marriage, but anyone paying attention to their rhetoric and some of the other causes they support, can see that they want to roll back the few rights gay people have won. He donates his own money to the cause, he has organized efforts that have raised millions of dollars for the cause. He has claimed victory for every anti-gay amendment, law, proposition, or initiative that has been passed in the last ten years.

He has, now, gone far beyond the point of simply stating his opinion and trying to persuade others to it. He has gone beyond that disingenuous tactic of saying he was opposed to violence while providing double-speak that actually encouraged it. He has helped spread distortions and outright lies about all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. His organization has refused to obey public disclosure laws regarding their election activities in several states. He continues to fight to prevent gays, lesbians, trans people, and bisexuals full equality before the law. He continues to put forward arguments to take away what rights have been extended.

So, for that reason, yes, I agree with the people who have been disappointed that DC Comics hired him to write a prominent new Superman series. Yes, I support the comic book shop owners who have said they will not sell comics written by him. I support the artist who decided not to illustrate his stories after learning of Mr C’s views and activities. I urge everyone I know not to buy things he writes, not to go see the movie that is being made of his most famous novel.

I re-iterate: this isn’t just about a difference of opinion regarding marriage equality. For over 20 years he has advocated for restoring laws that made it a crime for consenting adults to have gay sex in the privacy of their own homes, and against laws that protect people from being fired, evicted, or denied medical care just because they are gay. And he has done more than just advocate those things, he has taken action to make them happen. It is not hypocritical of us to advocate a voluntary boycott of his work, it is hypocritical of him and his apologists to decry a voluntary boycott while they are campaigning for laws that will take away jobs, housing, health care, and more from entire classes of people.

Orson Scott Card is a hypocrite and a bigot who uses distortions and outright lies to hurt innocent people. Those are the facts.

This time it’s (not so) personal

When I wrote about how people process history and, more specifically, how believable character motivation in fiction is when based upon distant historical events, a few people pointed to ethnic conflicts which have gone on for generations as a counterexample. I had almost talked about that in the original post, but decided that might be one digression too many.

It’s certainly true that such conflicts have raged on for many generations, sometimes spanning centuries. The key here, I think, is that word “spanning.” People aren’t just holding a grudge about the injustice visited upon an ancestor 11 centuries ago, they are holding a grudge about indignities and atrocities they have witnessed themselves (or experienced the aftereffects of themselves), which they perceive to be a continuation of hundreds of other injustices going all of the way back to that original one.

For instance, a young man may grow up hearing tales from a very young age about how his father was killed by those evil Freedonians when he was just a babe, just as a couple of uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles, and so on where unjustly arrested, or tortured, or raped, or killed previously. The Freedonians have always hated the Sylvanians, he is told. Since he is a Sylvanian, they must hate him, too. Everything bad that happens to him in his life, he blames on the Freedonians, either directly because a Freedonian is present, or indirectly because he believes his hardships would be fewer if they hadn’t taken his father from him.

The historical narrative of the many past conflicts between Freedonia and Sylvania provide a context to his personal frustrations and disappointments. Tales of particularly egregious atrocities from the past serve as a rationalization for any actions against Freedonians he takes. Or excuses for any atrocities that others may point out Sylvania inflicted upon Freedonia.

There is also a sort of compound-interest effect. The young man was raised by people who had internalized their own victimization until it metastasized. People brimming over with hatred are not very good at nurturing. The more generations in a row this happens, the less likely each new generation is going to be to empathize with people they perceive as “other.”

The problem is that anyone who has not been raised in the same culture, has not witnessed similar injustices, has not experienced first hand the animosity between the two groups, has a very hard time understanding what the fuss is all about. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read or heard someone ask about troubles in the Middle East, or Subsaharan Africa, or Eastern Europe, “Why can’t they just come to a reasonable settlement?”

Which gets us back to the author’s difficulty.

In order to make a reader care as much about the injustices inflicted by the Freedonians as your Sylvanian protagonist, you have to put the reader in your protagonist’s shoes. It’s not enough to have one of your characters lecture another, “As you know, Bob, the Freedonians are a merciless, hateful people.” You have to show them being merciless. You have to show your protagonist suffering at their hands.

That requires telling the story of how these sorts of age-old hatred are perpetuated because they are renewed again and again with each new generation. Even then, most readers are going to see all those past actions as abstractions. They may sympathize with your protagonist, but they’ll also wonder why he can’t see how odd it is to hold a person living now responsible for actions that took place hundreds of years before that person was born.

Which is a good question to raise. There’s a lot of good drama you can wring out of that sort of situation. If that’s the kind of story you want to tell, go for it! But that means going all in. No half-measures. No long expository dump where one character lectures another about the 1200 year history of mutual failed (but not for lack of trying) genocide between Freedonia and Sylvania.

Show it, don’t tell it.

Nothing wrong with history

When I wrote about the problematic way some fantasy authors treat time, I alluded to some historic events from 1100 years ago in the real world in order to make my point. Since one of the points I was making was that events hundreds or thousands of years in the past are poor choices for motivating your characters, my allusion might appear to be a contradiction.

But there’s a difference between using history and misusing it.

In the previous post, while I alluded to historical events, I tried to do so in such a way that a reader who knew nothing about the events would still get the point. I happen to be one of those people who is interested in history, so I knew a little bit about Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, who happens to be an ancestor of the current English Royal Family. So I could make the allusion.

Whether you are writing epic fantasy, far future science fiction, or even contemporary fiction, some of your characters will know a lot about the history of their world. But a lot of them won’t. And even the ones who do, aren’t likely to make day-to-day decisions based on that distant historical data.

In the fantasy novel I’m currently working on, for instance, some plot points hinge on something which happened 70 years prior to the current date. At that time, a supernatural creature bent on conquest was thwarted. The creature is trying again, but most of the characters in the current plot don’t know about those past events. For instance, one of the main characters begins the story being accused of murdering someone just a few days before the novel begins. His motivation is to find out who actually killed the other guy and why. And since the victim was his former mentor, he’s probably going to want to exact some revenge when he finds them. As the plot unfolds, as he learns why the victim was killed, he becomes aware of those events 70 years prior, but when he resolves his plot at the end of the story, his motivation will be avenging his friend and clearing his own name.

Because it is a fantasy novel (I usually describe it as a light fantasy in an epic fantasy wrapper), some of the characters are longer-lived than a typical human. One of the other main characters is old enough that she was actually involved in the events 70 years ago. She provides most of the link to those events for the reader. But even so, her motivation in this story is to try to recover a holy relic which has recently been stolen, and figure out whether an old friend who has been implicated is responsible or not.

There are a few other characters who are aware of the events either because they are history buffs or, like the one mentioned above, they are old enough to have experienced them. Those include a couple of supernatural beings who are also aware of somewhat related events going back much further in time. Most of those things are never going to be mentioned in the story. The few that are, will be mentioned in passing to provide a bit of verisimilitude. Or to set up a joke (it is a light fantasy, so humor drives a lot of my decisions as the author).

As the author, I have to be aware of the history of the characters in order to write them. But sometimes that awareness is in broad outline. The Mother of All Dragons, who is a peripheral character in this novel, obviously is extremely old and has a memory spanning back millennia. I haven’t written down an extended timeline of her life spanning all those centuries. There are a few key events in her life that I have nailed down, but the rest is left open. In part, because the more time I spend figuring that out and writing it down, the less time I spend telling the story I want to tell. I don’t need all the rest of that detail for this story.

And the needs of the story must trump everything else.

Many tasks facing a storyteller are similar to tightrope walking: one must strike a balance while moving forward. While it’s perfectly true to tell someone attempting to walk across a tightrope of the dangers of leaning too far to the left, that does not mean there is no danger in leaning too far the other way.

Time doesn’t work that way

Last year I bought an audiobook based on the recommendation of an acquaintance, along with several favorable reviews. The opening chapter was a bit heavy on the description for my taste—I don’t need to know the precise color, width, and material composition of every article of clothing on every character with a speaking role in order to follow the plot, for instance.

But when the author finally stopped describing the characters and let them interact, the dialog was good and the characters engaging.

Around about chapter four the author fell into the trap of many epic fantasy-type tales by having the older, experienced character give a long lecture about the history of the world to the younger, inexperienced character. This is a trap because the world background is seldom as interesting as the authors who do this sort of thing think. Also, a surprising amount of information can be conveyed about the setting of the world in little tidbits sprinkled through the dialog over many scenes. Just have a character mention imperial troops at the border, for example, and the reader will fill in a lot of the gaps accurately enough for the purposes of most plots.

Unfortunately, the lecture then took a terrible turn. “It all seemed settled, but the peace was short-lived, because 400 years later…”

And I hit the stop button right there. When I got home, I deleted the book from my iPhone. I will never recommend this author to anyone, and if anyone asks about her books, I will warn them away.

Why? Because time doesn’t work that way. It had already been established before this chapter that the middle-aged human character was considered almost an old man in this medieval-style settings. Which is entirely in keeping with the realities of that sort of technological level. Therefore, a span of 400 years is approximately 20 generations. No one considers a peace which survives for 20 generations as “short-lived.” Particularly not in largely illiterate societies where the vast majority of people get all of their historical data by word of mouth.

It’s a mistake that writers—particularly writers dabbling in science fiction or fantasy for the first time–make all the time. Starship crew stranded on a habitable planet, is discoved centuries later, and the great-great-great granddaughter of the original ship’s captain is the leader of the community. Not only that, she still knows the passcodes for the computer in the part of the original ship still orbiting. Even more important, she’s similar enough that the computer responds to her voice commands, mistaking her for her ancestor!

Or the rival prince plots the destruction of a neighboring kingdom because an ancestor was betrayed by the other king’s ancestor 1000 years ago.

Really? Do you know who your great-great-great grandfathers were, let alone what any of them did for a living, or where they hid their valuables?

Now, I realize for the more successful royal families, at least some of one’s ancestors are known going back scarily long times. Queen Elizabeth II, for instance, knows her line of descent from Alfred the Great in the Ninth Century. But that sort of thing is the exception, rather than the rule. And even in that exceptional situation, if Her Majesty has any feelings toward Denmark, it is very unlikely that the wars fought over 1100 years ago between Alfred the Great, King of Wessex and Guthrum, King of the Dans, loom as large in those feelings as events that have happened in her own lifetime.

Epic fantasy gets its name from the tradition of Greek poetic tales outlining the grand sweep of the history of a nation or many nations. So I understand where the impulse to plot that sort mythic chronicle comes from. But even Homer’s Iliad, despite covering vast aspects of the Trojan War, remains focused throughout on the anger of Achilles and why it is directed at Agamemnon. The poem alludes to (and sometimes goes into detail about) historical and legendary events that led many of the supporting cast to the situation, but the story itself is about just a few weeks at the end of a war.

And at least the epic Greek poets had the excuse of having gods taking active roles in the action, so that beings whose memories span the centuries of history behind the events are actually walking around, talking to the other characters. If your characters are all ordinary humans living ordinary lifespans, history is going to be more of an abstraction. Zeus can hold a grudge for centuries, but John the Farmer will be motivated by events within his personal experience and memory.

And that’s the sort of motivation you can make your readers care about.


Not all reasons are reasonable

Several years ago I was browsing in a bookstore.

Now that I think of it, a lot more of my personal anecdotes probably ought to begin with that line than usually do. But I digress…

I picked up a paperback that had an interesting title. The back cover description gave the impression that the book was a parody of noir detective novels such as The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, but with demons and faeries and werewolves and the like. I’ve been a fan of both science fiction/fantasy and detective stories for longer than I can remember, so this could be right up my alley.

Except, as I said, the description made it seem like a parody. Sometimes parodies are great. Sometimes they are just mediocre. And sometimes they are nothing more than mean-spirited dreck.

The back cover also had a photograph of the author. And the photograph was not encouraging. Everything about the stern-faced man’s pose, expression, and even hairstyle typified a kind of fan or writer I had met far too many times throughout my years in the fandom. They espoused a philosophy of social darwinism that holds most of the human race in contempt. Their idea of humor always involves belittling others while drawing attention to their own superior command of vocabulary, or (alleged) facts, or logic.

The only thing I enjoyed less than having conversations with them was reading anything they wrote. So I was quite certain this guy’s idea of a parody would be all about the mockery, with a healthy slathering of self-importance and self-congratulation at his clever turns of phrases.

The very brief author bio included beside the photo mentioned martial arts.

Every one of those aforementioned unpleasant fans who had been martial arts enthusiasts had been misogynist homophobes who were constantly explaining to people that they weren’t racist, but…

I put the book back on the shelf.

Several years later, through a series of coincidences including recommendations from friends who were the opposite of the kind of person I had inferred the author to be, I found myself downloading some sample chapters of the audiobook version of the first book in the series.

I enjoyed the sample. I found the main character very engaging and I wanted to know how the story ended.

So I bought the entire audiobook and listened to it. It was nothing like I expected the book to be, based on my reading of that back cover.

I was still buying books from the Science Fiction Book Club at the time, and they had some omnibus editions collecting the first seven books in the series into a few volumes, so I bought those. They arrived about a month or so before I was laid off at my previous place of employment.

One day, between contracting gigs, I started reading the first book—a few very short days later I had read all seven that I owned. I couldn’t put them down.

I needed to get more.

Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the author in person, even spoke to him very briefly in an autograph line. I spoke with his wife for a teensy bit longer. Between reading his books and short stories, reading some of his commentary, hearing him talk about his life and writing, and seeing him interact with his wife, it’s clear that my assessment was completely wrong. For one thing, those douchebags I had incorrectly lumped him with would never, even with a gun pointed at their head, willingly hold hands with their wife in public—let alone do a sneaky-pinky lock with a sidelong glance and a wink while being interviewed on stage

Which shouldn’t be surprising. I had based my assessment on a photograph and a single phrase in the author bio. The stories aren’t parodies, either. So that description from the back of the paperback was just misleading. As many are.

I could laugh the whole thing off as a very amusing case of forgetting the adage about judging books by their covers. But it isn’t that simple.

The assessment came out of personal experience. I can’t count the number of guys I’ve met—mostly in fannish circles, but not exclusively—who shared that particular combination of beliefs and attitudes. In person, the attitude usually manifests fairly quickly. And they usually just as quickly place me into one of the categories of people they hold in contempt. Of course, since they seem to hold most people in contempt, that isn’t surprising.

They aren’t just unpleasant to be around. Whether they are active in politics or not, they spend a lot of their time trying to convince people of the validity of those social darwinist ideas I mentioned above. That means they advocate policies that threaten me and people I love (not to mention society as a whole). So I have really good motivation to identify people with those attitudes, if for no other reason than to minimize the amount of time I have to spend with them.

We make decision like that every day, without even thinking. While walking down the street, or up a grocery aisle, standing in line at the bank, or selecting a seat on a bus, we assess people on a variety of superficial characteristics, then act accordingly. That gut reaction, that ability to put together a bunch of nonverbal cues to identify people we should be cautious around is a valuable survival trait.

But, having spent my entire life fighting for respect and acceptance in a world that rejects gay men (or any one who doesn’t confirm to certain gender expectations), I understand the dangers of misjudging people.

The reasons behind our gut reactions aren’t logical; they don’t conform to the rules of deductive reasoning. That doesn’t mean they are always wrong. Even if they did conform to the tenets of logic and rational analysis, they wouldn’t always be right, either.

The best we can do is keep as close an eye on ourselves as we do strangers we meet throughout our life. When we recognize a mistake, we can correct it, and learn to be a bit less hasty in the future. And when we’re right, we can feel a little less guilty about the times we weren’t.

Head spaces, part 2

There’s a particular TV show that I like, but don’t watch often. There are certain lazy tendencies in the writing that rub me the wrong way, such as treating technology as magic whenever convenient for the plot. There are other aspects of the show I really enjoy, so I tend to let episodes accumulate on the TiVo, saving them for times when I’m in the mood for some mindless action and adventure.

There’s another show which also uses technology in improbable and impossible ways that I watch faithfully each time a new episode comes out. One of the diffences between the shows is that the second one states its premise upfront, and then tries to stay consistent with that. Yes, what they’re doing is impossible, but it’s the same impossible everytime, and the stories revolve around the question of how people might behave if computers happened to work this way. The first show just plays fast and loose without any thought about whether they’re contradicting something they did in a previous episode.

Neither show is packaged as science fiction. The first one definitely isn’t sci fi. It’s a cop/action show whose writers don’t understand or care about what computers and crime labs really can do and what they can’t.

I have seen discussions on science fictions forums where some fans have objected to the inclusion of the second in a list of sci fi shows currently airing, primarily because the show doesn’t claim to be set in the future, and acts as if all the things they’re doing are possible with our current technology. But the show postulates the existence of a computer that can do things currently impossible, and then it explores what might happen if that were so. That’s the epitome of science fiction.

I can only enjoy the first show if I’m in the right head space. I have to be in the kind of mood where I can give my inner critics the night off, kick back, and just watch a group of interesting characters run from one dangerous situation to another. I have to be in a “I don’t care if it’s wrong” head space.

The second show puts me into its head space. Regardless of whether this is wrong, what might things be like if it were?

That’s not just good science fiction. That’s good fiction. The goal of a story teller should be to draw people into the story. Make this imaginary situation or world so enticing that the reader has to step inside to see what it’s like.

The other kind of story is like mass produced snack food. If it’s there where we happen to be and when we’re hungry (or bored or at least not feeling too full to eat), we’ll pick it up and munch away. But later we may not even remember what it was we ate.

The other kind doesn’t just pull us away from whatever we were doing to check it out, but it leaves us thinking afterward. Like an extremely good meal, we want to linger in the head space of the story after it’s ended.

And that’s the best kind of head space.

Swan (songs) a swimming

Beginnings in fiction are very important. If you don’t grab the reader’s attention and engage his/her curiosity at the beginning, they’ll never read the rest of your story. It’s no surprise, then, that numerous books, courses, seminars, and panels on how to write spend a lot of time on beginnings. They also spend time discussing how to develop and advance a plot, how do to characterization, and so forth. But I’ve always felt that endings get short shrift.

Knowing the right place to stop is deceptively harder than it looks. The ending needs to resolve the conflicts (both external and internal) which drove the plot. The ending needs to leave the reader with a sense of closure. Or, if not exactly closure, some indication of where things are headed for the characters the reader has spent the entire story bonding with.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I’m working on (what I hope is) the last round of edits on a novel. A couple of my advance-readers have commented that the final chapter is a little long. The climax and crisis action happens before the final chapter in a big dramatic fight, and then I have the final chapter to wrap everything up. In literary circles they call this the denouement: the unraveling of complications, the final resolution of the story.

This is one of the places where my tendency to write stories with lots of characters makes my job harder. The reader has spent a lot of time with many of these characters, and understandably wants to know at least a bit about how each has been affected by the events at the climax. Also, there are one or two running gags in the story which it was inappropriate to resolve during the battle. Those each have to have a pay-off (and judging by the writers’ group reaction when I read the first draft of the final chapter, those work). I don’t want to skip any character that had significant appearances, because each character, no matter how strange, will be the favorite of some readers.

I’m not saying that one needs to perform “fan service.” But, as a writer of a novel-length tale, I’ve asked the reader to come along for all the ups and downs of these characters. If I don’t finish the tale for each, I’ve wasted some of the reader’s time. As a storyteller I’m not obliged to give the reader what they want, but I am obliged to tell the best story I can.

Fortunately, a lot of the characters can appear in denouement scenes together, so the reader can see them one last time and see how they are.

I’ve also been thinking about this a lot lately because two different television series I’ve watched and enjoyed for a number of years are coming to their conclusions. In each case, the creators of the show have been given an opportunity to end things on their own terms. They knew in advance that this was the end, with plenty of time to write the ending they want.

A lot of writers (not just TV writers) don’t get the chance. While it is frustrating for a fan when that happens, trust me, it’s even more frustrating for the writer.

I wish them luck in their endings. As a fan I hope I get something that feels fitting, with maybe a surprise or two.

And as a writer struggling with an ending of my own, I really hope I don’t blow it!

The trouble with required reading

A friend was complaining about how off-putting the list of required reading was for her son returning to school, and I empathized. Then several more people mentioned the same topic on Facebook, and I thought, “Well it’s the beginning of the school year, so everyone is seeing their kids’ list and remembering their own experiences back in the day.”

Then Cracked.com had an article about the ways high school destroys the reading enthusiasm of many kids, and I wondered if a new school year was the only explanation. Continue reading The trouble with required reading