Lost Stories Part V

I’ve been writing a series of posts on stories I started and didn’t finish. In most cases, I didn’t finish them because I was an adolescent and was still learning how to follow through on my ideas. That doesn’t mean I don’t have unfinished stories from my adulthood, though.

Sometimes an idea fizzles. Sometimes I decide something else is simply more important. I get far more ideas that I can ever actually complete. I don’t expect to ever write posts commemorating all of them, but a few are worth discussing.

Dinosaurs

One of my favorite lost stories, in retrospect, concerns a parallel world occupied by intelligent dinosaurs. I suppose that sounds clichéd, but I don’t mean talking triceratopses and t-rexes, like in The Land Before Time or dozens of other fantasies. I invented a new species, one related to velociraptors as we are to monkeys. I invented a whole culture for them.

I got the idea from a description of the raptor lineage that contained the comment “what might have become of these animals if extinction had not stopped their development?”

What, indeed?

I later saw an illustration of somebody’s guess, and the thing looked like a hairless human with a sort-of odd face–upright posture, human-like feet, no tail, all features that we have, not because we are “more evolved,” and certainly not because we are intelligent, but rather because of accidents of our evolutionary history that a dinosaur wouldn’t necessarily share. I thought I could do better, so I tried it.

My dinosaur species retains the long tail and horizontal posture of its raptor ancestors. The snout is much shorter and weaker and the brain case much larger and rounder, giving it a somewhat fetal appearance (as humans resemble fetal apes), and the arms are long and angles forward so that the animal can comfortably look at something held in its hands. It doesn’t have feathers, because I was unaware at the time that dinosaurs generally did.

My dinosaurs have excellent vision and hearing and can run very fast. Their language is entirely signed, for while they do have voices, they can use their voices only to express emotion. Females are about four or five feet tall at the hips and close to 15 feet long, nose to tail, and a dull yellowish color. Males are smaller and darker, with a right color patch on their rear end so that they can distract predators away from the young. Mating is strictly monogamous, and young hatch from eggs laid in small groups.

My plot involved a human family who accidentally go through a portal to the world where these dinosaurs live. They get lost and can’t find their portal, so a dinosaur community takes them in and….

And nothing much happened. I wanted to daydream about intelligent dinosaurs. I didn’t want to fuss with much of a plot. I don’t remember whether I abandoned the story because I realized it had no plot, or if I simply moved on to other daydreams. Either way, move on I did.

It’s just as well, because in retrospect I am embarrassed by how inconsiderate the story was. For example, the narrator, the mother of the human family, was Deaf, a plot device I used to explain why her whole family knew and used sign language–not the same sign language as the dinosaurs, but something they would recognize as a language. They see the humans talking and realize they are people, however odd they look. But it never occurred to me to do any research on the Deaf community in general. I didn’t know anyone who was Deaf, and at the time I didn’t even know anyone with any kind of major physical disability. It never occurred to me that I might not be qualified to write a Deaf woman’s story. I never stopped to think about how any aspect of the story might impact readers, personally or politically, if it were completed and published. And I fully intended to complete and publish it. I was–briefly–as serious about the dinosaurs as I was about the australopithecines, when I thought up a story about them about a year later.

The story about the australopithecines became my first book, To Give a Rose, and took many years of research and development, from start to finish. I have no idea why one story became lost and another became a book, when they both felt equally serious in the beginning.

Looking back, though, the dinosaur story feels more like some of the story ideas I had as a child, qualitatively different from the various fizzled stories I began and abandoned later. I was playing at being a writer, not yet writing.

It’s not that I no longer play. I have all sorts of daydreams going that have no plot or a minimal plot at exist solely so I can entertain myself. And it’s not that I no longer entertain creative ideas that are grandiose, unsupported by personal experience or research, and perhaps unfit to be exposed to the public. The difference is that I no longer expect to publish these things.

Just because I am a writer and can make serious, professional works of art from my ideas does not obligate me to make serious works of art from all my ideas.

My games can remain games, now.

Clair’s Fork

While the story about the dinosaurs was the last of my adolescent novel-attempts, the story about the town of Clair’s Fork may count as the first fizzled story of my adulthood. I got the idea not long after I started working on Rose, and for a while I thought I’d work on both concurrently. The story had a plot and it was about a core group of ideas. And it didn’t fizzle–I made a principled decision not to continue with it.

Story Synopsis

The town of Clair’s Fork sits on the confluence of two large streams in a mostly forested valley. Within the town is a neopagan counter-cultural community that is both idealistic and secretive–some of the things that they do are illegal, because of cultural differences between them and the larger society.

One of these things is a tradition of sexual initiation, where young people can have their first sexual experience with a gentle, trustworthy community member able to answer questions and willing to not be self-serving about the encounter. Sometimes the initiator is over 18 and the initiateee is not.

The story follows a girl who seeks and receives sexual initiation from an adult man, a fact which somehow comes to the attention of the authorities. The resulting legal problems puts the whole community in jeopardy. Meanwhile, there are plans to dam the streams at the heart of the town and flood a large area of forest, something local environmentalists object to, but the situation looks dire. I don’t remember how, but the two issues become linked and are resolved together in a way that improves matters for the entire town.

On Second Thought

When I told my sister about the story, she pointed out that the scenario could be seen as glorifying or excusing sexual abuse. That wasn’t my intent.

Our legal age of majority is essentially arbitrary. Human beings mature gradually some time between puberty and perhaps 25 years of age, some older and some younger than others. For legal purposes, we need something simpler and more consistent, so we set 18 as the legal age of majority, but it could just as easily have been 21 or 16. Some societies have set it as young as 14.

What adolescence means, which aspects of adulthood are conferred first and what kinds of support young people receive are also culturally variable. In our society, we’ve decided that it’s ok for young people to be left to figure out sex by themselves–even though that leaves them likely to make dangerous mistakes and vulnerable to abuse–as long as they are above a certain age. Generally, even underage sex is unofficially tolerated, as long as both partners are under-age. In making sure that one kind of bad situation does not occur, we let other kinds of bad situation pass by. It is easy to imagine another society making a different decision with equally good intentions.

Aside from telling a good story, I wanted to explore the tension between different sets of cultural expectations and the general unwillingness of many people to look outside of their own frame of reference.

But yes, that very unwillingness could have led to my story being badly misunderstood. My sister was right. I shelved the project.

Looking Forward

As I said, there are a lot of story ideas I’ve tossed around and eventually put away. A few of them I might someday pick up again. I don’t intend to write about all of them here. But there is one more I want to tell you about. I’ll do that in my next post.

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A Wrinkle in Science

I just saw the movie, “Wrinkle in Time.” I had high hopes, based on the trailers. The movie is gorgeous, the cast is interesting, and the source material is great. I was disappointed.

I’m not going to write a full review here, because that’s not what this blog is for. I’ll just say that there are aspects of the movie that are excellent, but that flaws in either the writing or the editing or both rob it of depth. It’s enjoyable to watch, but the gap between what is and what could have been makes me sad.

But the problems with the writing put the movie firmly in this blog’s wheelhouse, and I wish to take up and examine one particular issue; writing about science.

The protagonist of the story, Meg Wallance, is an adolescent girl who is gifted in math and science. She is the daughter of two scientists, and her little brother, Charles Wallace (he is never called just “Charles”) is a prodigy. He’s not especially focused on science, but he does understand it, despite being six (in the book, he is five). The title of the story, a wrinkle in time, is a creative way of describing the tesseract, a thing which the author of the book, Madeline L’Engle, made up, but it involves interplanetary travel with no time delay via the fifth dimension.

So, science is very much part of this story.

And Ms. L’Engle, in the original, does a beautiful job of explaining it. Although the story mixes scientific knowledge with speculation, it is always clear which is which (or, at least it was clear to me when I read it as a child) and the science itself is accurate. It’s described in simple terms, but is never watered down—and it is integrated into the narrative seamlessly. This book was, in fact, my introduction to the concept of “dimensions,” a subject I remained fascinated with for many years.

In the movie, the definition of the tesseract has largely been edited out. The discussion of dimensions was filmed and occurred in some trailers, but is not in the movie. Instead, to get the point across that Meg and her parents are brilliant, there are a number of “sciencey” lines that make no sense. The most egregious of these occurs when Meg, her brother, and their friend, Calvin, are riding on the back of an enormous aerial creature who looks something like a 50-foot-wide sting-ray with a humanoid head. It appears to swim through the air, rather than fly, for its movements, too, resemble those of a ray. It is weird and it is gorgeous. Suddenly, Meg pushes off, and there she is, no longer riding the thing’s back but flying along about a foot and a half above it, matching its course and speed exactly. The two boys copy her. Quite sensibly, Calvin asks how they are flying. Meg says some sciencey nonsense phrases and then says “in other words, LIFT!”

Ah, no.

Lift doesn’t explain the phenomenon, as is obvious to anyone who has ever tried to push off from the ground and fly. The trick doesn’t work unless you’re dreaming. Lift is generated by air flowing over an object of the right shape at sufficiently high speed, and the human body isn’t the right shape at any speed and has no means of generating thrust in air to begin with. Unassisted human bodies can’t fly.

Now, fifty-foot-wide rays can’t fly, either, because while they do have a nice airfoil, they have no means of generating sufficient thrust to get their speed up—or, at least the one in the movie doesn’t. It doesn’t flap. It merely undulates gently.

But the violation of the laws of physics doesn’t bother me in this context—it’s a fantasy element, and fantasies are allowed. What bothers me is the half-assed attempt to explain the blatantly impossible with science by using words that sound vaguely sciencey only. If you want children to fly, stick with tradition and use fairy dust.

I can almost hear readers calling me a pedant. And that, right there, is precisely the problem.

The argument is generally that scientific accuracy doesn’t matter in entertainment and is, in fact, counterproductive in that it will turn readers (or viewers) off. If you want to reach people, we are told, we’ve got to minimize science, dilute it, and not care so much whether it is even accurate.

When I asked for feedback on the title of my next novel (“Ecological Memory”) many people claimed that it sounded too much like a book about science. That’s like complaining that flounder tastes too much like fish. You don’t like fish? Fine, don’t eat fish. You don’t like science? Fine, don’t read my novels. Not everybody has to like everything, and in most areas of human endeavor we respond to people who aren’t interested by either respecting their right to do something else or by showing them why they should be interested. Only in science is the collective assumption—even among many people who like and even conduct science—that the naysayers are 1) right and 2) the ideal target audience.

A novel about football would never be turned into a movie by people who don’t understand, or give a damn about football. If such people acquired the film rights, they’d hire a sports fan to work on the screen-play. Why is science routinely denied the same respect?

Especially since, unlike football, science is actually inherently important, rather than just fun.

Maybe more people would like and understand science if we did not, as a culture, accept the premise that science is unlikeable?

Maybe you’re on board with all of this. Maybe you want to write the kind of movie that “Wrinkle in Time” could have been. How do you integrate science into narrative without overwhelming or losing your audience?

I have a few ideas.

First, commit yourself to accuracy. You can include speculation, or even fantasy, in your story, but when you do discuss things that are actually part of current scientific understanding, do so accurately.

Second, commit yourself to depth. Do not make your work accessible by diluting it, or even, necessarily, by simplifying it. Instead, adjust the scope. Madeline L’Engle did a great job of this in narrowing down her discussion of physics to a single concept; dimensions. That’s a small enough dose for even young people to take undiluted, but there are huge areas of physics that start to seem less alien, less intimidating, once you’ve had that first bite.

Third, provide an audience proxy. Have at least one character in your story who has the same educational level and level of interest as your readers, and have that character say “wait—huh?” whenever your reader might. You can also have that character get bored whenever your reader might. If you want to avoid having an obvious proxy, have two. Give them different areas of expertise and let them teach each other while the reader listens in.

Fourth, prioritize the narrative. If you present science in order to help drive the narrative and develop the characters and theme, you’ll have a good story that also accomplishes some real science education. If you use narrative in order to present science, you’ll have an artificial-sounding story and you might not preset science all that well, either.

Not everyone is going to like your work. Science is, for the moment, at least, a niche market. But don’t let anyone convince you that “no one” likes it. Because you like it, and you’re someone.

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Let’s Write About Sex, Part II

In an earlier post, I wrote that sex scenes in novels must serve primarily to advance the plot or themes or develop the characters, but “should still be hot.”

I take that back.

First, a few words on definitions: erotica and pornography (overlapping but non-identical categories) are distinct from other forms of literature in that they are intended, primarily, to titillate. A porno that doesn’t turn on its audience is a failure. A really hot porno is a success, even if it is otherwise completely ridiculous. The presence of sex–even graphic sex, even a lot of graphic sex–does not make something an example of pornography or erotica. The determining factor is the mission of the story and the way it can be fairly judged.

I’m aware that not everybody uses this definition, but for literary analysis (something a writer benefits from being able to do), it has a definite advantage; it reminds us that a sex scene in a novel should be judged the same way any other scene is. Does it advance the plot? Does it develop the characters or themes of the story? If not, it should be removed, no matter how hot it might be. Different kinds of stories should be held to different standards.

But, in my previous post, I said that sex scenes in non-pornographic novels should also be hot. I said that thinking that when a thing is described well, it feels like you’re there, so if sex is described well….

But that’s not necessarily true. For one thing, not all sex is sexy. Well-described bad sex shouldn’t seem very erotic. For another, watching someone else have sex might not be a turn-on, depending on context. The experience might trigger anger, disgust, confusion, or all sorts of other things. Finally, and maybe most importantly, human beings are complex and can have different experiences going on at different levels at the same time.

For example, imagine a couple having sex…and one of them suspects the other has been cheating. On a physical level, it’s working beautifully, but the suspicious one is having all kinds of complex emotions. The character IS aroused, but as a writer, you might choose to depict the scene in such a way as to focus on the emotional turmoil, in which case the reader might not find the scene a turn-on at all. And it would still be a good scene.

Consider that a scene in a novel can describe two people having lunch without making the reader feel hungry.

Consider also that there are a lot of sex scenes in movies that are not sexy at all. The difference is not one of graphic depiction, either. Compare the sex scene that occurs early in “City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold” with the sex scene in “Titanic.”

In Titanic, Rose and Jack are in a car parked in the hold of the ship. We know they are in the back seat together, that the windows fog up, and that they are sweaty and shirtless afterwards (we can’t tell whether they are wholly naked). In City Slickers, the Billy Crystal character and his wife get some rare time alone while their kids are out with friends, and they plan to use the time for sex, but he finds what he thinks is a treasure map that he doesn’t want to tell his wife about. They get under the covers together, with him on top, but he’s obviously distracted. He doesn’t want to have sex, he wants to look at the treasure map. So, after a few seconds, he says “I’m done!” and talks his wife into hiding somewhere in the house so he can find her for “round two.” While she’s hiding, he plans to look at the map.

Now, neither scene is graphic–if you didn’t know what sex is, neither scene would tell you. But the scene in Titanic could be a turn-on anyway. It evokes passion very well. The scene in City Slickers, despite being marginally more frank (the camera is on the characters while they are supposedly having intercourse, though they are under the covers), is not sexy at all. It’s funny and awkward. The difference is in how the two scenes are filmed and acted and what the emotional content of each scene is.

Degree of graphic detail, and degree of sexiness, are different variables, only loosely related. As writers we can decide, not only how much detail we want to show, but how we want the scene to feel. One book might best be served by decorous vagueness that nonetheless fills the reader with longing. Another book might best be served by intimate detail that feels procedural, scientific, or plain ugly.

Writers know all this, I suspect. I can’t possibly be the first novelist to discover what movie-makers so clearly already know. But when we discuss our craft, the topic seldom comes up.

And that’s too bad. These variables are tools, and we should discuss how to use them.

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By Any Other Name

I’ve written about naming characters before, relative to naming animals or other beings who don’t belong to any human naming convention–how I named the characters in my first book, To Give a Rose. But what about humans? What about human characters who are more or less from my own culture? That should be easier, right?

Maybe.

I often see authors talking about what kind of name fits a given character–a vindictive prostitute, say, or a hard-boiled detective. Of course, I know what they mean. Certain names seem to go with a human type. We think we know what people named Niles, or Bruce, or Vivian might be like, and of course our readers know, too. The vindictive prostitute shouldn’t be named Betty. Calling the detective Dave would sound funny. We need to manage the readers’ expectations, lest we fail to communicate our characters, right?

But let me put in a plug for another approach. After all, that’s not how most real people get their names. Nobody knows, when a baby girl is born, that she will grow up to become a vindictive prostitute, so they won’t know to give her a suitable name for that role.

Of course, Betty might well choose a different name for her professional activities, a point I’ll return to in a bit. And of course we know, as writers and readers, that the more obviously perfect names that some writers use (Charles Dickens is famous for this) are silly, and that is part of the point. And you might ask what is the harm in choosing evocative, even silly names for what everybody knows are fictional people?

Maybe not much harm, though I find realism a more interesting challenge (another point I’ll return to), but there is something to be said for challenging stereotype in our writing. Certain names belonging to certain characters is a stereotype, a habit of assumption that could cause us to misjudge each other in real life.

Is there a way to find our character’s names that avoids such short-cuts and, perhaps, offers us greater richness?

I confess I usually give my human protagonists names that just pop into my head. I might choose a name to honor someone I know (usually not the person I based the character on), or because the meaning of the name suggests something to me (even though the readers might not know the meaning), or because I like the sound. I’m a synesthete, meaning I have a strong association between colors and specific letters, so I choose names that have colors that match the way I think of the characters. I don’t expect readers to know or care about these colors (some are doubtless fellow colored-letter synesthetes, but synesthetes seldom agree with each other about what colors letters are), but they help me.

But for secondary characters, and increasingly for main characters, I’m starting to use a different approach, one that starts with considering what name the character’s parents would have chosen.

Consider age; name popularity changes over time, and new names enter circulation, so finding a plausible name for a character often starts with looking up a list of popular names for their birth year. If the story is not set today, bear in mind that the associations of some of the names will be off. For example, names like Mason, Jayden, Caleb, Mikayla, and Madison (for a girl) all sound like children’s names, but in a story set eighty years from now, those names will belong to old people.

Consider ethnicity. Different cultural groups have different naming patterns, a concept that applies not just to obvious ethnic differences, but also, to some extent, to differences in regional identity, socioeconomic class, and family origin. For example, I have no definite ethnic identity; I’m basically mainstream American. But three out of my four grandparents were the children of immigrants, so that if I had kids and wanted to name them after relatives, the Italian heritage would show through.

So far, we have two characteristics–age and ethnicity–that influence both name choice and character, but not in the way we normally consider. There is no personality type typical of an ethnicity, for example. Any kind of person can belong to any socioeconomic class or age group. And yet, these things do influence the assumptions, associations, and values of a person. For example, how old was your character on September 11, 2001? For Mason or Kayla, it was likely a childhood experience. For Jason or Jenn, it changed the course of their young adulthood. For Greg or Susan, that was the day they began to wonder if their almost-grown son might have to go to war.

Then there are family naming patterns, which are influenced by ethnicity, religion, and parental idiosyncrasy. For example, Jewish people don’t usually name children after living people, whereas Christian people often do. There might be a story behind a name–a name might commemorate a family tragedy (which the character must cope with), or perhaps the character is named for a family member as an expression of some parental hope (and corresponding pressure).

Again, none of this has anything to do with a character’s personality or job description, but it has everything to do with how they perceive the world around them. If you want to know what a character sees when he or she looks at the world, what music the person grew up with, what dreams they were taught to consider attainable, what associations they carry (Jane Goodall says she always finds the chimes of Big Ben scary, because BBC news radio broadcasts used to start with that sound, when she was a little girl, and so she heard that sound seconds before she learned her country had declared war on Germany and all the adults in the room became afraid), if you want to know all that about a character, you will need the very same information that tells you their name.

Finally, some people name themselves, or are named by others as older children or adults. These might be wholly new names, or they might be nicknames, or forms of a name (such as whether a man goes by Dave, Davy, or David). In either case, the name does suggest something of the person’s personality, or perceived personality–the difference matters. Does this name express who the person wants to be, or who others think the person is? And either way, there is a story behind it.

Caitlyn Jenner, for example, may be the oldest Caitlyn around. Her parents wouldn’t have given her that name even if they’d known at the time that she was a girl, as the name was not popular then. She probably named herself, but a friend may have named her. Either way, the name suits her, but it is obviously not a birth-name. It is a re-birth name, perhaps.

The point is that if if you name your characters by developing their backstories, you’ll still get a name that fits, but it will fit organically, not stereotypically, and you’ll get a lot more than a name.

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A Modest Proposal

I’m  a writer. I like being a writer. But…

The way the publishing industry works these days bothers me.

Once upon a time, in order to publish a book, you needed a pile of money up front. Unless you were rich, the smart thing to do was to sell your book to a publisher–they’d invest their pile of money in getting your book out, and you’d get a nice check (and, hopefully, some royalties).

Of course, the catch was that publishers didn’t want to risk their big piles of money without good cause, so first you had to convince them that your book would sell. A whole industry of literary agents developed around pitching books for authors. Many query letters were sent with self-addressed, stamped envelopes. But the good news was that if a publisher did take a risk on your book, they took a big risk, and would protect themselves as much as possible by doing everything possible to make your book succeed.

Let me repeat that; skilled and experienced people would do everything possible to make your book sell, and they wouldn’t charge you a dime to do it. Instead, they paid you for the privilege of trying to sell your book.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

These days, though, changes in printing technology have made publication extremely cheap. The good news is that self-publication is now extremely affordable, but the bad news is that publishing companies also find publication affordable, which means they no longer have much incentive to make sure your book sells. They’ll help you out some (I’m not talking about scam artists, here), but basically, they’ll leave most of the heavy lifting up to you. If you figure out how to market effectively, they’ll make money (so will you). If you don’t, they’ll try again with someone else.

I know this makes publishers sound like bad-guys, and that’s not my intent–my understanding is that there are other changes in the industry that are squeezing them pretty hard, too. The point is not who is at fault but what we can do to fix this.

We’re not just looking at a problem for authors, either. It’s a problem for society. It used to be that to get published, a book didn’t have to be good so much as saleable. Obviously, important but unpopular voices were silenced that way, collateral damage of capitalism, but since unsaleable books wouldn’t have been read much even if they had been published, the system didn’t do much harm. In any case, authors succeeded or failed financially based on how well they could write saleable books–and society got a steady supply of those books it wanted to read.

That has changed.

Under the new system, authors aren’t really paid for their skill and determination at writing, but rather for their skill and determination at marketing. At best, this results in authors having less time and energy available for writing, since they are busy serving as their own marketing directors instead–but far worse is when a good writer turns out to be a bad marketer and we never hear from them at all.

Do we really want, as a society, to limit ourselves to those cultural products created by people who happen to also be good at marketing?

Do we really want the creative people who cannot convert their output to clickbait to starve? Or to give up being creative all together? Creative people work on behalf of society. They make the culture that the rest of us depend on. And they won’t be able to do it if we don’t find a way to pay them.

Fortunately, there is a solution.

Actually, there are two, inter-related solutions. The first is that authors have to band together and help each other market.

Writer’s Guilds

I’m picturing a kind of professional guild or co-op. Membership would be open only to those who could pass a sort of written audition. Member dues would be payable in either money or labor (or some of each). As a member, you’d get a monthly dividend check, a marketing package, and training opportunities in both the craft and the business of writing.

The work of providing that package, offering the training, and running the guild would all be done by other members who were paying their dues through labor. The guild would also offer its services (editing, marketing, coaching) to non-members for a fee, in order to raise more money. The size of your share–and thus the size of both your marketing package and your dividend–would depend on how much dues you paid, so you could decide whether the guild would be a sideline for you or a major commitment.

Major benefits of the system would be:

  • A guaranteed steady monthly income (writers often go through feast/famine cycles)
  • Access to professional services even when you don’t have the money to pay for it
  • Professional development opportunities in all areas of your career
  • Opportunities for social connection and networking with other writers
  • The opportunity to make a living from writing alone, if you happen to be a great writer but bad at business (as, for example, the great Samuel Clemens was)

There could be lots of these guilds, each run slightly differently, according to the interests of its members. Perhaps some would focus on specific genres, or specific regions, while others would be more general. It would be fun.

Turning Publishing Upside-down

The guilds will still face the same problems that publishers now face–the internet and the dominance of huge distribution monopolies (Amazon, currently). It’s hard to make a living from writing when ebooks are available for 99¢ and the monopoly of the moment is offering pretty much everybody a bad deal on top of that.

It’s essentially the same problem that the music industry is facing–how do you compete with free and instantly available?

Fortunately, some musicians have found a strategy that works, at least for some of them: instead of depending on album sales, and doing live shows to promote albums, depend on ticket sales and use your cheaply or freely available recordings to promote your shows (and merchandise).

As writers, we will eventually have to make the same flip.

We will earn the bulk of our living by providing live entertainment–readings, dramatic stagings, lectures, and classes (depending on the nature of the book)–or by writing material that we then license to live performers to adapt. We’ll still sell, and sign, books at these events, and we may still sell printed copies to libraries and through bookstores and online store fronts (including Amazon, or its heirs) and we may also sell electronic copies for absurdly small amounts of money. Some few of us will earn significant incomes that way. But in a world where anything written or recorded is available for free to anyone, anywhere (legal or not), most of us will face a very cruel buyer’s market for anything but our own, irreplaceable, live selves. Most of us will earn most of our money, and spend most of our working lives, on tour, as many professional musicians do.

And who will organize these tours? Our guilds will, of course.

Looking Ahead

It’s true we’re not, as a society, ready for a performance-based literature. The market for such performances must be developed to the point where going to a reading means paying $60 and up for a ticket instead of buying a coffee and dropping your change in the donation jar.

It’s also true that the rise of a performance-based literature market will radically alter literature as a whole. We could lose some of our beloved formats, such as the full-length novel. But things change. We’ve seen the marginalization of once-popular forms before (epic poetry, for example), and the development of new forms. That’s ok. We can handle it.

What we cannot handle is a world where artistic creation itself (as separate from marketing) ceases to be financially viable in any form. That we cannot allow, and as the Internet inevitably transforms our world, we must take steps to create economic models that work for creative people–so they can continue to work for us.

So, in the short-term, let’s create guilds. We can start today, actually. Shoot me an email. We’ll brain-storm about mutual marketing, see if we can help each other.

For the longer-term, let’s look for ways to create a rich culture of performance-based literature.

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We Have Met the Enemy: He’s on TV

So, apparently nobody wants to employ Kevin Spacy anymore, after the man was credibly accused of assaulting a 14-year-old. I’m not sure how much this has to do with with people in the industry honestly not wanting him around, as opposed to a fear that he’s just not marketable anymore. In any case, he probably isn’t marketable, or at least not as marketable as he used to be.

I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for Mr. Spacy, but I am somewhat concerned for our culture.

I remember, some years ago, how adamant a friend of mine was about never reading a certain author I liked, since (according to her) he is an anti-Semite and a homophobe. I never found any suggestion of either in his work, so presumably his odious politics are expressed through other means. My friend simply did not want to read work written by a bad person. I don’t think she wanted me to read his work, either, though she didn’t quite say so.

Her comment–and its vehemence–struck me as odd. After all, I don’t read books because the authors are good people, I read because they are good writers. Does she honestly do anything different? Does she first vet the moral fiber of the author of any cultural contribution she allows near her mind?

It’s true that nefariousness on the part of a creative-type might viscerally put me off their work. What I know now about Bill Cosby does color my perception of his comedy–it’s not as funny as it used to be. And I have to admit I’d be unlikely to knowingly hang a painting by Adolf Hitler in my living room. There is a certain “ew factor.”

But “ew” isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a political stance. If Hitler’s paintings were available at a reasonable price in American yard sales (and if they were any good, which I’ve always heard that they weren’t), there’d be no good reason not to pick one up. It’s not like the sale could enrich him in any way. It’s not like the thing could harbor contagious Nazi-cooties. I might still pass, of course, but getting angry at someone else for liking the painting would be out of line.

In point of fact, there have been many major contributions to our culture made by people who were, arguably, bad. The Declaration of Independence comes to mind, given that Thomas Jefferson not only owned slaves, but also had children with one of them. History cannot tell us what Sally Hemings thought of the arrangement, but her consent, if she gave it, wouldn’t alter President Jefferson’s moral status much, given that Ms. Hemings had virtually no power to meaningfully refuse him.

Shall we expunge the Declaration of Independence from our national consciousness in order to show our disapproval of its author?

The issue isn’t just that the Declaration, specifically, is a national treasure. There are plenty of good artworks by questionable people that aren’t national treasures. The issue is whether we, as a people, really want to limit ourselves to only those cultural contributions created by “approved” or “orthodox” people? Is there to be a list? When the list is updated, will books written by those now considered enemies of the people be burned?

Do we really want to be that country?

There are limits of course, to arguments based on extreme cases. From sideways glances at loyal Cosby fans (“how can you still like him?”) to book burnings in village squares is a bit of a stretch. And yet the demand that art only come from the right sort of people is scary, and it is scary for a reason.

All this is not to prioritize art over morality. Criminals ought to be brought to justice, and if that means an interruption in their work, so be it. But even were Kevin Spacy to go to prison, American Beauty would still be a great movie. The reality is that human beings have multiple kinds of impact on the world. If some of those impacts are good and some are bad, and we have to deal with that paradox.

The other problem is that poor behavior is a lot more common than most of us acknowledge. An acquaintance of mine recently posted to Facebook words to the effect of “when will we, as a culture, realize that all men are guilty?” She was responding to fresh allegations of yet another celebrity committing sexual violence, so I assume she meant guilty of sexual violence. She’s wrong, of course, not all men are guilty (nor are all women innocent), but sexism, sexual violence, and sexual harassment are so pervasive that it’s hard to imagine that it’s easy to believe the innocent are among the minority–especially when you include harassment and minor forms of assault, such as the occasional un-asked-for pat on the ass. Add the entire spectrum of racist, homophobic, and other bigoted and hurtful behavior, and the list of the innocent must indeed be short.

The list of cultural contributions by the truly and wholly innocent must also be short.

All this, again, is not to excuse anything. We have a big problem, and we have to solve it, both individually and collectively, but we can’t do that by pretending that hurtful people don’t exist, that they don’t write novels, make movies, conduct scientific research, serve as president, or otherwise contribute to society.

All too often, they are us. And we have to deal with it.

 

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In Their Own Words

Should I write in first person or third person? It’s a question I see posted often in online writers’ group. Of course, the obvious answer is “it depends on the book,” or “it’s up to you.” Some readers, or some genres, have preferences for one or the other, but the choice depends on the author.

I’d add it depends even more on the character.

Not all fictional characters can tell their own stories–for the same reasons that not all non-fictional people can. Not that your narrator has to actually be a good writer, but the way the character communicates has to be close enough to good writing that you can write well without violating the character’s voice.

Your narrator also has to want to tell the story. The story told doesn’t need to be honest–you can choose an unreliable narrator–but the character has to want to talk about the content of your book.

Why might your character not want to talk?

The topic might be the problem. Up until a point, you can make an interesting story with a narrator talking in circles around some central, perhaps painful topic. In the second section of Three Junes, by Julia Glass, the narrator, Fenno, never does get around to admitting that he is in love with his friend, Mal, an omission that has everything to do with the story. But he does want to talk about Mal. He talks about Mal, and his life with Mal (they are neighbors), and this thoughts about Mal, and everything about Mal except that one, critical thing. But if Fenno had decided that his memories of Mal were simply too painful to bring up at all–and some people do respond to pain that way–there would have been no story, at least not in Fenno’s own words.

One of my characters, Zalman Mroz, won’t talk. Specifically, he won’t talk about his experiences during the holocaust, a reticence that casts a shadow over his entire family. Zalman isn’t published in anything yet, and he’s likely going to remain a briefly-mentioned bit of backstory in a group of books about one of his grandsons. The holocaust isn’t my story to tell. Yet the fact remains that if I did want to tell that story, I couldn’t use Zalman Mroz’s voice to tell it–because any voice that could tell the story would not be his.

And there is a related issue: who is the narrator telling the story to? You need not provide the answer to your readers–Three Junes does not say, nor does Catcher in the Rye, nor do many other excellent books with first-person narrators–but the fact remains, a storyteller implies a storylistener, at least in the imagination or anticipation of the teller. The relationship between narrator and who or what the narrator expects to hear or read the tale is one more relationship you, as a writer, have to keep track of and develop.

Why?

Because how a story is told depends upon who is listening.

Consider Andy Cote, Zalman Mroz’s grandson. Unlike Zalman, Andy does have a story to tell, and tells it to a student of his. But he is still reticent about certain things. There are experiences he considers too painful or too private to share with his student–to the point where I had to structure the book in a way that allowed me to break in periodically and talk about what Andy isn’t saying. If he were telling the story to his wife or grown daughter, he might divulge more. If he were writing his own story for public consumption, he would share much less. Andy does not narrate his whole book, just certain flashback scenes, and his relationship with his listener is well-explored for the reader, but if I had written the entire book in first-person, with him narrating, I would still have had to decide whom he is talking to and why. Otherwise, I would violate the character’s integrity by making him talk about things he wouldn’t talk about.

When you write in first-person, the story is filtered through the perspective of your narrator and through the willingness of your narrator to talk and through the relationship between your narrator and the reader (or whoever your narrator thinks is listening). Sounds complicated, you might say. Why bother, you might ask. Isn’t it easier to just settle for a nice, simple, third-person narrative with no particular viewpoint of its own?

Maybe, yes, though different writers have their preferences, and you might find first-person suits your skills and tastes better. But there is a thing a first-person narrator can do that no other form of narrative can; show while telling.

“Show, don’t tell” is one of those bits of advice that some writers take too seriously (treating it like A Rule, when it’s really a guideline), while others don’t take it seriously enough. Many people seem to interpret “show, don’t tell” as an injunction to be more descriptive, so they respond by making their language more flowery. That isn’t it. Telling with lots of purple prose is still telling. The best explanation I’ve seen is an example:

Telling: “The man coming in the door was very tall.”

Showing: “He bumped his head on the doorway as he came in.”

In any case, too much telling can indeed be stilted and boring. But what if your narrator likes to tell? Do you need to get a different narrator? Maybe. As noted earlier, a character who can’t tell a story well won’t make a successful narrator. But what if, while your narrator is telling, he or she is also showing?

For example, in one of my several works-in-progress, the narrator is, indeed, prone to telling. Near the beginning, in the middle of what on the face of it looks like an info-dump about the narrator’s father, occurs this line:

I once saw him pick up a little snake that had gotten into our house somehow, and he was so gentle with it, and so fascinated by it, that I wished I could be a snake, too.

What does that tell you? That Dad likes snakes. But what does it show you? That the narrator was not the object of Dad’s fascination and gentleness, and wanted to be. That is a message never delivered directly by the narrator, and is, in fact, in direct contradiction to most of the rest of the book, which idolizes the narrator’s father.

And yet it has everything to do with the story.

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