A Good Bad Guy

Donald Westlake, in his crime novels, makes a clear distinction between the good bad guys and the bad bad guys. This is true in his Dortmunder stories, and also in a couple of other novels, such as Cops & Robbers. Dortmunder and his friends are thieves. They’re career criminals. But they never hurt anybody, they’re ethical, and they seldom come home with all the loot they’d like. They’re good bad guys. Generally they find themselves pitted against unscrupulous, amoral, sleazy bad bad guys.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

The title of this little essay refers, rather, to the necessity of creating a villain who is believable and effective. All too often, authors create bad guys whose entire motivation seems to be to cause problems for the good guys. The villain may freely behave in ways that are inconsistent or contrary to his/her own best interest, because the author has thought no more deeply about the character of the villain than that he (we’ll say it’s a he) is to be a constant source of trouble.

This is not just a weakness found in the work of amateurs. Professionals fall into the same trap.

Writing a believable villain is difficult for a couple of reasons. First, many authors (being fundamentally nice people, as I’m sure we all are) have trouble imagining how a truly evil person thinks and acts. Second, a villain who is truly following his own evil agenda may not do the things that the author needs in order to move the story forward.

One extreme form of this failure is, of course, the moment when the villain seems to have won the contest. The hero is at the villain’s mercy. Whereupon, rather than simply dispatching the hero with a quick bullet to the head, the villain pauses to explain, for several pages, his reasons for all the villainy, in the process clearing up any questions the reader may have about the plot. While the villain is expostulating endlessly, the hero manages to wriggle out of the handcuffs or whatever, turn the tables on the villain, and emerge victorious.

This cliche, which is very common indeed, may be why the scene where Indiana Jones shoots the guy who is attacking him in the marketplace is so funny. We understand at once that Jones is refusing to participate in a cliche.

But leaving aside the extremes of villainous ineptitude, we need to look clearly at exactly who our villains are. Why are they doing what they’re doing? Are they attempting to achieve their villainous triumph in sensible ways? Or, if they’re not being sensible, are they failing to be sensible in ways that we can understand as arising out of their basic character?

I was smacked in the face this week with this realization. It hit me that my chief villain was pretty much a cardboard cutout. He wasn’t doing much to advance his own evil agenda. Although very rich, he didn’t even bother to hire half a dozen mercenaries to stomp around and beat people up.

Also, he’s from an entirely different culture than the good guys. Technically, he’s not even human. And yet he acts and talks exactly like a typical evil human nobleman. He has no colorful or even detectable nonhuman characteristics.

Who is this guy? I don’t even know, and my manuscript is already as long as Lord of the Rings. (And getting longer, bit by bit.) Turning him into a believable, three-dimensional bad guy is likely to have all sorts of repercussions in the plot. I don’t know yet what those repercussions may be, though I’m starting to glimpse a few of them. This is one of those weeks when the writing process consists not of drafting scenes but of throwing down thousands of words of detailed notes — asking myself all the tough questions I can think of, proposing reasonable or far-fetched answers to those questions, and then looking at what ramifications those answers would have elsewhere in the story.

I arrived at this point while rewriting Book 3 of the four-volume saga. About a third of the way through the rewrite, I found myself getting bored. So I took a few days off. Sometimes you have to trust your subconscious. I started re-reading Jared Diamond’s wonderful (nonfiction) book Guns, Germs, and Steel. And then the light bulb went on. Why was my supposedly masterful villain bopping around all by himself? Why hadn’t he hired a few mercenaries?

That question led quickly to a dozen more. Fortunately, I’m not on a deadline. My self-imposed goal was to have the rewrite done by September. It’s now looking more like next January, if not the January after that. But the good news is, I’m not bored anymore. The even better news is, every decision I make about my villain will lead to a stronger, more believable story. So it’s bad, but it’s good.

Mulling, Stewing, and the Back Burner

Last week I realized that I had a really awful, intractable plot problem. I should have noticed a year ago, but for some reason (lack of innate talent, in all likelihood) I allowed myself to be satisfied with an utterly inadequate explanation for certain key events. In order for the plot of my series to work, a certain thing has to have happened in the prequel — and I finally tumbled to the fact that I had not the least idea how it could have happened.

It’s down to character motivation, basically. None of the characters who were on the scene at the time would have done the right things. Well, there was one character who might have the motivation, but he was an eight-year-old boy, and he didn’t have the means.

I wrote pages of notes. (I’m good at writing notes.) The solution was not appearing. I used my patented brainstorming method, without notable results.

In desperation, I thought to enlist the services of a story doctor. I contacted a couple of freelance editors that I found online and pitched them on the idea of doing a three- or four-hour brainstorming session. For pay. (And not cheap — we’re talking $100 an hour.) I was desperate! If I couldn’t solve the problem, my whole series of novels was going to collapse into a pile of matchsticks.

I wrote a 3,000-word description of the problem and sent it off to an editor. (A novelist in her own right, actually.) I asked her to have a look at it and then send me an invoice if she thought she wanted to tackle it.

While I was waiting for her invoice, a second editor responded. In readying the description of the problem to send to her, I thought of a solution to part of it. It was a four-part problem, actually, and I seemed to have an idea about how two of the parts might work.

A whole day went by. No invoice arrived from either editor. So tonight I sat down, started taking more notes — and I figured out how to do it. Problem solved! And I didn’t have to pay anybody a nickel.

One lesson here, I think, is that sometimes it takes the unconscious a few days to mull things over. Ideas, especially complex ideas, have their own timetable. If I had gotten hopelessly frustrated and started beating myself up, I wouldn’t necessarily have found any viable answers. Yes, I was frustrated — but I asked for help.

I also spent a couple of days thinking, okay, if this doesn’t work, I’ll just spend the rest of my life playing music. That will be fun. Either way, with or without a solution to the plot problem, I’ll go right on enjoying life. So I worked on a couple of pieces of music and didn’t slide into worry.

I don’t yet know whether my new story line will be a couple of new chapters in Book 1, or whether one of the characters who was on the scene during the events in the prequel will just tell my heroine how it all happened. Probably new chapters. It’s a good thing I’m not on a deadline, nor writing to a fixed word count.

Sympathy for the Devil

George Bernard Shaw was a very successful playwright. (He was also a failure as a novelist, but that’s another story.) One criticism that was leveled at Shaw, and with considerable justification, was that all his characters spoke like Shaw. They were all articulate.

The fact that Shaw’s voice and views were engaging made him a success. But I’m pretty sure most authors of fiction, be it prose or script, are in danger of suffering from this malady. Certainly I suffer from it. Not that my characters all sound alike — they don’t. (My dialog is pretty diverse, actually.) The deeper problem is that I find it hard to imagine the thoughts and feelings of people whose experiences and views are different from my own.

My characters, that is, tend to reflect my own view of the world.

The best fiction writers, I’m sure, have an ability to understand and feel sympathy for a wide variety of people, even their villains. The worst fiction writers (one thinks, for example, of Ayn Rand) have no sympathy for anyone but themselves and people who agree with them. As a result, their work is filled with cardboard stereotypes.

If you care nothing for money and can’t imagine why anybody would, then a rich man in your story is likely to be a stereotype. If you’re a free spirit, you may have trouble sympathizing with a character who is a by-the-book police officer. If you’ve never had children, you may have trouble imagining the tender feelings of a mother and how they will inevitably affect her actions. And so it goes.

I got to thinking about this because I’m a 68-year-old man trying to write an effective story about a 17-year-old girl. Also, I’m an atheist and have very little sympathy for people who are religious, yet my heroine has some direct contact with a god, who seems to want her to be his high priest. I haven’t written any scenes in which she is praying, because I personally have no use for prayer. She often worries that her mad quest will get her killed — because old men think about death. Teenagers think they’ll live forever! And when my editor says, “Why is she attracted to this boy?”, I have not the faintest clue. I don’t know what it is about boys that teen girls are attracted to. I can’t even imagine being attracted to a boy. Yuck! So I’ve got the character all wrong.

And this after a couple of years of hard work on the story. You’d think I would have figured it out long ago, but I didn’t. I’m a perfectly decent writer, but I’m not a natural storyteller, and this is a vivid example for you of why (or how) I’m not.

Learn from my mistakes, children.

Heroics

Thinking out loud here — feel free to pull up a chair, grab the popcorn, and watch the juggler and the sword swallower. I’ve screwed up my courage and read through my editor’s comments and suggestions for Book 3 of my four-volume epic, and it has quickly become clear that some major rewriting is in my future. But if my heroine is a round peg and plotted fiction is a square hole, what am I to do about that?

You can buy any number of books on how to develop your plot. They’ll all tell you more or less the same thing: Your hero must be confronted by a difficult, emotionally charged problem, and must take action — usually, several actions — to solve the problem. The first thing the hero tries should not work. His or her first attempt should, if possible, make the problem worse.

It’s not difficult to see why plots work this way. If the problem is not difficult or emotionally meaningful, the story will be boring. If the hero sits around and waits passively for someone else to solve the problem, readers will get irritated with the hero. And if the hero’s first attempt to solve the problem works just fine, the problem was too easy or the hero too ridiculously superhuman.

This is not a formula, exactly, it’s just the logic of human psychology. If you’re writing character-oriented literary fiction, both the problem and the actions may be a lot more subtle, but literary fiction in which there’s no emotionally charged problem — in which everything is fine and dandy — is going to be just as boring, if not worse.

Turning to my epic, the premise of the story is that a 17-year-old girl is the hereditary ruler of a distant land, but doesn’t know it. The distant land is currently being ruled by some really nasty people who are causing great suffering. So the god who is worshiped there (or what passes for a god in the fantasy world of the story) has bestirred himself to make the girl aware of her heritage and/or destiny. The god sends her charging off to get rid of the bad guys and restore order in the land of her birth.

So far, so good. Emotionally charged problem, major obstacles. But how is a 17-year-old girl whose only job training is sweeping the floors and washing the sheets in her uncle’s inn supposed to lead a revolution?

The heroes of plotted fiction all tend to be stamped out by the same cookie-cutter. They have personal quirks, to be sure — one plays chess, another quotes poetry, a third is riddled by phobias — but when push comes to shove, they’re tough. They take charge. They’re good with their fists. (Well, except for Donald Lam, who tended to get beat up a lot. That was his quirk.)

My heroine is not Joan of Arc, and I don’t want her to be! I more or less decided that there were going to be no sword fights in this story, and no pitched battles where men in armor flail away at one another. That sort of story is too crude to interest me. So I have this innkeeper’s niece, and she has no military training and no experience being a leader. She doesn’t know how to write stirring pamphlets or make public speeches. She doesn’t know how to conduct a covert operation without getting caught. Plus, she’s a 17-year-old girl in a fairly standard male-dominated society. Give orders? Who is going to salute, click their heels, and obey a teenage girl’s orders?

My editor’s complaint, and it’s entirely correct, is that in Book 3 my heroine is too passive. Things happen to her. Other people suggest actions, and other people carry them out. This is not good plotting. But she damn well isn’t Joan of Arc. She’s kind of a pushover for rescuing people who need help — that’s the quirk of personality that leads her off on this mad quest. But leading a revolution is well beyond her skill set. The god who gave her the problem (that would be me) has chosen badly.

Can I give her the kind of personality that will enable her to win through? Sure — it’s all just words on the screen. I can do whatever I like. But then she’ll be a different person, and I’ll have to go back to Book 1 and start over, because everything else will change.

Thank you for listening. We return you now to your regularly scheduled broadcast.

Things That Matter

Yes — things. The Venetian blinds, the car, the refrigerator. I’ve been dipping into The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers. (It’s a college textbook. I bought the third edition used, because it was half the price of the new edition. College textbook editions are a sham and a disgrace, but that’s a topic for another time.) Sellers includes a short section on the use of objects in stories and poems.

Objects can reveal a great deal about what’s going on in a story, and in an unobtrusive way. Your character opens the refrigerator and finds only a wilted head of lettuce and some cheese covered with mold. Right away your reader understands that in this story — in the lives of your characters — something has gone bad. Someone is being inattentive, or is not being nourished. Something is festering. That information leaps out of the refrigerator.

If the Venetian blinds are broken, so that they can’t be closed properly, we know that the character is concerned about how he or she is being seen, or is trying to keep secrets and failing. If your character drives a rusted-out Volkswagen Beetle, his or her character is being portrayed in a concrete (and economical) way; if the car were a Maserati or a Chevy truck with mag wheels, we would be getting quite a different sense of the character.

Sadly, this technique is available only to writers who write realistically about the present day. If your novel is set in the future, or on another planet, or in Medieval Europe or ancient Egypt, you won’t have access to this way of conveying meaning. If the wearing of a red sash (or the failure to wear it) says something meaningful about the character, you’re just going to have to spell it out. If you don’t, your readers won’t get it.

Yes, we can use marks of affluence. The fellow in Medieval Europe whose horse has a bridle with silver buckles is obviously a nobleman (unless he stole the horse, in which case the incongruity between his clothing and the bridle would be worthy of note — or is he a nobleman disguised as a peasant? that could be interesting too). But what kind of nobleman is he? Generous? Arrogant? Insecure? There are no objects in his world that can give the reader hints about this. Or rather, there probably are such objects, but the reader will have no way to guess their meaning, because the reader isn’t familiar with the culture.

This may be why so much genre literature is shallow — and why the best mystery novels are less shallow than novels in other genres. What is the writer of a Medieval epic or a Regency romance to do? Facial expressions and tone of voice will work for a while, but after a few pages they become dull.

William Carlos Williams famously said, “No ideas but in things.” This insistence on the concrete applies more to poetry than to fiction, I suppose, but it’s worth bearing in mind. I’m not suggesting that the parallel “No emotions but in things” is a valid idea — merely that some of the emotional resonances of a story can profitably be lodged in things.

A Kiss Is Just a Kiss

How much detail do readers need in order to feel the emotion in a scene? And who do you trust to decide that? I tend to be rather intellectual about my writing. I’m not sure that’s a weakness, but it’s something I need to be aware of. In a scene where the characters are feeling emotions, I tend to trust that readers don’t need too much hand-holding.

The editor I hired to go through my fantasy series likes to see emotions spilled out onto the page. (She never seems to suggest this for any but the female lead characters, but that’s a separate issue. Page after page where a man is the viewpoint character, and she interpolates no notes whatever. Is it because I write more sensitively about men? I think that’s doubtful.)

To examine this issue in detail, I’m going to quote a scene from Book 2 of my series. Arik and Kyura have been separated by events, but now they’ve met up again. They’re sitting by a campfire, next to one another on a log, and the obvious thing is happening. Here’s the scene the way I wrote it:

She kissed him again. This kiss went on longer than the first one, and got more complicated, with some nibbling and rubbing. She pressed her hand against the back of his head, so he couldn’t stop kissing her even if he wanted to.

Eventually they did pull apart again. They were both breathing hard. Arik said, “I think we ought to stop. This isn’t very private. And, you know, I don’t want to stop.”

Kyura didn’t want to stop either. But that wasn’t something a girl should say to a boy. “You’re right. We have to stop.” They edged apart a little on the log, still touching the edges of their legs together, his arm still brushing her back. “I know I’m a mess,” she said. “I don’t even have a comb, and my clothes are all dusty.”

“Not to mention the blood spots.” When her face contorted in anguish, he went on: “I don’t mind about your killing the wizard. I kind of admire you for it. Not that you go around killing people, and I don’t think that’s what you do. That you can take care of yourself when you have to. I like that.”

“But I can’t! I keep doing things all wrong! We almost got killed by a dragon this morning, and it was because I grabbed Meery and dragged her off the train. If we’d stayed on the train—”

“If you’d stayed on the train, you wouldn’t be here right now. I think you’re doing just fine.”

She didn’t think she could possibly explain to him how hopeless she felt right now — not about him, about everything else — so she didn’t say anything.

Now let’s look at it again as the editor suggested I might rewrite it in order to bring “emotion and physicality … into the scene to make it richer and more resonant.” Well, who wouldn’t want to do that? Okay, then. I’ll underline the editor’s suggested additions so you can see them more easily. How does this feel?

Kyura didn’t want to stop either. She wanted to sit with him in the gathering dark forever, like he was just a boy and she was just a girl and all they had to worry about was someone seeing something they shouldn’t. But they weren’t, and they didn’t. She pulled away. “You’re right. We have to stop,” she said.

They edged apart a little on the log, still touching the edges of their legs together, his arm still brushing her back. “I know I’m a mess,” she said, instead of all the other things she wanted to say. “I don’t even have a comb, and my clothes are all dusty.”

“Not to mention the blood spots,” Arik said. His kiss-red mouth quirked up at the corner, and somehow that made it even worse. Her face contorted in anguish, and he added hurriedly: “I don’t mind about your killing the wizard. I kind of admire you for it. Not that you go around killing people, and I don’t think that’s what you do. That you can take care of yourself when you have to.”

“But I can’t! I keep doing things all wrong!” She hadn’t meant to say anything, but it just spilled out of her; she twisted her fingers together in anguish, as if she could physically hold herself together. “We almost got killed by a dragon this morning, and it was because I grabbed Meery and dragged her off the train. If we’d stayed on the train—”

Arik cut her off gently. “If you’d stayed on the train, you wouldn’t be here right now.” He placed one large, callused palm over her hands, and her movements quieted under his touch. “I think you’re doing just fine.”

He meant it kindly, but the warmth his kisses had kindled in her chest had turned abruptly to ash. She didn’t think she could possibly explain to him how hopeless she felt right now — not about him, about everything else — so she didn’t say anything.

I’m afraid my reaction to those suggestions is, “Oh, yuck!” Her movements quieted under his touch? He placed one large, callused palm over her hands? The warmth his kisses had kindled in her chest? His kiss-red mouth? She twisted her fingers in anguish? It just spilled out?

It should be noted that this editor has never written, or at least never published, a novel. And in her defense, many of her other observations are very good, and I’m using them as I rewrite. She acknowledges that these particular added bits are “[not] the pinnacle of the writing craft, by any means.” But that’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s all very well for an editor to suggest that the emotions in a scene could be made more physical or more immediate for the reader — but when her suggestions on how this might be accomplished read like a cheap romance novel, can I trust her?

Or should I trust the reader to sense the chemistry?

To Begin With…

My editor didn’t much care for the three-part prologue I wrote for Book 3 of my four-volume epic. I’m pretty sure she’s right. What I was doing was setting up the story, rather in the way that one would assemble scaffolding. Two of the sections of the prologue introduce the reader to very minor characters — characters who are never seen or heard from again. The things these characters do are certainly relevant to the later action, but nothing they do is dramatic. Minor characters and no drama — not an effective opening. The third section of the prologue is an excerpt from the autobiography (written many years later) of one of the secondary characters. It’s by way of being a quick summary of some of the action in Book 2 and a couple of hints about what is to come. There’s no action at all in that section.

The conventional wisdom on how to start a novel — or, for that matter, a short story — is to begin in medias res. That’s Latin for “in the middle of things.” Don’t lead up to the main conflict of the story; dump us into the middle of it!

I have a few multi-volume series in my Wall of Paperbacks, so tonight I went and looked at how other authors start Book 2 or Book 3. One starts with an invading army pouring over a hill while the king watches from the battlements of his castle. Okay, we know where that’s going. Another starts with a deadly standoff — two good guys and two bad guys aiming crossbow bolts at one another, from extremely close range. Gets your attention, doesn’t it?

Two factors need to be weighed, I think, in considering how to start Book 2 or Book 3 in a series. There may be other factors, but these two leap to mind.

First, how directly do the events at the start of this book follow the events at the end of the previous book? Some series are loosely tied, each book standing more or less on its own. In that case it’s easy enough to just start the new story with fresh action — no need to bog down the opening with an explanation of how the characters came to be doing whatever they’re doing. But in other series the action is closely linked, each book leading directly to the next.

That’s what I have. The beginning of Book 2 follows the end of Book 1 by only a few hours, and the segue from Book 2 to Book 3 is equally taut. In that situation, a fresh and dramatic opener becomes a bit of a challenge, because the previous book had an ending. The action had resolved. And then suddenly shit goes boom? That would be tricky to set up.

Second, do we anticipate that the reader will have finished with the previous book only a few days before and will remember most of the salient details, or do we anticipate that some months may have passed, in which case the reader is likely to need reminding in order to understand what the heck is going on?

There’s also the size of the cast in the opening scene to consider. An opening scene with six or eight people is almost bound to be a mistake, because the author has to drag the action to a screeching halt in order to make sure the reader knows who everybody is. But if Book 3 follows Book 2 with a lapse of only a few hours, and if Book 2 ended with a whole bunch of characters in the same place at the same time, they’re still going to be onstage in the dramatic opening of Book 3.

Pardon me while I devote fifteen seconds to feeling sorry for myself. Okay, I’m fine now.

No matter how those factors line up, though, an opening needs some sort of tension. As Holmes says to Watson, “The game’s afoot!”

This is why some editors, and some readers, despise prologues. They want the author to get on with the story right now, with no hemming and hawing. (George R. R. Martin starts every book in the Game of Thrones series with a prologue, but what does he know?)

If you’re writing literature, of course, the game that’s afoot may be very much more subtle than a confrontation with crossbows, but a careful examination of almost any well-written novel is likely to reveal that the author is very carefully setting up the psychological, emotional, or cultural conflicts to be explicated in the book.

I’m not trying to write literature. I’m just trying to tell a good story. But if I ditch the prologue of Book 3, the opening scene is going to be a banquet with more than a hundred people, among whom will be Kyura, Meery, Spindler, Benagat, Dunny, Strudabend, Iknizer, Farin, and several characters who are new and need to be introduced. There is tension in this scene, but it’s going to be a mess.

Whatever. As I like to tell my cello students, if playing the cello was easy, everybody would do it. I think that applies pretty well to writing novels, too.

Muddle Me This

I don’t often post links to other writing blogs, but I enjoyed this essay on bookbaby (http://blog.bookbaby.com/2017/04/number-one-enemy-of-the-writer/). The number one enemy of the writer, blogger Dawn Field suggests, is unclear thinking. If you don’t envision the details of a scene clearly, how are you ever going to describe it to your readers? If you aren’t clear about why your characters are doing whatever they’re doing, not only will your characters likely be flopping back and forth on the page like a loose fire hose, you won’t know how to describe their actions — with gentle verbs, with angular verbs, with hesitations or without, and so forth.

It’s a tell-tale, and I’ve seen this sort of thing in more than one novel, when the writer describes a room by saying, “There were three or four portraits of ancestors on the wall.” Or perhaps “three or four straight-backed chairs” or “two or three French windows that opened on the garden.” That writer has not envisioned the room clearly. It’s not hard to count the chairs or the portraits! The result is vagueness.

That may seem a trivial example, and it is, but if you find yourself writing that sentence or anything like it, I hope you’ll pause and take stock. Do you have the details of the scene firmly in mind? If there are ten or twelve portraits on the wall, then fine — vagueness is appropriate. But “three or four”? That’s lazy writing.

Feelings

One of my weaknesses as a fiction writer is that I want things to make sense. I want to understand how the events in the story could and would actually unfold. Okay, except for the unicorns or zombies or whatever — their existence I feel no need to explain. But given the presence of a unicorn in a story, I want the characters’ reactions to it to be realistic. And not just the characters. If the unicorn is in a fenced paddock and is later found running free, I insist on knowing exactly how it got out.

How high a fence is a unicorn capable of jumping over? These details matter to me.

Curiously, I’m also a fan of Doctor Who. My love for the series is not diminished in any way by the fact that the plots make no sense at all. Loose ends are left flapping in the breeze. Any sort of jerry-rigged five-word explanation can be used, and will be, to explain the latest howling absurdity.

I don’t know if the BBC has script conferences, but if there were a script conference for Doctor Who and anybody ever said, “But is it plausible?”, the miscreant would be dragged out behind the building and shot. Plausibility is not just irrelevant in Doctor Who, it would be anathema.

Where the series succeeds, and brilliantly, is in the emotions that each scene arouses. We’re not bothered that the Doctor is obviously dead and ten minutes later is alive again (with a five-word explanation). What the writers are aiming at are the twin emotional peaks of terror and grief followed by amazement and celebration. Those emotions are the pivot on which the series succeeds. Well, that and the special effects.

To be sure, the endless stream of bizarre plot complications couldn’t possibly be handled any other way. But that’s not the point I’m driving at here. The point is, viewers don’t care — and the writers know they don’t.

Most people have a simple, primitive view of the world they live in. They’re not equipped to understand chains of logical reasoning, or even to notice glaring logical flaws. They look at the world and see a good guy, a bad guy, danger, thrills, victory, and not much beyond that. Our Republican propaganda experts know this; our current alleged president could not possibly have been elected by a nation where voters understood and were swayed by logic, truth, or science.

But that’s a side issue. The point, for a fiction writer, is this: Every scene needs to have some sort of emotional core. Its pulse needs to beat. If you can manage that, your readers probably won’t care that the unicorn has jumped the fence. Most of them won’t even notice.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Since this blog is mostly about writing, I’m going to try to turn this anecdote into a writing tip, but you’ll have to bear with me for a minute. A few months ago I joined the local Unitarian Church. As a card-carrying atheist, my choices in the Sunday morning worship department are are rather limited; fortunately, the local UU’s, as we’re supposed to call ourselves, are an active congregation, very inclusive and welcoming — and I get to practice my sight-singing with the secular humanist hymns.

We have an excellent minister (he’s leaving in July — boo, hiss!), but sometimes the services are presented by members of the congregation, or by guests. Yesterday we had a guest, an aspiring Unitarian minister named Claire Eustace. Her announced topic for the sermon was “Let’s Play!” Now, I’m one of the more playful geezers you’re likely to run into, so I was ready to be inspired.

Except, not. Ms. Eustace began her sermon with a long list of the awful things that are going on in the world. Our alleged president was mentioned. Global warming was mentioned. Discrimination against LGBTQ people was mentioned. I’m sitting there thinking, if you’ll pardon the phrase, “What the fuck?”

After a couple of minutes she suggested that we all wave our arms and make silly noises while we paint the sanctuary with imaginary colors — quite silly, but at least she’s getting onto the topic now. But no. After that we’re back to another litany of misery courtesy of the really awful world we all live in. I’m dyin’ inside.

And then, mirabile dictu, she mentions how important it is to be spontaneous. This was my cue. Fortunately, I was on an aisle seat. I jumped up and started dancing down the aisle snapping my fingers, back to the back of the sanctuary and out the door. I wandered around outside for ten minutes and went back in just as she was finishing.

It’s not often you get to make a post-modern editorial statement on the spur of the moment while also saving your sanity, but I was locked and loaded. I wanted to get out of there!

My read of the situation is that most likely Ms. Eustace is a painfully serious person, and was trying to apply somebody’s advice (perhaps the advice of a therapist) that she lighten up. But here’s the thing about play: Play is not — repeat, NOT — a way of giving ourselves a break from the soul-destroying crises to which we’re exposed in the daily news. Play is just play. That’s all it is.

A baby goat does not frolic to distract itself from the knowledge that it may soon be eaten by a puma. It frolics quite simply because frolicking feels good. That’s all play is, Ms. Eustace. It’s about feeling good. It’s not a response to anything; it is an end in itself.

Consider how we humans use the word. We play board games and card games. We play music. And sometimes we go to a play, where the people onstage play parts. Why do we do all this stuff? Because it’s fun.

The lesson for me, as a writer, is that if I’m not having fun writing, I’m doing it wrong. Writing is not about making a point. It’s not about proving anything, or inspiring people. Nothing like that. Writing fiction is a form of play.

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy! Sometimes writing is painful. But I would hope that it’s painful because the paragraph or the chapter is going badly, not because I’m writing about things that are inherently painful. I know some writers devote themselves to exploring painful emotions, impossible family conflicts, and so forth. I have nothing to say to those writers, other than to misquote Fleetwood Mac: “You go your way, I’ll go mine.”

For me as a reader, if a novel doesn’t shine with a spirit of playfulness, I’m going to set it down and not pick it up again. We can’t all be Terry Pratchett, but life is too short to spend it grinding around in the muck.