Let’s Not Celebrate Ineptitude

Today on Facebook a friend of mine posted a “meme” (I hate what has been done to that word, but we’re stuck with it), that read as follows:

Destroy the idea that you gotta be good at artistic things to enjoy them, that every hobby has to become something you’re so good at, you can monetize it. [That’s] a capitalist lie. Sing off-key, draw poorly, write badly. Life is meant to be enjoyed, not monetized. You’re not a product.

I’d agree that thinking you have to make money at your craft is much too narrow. But I object, and strenuously, to the idea that anybody should be encouraged to sing off-key, draw poorly, or write badly. That’s dreadful advice!

This meme confuses (perhaps deliberately, perhaps not) skillfulness with financial success. The two are very, very different. It’s possible to be marvelously good at something and still make no money at it — perhaps because you choose to give it away, perhaps because nobody wants the type of thing you do, or quite possibly because the world is heavily overpopulated with people who do it just as well as you do, if not better, but have better industry connections or whatever.

If you don’t believe me, sit down and have a chat sometime with a classical musician who graduated from Juilliard. There are 20 or 50 times more fully trained orchestra musicians than there are openings in professional orchestras to accommodate them.

Striving for excellence is, in my opinion, very important! Granted, we all fall short of our visions of perfection, but that’s not a reason to stop striving. Excellence is its own reward.

I have very little patience with people who write badly. I participate actively in a couple of writing groups (mostly online these days, of course). It stuns and depresses me how inept so many amateur writers are. If you want to write badly and put your work away in a drawer (or preferably burn it), that’s fine. I will make no complaint. But at the point where you hope to share it with anyone, even in a friendly, non-monetized way, you have a definite obligation to strive for excellence. Failure to do so is an insult to your readers.

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Head-Hopping

Writers of fiction are sternly advised not to switch, in the middle of a scene, from one point of view to another. Doing so is called head-hopping. There are reasons why head-hopping is almost always a bad idea. Good writers do it occasionally, but if you’re going to do it, be careful: Do it for a specific reason, because it’s the best way to tell your story, not just casually or without knowing what you’re doing. Be aware that you’re doing it and consider alternatives before committing to it.

There’s another kind of head-hopping, though, and it’s absolutely essential. You must do it, often and thoroughly. You must inhabit the head of each of your characters in order to understand what each character is thinking and feeling. You may or may not want to show the reader the results of your private head-hopping. In fact, you’re probably well advised to avoid showing it. But you must do it.

This week I’m grappling with possible rewrites for a crime novel that I thought was finished. My main characters have told the police investigator a huge flaming whopper of a lie. And the question I ought to have asked myself, but didn’t, is, “Why would this seasoned professional investigator fail to see through the lie? Wouldn’t he at least wonder about it?” I wanted him to be fooled because that made it easier for me to build my plot — so therefore, he was fooled. It never occurred to me to look at the crime and the statements of the witnesses from his point of view.

I have no clear idea yet how I’m going to fix this, but if I don’t fix it, the book will have a glaring flaw. Writers who cut themselves a mile of slack because it would be too much trouble to fix flaws … well, some of them get published and make a lot of money, but that doesn’t make it okay.

Hop. Hop, hop, hop. Incessantly. You’ll spot any number of weaknesses in your story. And while you’re about it, don’t forget to hop into your reader’s head. “I mentioned that back in chapter 1” is not an excuse you’re allowed to give yourself. If five or six chapters have passed, have mercy on your reader! Mention it again. Your reader may be picking up the book again days or weeks later, and may not remember. So please — hop.

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The Write Stuff

The psychology of the amateur writer is a marvel to behold. Of late I’ve been reading quite a bit of fiction by aspiring amateurs, and the variety of contretemps in which they flounder is an ongoing source of … well, of amazement or agony, depending on one’s mood.

A few days ago a local writer sent me a PDF of the opening of his time-travel novel. He plainly regards it as finished; he has gone to the trouble of formatting it on Lulu and having a copy printed out so he can wave it around, though it’s not yet available for sale. He’s submitting it to agents. Yet he has quite evidently not thought it necessary to have the book copy-edited.

Setting aside the larger story problems (which are also foreshadowed in the opening chapter), he has written a book set in 14th century England, in which, for the sake of local color, people speak something vaguely resembling Shakespearean English, and yet he has not managed to use “thee” and “thou” correctly. He alleges that women’s hair is concealed beneath a veil, but a veil is a face-covering. Any decent editor could have told him he meant “wimple,” not “veil.” He uses “pence” as a singular, when in fact it’s the plural of “penny.” A character says, “I hath,” but of course “hath” is 3rd person singular. “I have” would be correct.

And all this is within the first five pages. Amazement and agony both.

Also this week I’ve looked at a plot outline for a novel that a fellow in a critique group is planning to write. His lead character is entirely passive: has no goal, takes no action. Implausible, Kafkaesque things happen to the character. And then a year passes (this is in the outline) before the story picks up again. This is not how plot works. I did suggest to the writer that his story structure might possibly work in literary fiction, but I cautioned him that in literary fiction one of the primary desiderata is prose that is luminous. The only way this particular writer is going to achieve luminous prose is if he hits the typewriter keys so hard he punches holes in the paper and then shines a flashlight through them. But I didn’t tell him that. I am cruel, but I am not infinitely cruel.

What seems to be operating in cases of this sort is that the amateur writer is simply not aware of how professional writing is put together. Now, if you want to write purely for your own satisfaction — as a means of self-expression — then of course you can do whatever pleases you. But at the point where you’re planning to show your work to anybody else, you’re no longer engaged in self-expression. At the very least, you’re hoping to communicate with other people or hoping for some ego-boosting comments from your friends. With respect to both of the books described above, I think we have to dismiss the notion that the writer is engaged purely in self-expression. These writers are hoping, in some modest way, for success.

Admittedly, my view of the craft of writing is different from theirs. (Or is it “different than”? I rather like “different to,” which is the British variant.) For more than 25 years I earned a nice living as a professional editor and writer. Of nonfiction, but still, I’m a pro. If you believe the magazine’s circulation figures, and I never had any reason to doubt them, every month my work was read by about 20,000 people. So yeah, I know which side of the bread has the jelly on it.

Maybe I should be charitable, even if it means being dishonest. Maybe I should just smile politely and say, “Yeah, that’s pretty good!” But I keep hoping that somewhere along the line, a writer will say, “Wow — thanks! I knew I needed to work on this some more, but I never knew how much work would be needed. Can you recommend some how-to-write books I could read?”

That never happens. Somehow a great gulf has been fixed between the amateur and the professional. There’s a bridge, but nobody seems to want to walk across it. And generally speaking, the problem is not mental incapacity. If you’re smart enough and industrious enough to write a novel at all, you’re smart enough to figure out how to do it reasonably well. So what are we looking at here? Ignorance? Insecurity? Irresponsibility? Muddled motives? I wish I knew.

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That Was Then

Science fiction is never really about the future. It’s about the present. It only pretends to be about the future.

Nor could it be otherwise. The writer is inevitably trapped within the social and intellectual matrix of the present day. There are, as Donald Rumsfeld pointed out, unknown unknowns.

One of the ways this plays out is in the cultural preoccupations and references of people whose lives are ostensibly hundreds of years in the future. I’ve just finished reading Ancestral Light by Elizabeth Bear, and it illustrates this in some jolly ways. Bear’s human characters are part of a multi-species galaxy-wide civilization. They have never even been to Earth; they live in their space ship. Quite evidently, centuries have passed. And yet….

And yet the lead lead character reads George Eliot’s Middlemarch and makes a passing reference to The Scarlet Letter. Another character quotes Marcus Aurelius. Bear’s first-person text drops in two distinct references to Gertrude Stein, the two that everybody knows: “X is an X is an X” and “there’s no there there.” The narrator carries with her, if you can believe this, a paper copy of Illuminatus, a novel by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson that was published in the 1970s.

As if that weren’t bad enough, here we are, hundreds of years in the future, and yet the lead character and her villain antagonist both drink coffee. They’re quasi-marooned on a gigantic alien spaceship … but somehow the villain has brought along a supply of coffee sufficient to last for several months.

As a teenager I was quite taken with George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. Written in the late 1940s, it’s about how life continues for a tiny remainder of humanity after most of the human race dies in a plague. It’s not a very good book, as I discovered when I re-read it as an adult. One of its failings is that for years after civilization has ended, Stewart’s characters are still smoking cigarettes. They retrieve cartons of them from the moldering ruins of the cities. This is extraordinarily silly. The reason Stewart did it this way was, quite transparently, because as a writer in the 1940s, and presumably a smoker himself, he simply couldn’t imagine drafting a scene involving a social encounter in which his characters didn’t light up.

Isaac Asimov wrote stories set in the 21st century in which the women worked happily in the kitchen, wearing aprons, and the men wore hats. He was not capable of imagining the things that he was not capable of imagining.

The supposed future clings to the past in another way, too. In the first important time travel story, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the time traveler goes to the future — but while the idea of time travel grabbed our collective imagination, these days time travelers seem always to journey to the past. Dinosaurs, the great library in Alexandria, Shakespeare, the Crucifixion, the Black Death — these are the idea files that writers love to leaf through. The reason, I suspect, is that the past seems real to us. The future hasn’t happened yet, so it’s just a blank, but the past is palpable.

There are other problems in Ancestral Light. Basically it’s a space opera (Bear admits as much), so it’s jam-packed with stuff that doesn’t make sense. I think my favorite bit is that on the tiny, cramped interstellar salvage tug in which the narrator and one other person are the entire crew, they have two cats. Cats on a small space ship, for months at a time. Her copy of Illuminatus is described as being printed on onion-skin, because of course carrying unnecessary weight on a space ship is a thing to be avoided. Fuel economy and all. Yet they’re in space for months at a time, so they’re quite evidently packing about a ton of cat food. Yeah, right.

Bear mentions that the cats have been trained to use the zero-G litter box. I invite you to try, if you dare, to imagine exactly how that would work. Me, I’m thinking the whole genre of science fiction is pretty much zero-G cat litter, when you get right down to it. Some of the stories are good. Some of the characters are good. But the world-building is generally a shabby mess.

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Writing While Naked

Following up on yesterday’s struggle to figure out where my unpublished novels have gone wrong, I re-read chapters 8 through 13 of Scott Meredith’s Writing to Sell. This book was first published in 1950, and my copy seems to have arrived on my shelf no later than 1980. Parts of it are very outdated, but the advice on how to do a plot is just as vital as it ever was.

Here is Meredith’s description of the plot skeleton. Note: I didn’t say, “a plot skeleton.” I said, “the plot skeleton.” There’s only one.

A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain that the lead character is kaput, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.

That’s it. He goes on to explain that this is only a skeleton. It can be fleshed out in an infinite variety of ways. But if you don’t have the bones, your novel is going to be weak and flabby. It may ooze across the floor quite fetchingly, but it will never rise and walk.

I’m not going to reiterate everything in Meredith’s chapters. If you don’t own the book already, go buy it. It’s still available used. The point I want to make today is that your plot needs to take clear aim at a climax — a point at which your lead character finally achieves her goal through her own efforts. If you’re not aiming at that climax from the start, how are you going to get there? How will you even know you’ve gotten there, if you don’t know what the climax is going to look like?

There is a tendency, among would-be writers of fiction and those who converse with them about the craft, to be courteous to authors who write “by the seat of their pants.” These hopeless scribblers spew out one chapter after another without knowing ahead of time where their story will go. People who practice this dreadful perversion are known as “pantsers.” But it strikes me that if you don’t know where your story is headed, you’re not even wearing any pants. You’re writing while naked.

Scott Meredith will be happy to tell you how to gird your loins.

A plot outline is not a Procrustean bed. You can change it as you go along, in order to spice up the story with improvements or repair defects that you have belatedly discovered in your original conception. But you must work from an outline. And don’t whine about it, because I’m not going to listen.

There are so many ways to write a bad book, even if you’re writing from an outline. I’ve done it myself, several times. So now I’m going back through my unpublished work to try to discern where I strayed from Meredith’s plot skeleton. Annika is not entirely a sympathetic character. Henry McAllister has no clear or compelling goal. John Gordon faces no significant obstacles. And so on. You don’t know these people, and you’ll never meet them unless I can see how to fix the books they’re in.

Right now in a critique group I’m reading a mystery in which the lead character faces no significant obstacles. The author has made everything much too easy for her amateur sleuth. Clues all but literally fall into the sleuth’s lap. Between that defect and the all too common tendency among cozy authors to dally in the quotidian rather than ramp up the action, the book is just plain dull. Chapter after chapter, and nothing much is happening.

If you want a quick tip on how to write strong plotted fiction, here’s my modest contribution to the annals of authorial punditry:

Jam your lead character’s ass into a meat grinder. And then keep turning the crank.

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Hit or Miss

How can you tell if the novel you’re working on is dynamite, or if it’s a dud? I wish I knew.

Not long ago I finished the third (!) draft of a 110,000-word whodunit. I had earlier joined Sisters in Crime, a jolly group of mystery writers, so I engaged in a manuscript swap. I read the unpublished novel of another author, and she read mine.

As a piece of writing, my manuscript was certainly more polished than hers, but that’s not the issue. As a reader, she was able to spot a couple of basic plot problems that, in my lumbering progress toward the finish line, I had entirely failed to notice. Because I felt (and still feel) a deep affection for my lead character, I cheerfully let her off the hook on the fact that she had not only committed a serious crime but also dragged several other innocent people into a criminal conspiracy. On top of which, the incident that forms the pivot on which the entire plot revolves — and which in consequence can’t realistically be changed — requires three characters to behave like idiots.

The question for today is, why didn’t I notice that?

I did notice it, more or less. I added supporting motivations and factors to try to cover it. What I failed to grasp is that nothing I added actually fixed the underlying problems.

I don’t write by the seat of my pants. I outline. I take notes. I routinely challenge myself not to cut corners but to get it right. And yet, here I am, with a book that I’ve been working on, off and on, for several years, that I would not want to publish, that I don’t know how to fix, and that may not be fixable at all.

To be brutally honest, this is not the first time this has happened to me. I’ve written seven or eight novels. Three of them (The Wall at the Edge of the World, While Caesar Sang of Hercules, and the Leafstone saga, which is in four volumes but tells one story) are good, and I’m proud of them. The others have serious problems of one sort or another.

The first version of the Leafstone story was bad too, though at the time I thought it was wonderful. I set it aside for a few years and ended up rewriting it from the ground up. It’s a whole lot better now. In that case, fortunately, the story premise didn’t need to be torn apart or tossed aside. The problems were elsewhere, so they were fixable.

The way I usually describe my situation is to say that I’m a perfectly decent professional writer, but I’m not a natural storyteller. I don’t necessarily know, at a gut level, what will make a good story. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I don’t — and while I’m in the process of writing, I don’t know the difference. The story feels interesting and fun and engaging to me, so I dig into it, and then … it’s a dud, for reasons that have little or nothing to do with my initial burst of enthusiasm.

I suppose I need a mentor, but I’ve never figured out where to find one. A developmental editor wouldn’t be able to do the job, because a developmental editor works with the manuscript you actually have, not the one you haven’t started writing yet.

The larger question is, if I have an idea for a new book (and yes, I have several), what assurance do I have that the next one won’t be another dud? No matter how excited may feel about a given idea — a character, a setting, a dramatic incident — my excitement is simply not a reliable indicator as to the viability of the project. And that insight, while important, is rather discouraging.

Maybe I should just publish the damn thing and hope nobody notices. Maybe I should rewrite it as a darkly satirical story in which everybody is evil and does nasty things for dumb reasons. Or as a meta-fiction in which the author steps forward from time to time and explains to the reader exactly what’s wrong with the story. Maybe I should shelve it for a few years and work on something else; maybe at some point the light will dawn, and I’ll see how to fix it. But what should I do in the meantime? Can I really summon up the sustained enthusiasm needed to write another book while dismally aware that it may not be viable, and that I won’t know?

Somehow I don’t think Dickens ever had this problem. Probably it’s something in my own character. If it was just this one book, I’d be willing to assume that my first reader was being too critical. But this is the fourth one that hasn’t worked. Maybe sometime I’ll write about those other books, with details. Maybe in the course of explaining (to myself) what didn’t work, I’ll learn something. Or not.

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In Praise of Rationalism (sort of)

When society is in turmoil (as it generally is), sorting out what’s really going on can be quite difficult. Various people may and probably will have very different views of an incident, a trend, or a belief system. Their ideas about what needs to be done in order to improve matters can be shockingly divergent.

The tool with which we try to figure out who’s right and what to do is called rational thought. We attempt to gather evidence, and then we process the evidence using logic and reason. There really is no alternative. If we abandon logic and reason, all we’re left with is a shouting match. Whoever shouts the loudest, or has the most guns, gets to have it their way. Their view prevails.

The trouble is, logic and reason are seldom applied in a truly precise or even-handed way. They’re applied by people, and people usually have agendas, overt or hidden.

From some dim recess in the jumbled and dusty archives of my mind, I dredged up a memory of a televised conversation between William Buckley and Abbie Hoffman. You youngsters may not know who either of them was. Buckley was a famously articulate and famously conservative commentator. The conversation I’m recalling was probably on his TV show, Firing Line. Hoffman was a hippie activist, and the author of an anti-capitalist rant called Steal This Book.

By now I haven’t the faintest recollection of what they talked about. The reason I remember it is because Hoffman was simply not articulate enough or clever enough to counter Buckley’s conservative rhetoric. With respect to whatever topics they were discussing, I’m pretty sure Buckley was wrong and Hoffman was right, but Buckley maneuvered his way through the minefield of facts and logic with elegant precision and left Hoffman tongue-tied. (Not that Hoffman was ever tongue-tied. He had no effective rejoinder, that’s all.) The viewer who started out neutral would, I think, have been persuaded that Buckley was right.

That’s why logic and reason are dangerous.

All too often, we use logic and reason not to arrive at the truth but to prop up whatever opinion we have already arrived at. The feelings come first; and then the rational brain kicks into gear, serving up plausible (or sometimes not even remotely plausible) arguments to support whatever our primitive unconscious has already decided. It takes a strong and confident thinker to be willing to say, “I may be wrong. Let’s look at this more deeply.” More often, if you point out the errors in someone’s thinking, they will respond with evasion, indignation, or outright lies.

The pundits in Critical Race Theory have observed all this. They observe it especially in the antics of white men. White men — for instance, William Buckley — quite often prop up their bogus opinions using what appear to be flawless reason and logic. Probably they think they’re being rational, and they confidently expect that their listeners will agree. If you disagree, you’re likely to feel as frustrated as Abbie Hoffman. You know you’re right and the white guy is wrong, but explaining to him how he’s wrong may be difficult for you if you lack his training in the fine points of logic or if you don’t have the evidence at your fingertips. Even if you can manage it, he probably won’t change his mind.

Bringing about meaningful and desperately needed social change when you’re confronted by an army of William Buckleys in their well-tailored three-piece suits is likely to be an infuriating experience, and doomed to failure. They’re impregnable. Unfortunately, the tactic that seems to preferred as an alternative by the leading lights of Critical Race Theory (CRT) has its own deep flaws.

The idea in CRT, and I hope I’m not misstating it, is that the lived experience of the individual is to be accepted as a primary source of knowledge. For example, if I’m not hired for a job, the job going instead to a white guy, and if I feel I’m well qualified but was denied the job because of my race or my gender expression, the person who did the hiring does not get to explain their decision using logic or reason. Their use of logic and reason is inherently suspect. If I feel there was discrimination, my perception is to be regarded as valid. If I feel that I was discriminated against, then ipso facto, I was discriminated against.

Stated so baldly, this is plainly an absurd position, but a lot of progressive thinkers really do embrace it. Among the terms used are “centering” and “de-centering.” We’re to center the experience of marginalized people — African-Americans, native Americans. LGBTQ+, the differently abled, and so on. White people, and in particular white men, are called upon to de-center themselves — to sit back and listen so that the voices of the marginalized can be heard.

It’s certainly a vital necessity that the marginalized be heard! But my own view is that everybody ought to be centered. Nobody ought to be de-centered. Still, I have to acknowledge that in any heterogeneous group in the United States, the white guys are likely to dominate the conversation, simply because they’re used to doing it. They expect it, and their culture has likely supplied them with quite an array of rhetorical devices they can deploy so as to sustain their dominant position. They will be uncomfortable if the group dynamic changes. (This perception is well described in Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility. This is not the place to point out the flaws in her book. For now, it’s enough to note that what she observed is quite real.)

But are we to rely on lived experience as the cure? I’m afraid this cure may be as bad as the disease. It’s well known in legal circles that eyewitness testimony is the worst kind of evidence. Two people can see the very same event and recall it quite differently, not just as to their interpretation and not just by omitting salient facts, but by stating as fact things that simply didn’t happen.

Subjective personal experience is not reliable. We’re all biased, and quite likely biased in ways we don’t even recognize. Not to be mealy-mouthed about it, if a black person claims that in an encounter with a white person, the white person committed a “micro-aggression” (unpacking that loaded term would take us rather far afield at the moment — maybe some other time), the black person’s perception of the encounter simply cannot be taken at face value. Yes, the white person may have said something that was unconsciously or even consciously racist. Or, the black person may have misinterpreted what was said. We don’t know. In the absence of a video of the encounter (preferably showing closeups of both people’s faces), we cannot know.

If we assume that the white person must inevitably be in the wrong in this sort of encounter, we’re judging him by the color of his skin. And that’s racist, flat-out and by definition. I’m totally not willing to make any such assumption, and I hope you aren’t either.

We can get close to the truth if we’re willing to dig in and do some investigating, and then (cough-cough) use reason and logic on what we learn. We may find that the white person was just plain ignorant, or was trying to be polite and not very good at it. Or we may find that the white person has a long history of racist attitudes, belongs to an avowedly racist organization, and therefore, by inference, fully intended to be offensive. We may find that the black person was having a bad day and would have interpreted almost anything anybody said as an aggression, or we may find that she is a wonderful loving person and well trained in dissecting the nuances of racist language, and that she was already aware of this particular white person’s history of racist diatribes. The only way to understand the incident is to gather the facts.

Lived experience is not reliable. Logic and reason are not to be trusted. What’s left? Maybe nothing. I’m leaning toward an almost Catholic view of human fallibility. We all fuck up. That’s a reliable and universal truth. No matter how we struggle and strive, we’re gonna fuck it up. So chill. Crank up your favorite tunes, kick back, and have a beer. Maybe that’s as good as it gets.

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Reading & Writing

Lately I’ve been feeling detached from fiction. Neither reading it nor writing it holds much interest. Given that I’ve written about ten novels and have at least twenty shelves packed with novels by other people, this may seem odd, but I find that honoring one’s dissatisfactions is essential if one is to be free to change, or to create anything at all.

If you’re passionately committed to writing fiction, you may find today’s random ramble disturbing, but on the whole I prefer honesty to heedless enthusiasm.

Reading is a passive and solitary activity. You’re sitting in a chair, essentially alone. If there are other people in the room, not only are you not interacting with them, you pretty much can’t interact with them, and you need them to be quiet. You’re staring at a bunch of marks on a piece of paper or a screen.

The subject matter of a novel or short story is, in a nutshell, some people are doing stuff. They’re happy, or miserable, or angry, or frightened. Sometimes they fight. In the end, they either succeed (and that’s usually the outcome) or they fail. And that’s just about it. Even when the specific events in a story are unpredictable, at a higher level it’s always the same.

I know there are people who re-read their favorite novels. I’ve done it myself, usually with mysteries where it’s been so long that I don’t remember who done it. But when you re-read, the experience is going to be the same the second time through. A novel is set in stone. There are, to be sure, hypertext stories with branching narratives, but while the details of your experiences may be different the second or third time through a hypertext story, the differences are likely to be trivial, and also frustrating: What if I never noticed the branch that led to a really cool dramatic moment?

Contrast the experience of reading with the experience of playing a board game. A board game is social, not solitary. The components are both colorful and tactile, they’re not just black marks on a white background. In most games there’s a lot of replayability, so you can return to the game again and again and have a variety of fresh experiences. The excitement of winning or the sorrow of losing is your own emotion, not the emotion of a person who doesn’t even exist except on paper. And you have to take actions in order to play the game at all: Playing the game is active, not passive.

Writing fiction is just as odd as reading it, though in different ways. Writing is the easiest and least demanding of the art forms. Anybody can do it! (And millions of people do.) All you need is some paper and a pencil. You don’t have to buy paint or an expensive musical instrument. You don’t have to audition actors or hire a lighting technician. You already know your native language, so you don’t have to learn any special skills such as blending the pigments or reading a page full of notes. You don’t even have to know proper spelling or grammar; just write!

And yet, to write well is insanely difficult. Pacing, dialog, viewpoint, there are so many things to keep track of. Possibly the most important is plausibility. If your characters don’t do the things that they would naturally do (or that your reader imagines they would naturally do) in the circumstances in which they find themselves, your story will fail. Plausibility is the Procrustean bed of fiction.

Not that some well-known writers don’t ride roughshod over the need for plausibility. There’s a mystery by Agatha Christie, I think it’s What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw, in which the final explanation of the puzzling events requires the murderer to have done several preposterously implausible things. Christie was probably trying to make a living, maybe writing to a deadline, and trusted that most of her readers wouldn’t notice. Keeping things plausible while also producing manuscripts on schedule and keeping the stories entertaining is a bit like juggling knives, bowling balls, flaming torches, and live kittens.

In truth, plausibility is only the second most important part of writing fiction. The most important is the commandment, “Thou shalt not bore thy reader.” But what fascinates one reader will surely bore another. It’s a no-win game.

And in the end, the material itself becomes tedious. You’re using words and sentences. You’re writing about people who don’t exist, but who do stuff and have feelings. Wouldn’t you rather paint a painting full of reds and greens and blues, or stand on stage in front of an audience and sway them with the sound of your voice, or maybe bang on a drum set?

I started writing fiction more than 40 years ago because I couldn’t find a band to play in. If today’s amazing music software had existed then, I don’t think I would ever have started writing stories. I’m not sorry; I wrote some good stuff along the way. But honestly, composing and recording music is a whole lot more gratifying, for several reasons. It’s more sensual, experimenting with the software is more fun, and nobody can listen to your piece and say it’s not plausible. If that chord sounds good to you, nobody can say it’s the wrong chord! Plus, I can do a piece of music in a week or two — and there’s no advance planning. No plot outline or world-building. You just launch the software and start.

Of course, I have quite a lot of technical skill in this area that most people don’t have. Also a fast computer, good speakers, lots of wonderful music software, and a MIDI keyboard controller. Not everyone can compose and record using software synthesizers. But anybody can write.

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Brightness Falls from the Air

Robert Frost, or so the story goes, was once at a cocktail party where a woman gushed, “Oh, you must tell me, Mr. Frost: Is it difficult to write poetry?” He replied, “Madame, either it is easy, or it is impossible.”

This probably says something about the origins of poetry in the unconscious. Writing novels, in my experience at least, is never easy. Sometimes it’s difficult, and sometimes it’s impossible.

I have this manuscript. I thought it was finished, and I thought it was pretty good. I traded beta-reads with another member of a writers’ group. Her comments convinced me that the book is nowhere near as good as I thought. There are, in fact, some serious problems at the level of the story concept. And as I analyzed her notes, I spotted some other problems that she hadn’t noticed. Oh, dear.

Why do we do this thing? Why do we write novels? I’ve come to feel that the activity is really no different from working jigsaw puzzles. Not in any essential way. The difference being, we have the joy and the burden of designing our own puzzle pieces. Beyond that, all we’re doing is fitting pieces of this or that together in ways that seem to work. As we go along, we can enjoy the colorful shapes that start to appear. At the end, we may feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. But that’s really all there is to it. Anything else is dross. The admiration of our fellow humans, the prospect of perhaps making some money — that’s dross. And the notion that we might be expressing some insight into the human condition isn’t even dross; it’s vapor.

I do take pride in writing well. My prose is always very decently professional; that’s not a problem. But the story itself … oh, my. I’m not a natural storyteller. Sometimes I find a good story, and then all is well. (It’s easy.) Other times I think I’ve found a good story, but on close examination I’ve failed. That’s rather painful, but I take some consolation in the fact that it’s really just another jigsaw puzzle. I cut some pieces to the wrong shape, that’s all. Time to take it apart and start over.

Ideas are cheap and plentiful. Coming up with some fresh ideas with which to start an entirely new puzzle (I mean, “story”) is easy and fun. Trying to keep the parts of a manuscript that still work — or the parts that I’m most fond of, which is not at all the same thing — while cutting and shaping new pieces to fit into the gaps can be a rather horrible labor.

Short of banging on things with a ball-peen hammer, what is one to do? The title of this ramble is borrowed from a science fiction novel by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon in real life). I like the image of beautiful ideas quietly sifting down onto the table, though that’s not actually what the novel is about. At the moment, I’m more in a mood to quote a song by Cream: “…but the rainbow has a beard!”

Rather than thrash (or trash) the existing novel, I’m thinking I may take a step back and do some serious world-building. It’s a fantasy story, and I like the fantasy world I’ve created, but I didn’t dig deep enough into either the magic or the culture. Once I understand the world better, I may write a couple of entirely different novellas set in that world, as a way of exploring it, before I return to my poor beleaguered manuscript. I’ve just read a series of novellas (the Penric and Desdemona stories) by Lois McMaster Bujold. They’re not great, but the first four or five are pretty good, and they’re a good model. Two sets of three each are now available as paperbacks, and the stories in each book fit together rather neatly. It had never occurred to me to combine novellas in this way. It’s something new to try. And I do like trying new things.

I have another new idea too, about which I’ve been taking notes. Brightness continues to fall from the air. But maybe first I’ll work on puzzling out a couple of novellas in the world of the troubled manuscript. That may give me some unexpected pieces to pick up and fit in here or there. And if not, well, it’s all just an amusing pastime. As Samuel Beckett put it, in a line that can be read either as Buddhist wisdom or as profoundly depressing, “Nothing to be done.”

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Flow

I’ve been reading some unpublished fiction this week, chapters or complete manuscripts by aspiring authors. The difficulties that these earnest scribblers get themselves into are so various that it’s difficult to generalize about the nature of the problem. And of course it would be gruesomely impolite for me to provide actual quotes from any of this material, so I won’t.

Setting aside the basic issues of mechanics, which will of course torpedo any reader’s attempt to take the text seriously, I think what I don’t find, as I read, is a secure sense of narrative flow. And flow is not an easy quality to define.

Did I mention mechanics? Oh, my, yes. In the submissions to one critique group I’m seeing scenes (by more than one author) that shift heedlessly between past and present tense, or even from third to first person and then back — the word “my” where “her” ought to have been. Clumsy dialog tags, failure to separate a noun of address using a comma, misspelled words (“comradery,” for example, where “camaraderie” was wanted), and so on. One author failed to indent her paragraphs. In fiction, paragraphs are always indented. Why do I need to explain this?

But let’s talk about flow. Or try to.

My first suggestion for any aspiring writer would be, “Pretend you’re a movie camera.” Watch the scene in your mind’s eye. Events will occur in a certain temporal order, and it’s always best to get them lined up on the page in the order in which they occur. While doing that, you need to keep close track of both the important bits (which might be tone of voice, facial expression, manner of gesture, or something else entirely) and the connections between the bits.

In one scene I read today, a woman arrived at the exterior door of a building. it was locked, so she couldn’t get in. A second person approached with a key, and the woman stood up. But the author had never shown her sitting down — and indeed, there was no mention of a bench where she could have sat. That’s a failure to connect the bits.

The dialog is often stilted. People say things in awkward ways. The audio track in the author’s movie camera has failed. Or, to be more precise, the author has failed to enter into the mental process of each character in the scene in turn, in order to feel from the inside precisely what that character would say. This doesn’t mean shifting viewpoint to show the reader what the character is feeling or thinking. It’s a trick the author must perform in her own head, in order to write the script that the camera will then capture.

Some authors try to shoehorn in bits of explanation or description by switching from “Bob” to “Ella’s uncle” and from that to “the silver-haired man” under the impression that they’re filling in details. This is almost never a good approach. Pick one appellation for the character (most likely “Bob”) and stick with it, replacing “Bob” with “he” as appropriate. The only exception would be if the second phrase is a direct appositive phrase, maybe something like this: “Bob, who was Ella’s uncle and should therefore have been a lot more upset about seeing her lying dead on the floor than he appeared to be….” Here, switching from “Bob” to “Ella’s uncle” flows well. Contrast this with a dreadful example (which I’m making up on the spot; this is not from a real manuscript): “Bob didn’t seem at all upset. Ella’s uncle saw her lying dead on the floor….” This way of writing it would be pure shit. We now have two characters in the scene: Bob, and also Ella’s uncle. They are no longer the same person.

I’ve seen character descriptions that mention things like height, hair color, perhaps eye color, and perhaps musculature or the quality of the character’s smile, all in a colorless laundry list. After which, the character remains indistinguishable from any other character, because the author’s movie camera has not continued to track, visually and aurally, what makes that character distinctive. Readers will not remember what’s in the laundry list! Descriptions need color. And not just eye color. Who really notices eye color, for Pete’s sake? Even if you notice it, it tells you nothing whatever about the character. Use metaphor or a simile. Use a fresh adjective. Show the person’s features in movement. (“Her curly red hair was lifted by the wind” would be much better than “she had curly red hair.”)

Just for kicks, here’s a description drawn from the Prologue of my next novel, Substitute Girl, which I hope to have available for your purchasing pleasure within three months or so:

Her hair was gray now, nearly white, but it fell loose with an extravagant curl, as it had when she was young. Her face was pale and seamed, but her features were finely shaped and her eyes bright. She had been a beauty once; for those not blinded by the adoration of youth, she still was.

I don’t claim to be a great writer. I’m sometimes adequate. But I think this little excerpt shows what I mean about how to shape a character description. We have an unusual word usage in “extravagant curl.” We have a brief pause for a little editorial comment about ageism, which serves to give the preceding adjectives a context: Lady Murassala, with her pale, seamed face, is still beautiful.

Vary your sentence rhythm. Use some long sentences and some sentences so short that they’re mere fragments. Here’s the next paragraph after that one:

The other woman in the room, hunched forward on a chair that she had drawn up to the bed, was much the same age but smaller, her hair stiff and black, her face strong-jawed and unlovely, her posture as keen as a crow’s. This was Mother Hagel — an honorific, as she had never borne a child. She liked to say that all of the worshipers of the goddess were her children.

The last three clauses in the first sentence are parallel — her hair, her face, her posture. Note the variation in the rhythms of the adjectives — first “stiff and black,” then “strong-jawed and unlovely.” And then a simile that underlines the imagery of both “black” and “hunched forward.” Here we have a parallel structure that opens out in a non-parallel way.

I can’t tell you how to do that kind of thing. I’m not even sure how I do it. I just wrestle with every paragraph until I like the way it flows.

Maybe the best way to learn to write prose that flows is to read good fiction. Of course, if you don’t already have a feeling for what’s good, you won’t know whether what you’re reading is good, so there’s a sort of bootstrapping problem.

I suppose you could do worse than read Dickens. This bit, for instance: “Oliver Twist’s ninth birth-day found him a pale thin child, somewhat diminutive in stature, and decidedly small in circumference.” There’s nothing remarkable about this sentence, but it’s not the sort of thing an unpublished author is likely to come up with. In the texts I’ve been reading, I would expect to find, “Oliver was pale, thin, and not very tall.” Dickens clearly didn’t need to add “small in circumference,” as he had already said “thin.” But he liked the phrase, so he included it. And note the juxtaposition of “somewhat” against “decidedly.”

At root, I think, what pleases the reader in good writing is a sense of both confidence and comfort — a sense that the author can be trusted to say the things that are important and to say them in ways that are both precise and interesting. The amateur jabs and pokes at a paragraph or a scene; the professional lays it before us like a banquet.

There has, since Hemingway, been a tendency to think that writing ought to be dry rather than flowery. But really, Hemingway’s voice was his own. And frankly, some of the dialog in Tender Is the Night is blunderingly clumsy. What one wants in a writer is that he or she have a voice that brings the story alive for the reader.

If you go back further than Dickens — to Fielding, perhaps, or Defoe, or Sterne — what you find is that the author often addressed the reader quite directly. The author came out from behind the curtain and spoke, in his own voice, before returning to the narrative. Also, great slabs of the story were often told in summary rather than being shown in dramatized scenes. We no longer do that sort of thing; I don’t recommend it; but I think the ease of it, the sense that the author is here in the room, sitting beside the fire and on the reader’s side, is all but indispensable.

Strive for that. You’re sitting in a rocking chair. The fire is crackling, and you have a fine glass of port at your elbow. Tell us the story.

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