Friday, November 30, 2012

On Writerly Self-Discovery

People spout a lot of claptrap about “knowing yourself.” I shan’t dispute the value of such knowledge, but I do wonder at the number of would-be advisors that have nothing to say about how to go about acquiring it.

For me, the writing of fiction has provided the greatest self-education of my sixty years. It’s taught me an enormous amount about myself. Most important, it’s helped me to discover and acknowledge my own values.

Fictioneering obviously isn’t for everyone. However, as the readers of Musings aren’t everyone, I find myself wondering: What have your adventures in fiction taught each of you about yourself?

  • Has it made you aware of your true priorities?
  • Has it helped you to admit to (not accept) your personal shortcomings?
  • Has it guided you in the pursuit of those ends most important to you?

    This is the sort of highly personal subject it’s all too easy to belabor, so I shall refrain from doing so, after a single additional observation:

    No matter what else I’ve achieved on a given day, if I haven’t done any fiction writing – even a mere five or six hundred words – the day feels wasted.

    I never felt that way before I undertook this avocation. That might seem obvious to you, Gentle Reader, but to me it indicates that all unknowing, I’d experienced a massive change in priorities: the sort of tectonic shift that creates new continents to roam and new goals to pursue.

    Does anyone else out there feel the same?

    Sunday, November 25, 2012

    Whither Religious Fiction?

    Perhaps that should be Christian fiction, as that’s the only kind I write, but I’m reasonably sure the qualms I’m entertaining would apply with equal force to Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, or any other religiously oriented fiction.

    Major problem: Most religious fiction is bad. Unbearably so.

    Implied question: Why?

    Answer excluded from consideration: Because the authors are inept.

    I’ve suffered through quite a lot of religious fiction. I’ve often asked myself whether I considered it penance for my own presumption in writing it. 90% of it (if not more) is genuinely awful, execrable, impossible for an intelligent reader to tolerate. Yet it’s not festooned with spelling errors or syntactic faults. The writers mostly obey the “macro” rules, such as those pertinent to management of viewpoint and consistency over story time. Most of the time, they choose reasonably dramatic conflicts around which to shape their plots. Nevertheless, rarer than rubies is the religiously-themed novel that genuinely entertains—that leaves the reader feeling that he hasn’t wasted his time or money.

    My sense for the thing is that the authors are, in the main, too determined to press their religious messages on their readers. They’re preaching at the expense of entertainment. But few readers of fiction are there to be catechized. They’re there to be entertained; religious edification is a distant second, if indeed it’s among their desires at all.

    I could be wrong about that. Most of the Christian fiction I’ve encountered was written and published by Baptists. They’re among the more evangelical Christian sects. They have few inhibitions about dragging you into the revival tent. Perhaps I’d find Catholic religious fiction less aggressively polemic. However, there’s a lot less of it—and what I’ve found has been less than impressive.

    The overwhelming majority of Christian fiction writers display more than adequate technical “chops.” If they could somehow “gentle” their religious messages—transform them into subtext—the result would be must more appealing. But that raises the question of why those writers choose to write religious fiction in the first place, which for an onlooker—even one who is himself a writer of religious fiction—is unanswerable.

    I know personally only two other writers of sincere Christian convictions. One is unreadably in-your-face; the other is one of the most entertaining—and popular—writers of science fiction practicing today. The latter gentleman handles religious themes with great delicacy; he’s almost entirely indirect about them. Indeed, I dare say that virtually no one would characterize his books as religious fiction. Yet the message is always there, and when you grasp it, you have that supremely precious feeling of having attained an important illumination entirely on your own. There’s a lesson there, and one that I strive not to misplace when I need it most.

    I’ve recently enjoyed works by one other writer who works religious motifs into her fiction: Julie Cochrane, whose books Cally’s War, Sister Time, and Honor Of The Clan—all co-authored with SF titan John Ringo—have impressed me greatly for several reasons, notably the delicacy with which she handles those motifs. So perhaps there are more such writers out there, and I have yet to stumble over them.

    I look forward to the encounters.

    Sunday, November 18, 2012

    Race And Ethnicity In Fiction

    In our oh-so-politically-correct era, it's a rare thing to tune the Idiot Box to a crime drama, watch the grisly mess all the way to the end, and discover that the villain is -- gasp! -- a Negro. Negroes are a "protected minority." Terribly fragile of psyche, don't y'know. Prone to rioting when they feel they've been "dissed." Merely putting a store in a majority-black neighborhood has cost a few Koreans their lives, to say nothing of their livelihoods, courtesy of that prominent apostle of nonviolence Al Sharpton. As for the Rodney King episode, we should be grateful that Los Angeles came out of that still standing. So there's this reluctance for a writer of any prominence to "color" his bad guys in the darker hues.

    Rarer still is the perpetrator of any heinous deed allowed to be a person of Middle Eastern heritage. Indeed, when Tom Clancy's blockbuster novel The Sum Of All Fears was made into a movie, the producers shied back from using the plot as Clancy wrote it. Clancy made the bad guys Muslims! We can't have that. The poor dears might be offended...and you know what Muslims do when they feel offended. More, I learned recently that in remaking the Cold War classic Red Dawn, the producers wobbled back and forth between Iran and North Korea as the villains, and finally chose the Norks as "safer." Safer for what? I hear you cry. Well, given that Robert Spencer and Geert Wilders are accompanied by armed guards wherever they go, I'd say the question answers itself.

    From the behavior of the above and the results it's garnered, the other races and ethnicities of Mankind have learned that if you howl loudly enough and threaten credibly enough, you can...persuade most writers and filmmakers to exclude your group from the candidate pool for villainy. Some call it prudence; others, pusillanimity. But either way, few artists buck the trend.

    For my part, I ignore it. Fifty percent of the violent crimes and crimes against property committed in these United States are perpetrated by young male Negroes. Worldwide, essentially all acts of terrorism and hate crimes committed for religious or ethnic reasons are committed by Muslims of Middle Eastern origin. I feel no reluctance to portray my villains as Negroes or Muslims, and I will continue to do so when it strikes me as appropriate. I've been counseled against it as "unfair," "unkind," "not politically correct," and outright hazardous. I've shrugged the advice off.

    We've known for ages that the way to detoxify a stereotype applied to you and yours is to embrace it and caricature it. Make it into a source of laughter; to laugh at oneself is always endearing. Of course, that only works if the stereotype is erroneous. If it's accurate -- a reflection of the realities around us -- there's nothing you can do about it but reform yourself and police your fellows so they won't bring further shame upon your group.

    The virtue of frankly acknowledging racial and ethnic reality even in fiction is that over time, readers would cease to be troubled by it...and the previously protected groups would cease to believe they can prevent it. Fiction has often had a clarifying effect on men's attitudes and beliefs. Consider the polemic potency of C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy and Narnia series, or the widespread effect Atlas Shrugged had in opening readers' minds to the perniciousness of a government-controlled economy. Realism about the distribution of crimes and terrorist acts among the races and ethnicities of Man would be just as clarifying.

    I like clarity. Quite a lot, in fact.

    The final segment of Chosen One features two explicitly black characters: a protagonist and a villainess. A test reader gigged me for it -- "not politically correct," he said -- and I resolved to ignore him. Verisimilitude would not have been served nearly as well had Angela and June been white. If my readers had qualms about it, none of them have written to say so.

    When I sat down to write On Broken Wings, among my first needs was to visualize each of my Marquee and Supporting Cast characters. Two of the villains -- the brothers Raymond and Ernest Lawrence -- I visualized as Negroes -- and big, hulking Negroes, at that. I never stated their race explicitly in the text of the book, nor in the sequel Shadow Of A Sword. Nevertheless, I allowed them to manifest virtually all of the tags and verbal motifs of the American Negro, subcategory Practicing Thug. I'd be surprised if as many as ten percent of the novel's readers failed to visualize them as black. Visualizing and characterizing them as such helped me greatly in putting them through their paces in those books.

    Two of my stories of polymath technologist Todd Iverson and two others featuring President Stephen Graham Sumner have featured Muslim villains. I have received death threats for them, but I'm still here. Of course, it probably helps that I'm heavily armed at all times, but still...

    It really doesn't take much courage. Call it my little contribution toward diversity in fiction if you like.

    Wednesday, November 14, 2012

    Offstage Doings

    Not everything that happens in the course of even the most meticulously detailed story has to happen "onstage:" that is, in view of a viewpoint character who’ll take note of it in a fashion the reader will hear about as it happens. "Offstage" events -- events that occur outside the narrative stream and are referred to only in passing during a narrative thread -- are often quite important and can be given quite a lot of punch by the proper handling.

    I tried this out in On Broken Wings and was pleasantly surprised by how well it came off:

        Five large motorcycles in a tight one-two-two formation roared eastward on the New York State Thruway, cutting through the chill air of the mid-March afternoon at seventy-five miles per hour. All five riders were young. All were tall, broad-shouldered, and well built. All wore jackets of thick black leather, each of which had a cloth depiction of a bloody cleaver pop-riveted to its back. All the other traffic they encountered on that great highway moved aside to let them pass.

        In theory, they weren't going anywhere in particular. They'd wandered the Northeast for six months. They were supposed to be looking for a place to make their home base. They were half-afraid they'd find one. Wandering suited them; it was part of why they were together.

        Pete Gottfried and Al Marshall rode at the back of the convoy. They were both twenty-nine, and had already lived the road life for more than a decade. To be in motion was the sum of their desires. To be at rest was a torture beyond anything else they knew. Wherever the leader pointed, they would go. Whatever he commanded, they would do.

        Mac Swanson and Carl DeShaies were in the middle. For them, the road life was both means and end. Twenty-six year old Mac was wanted in his home state of Montana for a murder he'd committed in the course of a convenience store holdup. Twenty-seven year old Carl was notorious among the citizens of Orem, Utah for his ways with their little girls. They had met in flight, had crossed the country seeking a haven, and had pledged their allegiance to Tiny and his Butcher clan together more than six years ago.

        Rusty McGill rode alone, about fifty feet ahead of his diminutive pack, his shoulder-length red-brown hair whipping in the wind. At twenty-five he was the youngest of the group, but he was the undisputed leader. Since they first bonded, he'd become the least talkative as well.

    The "diminutive pack" Rusty leads formed offstage, in consequence of a schism within the Butchers, the larger pack of which the five had once been a part. I couldn't see a reason to narrate the process by which Pete, Al, Mac and Carl decided to throw their lots in with Rusty, so I skipped from the schism straight to this point in the story. The ongoing narrative struck me as tighter and better paced that way.

    In Shadow Of A Sword, I did it again:

        Sumner rose from his chair as Christine entered. “Are we ready, Chris?”

        I’m not sure I like the look on her face.

        She closed the door of the waiting room soundlessly behind her. “Maybe. should brace yourself. It’s quite a crowd.”

        “Bigger than LA?”

        “A lot bigger.” She hefted her new, ultra-ruggedized laptop. “I’m not certain about the crowd control. They’re pressing the forward barricades pretty hard.”

        Only a security type would fret over a huge crowd at a campaign stop. Well, that’s why I have her.

        “Well, are you ready?” She nodded, and he indicated the laptop. “Why are you bringing that?”

        Without apparent thought she said, “The case will stop a bullet,” opened the door and gestured him through.

    There was an earlier exchange in which Sumner and Christine discussed getting her a laptop, but needless to say, showing two adults shopping for a computer, even a slightly exotic computer with a hardened steel case, wouldn't hold the typical reader's interest. So I skipped it. What I discovered by handling the exchange that way was that I could use it to sharpen the reader's perception of Christine. She's toting her new computer along because it might come in handy in saving her client's life. She's ready to use it that way, regardless of the damage it might incur from such an event. Thus, her offhand statement to Sumner became an element in her characterization: an amplification of how thoroughly she relates everything around her to her primary duty of protection.

    In a way, this is about the importance of making sharp, confident transitions between scenes that are separated in space or time. Lawrence Block calls them "fast cuts," and emphasizes how they serve the reader's sense of the narrative's pacing and urgency. But even the fastest cut will omit the events that occur within the omitted interval. If those events are at all important to the story, you can allude to them in a subtle fashion without fearing that your reader will cry foul. If they can be employed in some other way, as for example in the scene from Shadow Of A Sword cited above, why not?

    You don't have to depict or explain everything in terrifying detail. If your reader is well matched to your story, he'll invest enough imaginative energy in it to fill in what you've left out. Trust him!

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012

    Unpopular Ideas

    In 1957, when Signet published Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, the ideas it championed were massively unpopular. They weren't (and aren't) new ideas -- the Founding Fathers of this nation embedded them deep in our political structure -- but they'd been the targets of a propaganda campaign designed to render them unacceptable to most Americans., Reviewers and critics pounced on the book immediately, awarding it their most thunderous denunciations. That Rand's novel immediately became one of Signet's top selling titles confounded its detractors and bemused many who'd wondered how a polemic so at odds with the received wisdom could flourish to such a degree.

    In 1943, when Clive Staples Lewis published That Hideous Strength, he faced a similar set of opponents. Despite the author's stature as a Christian evangelist and the popularity of his children's works, the forces of the literary world immediately leagued against him. He'd dared to attack far too many of the political ideas au courant to be tolerated -- and in a story firmly attached to Britain's most beloved bit of mythopoetic quasi-history -- the Arthurian legend -- as well. But those opponents, too, were confronted and cast down by the novel's popular success.

    Mind you, others had been trying to reintroduce Rand's and Lewis's ideas into popular thought for some time. They simply hadn't been writing fiction about them. They were stunned by the extent to which those fictional treatments succeeded in the marketplace.

    Yet another demonstration of the power of story.

    * * *

    A well-conceived, well-written story persuades more effectively than a non-fictional polemic for a simple reason: it mimics real life. It depicts ideas in action among plausible characters in a plausible setting. He who seeks to popularize an idea should be aware of this. Apparently, many are not.

    Of course, for this approach to work, certain prerequisites must be met:

    • The polemicist must have the storyteller's gift;
    • The ideas he seeks to depict must be essentially correct;
    • He must embed those ideas within a setting and a plot that the reader will find plausible;
    • He must give their enactment to characters whose personalities, trials, and responses the reader will find simpatico.

      So, clearly, it's not an automatic "win" to present your unpopular ideas in fictional form. Indeed, there's quite a bit of work involved.

      Several of the ideas I cherish are rather unpopular, at least at this time. It's brought me great satisfaction, having expressed them in fictional form, to have garnered a few more adherents to them. I know I'll never be as effective as Rand and Lewis were. All the same, I've resolved to "do my bit" for concepts that have been getting the dirty end of the stick for decades, but which I regard as supremely important to human happiness. It's a variety of pleasure many persons never experience.

      There's this, as well: Hewing to the received wisdom makes you merely one voice among a multitude. You might succeed in vending entertainment -- and don't get me wrong, I'd never knock that ambition or its fulfillment -- but you're certainly not going to stand out philosophically. To separate yourself from the thundering herd, you must dare to differ -- and the more fundamental your differences from the rest, the more dramatic the contrast you'll make with them.

      Got an unpopular idea?

      * * *

      As I've said before in these essays, I write them mainly as letters to myself: stimuli by which to shape my thinking about my own fictional efforts. All the same, I hope that you, Gentle Reader, find them worthy of consideration in your own storytelling -- and please remember that storytelling is not confined to words placed on paper or pixels to be vended as entertainment. Anyone who must navigate human society, striving to make a living, to get along with family, friends, or neighbors, or to rear children to be decent adults must be a storyteller. The better he is at it, the more success his efforts at those things will garner.

      If you've read any of my novels, did you stumble over any of the hugely unpopular ideas they strove to dramatize? What about any of these:

      • Envy is the most destructive force in human relations.
      • Though freedom is sacrosanct, there are times when duty compels one to yield it.
      • There is a natural aristocracy among men, and to belong to it is to court the greatest danger any man will ever know.
      • The more powerful you are, the more you need the virtues of humility and self-restraint.
      • Good intentions are absolutely no excuse, ever.

        Do you recognize them in what you've read of mine? If so, did you recognize them explicitly at the time, or have they only just manifested through remembrance?

        And what unpopular ideas would you, Gentle Reader, most like to see explored in the next book or story you read, from me or anyone else?

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